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November 2005

The Shaking Bow

by Jennifer Bogart

This month Jennifer addresses the most common problem string players face -- the shaking bow during a performance! My students have asked what to do about this, and all I could tell them was to get more practice performing. Jennifer, however, goes into depth on this problem and makes the problem and the solution much more clear for all of us. Enjoy! -- Julie

I recently wrote an article about how to control stage fright, and had a question from a reader that I found interesting enough to go into depth on. It was about shaking bow arms when performing. I remember that my bow arm used to shake, and after being asked how to control it, I tried to think back to what I used to do and what I do now. The questioner says her bow arm shakes uncontrollably and I take that to mean that horrible type of shaking that takes the hair right off the string so that every legato note sounds like a series of stacatti!

The key essentials of good tone are as always, optimum arm weight, bow speed and placement between the bridge and fingerboard. In general when one is bouncing off the string, the arm weight is being taken out of the string by an involuntary tightening of the bow hand fingers. The "monster hand" as I tell my students. In addition, because of the tightening of the hand, the elbow can become locked so that the bow is shortened. These are ideal conditions for staccato (firm hand and little bow). The problem is that in fixing it one can keep a tight hand and start bearing down on the strings, making the forced tone (bow pressure as opposed to arm weight).

The first form change the bouncer needs to make is to loosen the hand. This is very hard to do when in the heat of battle. One needs to actually practice doing this at home on a scale. Try to get that staccato or bouncing bow, on a scale played at a whole note per bow. See exactly how to make the looseness happen while you are calm and in the privacy of your own practice room. Ignore the cries of "what are you doing" coming from anguished parents who hear the very thing they are paying for years of lessons tp try to prevent. Once you have steps that you know how to take, you will feel more comfortable in a concert. ("First, stop pushing up with my thumb, then put the weight of my hand more toward the pinky instead of the first finger" or whatever you determine).

The next element you need to change is the shortness of the bow. You need twice as much bow, in general, in order to stop the shaking. Adjust bowings accordingly. (This also needs to be practiced at home). It is best to be able to end a phrase on the wrong bow if you get turned around anyway, so practice a lot of backwards bowings. Also practice changing the bow in places you don’t plan to. When the shakes hit, you will not have a moments hesitation before you start using more bow and relaxing your bow arm.

In an ironic twist, there are some times when a shaking bow arm actually helps the sound. If the arm is merely trembling, it adds a beautiful sheen to the top notes of the tones you are playing . . . almost like a bow-arm vibrato. Just be careful to keep your eyes on the bow to make sure it doesn’t tremble its way over the fingerboard or too close to the bridge.

The questioner had one additional query in this response to my article. She asked if the nerves go away the more you perform. I have to say that the nerves never go away, and that actually you don’t want them to. However, they will become easier to deal with and to respond to the more you perform. You will find yourself grateful for being nervous when you are really tired and need to have a little boost to your playing. There are ways to prepare for concerts that calm you down. Meditating, visualizing performing, and walking all help before a performance. So does a nap! Take a snack for intermission if you are playing a performance by yourself. If you are playing on a recital practice listening to a bunch of violin music and then standing up and playing your piece cold. It is very disconcerting to hear 17 pieces while in a state of panic and then to stand up and be cold, hot, nervous and completely blank. Good luck, and always listen to the tape or view the video. No matter how bad you think it was, there is always something you can find to like.

Jennifer Bogart received her Masters, Bachelors and Performers Certificate from Eastman School of Music. She was appointed Assistant Professor of Violin and Viola at Stetson University in DeLand Florida in 1983 where she stayed until she was appointed to the first violin section of the Florida Symphony Orchestra in Orlando in 1989. In 1993 she moved to Virginia to teach at the Renaissance Music Academy and then with her husband moved to Utah in 1994. Since being in Utah she has been a full time violinist in the Utah Symphony Orchestra, a member of the Utah Ballet Orchestra, a featured regular on the Nova, Park City and Contemporary Music chamber ensembles, and a member of a Celtic/Rock band known as Callanish. Jennifer is currently accepting students in Salt Lake City, UT and can be reached through