Bow Changes

This article is a continuation of the Bow Changes, Starts and Stops page.


Making the most of the movement possibilities of the wrist, knuckle and finger joints is vitally important for achieving beautiful bow changes, both legato and non-legato. How do we do this then? As we near the end of our upbow, if we let …….

……. then all this provides a sort of spring, a cushion, a “shock-absorber” to facilitate and smooth the change to the down-bow. By the time the bow has changed to the down-bow direction, the fingers have curved again, the knuckles have come “up” and the wrist has gone back “down”. And for the change from down-bow to up-bow we can do the exact reverse.

If we want to paint smoothly and ergonomically with a wide heavy house-painting paintbrush, we need to follow the same general principles at each change of brush direction. However the hand’s movements when painting with a large paintbrush are considerably simpler than bowing, as they are limited almost exclusively to the wrist and exploit more uni-directional movements than the bow-change movements (see below for a more elaborate description of the similarities between painting and bowing).

Normally the change from up-bow to down-bow is more problematic and less “natural” than the change from down to up-bow so we may feel the need to work more on the former (upbow to downbow change). One good way to do this is to play and observe “hiccup bowings” as in the following example:

wrist flexibility bach gigue 1Here, during the short upbeat (up-bow) we vigorously “throw” the bow from the string up into the air. The high energy of this “throw” not only exaggerates the different hand movements mentioned above (wrist, knuckles and fingers), making it very easy to observe them, but also in fact makes these movements doubly necessary.


In music we often need to connect the sounds in a smooth, fluid, singing, vocal manner (legato). In string playing, this means that we need to be able to change the bow (direction) as imperceptibly as possible so that the musical line remains uninterrupted. In a resonant acoustic, the resonance makes the legato for us. In a dry acoustic however, these legato bow changes become more difficult, and the closer we are to the frog, the more difficult they become.

By far the greatest part of this discussion will be dedicated to legato bow changes as these are the bow changes that cause us the greatest problems. Our legato bow change is the equivalent of the wind player’s circular breathing.  The constant, smooth alternation of opposite bow directions has its equivalents in life and the physical world. Before we start looking at actual bowchanges, a look at some of these parallels can be instructive in helping us to understand bow changes and how to achieve a smooth flowing reversal of bow direction.


In life, the closest equivalent to bowing is the breath. The downbow with its tendency to relaxation and diminuendo as we go towards the tip, is the equivalent of breathing out (expiration). The upbow, with its tendency to increasing weight and tension as we go towards the frog, corresponds to breathing in (inspiration). In the purely mechanical world, the equivalent of this bowing cycle would be the repetitive backwards-and-forwards movements of many machines (motors, pistons, pumps, sewing machines). Where life meets the mechanical world (people using tools) we can see several good parallels such as the use of a paintbrush, a saw, and the alternating push and pull of the accordionist etc.

Let’s look now in more detail at these different comparisons with the art of bowing.


Even though breathing is the closest musical equivalent to bowing, the legato of singers and wind/brass players cannot in fact teach us much about bow changing. This is because they only use one side of the cycle (the expiration) to make their sound. One expiration for them corresponds to a single bow stroke for us. It is as though they only ever make a sound with down bows (very slow ones) while the up bows (silent and rapid) are just to breathe!

So whereas for string players the main impediment to a flowing smooth legato is the frequent changes of bow direction, for singers, the impediment to legato is the occasional need for a new breath. Or, put in other words, whereas we string players must change bow direction imperceptibly and frequently, singers just stop every once in a while, take another breath, then start again.

Playing only with down bows would pose a serious legato problem for us. But for singers, the situation is saved by the fact that their breaths are much longer than our bows. Until the invention of a retractable 3m bionic arm, the necessary shortness of our bow is such that one bow stroke can only sustain the string vibration for a fraction of the time that a singer can sing on one breath. During that one breath (expiration) it is no easier to make a beautiful perfect seamless legato than it is for us string players during one bow stroke (and on one string) – the breath just happens to last soooooo much longer.

We can however learn a huge amount from the circular breathing of wind and brass players. Here, while part of the respiratory system (the mouth) is blowing air out, the rest is sucking air in (through the nose). This illustrates a vital concept for legato bow changes: we actually NEED to be able to move in opposite directions at once. In other words, we need to keep the bow moving in one direction while the rest of the body has already turned around and is going in the new direction. It sounds like a magic trick, an impossible Exorcist-style (film) special effect, but the following section, with the help of paintbrushes and reptiles, will show how this “sleight of hand” is possible.


Take a piece of rope and lay it on the floor. Pick up one end and move it (wiggle it) from side to side. If the rope is the right length (not too short and not too long), and if you move it at the right speed and amplitude, the loose end of the rope will also move on the floor from side to side. Its movements will copy the movements of your hand exactly ……….but with a delay. So when our hand is moving to the right it is quite possible that the far end of the rope is moving to the left (or vice-versa).  This delay is because the rope is flexible. If we try the same experiment with a long stick (and a stiff wrist) there will be no delay in the transmission of the changes of our hand direction to the tip of the stick (because there is no flexibility). The same phenomenon can be seen in the movements of real live snakes ……. and in a human snake (a long line of people, each holding onto the person in front of them and all following the leader).

