How to Change Directions with the Fiddle Bow
When you think of changing directions with the fiddle’s bow (sometimes referred to as transitioning), think about playing with a yo-yo. A big part of getting the yo-yo to come back into your hand is anticipation — preparing for the ball to come back up. If you just throw the ball down and don’t anticipate it coming back, you won’t have much luck getting the ball to roll nicely back up the string.
Transitioning the bow has a lot to do with anticipation as well — getting ready to move the bow in the opposite direction. If you only think about going one direction, you’ll have a tough time moving the bow smoothly (this is key!) in the other direction.
So, which muscles are used primarily to transition the bow and anticipate the bow change? The small muscles. Your index finger has a lot to do with transitioning the bow. The other important part of transitioning is the wrist. Just like you’d use your wrist to guide the yo-yo back and forth, you use your wrist to help guide and anticipate the bow stroke.
Flexibility in your wrist is important when transitioning the bow. If you have a stiff wrist, it won’t work at all when moving the bow back and forth. Having a stiff wrist is like grabbing a pen with your fist and trying to write accurate letters. It doesn’t work!
Are you wondering how you can practice all this with everything else going on? The key to building any solid fundamental, including using the wrist to transition, is to simplify the technique with drills. The drill that you should work on for at least five minutes a day for the next four to six weeks is called the transition drill. You’ll start to see significant improvement after a couple of weeks:
Set the right side of your wrist against a hard surface, preferably a door frame (a wall doesn’t work as well with this drill).
Make sure you have enough pressure against the frame so that you can’t move your forearm at all. You should be able to freely move your wrist. You can also have someone grab your forearm right below your wrist to restrict the forearm from moving.
Normally, to move the bow the entire length from sticker to tip, you have to extend with your forearm. In this drill, though, you shouldn’t move your forearm at all, so you’ll only be able to move the bow so far. If your forearm is moving at all, it means you’re using the big muscles to transition instead of the small muscles.
Remember, you’re working on the transition, which is done by the wrist and the index finger only. No forearm needed — but, it will want to move!
Move your wrist in a large circular motion for about a minute.
This helps you loosen up for the drill. Make sure there’s no forearm movement.
Put your bow at the contact point on the strings.
Try moving the bow a few inches back and forth, using your wrist and index finger.
If you can only move a few centimeters, that’s okay. The farther you can move without using anything but your wrist and index finger, the more flexible you are in your wrist.
It’s a lot easier to move the wrist and stay relaxed with no bow in your hand. Do you notice that things tend to tense up when you set the bow in your hand? Don’t let this happen. Your goal is to ultimately be so relaxed that it’s like there isn’t a bow in your hand at all.
Go back and forth on any string, focusing on transitioning the bow with your wrist and index finger.
Think small muscles and stay as relaxed as possible.
Watch the transition drill on the fiddle to make sure you are doing it properly.
Don’t worry about the type of sound you create in this drill. It’s not a drill for creating good tone but for setting you up for success later on with your bow stroke. The more you do this drill, the more muscle memory you’ll create, and eventually, it will translate into your actual bow stroke.
Make sure you keep the proper bow hold in this drill. You’ll notice that it’s very easy to try to stiffen your thumb and pinkie to help in the transition. It’s better to go less distance and do it correctly than to go farther and do the drill incorrectly.
Now that you’ve worked on the transition drill, you’re that much closer to using the proper muscles when moving and transitioning the bow. The harder your pieces of music get, the harder it is to continue to do proper technique when it comes to moving and transitioning the bow (as well as most fundamentals). Always take time to work on drills because they should be an ongoing practice.
Go on YouTube and browse fiddle music videos. Closely watch the hand/wrist technique that the fiddle player uses. Do you notice a little flick of the index finger and a fluid moving wrist while the person plays?
Try searching for Mark O’Connor. He has tons of videos of him playing, and he has almost perfect wrist and index technique. Everyone needs to work on this, and as you can see from how good Mark O’Connor is, it’s well worth the time to spend to master it.