FOR THE CURIOUS CELLIST

Bow Trajectory On The String

There are several main concepts that we can look at in a discussion of the bow’s trajectory on the string. Please note that bow changes are not discussed here: they have their own specific page (click on the highlighted link).

“UP” AND “DOWN” BOWS: THE CONFUSIONS OF LANGUAGE!!

The terms “up bow” and “down bow” represent quite a strange use of language, as the directions in which the bow actually travels have very little to do with the traditional concepts of “up” and “down”. Had Isaac Newton played the cello he might have been quite confused about the meaning of these words and might never have discovered gravity! If we however play the cello while lying down, on the edge of a bed or sofa, with the instrument rotated 90º clockwise, we will then understand perfectly why the terms “up” and “down” are used to describe the bow stroke directions!

These terms, of course, come directly from violin playing, and would indicate in fact that the violin used to be held in a position more rotated clockwise than nowadays (in the gipsy/country-fiddler posture). In this position, the violinist’s arm really does “push up” for the up-bow and “pull down” (or fall) for the down-bow. Certainly for the cello, the words “to-the-left” and “to-the-right” would be more appropriate descriptions of the bow directions than “up” and “down”.

The french have a different way of describing the two bow directions: they use the terminology of “push-pull” rather than “upbow-downbow”: the upbow is called “pushed” (poussé) while the downbow is called “pulled” (tiré). This also is a somewhat strange use of language because a push-pull movement usually refers to a movement that is made in an axis towards and away from the body, as if the bow were a saw (or a sword!) pointing straight out in front of us. In spite of this directional confusion, “push” and “pull” are still a more helpful way of describing the bow-stroke directions than our english “up” and “down”, because “push” and “pull” both imply that we are working against a certain resistance in each direction rather than just going with gravity (down) or against gravity (up) which, as we have seen, is misleading. The terms “push” and “pull” are also better than “up” and “down” because they imply (correctly) that we are using different muscles in each direction, rather like a tennis player’s “forehand” and “backhand” strokes. And what’s more, these terms (push and pull) are as valid for violin and viola as they are for cello and bass.

The origin of the bowing symbols is both curious and revealing. The downbow sign evolved from the letter “n” while the upbow sign evolved from the letter “v”. These letters were the abbreviated forms of the latin words “nobilis” (meaning strong, noble) and “vilis” (meaning exactly the contrary).

STRAIGHT BOW

Nature is just not made of (or for) straight lines. This is unfortunate because the most basic objective of our bow trajectory is that the bow must travel more or less in a straight line, perpendicular (at 90º) to the string axis. If it doesn’t, the string cannot vibrate freely, the sound will be bad and the bow changes can sound scratchy.

Using the bow is like driving a car: we have to direct the bow along the path that we want it to go along. Unfortunately there is one very important difference that makes steering a bow more difficult than steering a car. To drive a car in a straight line, you don’t need to “do” much because a straight line is the easiest, most natural trajectory for a car. But for a hand holding a bow, a straight line is the most difficult and unnatural trajectory. It requires us to “do” a lot with our right arm to avoid the bow trajectory being a natural wide arc around the axis of the body (as all beginners will discover).

So, how do we achieve this “straight” bowstroke ? We do this through a combination of finger, wrist and elbow compensations that could be likened to “folding” the right arm on the upbow, and “unfolding” it during the downbow. To complicate matters, we humans come in an enormous variety of body shapes and sizes. Some of us have long arms, others have short arms. The longer our arms are, the more we need to use this folding and unfolding of the right arm in order to keep the bow’s trajectory at 90º to the string. This folding and unfolding of the arm is a much much more gentle and discreet process than origami. Let’s look in more detail at the different movements that we can use.

CURVED, FLOWING, ARM MOVEMENTS, THE “THERAPEUTIC ARC” AND THE HORIZONTAL 8

Apart from achieving a “straight” bow, our other main objective for the bow trajectory is to incorporate into it a maximum of circular, flowing, flexible “cushioning” movements. As a general rule, we want to avoid:

  • straight mechanical lines (in everything but the bow’s actual trajectory)
  • stiff, abrupt changes of direction.

It is curious, fortunate, funny – almost miraculous even – that it is only through the exploitation of the extreme flexibility of the right elbow and wrist that we are able to pull a “straight” bow. With a rigid stiff arm and wrist, the bow automatically describes a perfect arc around our body. This movement is great for some athletics events (throwing the discus) but is totally disastrous for cello bowing because the bow would only be parallel to the string for a short time in its middle section. In other words, a rigid, straight arm gives an unwanted semicircular bow trajectory that we could call the “stiff-arm-beginners-arc”, while mobile wrist and elbow joints give us a nice straight bow trajectory.

