Shifting and the Bow


Legato is where the main difficulties in shifting lie. If we have enough time (silence) in which to find our new note, any shift becomes “easy”. While we do our best to play a smooth legato across bow changes, the ultimate legato shift is, of course, in the same bow (slurred) and with no release of bow pressure or speed during the shift. When we shift in these circumstances, all our shifting “defects” are revealed, and perfecting this skill is what really teaches us how to shift. This is where we really learn how to make every shift sound exactly how we want it to sound. But how should a shift sound ? Are there “rules” about this ? Yes!!

Ideally every shift should sound like a same finger shift, in which the amount of connection between the notes (glissando) is chosen uniquely according to musical taste and expressivity, just like a singer. Achieving this – making every shift sound like a same finger shift – becomes progressively more difficult according to the type of shift. Same finger shifts have “zero difficulty” and “scale-arpeggio shifts” have the maximum difficulty, while “assisted shifts” are somewhere in between.


During a slurred shift we often make use of a momentary relaxation of bow pressure and speed in order to camouflage (diminish, hide) the audible glissando. This is an especially useful tool, allowing us to shift smoothly (slowly) without having an ugly or stylistically unsuitable audible glissando. Although this might seem to sacrifice the smooth legato, converting it into a portato, in fact this effect is often barely audible and well worth it. We use this technique especially in music of the Baroque and Classical epochs as in the following example from Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock”.

shifthideslideWe can however also use it in music of any style  – even in very Romantic music  – to hide unwanted slides (see Elgar Concerto example below in the “glissando up or down” discussion).


Shifting on a bow change adds one more layer of complexity to the shift as we must now coordinate the timing of the shift with the change of bow. Once again, this difficulty only occurs in legato bow changes. In a shift on a non-legato bow change, we have time to do the shift during the bow’s release (silence or resonance) between the two strokes, as demonstrated in this example from Verdi’s La Traviata:


If the bow doesn’t stop at the bow change, then we must decide on which bow stroke to do our shift: on the old bow, on the new bow, or using a bit of both. Our choice will depend largely on how expressive we want our glissando to be. This is often a question of musical style and for this reason we can name these two possibilities according to their historical epoch.

  • The “Classical” shift: here the shift is done on the “old” bow. We could call this shift also “hidden” or “technical”. This is a more discreet way of shifting because we can use the natural relaxation of bow speed and pressure before the bow change to easily hide the glissando.
  • The “Romantic” shift: here the shift is done on the “new” bow. We could call this shift also “expressive” or “dramatic”. Playing the shift on the new bow has the effect of drawing attention to the glissando thus converting the shift into a powerful expressive device.


In very large “Romantic” shifts, we can even use both the old bow and the new bow to shift ton. This means that we start the shift on the old bow, and continue it on the new bow. This allows us to hide part of the glissando, which, if played over the entire shift distance, could sound ugly. The part of the glissando that is on the “old” bow is the “discreet”, “hidden” part whereas the part of the glissando that is played on the new bow is the “expressive” “romantic” part. Examples


Changing the bow before its rhythmically correct moment (before the music says we should) can be a very useful expressive and technical aid for shifting. This sounds strange so let’s look directly at an example of this, taken here from the last movement of the Cesar Franck Sonata.


Changing the bow early helps to maintain the legato line by allowing our “new bow” glissando to start earlier and thus to last longer (go slower). This not only makes the shift more dramatic and/or expressive but also makes finding the destination note of the shift easier. It is especially useful in long, very romantic (dramatic, expressive) shifts but also in “normal” warm romantic lyrical leaps as in the following example from Verdi’s “La Traviata”.


Whereas we might think that this would deform the notated rhythm, in fact, it doesn’t. This is because the bow change does not have an accent or clear articulation. It is a “disguised”, “hidden”, bow change, equivalent to when we change the bow imperceptibly during a very long note (which we do often) in order to sustain it better.