When students first start to play a stringed instrument, they don’t usually have the hand strength or fine motor skills to hold the bow correctly and without tension. The muscles in the hand need to be trained and strengthened. So, as Arnold Swartzenegger said in the movie Kindergarten Cop, “It’s time now to change this mush into muscle!”
To a beginner, the bow is quite awkward and unwieldily. Using bow exercises not only develop hand strength, they also help get students accustomed to holding the bow and getting used to its weight and balance.
When forming a correct bow hold, review the checkpoints:
- All fingers are curved and naturally spaced.
- Fingers are relaxed and around the stick or over the frog.
- On violin & viola the pinky is on top of the stick; on cello & bass, the pinky lays over stick
- Thumb has a “bump.” (It is okay if it lightly touches the bow hair)
- Thumb opposes middle finger.
- Hand should a slight tilt (pronate) toward the tip of the bow. This is more prominent on violin and viola, and less so for cello and bass.
Note: I usually start players holding their bows at the balance point (beginner bow hold), then work my way back to the frog (professional bow hold) over the course of a few weeks. The progress of returning to the frog depends on what I see from my students. After we gt to the from , I rename the beginning bow hold the “baby bow hold” to prevent students from using the balance point hold any further.
Making Exercises Fun!
For years I have been using fun songs to make doing bow warm-ups fun and effective. The students have so much fun with them, that they want to continue working on them, long after we are playing arco comfortably. I have found all of the music on YouTube and made a playlist, but they are also listed below.
1. MUSIC: GONNA FLY NOW (THEME FROM ROCKY)
a. Get Set
- Shake out the right hand to relax the fingers and wrist
- Teach a bow hold strategy while steadying the bow with the left hand:
- 1. Bunny “chompers”, Ears are the pinky and index finger. Bunny eats carrot stick
- 2. Flop hand - let hand naturally hang on bow, then apply thumb.
- 3. Name the fingers - apply one finger at a time
- Review the above checkpoints
b. Pinky Push-ups – lift high, but keep curved. Work for speed, but also relaxation.
c. Bumpy thumb check – flip bow hold over and double check that you have a “Kennesaw Mountain” thumb bump
2. MUSIC: NA NA NA, KISS HIM GOODBYE
a. Wrist “Bye-Bye” Waves - Hold the bow in front of you, use only the wrist wave “goodbye,” keep wrist loose and flexible
b. Finger “Stadium wave” – lift each finger sequentially, back & forthwith a good bow hold, have them, developing independence.
c. Stirring the Clouds – hold the bow, with the tip of the bow up. Draw circles with the tip of the bow in the air, using only the wrist. Also try using only the fingers. Make circles in both directions, all while keeping fingers loose and properly shaped on bow.
3. MUSIC: SINGING IN THE RAIN
a. Windshield Wipers – With right elbow against the body, allow forearm to rotate, creating windshield wipers. Promotes flexibility in the forearm and develops a basic understanding of pronation and supination of the bow.
b. Look Both Ways – With arm extended, use only the wrist and move side to side. Pretend that your hand is a puppet head and it’s looking both ways before crossing the street. Promotes wrist flexibility, side to side.
4. MUSIC: SPIDERMAN THEME SONG (from 1960’s)
a. Spider Crawl – This exercise helps develop finger dexterity and strength. Using a good bow hold, have students crawl up and down the bow stick, using their fingers to inch their way to the top. Be sure they don’t change their bow hand shape! No cheating by holding the bow or letting the bow slide through the fingers!
5. MUSIC: LOCO-MOTION (80’s pop version)
a. Train Tracks – Perfect for cello & bass, students should imagine that their bow is a train on a track and the track runs right in front of them, horizontally. Promotes perpendicular bowing motion for cello bass.
6. MUSIC: ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA (Strauss)
a. Rocket ships – Students should imagine that their bow is a rocket, and must blast off into space, straight up, then have it land down. Hold bow vertically, centered in front of your body, as low as the wrist will allow, then move bow up, keeping it perfectly aligned in front of the body. Promotes straight bow motions up and down in front of body and encourages the flexibility of the wrist.
7. MUSIC: SOUL BOSSA NOVA (Austin Powers Theme Song)
a. Short Fingers/Tall Fingers – Start with all fingers in the “frog” bow hold (all fingers curved and thumb bent, resting near the tip on the side), then have students slowly straighten their fingers and thumb. At no point should the fingers become locked or completely straight. Repeat this with and without the bow in hand. Promotes finger flexibility.
Bow Warm Up Exercises YouTube Playlist
Photo courtesy of Essential Elements 2000 for Strings, Hal Leonard Corporation
Mr. Laux teaching the bow warm-ups to 5th grade students: