French vs German bow. Pros and cons?

Discussion in 'Bows and Rosin [DB]' started by Trevor Murphy, Feb 21, 2014.

  1. Trevor Murphy

    Trevor Murphy

    Oct 15, 2013
    Concord, CA
    I'm experiencing tendinitis in my right arm and wondering if it has anything to do with the fact that I use a German bow. Any thoughts on the pros and cons of the different grips in relation to how it physically affects the hand?
  2. It probably has more to do with how you use your German bow. It could also be something else entirely. Years ago, I developed tendonitis in my right wrist due to an uncomfortable computer mouse. After replacing the mouse with something more ergonomic, cutting back on computer use, light medication and a little physical therapy, my wrist returned to normal.

    Is your tendonitis clinically diagnosed? If you're experiencing aches, pain, and/or swelling, there are any number of things that could be happening, and they all have specific treatments which need to be discussed with a medical doctor. If this is a chronic problem, the most important thing right now is to put the bass down and see a doctor if you haven't already. You can cause serious damage if you try to push through the pain.

    Once you're feeling better, you need to reassess how you use the bow. The usual suspect with this kind of injury is prolonged muscle tension. In other words, you may be taking the term "bow grip" a little too literally. Regardless of whether you're using a French or German hold, the key is to keep a soft hand and rely on leverage for control.

    Schedule a few lessons with a professional who uses German bow. Hopefully they can show you what I mean.
  3. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    I wouldn't say that French or German bows are more or less responsible for injuries. You can have a long and relatively pain free career on either, or you can totally sink yourself quite early on.

    As Paul pointed out, how you use the bow instead of what bow you use is often to blame. If you have tension in your arm, it's going to cause problems. This could be the result of posture or technique related problems. Those could stem from something entirely different from your arm as well. If you are locking your leg because of how you sit or stand with the bass, that tension can result in your arm being tense. Try as you might to solve the arm problem, it really is a leg problem. If you have the bass positioned too high or low, if it is on too much/not enough of an angle, standing puts too much weight on your right leg, sitting means you have to reach over the instrument too much; any number of things can result in tension/over extending/working various parts of your body, leading to the pain you are experiencing.

    Although having a few lessons with a qualified teacher can definitely help, what works for that teacher might not work for you. On your own, I would highly recommend taking some video of you playing. It doesn't have to be high quality, just set up your phone or whatever you have and repeat the same piece of music/three octave scale/something that makes you use the bottom and top of your range from a couple different camera angles. Quite often it is pretty easy to spot where the tension is coming from or any other issues that could lead to you playing in pain. I have found video to be a lot more successful than playing in front of a mirror. In front of the mirror you are focused on your bass playing, trying to fix the problems, trying to see what is the problem etc. with a video, you can focus entirely on bass playing, and then watch and focus entirely on finding the problem.

    Paul also raises a very good point in that it could be the result of something else like a computer mouse, and bass playing just aggravates the problem. If you have any other activities you do on a regular basis that could be causing this such as spending the whole week chopping and making pickled beets, you operate a machine at work that uses the same motion repetitively, that's your drinking arm and you've been lifting a lot of beers lately, something else could be to blame. Likewise if you are assuming that pain = tendonitis and self-diagnosing, it could very well be carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain, or any other of a number of injuries that sometimes need very different treatments.

    Seek out medical attention. Take a break from bass playing is going to be the first suggestion to help treat almost anything, but you need to make it very clear to whomever is treating you that bass playing is a part of your life. There are some great medical professionals out there, and then there are some that think "just stop playing bass" is the only solution. There are people who specialize in musicians' injuries and who realize not playing is not an option. If you are not able to seek someone like that out, talk to who you end up working with and see if you can bring in your bass. If you can show them what you need to do to play bass, they often can recommend exercises that will help strengthen the muscles you need to play, and those that you need to support that playing.

    While some of the things I mentioned can be done on your own and might help the problem, if it is more than "recently I've been having a bit of pain when I over do it and play for hours longer than I usually do" (in which case some moderation will also be a sound idea) seeking medical attention can mean the difference between this being a bump in the road, and ending your bass playing career.
    Jsn likes this.
  4. bejoyous


    Oct 23, 2005
    London, Ontario
    When you go to a specialist, be sure to take your instrument and stool, if you use one, and play for the medical person. He/She will be able to see how you are doing something to aggravate the problem area.
  5. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    I went through the same thing a few years ago - Here's what I did (as a life long German bow player):

    1) tried switching to French bow and hated it

    2) totally changed the way I hold the bass and bow: I play sitting on a low stool, with a low yoga block under my left foot, and the bass at a cello like angle; my "grip" is totally loose and open-handed; no "pinching" or squeezing the frog. Everything is done with the weight of the arm, using weight and gravity; also, switch to bows with smaller or Viennese style frogs; shorter bows help too

    3) I used a carpal tunnel style wrist band for rehearsal and less obvious support glove for performances

    4) warm up, stretch and rest; Aleve is your friend

    5) Get rid of steel strings: use perLon, rope core, corellis, jar gar etc - any thing to cut down resistance against the hands, arms, shoulder neck; shift to smaller bass

    6) have fun.

    I'm 65 and think I'm good for another 10 years - but it's transition that takes time and needs supervision and guidance from teacher and health care professionals
  6. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
  7. Steve Freides

    Steve Freides Former Mannes College Theory Faculty Supporting Member

    Dec 11, 2007
    Ridgewood, NJ
    Trevor, I will share what little I know with you.

    The "cliassic" test as I've heard from others is that you stand up with your hands at your sides - if your palms face inward, toward your leg, you bow German; if your palms face backwards, you bow French. NB: This probably belongs in the "old wives tale" category but hey, you want to have heard all the old wives tales, too, right? :)

    The only way to know for sure which is going to work better for you in the long run is to spend enough time getting proficient at both of them - there just isn't any substitute for that.

    The thrust of the other replies in this thread is spot on - we have a saying in the gym when people ask if squatting is bad for your knees. The answer is that squatting isn't bad for your knees, but how _you_ squat may be bad for your knees. The same holds true for how you bow, whether German or French. Good to look at how a lot of good players hold and move their bows, good to ask for advice here - you'll find a thread that I started that included pictures of my German bow hold and the replies I received caused me to completely rethink my grip, and it's for the better: I sound better and my arm is much less tired.

    Don't rule out the need to stretch. Even though your grip ought to be completely relaxed, life isn't perfect, neither is my bow technique and likely neither is yours, so find what gets tight and see about stretching it a bit both before and after you play, especially after.

    What I know of kinesiology suggests to me that, if anything, a French bow hold is more likely to cause problems than a German one, since more people have issues with too much internal shoulder rotation and external rotation generally doesn't bother anyone. The French hold is the more internally rotated hold for your right shoulder. That bit of knowledge and 50 cents will get you on the subway and nothing more, however - the amount of tension being applied should be low, and because many, many, many people can play for hours and hours and hours with either hold without discomfort or injury, you need to look into the specifics of what you're doing.

    A fine place to start would be to take a short video clip and post it here. We're not doctors but we might see something that could be helpful to you.

    Just my opinion, worth what you paid for it here on the Internet, and if the discomfort is anything more than very minor, you should make your next step a visit to a qualified medical professional - I'd start with your regular doctor.