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Prepping Your Beginners for Solid Bow Technique

Lesley Schultz • September 2022String Section • September 5, 2022

The first question out of many beginner’s mouths when starting to play a string instrument is “When can we play with the bow?” A lot of this depends on the method book you choose, but there are exercises you can do with your beginners no matter the method to set them up for success. I like to break beginning bow technique into three basic categories, arm movements, wrist movements and grip exercises.  

Exercises for arm movements can start from the first few days of classes. Start teaching your students the differences between up and down bows, and how they differ between violin and viola versus cello and bass. You can practice arm angles without bows in hands so that the muscle memory gets worked on early. Other arm movements include flexing their elbows vs. their shoulders. There is a lot of body awareness that goes into learning how to bow, and by starting early the students should be able to know which joints they need to move in combination. Also use the arm exercises with having them think they are drawing their arm through different textures, good things to brainstorm with is how would your arm move through water, or peanut butter or foam.

For wrist movements, have them turn their wrists in and out, in a windshield wiper like fashion, in a movement that has them mimicking putting the bow on and off the string. Equate those words with this movement, that makes it more purposeful and powerful. For violin and viola students have them practice bending their hand down as they move their arm closer to their face and bending their wrist the other direction as they move their arm away from their face. For cello and bass students concentrate on loose wrists; they should not be locking them up.

For grip exercises there is always the tried-and-true pencil practice. However, talk to your local violin shop to see if they can give you just the frogs of bows that cannot be repaired (basically a practice frog). Our local violin shop in Cincinnati, Baroque Violin Shop, does this, and it is huge for our students to practice with an actual frog, without the extra weight and complication of a full bow. After the students have mastered all the exercises with nothing in their hands, add the pencil, or practice frog. This is where you drill the grip. Finally, after a few weeks of practicing with pencils or practice frogs, it’s time to start with the entire bow. Developing good bow technique is all about building good habits and muscle memory from the start. Take the time to do these exercises to save time and pain later.

Lesley Schultz keeps an active performing schedule around the state of Ohio, performing with several regional symphonies on viola. She is a member of TI:ME (Technology In Music Education) and serves as the Ohio Chapter President and on the National Conference Committee.

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