In this video I lead you step by step through the sequence I use to teach bow holds. We move in eleven lessons from absolutely zero experience to the successful performance of “Mississippi Stop Stop” (MSS) on the violin.
I should first explain that I break my lessons with pre-twinklers into two parts. The first half of the lesson consists of parent and student moving through their whole practice assignment in front of me as if they were practicing at home. In doing so, I’m able to monitor the health of the parent/student relationship, offer suggestions to the parent about more effective communication strategies, and look for any red-flags regarding the way they worked through/will work through their practice assignment. Throughout the video you will see Hayley’s mom do as much work as Hayley and I do to form her bow hold.
The most important aspect of bow hold building is keeping the hand soft and flexible.
Every step of our sequence is merely a more sophisticated skill in which the hand is required to stay flexible. Make sure not to move one if you see any sign of clenching.
Here is a written form of the sequence I use in the video.
1. I build the bow hold on student
I’ve adopted Edmund Sprunger’s technique outlined in Building Violin Skills. He takes charge of the process, requiring students to concentrate only on relaxing their fingers as the teacher manipulates them. I slide the bow over the middle of the right hand fingers, wrap the middle fingers around the stick, place the first finger, put the pinkie on its tip, and “plug” the bent thumb into its place on the silver ferrule. Once I’m finished making the bow hold I point it to the sky, remove my hands, and the student is now effortlessly holding the bow.
2. Parent builds the bow hold on student
Of course, because I don’t practice at home with my students, it is imperative parents are prepared to build every bow hold for their student. In the very first lesson, I teach parents how to do exactly what I do.
My first practice assignment is five bow holds everyday at home. The assignment is much more about practicing than bow holds, but we get into the routine of trust, relaxation, quality, and mastery right away.
3. Traveling bow hold
With a nice looking, relaxed bow hold I invite my students to move their bow from place to place. I show them that the quality of their bow hold (and my expectations of that quality) transfer even when the bow is on their shoulder, head, belly button, nose, etc. And, because the shape of the bow hold stays the same, they begin coordinating the wrist and elbow motions necessary for bowing a violin.
4. Up Like A Rocket
The common Suzuki pre-twinkle bow game, Up Like A Rocket, is a gem. It wraps all the elements of our sequence in a performative way.
The lyrics, sung to the melody of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, are…
“Up like a rocket,
Down like the rain,
Back and forth like a choo choo train.
Round and round like a great big sun,
Round and round like a great big drum.
Up like a rocket,
Down like the rain,
Land on the place where you keep your brain.”
5. Guided arm scrubbing
Just like I build the bow hold for my students so they get the feeling of correctness from the start, I also guide the motion of bowing in an activity called “bow scrubbing.” Students sit in their parent’s lap, and together they scrub on their arm the MSS rhythm.
Be careful to look for opening motion only in the elbow — not the shoulder. The shoulder should be relaxed and gliding open, not stiff or forced.
For home practice I made an arm scrubbing video guide.
6. Independent arm scrubbing
After learning to bow MSS with their parents, I then teach students to do so independently on their own arms. This is the first time we engage in “your turn, my turn” work in the lesson, which is an invaluable model/feedback tool we will use for the rest of their instruction.
7. Bow scrubbing on shoulder
After my student is easily scrubbing MSS on their arm with a relaxed, gliding elbow, we transfer that motion to the bow. With a beautiful bow hold and relaxed arm we start to do guided scrubbing and “my turn, your turn” scrubbing.
8. Helicopter landings on box violin/real violin
The next step for bow control and finger strengthening is helicopter landings. Students go to play position with their box violin or real violin, I build a bow hold, they hold their bow high, and then control a quiet landing on the string. By putting a tape in the upper third of their bow and asking for a landing exactly between the fingerboard and bridge, I give specific constraints for success. It is important to note that students at this stage are now attempting to control their bow at an angle with far greater pressure on the pinkie. Always, but especially at this stage, you must be wary of weak thumbs and collapsing pinkies.
9. Tone builders
The last stage of this sequence is transferring the MSS rhythm, which we’ve now done on the arm and shoulder, onto the violin’s E string. Just like arm scrubbing and bow scrubbing, the parents and I start by driving the bow while the student’s hand rides along. From this they will have an aural and kinesthetic model for what to do. Then we start tone building by trading MSS back and forth. I give instructions such as, “Look at your bow,” “Keep your rhythm between the tape” (I add a top tape for clear parameters), keep your bow on the highway (between bridge and fingerboard), and, “Make your stops as clear as mine.” However, the most direct, influential feedback is the sound of their MSS rhythm contrasted immediately to mine.
I know this isn’t the only way to move a student from zero experience with a bow to playing on their open strings, but it is a way that has successfully worked for me. The sequence is not just a collection of activities, but an incremental, stepwise process that builds upon itself.
I hope you find inspiration not just in the steps I introduced, but the way they relate to one another. If you are interested, look here for a discussion of the process of sequencing or head to my YouTube channel to see other Violin Skill Sequences.