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French bow hand tensions

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by Steve Boisen, Jan 1, 2004.

  1. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    Being new to TalkBass please forgive me if this has been covered before, but perhaps someone can help me with this problem. I have always played French bow and recently I have been having problems with too much tesnion in my right thumb. The muscle in between my thumb and forefinger is always tight when I play and is as hard as a rock when I tighten it. My previous teacher told me this was normal and one of the issues that French bow players have to deal with, but it got to the point that my right hand was cramping up during orchestra concerts and rehearsals. A more experienced section mate told me that he switched to the German bow for just this reason and I did this myself for a while, but I don't think this is the awnswer for me. I really prefer the French bow and feel I should try and unlearn the bad habit(s) I may have developed before giving up on it. My current teacher, Roger Funk of the Florida Orchestra (and a former student of Lucas Drew) is trying to help me play with less tension. He has altered my bow grip by having me bend my thumb a little more than I had been previously and changing the position of my wrist slightly so I can apply more arm weight instead of pressing the bow into the string. It works fine when I play long tones and scales, but I can't seem to apply it to real world playing. As soon as I begin playing an actual piece of music I find that I'm once again squeezing the bow, my thumb muscle is tight and there is an indentation in my thumb where it's pressed against the stick. I'm hoping this teacher can help me, but I'm getting discouraged by my inability to "loosen up" by bow hold. Has anybody succesfully overcome this problem?

    - Steve
  2. Don Higdon

    Don Higdon In Memoriam

    Dec 11, 1999
    Princeton Junction, NJ
    You are a classic candidate for the Alexander Technique, a psychophysical learning method that addresses the use of the self. Alexander teachers deal with problems such as yours every day of their lives, and the answer has nothing to do with whether you're a bassist or a tree surgeon. The answer has to do with fundamental response to stimuli. You're not going to learn this by trying to learn to cope with additional stimuli. Visit www.alexandertech.org
    In addition to the links there, Michael Gelb does a good job explaining AT to the layman in his book "Body Learning." . Be advised that reading about it cannot fully convey it; the technique must be experienced to be understood. There is a certified teacher in Tampa/St. Pete. I recommend that you call her and discuss your experience.
    Like many people, I came to the Alexander Technique hoping to fix a specific body problem. Along the way, I realized it had altered the course of my life forever, and at age 67 I chose to go back to school to study for certification as a teacher.
    e-mail me if you want to know more.
  3. i have that same exact problem as the threadstarter...i'm thinking of moving to german since my tone is better anyway
  4. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    It's been over two and a half years since I started this thread and during this time I have switched to playing German bow. Whenever I pick up a French bow I still find some things (like string crossing) somewhat easier, but the inevitable hand/thumb tension tells be that I made the right choice...at least for me.

    - Steve
  5. Don Higdon

    Don Higdon In Memoriam

    Dec 11, 1999
    Princeton Junction, NJ
    Gary Karr said the best bow is the one that best allows you to reach your full potential. No one can dictate to you which that is.
  6. Audiophage


    Jan 9, 2005
    I've been working on decreasing the tension within my right hand while French bowing for a while now. I've found the best thing for that is to really concentrate on loosening yourself up, while playing some kind of orchestral part, sonata, or even scale/warm up exercise.

    Some other things that I've found have helped me is to loosen my hairs a slight amount, as well as using my wrist to straighten my bowing.
  7. fatbeats91


    Jun 10, 2007
    The same thumb problem has happened to me. I think i can give you alittle sort of excercise for this.this can also help with the stacatto stoke,but in this case to loosen you up.

    -make a fist(not tight)
    -hold your right arm in left hand
    -relax your bicep and tricep

    now act like your in water how ever silly this is. And make it to where your are not holding your left arm in your right hand ,but your righthand is holding all your "dead weight" then to check this is happening take away your right hand and your left should just fall down without any force just like your arm is "dead" and incorperate this in your bowing.

    and another way is to wacth your bow placement use a relax hand with your bow closer to ther bridge.

    hope it helps

  8. usually tension occurs when a player has too "vertical" a grip and doesn't understand how to get contact without squeezing. my answer would be to hold the bow as usual, straighten your index finger (yet still relaxed) so that the finger is on the top of the stick (directly opposite the hair), not the side.Then play as usual. this way you take full advantage of the weight going directly into the string. It all has to do with friction... If you have a "vertical" grip on the stick, you need to grasp the bow tighter in order to get more weight into the string. I always have my students play with the thumb under the frog for 5 min a day and try to remember the feel of it throughout their practice if they have that problem, also you can hold the bow that way if you ever feel your hand getting tight. But I would not do it for more than a short time because it can cause other problems.

    Oh and try this... buy a ping pong ball and hold it in the palm of your hand while practicing...make sure you can hold it comfortably so that you do not drop the bow. always remember the feel of it whenever you play without it.
  9. Felessan


    May 4, 2004
    Long Beach, CA
    It should be noted that neither bow hold requires any tension in order to make a good sound.... However, if your bow doesn't start the string extremely easily using only gravity as its "downforce," you should probably be looking for a new bow. Using a crappy bow requires a lot of pressure, and you can even get good sounds out of it, but it will cause health issues in the long-run. Find a good bow, then re-evaluate.