A very healthy bow exercise – and in fact quite a useful bow technique – is to deliberately make the opposite movement to the unwanted “beginners” arc described above. To do this we need to push our bowhand further away from the body as we bring our bow out towards the tip, rather than letting it follow its natural trajectory around the body. And likewise, as we come in towards the frog, we will need to bring the elbow in closer to the body and angle the hand so that the bow tip is pointing further away from our body rather than pointing around it. If the “beginners-bow-arc” is convex (with our body at the centre), then our therapeutic “artists-arc” is concave, as though the centre of our bow arc is a point about 1m in front of our body.  In the diagrams below 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. The first diagram shows the “beginners” (convex) arc, and the second shows its contrary: the “therapeutic” (concave) arc.

We don’t need to make this arc very pronounced in order for it to be therapeutic. As with all new movements, it helps to exaggerate it at first in order to encourage the learning process, but if we permanently adopt the extreme version then the therapy could become a new problem in itself ! We can incorporate this therapeutic arc into our bow changes, making a small, discreet figure-eight movement at each bow-change. The following diagram exaggerates enormously the amplitude of this movement in order to make the concept clear:

Flexibility and mobilisation of the right wrist and elbow joints are like magic keys that unlock the doors to an artistic world of expressivity, flow and bowing freedom. With a flexible elbow and wrist, we will not only sound better but will also look better and even feel better: music and musicality are, after all, more about dancing than about machine robotics! And not only will we enjoy ourselves more (dancing is more fun than being a sewing machine), we will also avoid repetitive strain injuries. Let’s look now in more detail at the different components of these wrist and elbow movements in the bow trajectory.

THE WRIST

The wrist joint is very complicated, as anyone who has ever broken their wrist will know (there are 8 bones in there).  It is the most complicated joint in the human body. So why does it have so many bones?  Why is it so complicated ? ……………. In order to allow the enormous flexibility that the human hand needs in order to operate our sophisticated tools (of which the bow is perhaps the most ultra-sophisticated).

The wrist is such a hugely important topic that it has its own dedicated page here:

The Wrist

THE ELBOW: THE HINGE AND THE SLOW-MOTION FLAP

In order to keep the bow at 90º to the string (to avoid it making a wide arc around our body), we need to open out the elbow joint as we go out to the tip of the bow, and close it as we come back in towards the frog. This, we learn from the very beginning because it is absolutely essential.

There is however another elbow movement which, although not as obviously essential, can be very helpful, adding considerable flow and smoothness to our bow strokes. We are talking here about a vertical movement of the elbow in which the upper arm (from shoulder to elbow) comes (falls back) closer to the body on the up bow, and lifts up and away from the body on the down bow. These rises and falls of the elbow are a little like the flapping of a birds wing (in slow motion). It’s funny how the names “down bow” and “up bow” are once again misleading, because the elbow moves in fact in exactly the opposite direction: on the downbow the elbow moves up, and on an upbow the elbow moves down. To verify this idea, try doing the contrary elbow motion and see how it feels: quite probably it doesn’t feel good at all!

This elbow movement makes a perfect dance partner for the wrist which, in a movement described in more detail on the Wrist page, arches higher on the upbow as we come in towards the frog. Lowering the elbow on the upbow encourages (or even obliges) the hand to hang lower from the wrist as otherwise the bow would be lifted off the string (by the lever movement).

THE ELBOW ON AN UPBOW DIMINUENDO

It is, in fact, this combination of the wrist and elbow movements is that makes the lowering of the elbow on the upbow such an important component of those particularly difficult diminuendo-a niente (diminuendo to nothing) upbow strokes that end with the ever-so-gentle, imperceptible removal of the bow from the string. Lowering the elbow gently pushes the wrist higher, and ultimately “sweeps” the bow off the string in a beautiful smooth flowing movement, almost as if we were pushing the bow out of the water from underneath. This lowering of the elbow on the upbow diminuendo is quite counterintuitive because when we think “lift the bow gently off the string” we intuitively want to lift the whole arm from the shoulder. But no! That whole-arm-lifting is is what we do on a downbow diminuendo, whereas on an upbow diminuendo we use this totally different technique that we could perhaps call the “Mermaid Push” because the gentleness and grace with which the bow parts company with the string is similar to how we might imagine a mermaid emerging from beneath the surface of the water.

CONCLUSION TO WRIST-ELBOW FLOW

These vertical movements of the wrist and elbow are classic examples (illustrations) of the curved, open-ended, smooth, flowing, expansive, dancing movements that we are looking for in all areas of our playing – in contrast to mechanical, rectilinear, sewing machine movements. We can play a perfectly straight bow stroke without these vertical components ….. but encouraging these movements gives us so much more lightness, flow, control, grace and beauty. I am convinced that these two movements are good repetitive injury prevention aids for the right arm.

