French grip, beginner pain, and biomechanics

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by musicman1586, Dec 18, 2012.


  1. musicman1586

    musicman1586

    Joined:
    May 24, 2012
    So I'd like to start a discussion about learning French grip. I've been doing a lot of reading on French grip for the past couple months and I see a continual problem being raised. Beginners express that they find themselves sore or in pain after only playing a very short while. The standard response time and time again is that the player is probably gripping the bow too hard. Most people say that after a short while they "learn to relax and hold the bow right" and the pain goes away. I don't want to be an iconoclast here, but I'm beginning to think that there is something wrong with this established wisdom. While I do think that it might be true in some cases, I think there is more to the story.
    I've pulled up pretty much every photo, tutorial, video, etc. that I can find regarding french grip and have gone to great lengths to get all the details right, but I still find that I have this pain no matter what. I then experimented with changing how firmly I gripped the bow. I purposely gripped so hard that my hands were going pale and numb, when I did this I experienced a very different pain than when I just tried to play regular. Next I tried to grip the bow stupidly light, so light that I could hardly pull a long note without dropping the bow. Even while barely able to keep control of the bow, I still felt the pain/soreness that I had been previously experiencing. I decided to ditch the bow completely and do a different experiment. I got together a bunch of slim cylindrical objects, straws, pencils, drum sticks, etc. I sat around while watching tv holding each of these items like I would a bow, and found that the pain I have still comes even in these situation. Even when holding the straw, with almost negligible weight, I feel a tightness begin to set in to the same area.
    To me personally it seems like there is an entry cost to playing French, there is a period of physical adaptation that has to occur before one can comfortably play with French. Let it be known that I'm not trying to make an argument for German being better than French or anything like that. I actually think that there are a lot of advantages to playing French. That being said though, I do think there are some biomechanical hurdles that do have to be overcome, and I don't think it is merely learning not to grip too strong. Given how many times I have seen people say something like "It went away after a few weeks" suggests to me that there is something to this period of physical adaptation that goes beyond adjusting proper grip strength. So anyways, I'm interested in what anyone might have to say on the matter.
  2. chicagodoubler

    chicagodoubler

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    Location:
    Chicago, that toddling town
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    Endorsing Artist: Lakland, Genz Benz
    I play both, and have experienced pain with both.

    The issue isn't necessarily as much about squeezing as it it learning to trust the weight of the bow and the efficiency of the arm.

    When you're holding the bow in the air you need to fully support its weight. When you place it on the string, the string itself helps out, and the fingers need to do far less work. Watch an experienced player with either bow and you'll notice that the fingers are soft and relaxed. This only comes with time, a good teacher, and proper equipment... I'm assuming you aren't using a professional quality bow with fresh hair?
  3. MostlyBass

    MostlyBass Supporting Member

    Joined:
    Mar 3, 2002
    Location:
    Oak Park, IL
    Have you tried adding anything to the French bow such as rubbing tubing to make a larger piece for the finger to hang on to? Also, try putting your thumb your thumb in different locations - such as the crook of the frog or outside the frog on the ferrule.

    I think you both have made excellent points. I started on French bow and continued on until after grad school when I switched to German and never looked back!

    Here's a useful exercise for French bow tone production:
    http://petertambroni.com/mostlybass_wp/for-students/tone-production/

    and some general pictures of bow hands:

    http://petertambroni.com/mostlybass_wp/for-students/right-hand/
  4. jallenbass

    jallenbass Supporting Member

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    Bend, Oregon
    This. Most students who I see that have tension problems don't know what just the weight of the bow can produce.
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  6. Oneirogenic

    Oneirogenic

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    Nov 10, 2009
    I'm still very new to bowing but I found that if I relax my hand and pretend I'm not actually holding a bow and focus on producing sound only from the weight of bow and movement from my arm I really only get fatigue problems from not having developed those muscles yet.
  7. MartinBorgen

    MartinBorgen

    Joined:
    Jun 21, 2010
    Location:
    Stockholm, Sweden, Europe
    It does not have to be the grip per see that is too tight, but rather some muscle that is working overtime when you form your hand to a "french bow grip" form. I'm assuming it's the thumb, that's one of the most common places for soreness. It could be the other fingers not working properly together that makes your thumb/whatever sore.

