Bow Changes, Starts, and Stops


When we “run out of bow” (reach the end of it) we have to “change it”. Fortunately for our economic situation, these terms “changes of bow” or “new bow/old bow” refer only to changes in the bow’s direction rather than buying a new one ………

If we were to use the bow as a weapon, paintbrush, back scratcher, fly swat, crowbar, cooking utensil etc, its range of possible movements would be enormous (and we would be obliged to actually replace it more frequently). If we use it however only for playing the cello, its range of movements is considerably reduced – especially while it is in contact with the string – and therefore, this “change of direction” to which we refer here is simply the alternation between the upbow and the downbow.


“Changes of Bow Direction” and “Bow Starts” are normally so intimately related that they are almost the same thing. Even in the most legato bowchange there is always a moment – when the direction changes – at which we have achieved a new (although almost imperceptible) “bowstart”. The exception to this “rule” occurs in portato, staccato and hooked bowings. Here, our new bowstarts follow on from each other in the same direction with no bowchange.

A change of bow direction can be smoothly connected to the bowstroke that preceded it, completely separated from it, or with any degree of separation along the continuum between these two extremes. When, between two bowstrokes, there is a separation – a silence, a breath, a gap, a relaxation of pressure, a diminuendo – then that bow change becomes more of a “new start” than a “change” because the connection with the previous one doesn’t need to be maintained and we don’t need to disguise the new beginning. The greater the separation, the more irrelevant the previous bowstroke becomes and the more we can basically ignore the “Bow Change” and just consider each new stroke independently as a “New Start”.

While the technique for a seamless legato bowchange and that for a beautiful smooth note-start after a silence, are similar, they are not identical. The legato bowchange is easier than a smooth bowstart in the sense that the new sound is not coming after a silence, and also because the body is already in motion, but on the other hand, it’s harder than the bowstart because the arm and body are moving in the opposite direction to that in which we want to go. Perhaps one of the secrets to beautiful bowstarts after a silence is, in fact, to treat them as bowchanges: in other words to use as an anticipatory movement a sort of upbeat in the opposite bow direction before we actually place our bow on the string ? But there are several other little “tricks” that we can do to help us with our bowstarts. We will look at these in the Bowstart section.


A classic error of beginner string-players is the “grinding stop”, in which the bow speed is reduced to zero while the bow pressure is maintained. The term “stopping dead” is a perfect description of this way to stop the bow because it really kills the sound, allowing no possibility of continued resonance. In fact, in “good” playing, the “bowstop” doesn’t really exist (except perhaps as a special effect) because we basically never stop the bow on the string, always removing it from the string (or at least reducing the bow pressure to zero) before its speed reaches zero. This not only allows the string to continue vibrating but also removes the possibility of unwanted noises. Keeping our instrument silent while the static bow is pressed onto a string is about as difficult as staying vertical on a bicycle that isn’t moving. On the bike, we will put our feet on the ground in order to avoid falling whereas with the bow we do the opposite, removing it from the string in order to avoid involuntary sounds (scratches). When we have bow strokes that finish in silence (or resonance), instead of thinking about the ends of the strokes as “bow stops” it would be more helpful to think of them as “bow smiles” because the relaxation of the bow pressure, and the lifting of the bow off the string at the end of the stroke, resembles the upward turn of the mouth in a smile.

And this “smile” is totally independent of what we do with our bow speed at the end of the stroke. Some bow strokes fade out, with a corresponding reduction of bow speed towards their end. But others finish with quite the opposite: a “whoosh”, a crescendo, an exciting increase in energy that uses a finishing flourish of greatly increased bow speed that launches the bow into the air like a ballerina’s leap or a golfer’s follow-through. This is a very often-used technique by opera singers who, in order to get a huge ovation at the end of a dramatic aria will do the same. They, however, rather than with bowspeed and a flying elbow, do it with their airflow. See also Bow Aerial Trajectory.


When placed on (or under) a note, a dot means short or separated, but this separation can be with respect to the note before, the note after, or both. Never was such a simple sign used in so many different and ambiguous ways and these ambiguities are looked at in greater detail in the “Notation and Reading Problems” article but for now, let’s talk about the effect of the dot on a note’s ending.

When we separate any note from its following note, we need to decide just how silent and just how long we want this separation to be. Between the gentle horizontal pulsations of portato dots under a slur and the skeletal vertical dryness of Stravinskyan dots, there is a world of difference. Lluis Claret likes to ask if we want an “m” at the end of our staccato “pa” (or “ta” or “ka”). This “m” is the equivalent of the resonance that we can choose to add to our staccato notes if we want to make them less dry. To achieve more resonance after our dotted notes we will need to leave the string with a faster horizontal bowspeed.


The subjects of bowstarts and bowchanges are so enormous that this discussion is continued on their own dedicated pages:

Bowstarts       Bowchanges