CONTROL OF POINT OF CONTACT

The place where the bow hair touches the string is called the Point of Contact. We need to control this point well because if we don’t, then the bows uncontrolled movements, towards and away from the bridge, will not correspond to musical necessities and will cause problems of bad sound etc

THE UP-BOW

Can you imagine being scared of up-bows for 35 years? I was! To avoid slow up-bows, especially those with diminuendos, I would spend enormous amounts of time changing and rechanging my bowings. Orchestral playing was often very uncomfortable because I couldn’t change the bowings for the whole orchestra. Sometimes I would beg the group leader to change a bowing – just for me and my problematic up-bow. How embarrassing! That was until a cellist friend told me “raise your wrist on the up-bow”. Never have 6 words made such a difference ………

It can be a very useful idea in fact to think of the up bow as being led by the wrist. This means that the wrist not only raises up a little during the up-bow stroke, but is also increasingly inclined to the left. It is as if it was being pushed along by the elbow against a certain resistance, rather like the front of a boat pushing through the water, with the driving force coming from the propellers at the back of the boat. See the page dedicated to the wrist.

Allowing the elbow and upper arm to come lower and closer to the body (as discussed above) also helps with the up bow, especially on an up bow diminuendo to nothing. Here, if we think of this elbow/arm movement as following through with a slight rising up at the end of the falling arc, this gives us the gentle lift that we need to take the bow off the string with the greatest delicacy (see “Bow Trajectory in the Air”). In fact, the long slow up bow diminuendo is one of the most delicate and difficult bowing manoeuvres. Slowing the bow down and simultaneously relaxing the pressure is so much easier and more natural to do on a down-bow than on an up-bow. Look, for example, at the Bach Sarabandes, with their characteristic “short-long” pulse:

upbowdimlongslow

It is so much more comfortable to play the shorter faster-bow-speed crescendo stroke of the first beat on an up-bow, with the longer slower diminuendo stroke on the down-bow. In fact the terms “upbeat” and “upbow” are very similar ……. they would seem to be made for each other!  In the Sarabande, the “upbeat” is simply displaced to the first beat of the bar.

Think how common it is for pieces of music to finish on a long, gentle fade-out, and yet how rare it is for string players to choose to do these endings on an up-bow: in fact, we will usually go to great lengths to avoid this at all cost. However, as with extensions – and other unnatural but unavoidable components of cello technique – we need to be able to master this skill  …….. therefore we will probably need to practice it! Our objective is not to finish every fade-out piece on an up-bow, but rather to be able to feel comfortable with the unavoidable slow up-bow diminuendos that will inevitably appear from time to time in the middle of our pieces. For practice and repertoire material for working on this skill (apart from the Bach Sarabandes with “reverse bowing”) click here.

USING THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF THE BOW

It is very easy to get into the habit of not making use of the entire length of the bow. This is because we seldom “need” the bow’s two extremities (tip and frog): we can usually manage OK without those few centimetres of bow hair at either end. But this doesn’t mean that using these extremities is not very useful at times, and certainly a good habit to get into.

It is especially easy to get into the habit of avoiding using the frog of the bow, probably because this is the most uncomfortable part of the bow to use. Bow changes, string crossings and weight control are all more difficult at the frog than in the middle and for this reason, we will often instinctively avoid going all the way to the frog, on even the longest up-bows. Unfortunately, this natural avoidance of the frog has the effect of making us increasingly uncomfortable there. If, on the contrary, we deliberately fight against this natural tendency, and insist on bowing all the way to the frog whenever possible and appropriate, then we will find ourselves becoming more and more comfortable at the frog. If we can become comfortable at the frog with our bow changes, string crossings and arm weight control, then playing in the middle of the bow seems even easier. Practising at the frog is like doing gymnastics with heavy boots on: a wonderful preparatory exercise that makes everything that comes afterwards seem easy.

It is also easy to forget that the tip of the bow exists. This is a shame because playing at the point of the bow gives such a beautiful gentle sound, with an easily imperceptible start and finish to the stroke and an effortless seamless legato. Of course it does require a certain effort on the part of the arm: we really do need to reach the arm out far (especially for the “A” string) and this can be tiring if we need to stay in this position for a long time.

CONCLUSION

It is surprising how many factors are actually involved in what seems like such a simple task – just pulling a bow across the string from one end to the other. We need to be able to observe all of these factors and one of the best ways to do this is by playing in front of a mirror. We tend to watch our left hand instinctively but now we must make the effort to watch our bow and right arm. To see the bow angle and point of contact, it may help to turn our seat clockwise a little so that our left side is turned slightly towards the mirror. To watch our right arm however it is better to be facing the mirror or turned a little to the right.

Sometimes while playing, we may find that our attention is taken away from the bow by technical difficulties with the notes we are playing. It is precisely at THESE  moments when our bow might go crooked or our point of contact might go wandering. That’s why the best way to observe ourselves is actually by recording ourselves on video while in a performing situation. Here we will not normally be thinking about anything but musical communication so we will see our bowing in its authentic, unconscious, automatised, natural state.