    Try holding the bow upside down, that way the bow will behave like it will when you use it. A little tricky thing is the transition from holding in the air the bow to manoeuvring the bow on the strings.
  8. MostlyBass

    MostlyBass Supporting Member

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    Mar 3, 2002
    Location:
    Oak Park, IL
    Excellent point about the thumb.

    Try practicing with JUST the bow. Hold the bow VERTICAL - otherwise your supporting too much weight which the strings do. Then do little games / exercises:

    squeeze / relax
    tap fingers
    wiggle the wrist
    move the thumb SLIGHTLY
    explore what else you can do - make circles with the bow...

    all this to get the muscles in shape so holding the bow is natural.

    if you get tired or notice veins bulging, white knuckles,etc, take a break.
  9. G-force

    G-force

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    Jul 1, 2004
    Location:
    oslo Norway
    Hey could you upload a video of yourself holding the bow or maybe even playing a bit.
    Even a photo of your hand holding the bow could be very helpful for us to see. This way we can give you the best adivce.
  10. musicman1586

    musicman1586

    Joined:
    May 24, 2012
    Yes, this is true for good tone production, but I do not think that the pain/soreness that many beginners seem to have is simply because they have learned to properly use the weight of the bow yet. (On a side note, I should mention that I use to play violin, and while the grip and angle of attack on the strings is not the same, I do have beyond a beginner's understanding of how a bow elicits a note from a string)

    All of these quotes suggest what I am, that there is very likely a muscle group that is being worked which in everyday life never does get worked, and so it is far too weak initially for the task it is now performing. I used to run a climbing gym and I can't tell you how many times I'd see these otherwise fit individuals come in and get totally worked the first few times they climbed, yet after a couple weeks that disappeared. The reason for that, which I suspect is something similar that happens with the french grip, is that the muscles in the hands and forearms rarely ever get used in the way that they are while climbing, and so those muscle groups had to play catch up.
    The reason I raise this point is that I can tell you from experience, being new to the upright world, that when all anyone says to a beginner is, in a sense, "oh you just aren't doing it right yet", well it certainly works to discourage people from picking up the bow. If there is something biomechanical which will more likely than not produce pain/soreness, like a weak muscle that has to get strong, I think there needs to be honesty about that. Now I realize that this is a slippery slope, particularly with internet communication when we don't really have the individual with their bow right in front of us. It opens up the door for people to just say "oh don't worry about it, it'll go away once you play for a bit" when there in fact might be a rather serious problem. That being said though, when all everything you can find on internet forums, youtube videos, etc. all say the same thing: "You probably are gripping too hard", "You haven't learned to use the weight of the bow/arm yet" it doesn't do a lot to help a beginner if there is in fact a "necessary" period of physical adaptation that must happen in order to be able to be comfortable with the French grip. This was one of the reasons I switched to German initially is because with all my experimentation, reading, and work with my teacher (not going to name drop, but he has been a protege of some very big names) I still would find myself getting sore while playing. Instead of trusting my gut and weathering the storm, I became convinced that I still must be doing something wrong. You can see how with other beginners, particularly young students, this could snowball real quick into not wanting to play at all.

    Edit: I should also say that I am not concerned about this problem for myself right now, my teacher is primarily a German player anyways, so I am quite happy where I am at right now, although I am about to start fiddling around with my French bow again which prompted my thinking on the subject and thus this post.
  11. MostlyBass

    MostlyBass Supporting Member

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    Experienced teacher incorporate muscular issues and demands in their curriculum. Therefore, by curricular design, pain and fatigue problems are kept at minimum right from the start.

    I spend weeks on bow hands with just pencils and straws before students use a bow. Holding a straw us great because you get immediate feedback with tension. Of course this is primarily gear toward French bow.
  12. chicagodoubler

    chicagodoubler

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    Regarding muscular wear-

    There are a couple proven pedagogical tricks to strengthen the little muscles in the hand.

    Hold the bow with the tip to the ceiling and the frog to the floor. Crawl up and down the bow with your fingers, frog to tip and back.