Looking at how we use a paintbrush is another instructive example and is even more useful to us string players than the rope example, because the paintbrush, compared to that piece of rope we just used, has a lot more in common with the cello bow.

Even though our brushstrokes follow the same perfectly straight line in both directions (exactly like our bow strokes), the moment of change of direction is not simultaneous along the arm-wrist-hand-fingers-brush handle-bristles chain of command. Firstly the arm changes direction, then the wrist, then the knuckles, then the fingers, then the brush handle, and only then, the bristles of the brush. As with the rope, it is the enormous flexibility of the bristles that allows us to see this process of “delayed reaction” very clearly. It is this “delayed reaction” that gives smoothness and fluidity to the change of direction.

Unfortunately, the bow is not quite as helpful as the paintbrush. Whereas the bowstick and bowhair do have flexibility, unfortunately this flexibility is not in any of the directions that could help us with our bow changes. This means that all that flexibility necessary for a beautiful, smooth, paintbrush style bow change must come from our own body. It is our fingers, knuckles, wrist, elbow, arm and shoulder that now have to mimic the flexibility of the paintbrush bristles.


Have you seen videos of oil well pumps, piston engines or other back-and-forth-repetitive-movement machines? The way these machines are designed can teach us two additional important lessons about how to reverse direction smoothly, even for machines with solid, hard, rigid moving parts in which there is no flexibility available to ensure the delayed “snake” reaction that we saw with the rope and the paintbrush. The moving parts that drive the simple backwards and forwards mechanical motions always:

These then are the two lessons, except that they are really only one lesson: that the secret to all smooth 180Âş directional changes is that there must never be an absolute stop to the movement.

The way to ensure this is, in the absence of flexibility, to convert the moment of change into an elliptical, circular movement in which the change of direction is accompanied by a figure-eight trajectory. Without this circular component to the change of direction, at some point, just before the change, the movement has to stop completely. This is not good! To stop completely, you have to slow down which is also not good (but not as bad as stopping dead). Basically, all slowing down and stopping to change direction is an interruption, both musical and mechanical.

Please note however that in most machines, the piston (or “working” part, corresponding to the bow) follows an absolutely straight line (with no elliptical movements at the direction change) and does therefore have a moment at the change of direction when it stops moving. However, in these cases, it is the parts that are pushing and pulling this “piston” (corresponding to the arm, wrist and hand in the case of bowing) that follow elliptical paths and never stop moving. The bow, unlike a piston, is however not obliged to follow a perfectly rectilinear path at the bow change. Thus we can make the movement of the bow at the bow change slightly elliptical, in order to keep the bow moving and avoid a “dead” moment at the bow change.

One possible way to do this is to describe a very-slightly concave arc with the bow by pushing the hand slightly away from the body at the end of the downbow, and doing the opposite at the end of the upbow. This is shown in the diagram below, in which we are looking at the cellist from directly above. The cellist is the rectangle, and the arc that the bow describes is the curved line.

Some string players talk about incorporating a small, discreet figure-eight movement at each change of direction in order to add flexibility to our bowchanges. The diagram below exaggerates enormously the amplitude of this movement in order to make the concept clear:

Making this small figure-eight loop at each bowchange is SOOOOO much smoother than just a sudden reversal of direction but it has to be a very small movement, otherwise it can become a disturbing aberration to our bow trajectory.


For a seamless cello legato bow change:

1: the arm must never stop moving
2: this requires that it move like a paintbrush (snake)
3: we can add an optional elliptical movement at the bow change.


At the tip of the bow, we use the bow in exactly the same way that artists use their paintbrush: the forces and movements applied by the hand are transmitted directly to the point of contact of the brush with the canvas (or the bow to the string).

At the frog, the situation is more complex. This is due to the lever effect – or to be more exact, the fulcrum effect- when playing at the frog. It is as though the artist’s brush was long and heavy, but the actual hairs of the brush were now protruding from the stick from a point very close to the artist’s hand. To understand this fulcrum effect for the cello bow, imagine now that your is bow very short – the length of a pencil for example. When the bow is very short, there is no difficulty changing at the frog, and there is also no difference between changing at “the frog” and at “the tip” because there basically is no tip –  it’s all “frog”! Imagine now that your bow is enormously long. Now, changing at the frog becomes much more difficult. This is because there is now so much more bow weight situated on the other side of the fulcrum (point of contact with the string). The longer the bow, the greater this weight becomes.

While playing at the frog, all this extra weight has to be controlled. But it is not only a question of weight. The closer we are to the frog, the more the forces produced by this weight are amplified by the lever/fulcrum effect. To illustrate this phenomenon, make a small string crossing movement at the frog and observe how the movement is at the tip of the bow is so much larger.

It is this combination of extra weight to manage + the fulcrum effect, that makes it more difficult to control the bow changes at the frog than at the tip …… and why artists paintbrushes always have the hairs at the tip of the brush!

This is also why the baroque bow: shorter, lighter, with the balance point basically AT the frog, is so much easier to manage than the longer, heavier “romantic” bow. The baroque bow is a more delicate brush especially when it is held with a “baroque” bowhold (in which the hand holds the bow at a position slightly more towards the balance point).