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VENGEROV'S VIEWS | Violinist Maxim Vengerov on Bowing Basics

In this, the fifth of eight teaching classes, violinist Maxim Vengerov discusses different bowing essentials

To help celebrate the launch of our new site, and the re-launch of Maxim Vengerov's new website, maximvengerov.com, over the coming weeks the superstar violinist, teacher, and conductor, will be guest presenting a series of exclusive teaching advice classes for our readers, teachers, and students everywhere.


Accompanied by helpful teaching videos that demonstrate key concepts, Maxim will cover a wide range of topics including sound, left and right-hand technique, bowing, breathing, harmony and structure, and interpretation.

In today’s fifth lesson, Maxim discusses different bowing essentials.

Join us over the coming weeks, and be sure to share the classes with your own students and friends, and let us know how Maxim’s advice has helped you on your journey to learn more.



If we compare string playing to singing, then our bow is like a singer’s lungs. However, the bow is a manmade object, with certain characteristics we need to work around. By understanding these, we can avoid being restricted by them, and even use them to our advantage. To help build a musical phrase, careful consideration of how to use the bow, and why, is essential - just as a singer decides how to control their breath and where to breathe.

Capturing all the subtleties of this art would need an entire book, and it requires many years of study to fully master. However, there are some fundamental principles to keep in mind. In this post, I will share with you a few ideas on how to approach using the characteristics of the bow to help you play a musical phrase as naturally as a vocalist can sing it.


How can the musical phrase influence the choice of bowing?

“The choice of bowing is mainly a question of musical priorities, and how you can use the bow to serve these.”

The bow is heavier at the frog and lighter at the tip. This means it is most natural to make a decrescendo on a down-bow, and a crescendo on an up-bow. Unless you compensate for the uneven weight distribution across the bow, by using bow speed or pressure, this crescendo/decrescendo is what will happen.

However, the most important guide is the musical phrase, not what the bow wants to do. So it is a compromise between what you would like to express in the music, and how you can use the bow characteristics to help you achieve this. This is why the choice of bowings is very important.



As an example: starting down-bow at the frog, the weight of the bow will provoke you to suggest an emphasis (e.g. an accent, downbeat, or a new beginning). You can use this to your advantage by choosing bowings so you arrive on a down-bow at the climax of a phrase, or when there is an accent. The weight will help you create the emphasis with minimal additional effort.

Conversely, this weight can work against you, for example, if you start a crescendo on a down-bow - this will provoke you to make a decrescendo as you go towards the lighter tip of the bow, or you must work twice as hard to compensate and make the crescendo.

By carefully considering the musical priorities, and choosing bowings to help you achieve these, you can work with the characteristics of the bow instead of against them, and save yourself a lot of additional effort.


How can bow distribution also help?

“Bow distribution is key to successful phrasing.”

Besides choosing where to play up- or down-bow, bow distribution is also very important: how much bow you use and which part of the bow. Thinking about this carefully and making wise choices can help you bring out many subtleties in the music.

Following on from the same example above: if you would like to avoid the emphasis which can happen starting down-bow at the frog, but it is not possible to choose bowings to play up-bow instead, you could instead start in the middle of the bow, and use less bow.



As another example: you can also use bow distribution to help you build a crescendo. Rather than giving everything away at the beginning by using too much bow, you can instead gradually increase the amount and speed of the bow, to build the intensity.



To help keep the music as your most important guide, I recommend putting the violin aside when you first learn a piece and studying the score - decide how you feel about it, where the phrasing leads, where the climaxes are, and so on. Then, based on this, you can choose bowings that will help you achieve these musical ideas. This approach will ensure you think beyond any limitations of the bow, and develop your technique.



What about bow changes?

“Smooth bow changes are essential to build a longer phrase.”

When you change bow from up to down or vice versa, there is a risk of losing the sound during the change. If we think about how we speak, we do not speak word by word - Otherwise It Would Sound A Bit Like This With An Accent On Every Word, and it would be hard to follow. The equivalent when we play is the break in the sound or small accent which can happen during a bow change. This presents the same danger of playing note by note, losing the connection between them, which makes it hard to build a musical phrase or convey the sense behind it.



Generally speaking, you should connect the bow as legato as possible, so you do not hear the change from one note to the next. The key to this is to maintain the same speed of the bow. Avoid “flicking” or an accelerated bow speed just before a bow change - everything must stay under your control. Use the fingers in your right hand, especially the pinky finger for bow changes at the frog. I will address this topic in further detail in Part 6 of this series.

To conclude

When you play violin, or any instrument, always try to connect all notes, from one to the next - think ahead, and think in the direction of the phrase. The music lies in between the notes, and the connection between them. It is this continuous connection thatx sustains a longer phrase or musical idea.

I hope these recommendations for how to approach using the characteristics of the bow to your advantage will help you create phrasing as naturally and expressively as a singer can. Understanding and controlling these nuances will add to your playing many more musical possibilities. Always think about where in the bow you play, and why.


Watch the full teaching video below, where Maxim explains in further detail and demonstrates the concepts he introduces in this article:


This series was curated and co-written by Anna Gould.


You can also subscribe to his YouTube channel and follow his official social media sites:

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