    Hold the bow towards a point on the wall and practice making small, controlled circles clockwise and counter. Do this a little each day until you can sign your name in the air using just the muscles in the hand, fingers, and wrist.

    If you diligently do both of these, your control of the bow will increase dramatically, and the fatigue will diminish. I was reticent of posting these, but they are essential.

    Does anyone know the nicknames of either of these? They're Hurst/Budrow oldies, though I'm sure they're known far more broadly.
  13. eerbrev

    eerbrev

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    Dec 6, 2009
    Location:
    Sudbury,ON, Canada/ Akron, OH
    This one is called "bow crawls" by our upper string brethren. I was taught that you did this exercise in the manner that you've described; then you turn the bow so that it is horizontal (how it would look if you were bowing something at eye level), repeating the exercise; with the tip down, crawling down, then back up; and then finally with the tip facing to the right, hair side up, and repeat one more time.

    this gets a little intense ( i rarely do the last two), but if you want muscle strengtheners, there's an ironman workout for you.

    The other on you mentioned is a new one on me, but it looks like a cool one. I'll try it out.

    eerbrev
  14. hdiddy

    hdiddy Official Forum Flunkee Supporting Member

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    Mar 16, 2004
    Location:
    San Francisco, CA
    These videos really helped me a lot with my bow grip.


    Esp the second one where he described the Jeff Bradetich one without the bow in the hand and using a pencil.

    Some teachers aren't that detailed in how they describe the hold - at least the ones I went to.
  15. musicman1586

    musicman1586

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    May 24, 2012
    So in other words then, there is some agreement that the problems a beginner faces in learning to play might quite possibly just be a matter of necessary strengthening and not strictly attributable to overgripping, not knowing how to use the weight of the bow/arm, or an improper grip? In other words, a person might be doing everything "right" yet still face some initial discomfort?
  16. chicagodoubler

    chicagodoubler

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    OP-

    Do you work out? Do you remember the first time you did a bunch of pushups? You were sore afterwards, probably for the first dozen or so times. After a while it gets easier. Now, if you're using improper form like not keeping your back and legs straight, it's going to be even harder, and you'll be even more sore. We are athletes, albeit on a very small scale.

    Which brings us to... Make sure you are stretching and eating properly as well. Do a search for stretching here; there's a few thousand words on the topic between here and jazz.
  17. damonsmith

    damonsmith

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    This common with French. I'd get a cheap German from Ebay so you can keep going during practice, when it gets painful. I advocate learning both grips, it helps teaching and gives you a stronger understanding of the instrument.
  18. musicman1586

    musicman1586

    Joined:
    May 24, 2012
    Let me reiterate, I am not worried about this problem for myself, I play German and that will stay my main grip for a while. I am worried about how much this issue is ignored when advising other beginners on how to play French grip. Do a search yourself, almost every time a beginner asks about the problems they are having learning French, all the responses only address the "don't grip too hard" issue. Basically I'm raising this point because if that is all we tell beginners, if every forum post they bring up only looks at this problem, then it doesn't seem the full story is being told to them.
    This worries me, because again, if all they hear when they come on here or even from their teachers is "you are gripping too hard" it seems you wind up with a lot of people that think they must be doing something wrong, when in fact the best advice to them might just be to keep practicing and keep optimistic that they will develop a stronger hand with time.
    This post now exists as part of the pool of info to draw from on Talkbass, so I hope it benefits someone.
  19. damonsmith

    damonsmith

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    This is unquestionably true. This is why I recommend German for adult jazz players, and French for ANYONE with classical aspirations.
    Get the pain out of the way, then make an informed decision.

    I think the time it takes to get a good sound is about the same with either bow, but you can get sawing through scales for intonation purposes faster with German.
    I'd say French is more difficult to start, playing either well is about the same. I can play French with total comfort and no pain at all.
  20. MostlyBass

    MostlyBass Supporting Member

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    Don't tell Gary Karr!!
  21. damonsmith

    damonsmith

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    It is just what I recommend learning FIRST. Also, schools ad orchestras seem to prefer it.

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