    You say you enjoy french bow more (even a year later), go ahead and look for french bows that play pianissimo passages easily with a full tone. That means no slippery slide-y business, and no super-rosiny-suffocating-grippiness. They should play so nice that you can hold them so loosely you almost drop them... Playing loud with one of these bows is SO much easier and more fun. They do exist. Don't be fooled by prices either, there are fabulous bows that cost $200 and crappy bows that cost $7,000 (and vice-versa).

    Also, find a _really_good_teacher_. Really. The teacher should work with _your_ body type in order to solve problems. If they tell you to do it a certain way without any reasoning behind their words... I'd ask them to reason it out. If they can't or won't, find someone else.

    I hope this helps. Anyone, feel free to amend or refute what I've said here.

    P.S. Keep your strings clean, lol.
  10. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    Thanks for the suggestions, but I've been playing German bow for the past 2 1/2 years and this seems to be the best solution for me. It's funny how this thread I started over three yeasr ago seems to spring back to life every so often.

    - Steve
  11. BMason


    Oct 1, 2006
    Houston, TX
    The job of the right thumb, obviously, is to oppose gravity. I think the reason this problem is so prevalent is that when you think of opposing gravity, you naturally want to push up. Push doesn't mean squeeze. The thumb is only a support system. If it is squeezing the bow in its place, then arm weight stops at the hand, not allowing weight distribution into the string.

    I agree with Kurt's idea of the "shovel hold." When I experienced the same tension problems, my teacher recommended that I play with my thumb under the frog. I had been playing with tension for six years. After only a week of playing various scales and articulations with the hold, I moved the thumb back up and voila! The tension was gone, the thumb only supported, and arm weight was full-on into the string.
  12. Since adopting these ideas years ago I have not suffered tiredness or pain in my bow hold or arm despite a full-time job in an orchestra.

    When your hands hang loosely by your side they are cupped, with fingers and thumb bent. You only have to move your bent thumb across until it opposes your second finger and keep your fingers slightly separated to have the basis for a very relaxed French Bow hold.

    Two things are important to me. Thumb opposes second finger and is bent, and little finger is bent. These keep your hand cupped, muscles in your thumb and heel of hand relaxed, and wrist free to rotate in any direction.

    Try these tests for wrist freedom. (1) Press your index finger against your thumb and rotate your hand in all directions around your wrist - feel the tension and clicks in your wrist (2) repeat between little finger and wrist - worse tension (3) Now press between second finger and thumb _ tension disappears and wrist is free to rotate in any direction. You can press as hard as you like and the wrist is still free to move.

    Try these tests for muscle relaxation. Keep your thumb and opposing fingers straight and push them together by bending the big knuckles together - your hand forms "Kermit the Frog" shape. Feel your big thumb muscle - it will be rock hard, so to will the heel muscles (like a karate chop). Now again cup your hand and oppose the second finger with the thumb (as in bowing) and test the muscles again - the muscles are now soft and flexible.

    I see the French bow hold as a balancing act between leverage (how far ahead of the thumb the index finger advances) and comfort. If you strike the right sort of balance there is no need for muscle to tense and tire, giving that "red hot golf ball" pain in the big thumb muscles. You will have plenty of leverage for all but the heaviest of plying, when you can temporarily change anyway. Spread your fingers too far and your hand stiffens. Don't advance your index finger far enough and you work like a dog, causing your hand to stiffen! I like natural spacing between fingers, just as they are when your hand hangs loosely by your side.

    I drop the above hand shape over the stick, looking for the front edge of the ferrule with my second finger and the front corner of the frog with the end of my thumb. Then my thumb opposes my second finger in the bow hold!! Also it won't slip off the corner. I could put my thumb in the corner between the end of the frog and the stick but pain is caused when flesh is trapped between nail and stick.

    The thumb is the fulcrum around which the bow will rotate if it wasn't supported by the strings. I think of the first finger and thumb being a hook that transfers the weight of my arm to the string. If I turn in my arm carefully by rotating the right elbow (a hinge joint that only works in one direction) up and out slightly my elbow is free to move in the same direction as the bow and there is no conflict between weight and freedom of movement.

    The fingers will point back slightly and the back of the hand is higher than the index finger whose last pad is just hooked over the stick (not straight!!!) The hand is still cupped and thumb bent but turning the hand in has thrown weight forward into the string without distorting anything. Most of the bending of fingers is with the second line of knuckles to avoid "Kermit The Frog." The hand, side on, looks more like a snake's head.

    Looking down your bow arm you should see a line of power going undisturbed from your shoulder to your index finger through a fairly straight wrist that shouldn't have to pronate too much. Play with a "long arm."

    I use the above "package" of bow hold and arm set-up to connect my brain to the strings with as few "road blocks" as possible. Via Tom Martin the ideas come originally from a must-have still available book by William Pleeth, famous English Cello teacher, called "Cello" ( a paperback commissioned years ago by Yehudi Menuhin )

    The key word to distill from the above blah blah is "alignments."

    David Potts

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