How to Use Your Index Finger When Playing the Fiddle

By Michael John Sanchez

Making use of your bow hand index finger is one of the most useful concepts to master to play the fiddle— and the hardest. When you’re transitioning, or changing directions with the bow, you only use your index finger. The actual transition should have nothing to do with the other fingers or muscles. Using your index finger on your bow hand is what lets you play fast and efficiently.

If you think about it, something has to help power the bow from point A to point B. Something also has to help power the transition when you run out of bow and have to go back in the other direction.

You may think that the most comfortable way to transition the bow is by using your shoulder, upper arm, or forearm. You may think any of these will do, but that isn’t the case. Using anything but your index finger will restrict you from getting the type of transition that will sound as smooth as butter.

Using your index finger is like nothing you’ve ever done before and will feel very unnatural at first. Give it some time. Although it may not be noticeable to the naked eye, the motion of the index finger is similar to a wide U shape.

This motion is a lot easier to recognize when your finger isn’t actually on the bow. What you won’t see when your finger is on the bow is that it’s pressing down into the stick and adding weight onto the strings (for louder sound). This pressing down action applies to both up and down bows.

[Credit: By Rashell Smith]
Credit: By Rashell Smith

You should have a relaxed bow hold while you’re using your index finger. A common tendency is to tense up multiple muscles rather than just the index finger. Check this out to see in detail what’s happening with the index finger during the bow stroke on the fiddle.

Even if you understand the importance of the index finger, it takes more than that to master the ability. It can take weeks or even months to start feeling and hearing a difference in sound.

Doing the index drill

After you understand what the index finger should be doing, you need to work on muscle memory. Do so by doing the index drill on the fiddle:

  1. Set your bow at the contact point of the strings.

  2. With a relaxed and proper bow hold, press your index finger down into the stick three times.

    Don’t change anything with your bow hold as you press down. Make sure that you aren’t moving the bow hairs at all while doing this but instead that you’re bringing the stick down into the hairs. Don’t be afraid to flex the stick down into the bow; it’s made to withstand the pressure.

  3. Pick up your back fingers (middle finger, ring finger, and pinkie) after (you do this after you press down three times).

    Do this three times and remember that the violin is helping you hold the bow up. This can help separate what the index finger and back fingers should be doing. They don’t work together at all! Don’t rely on these fingers at all to press down into the bow.

  4. Repeat from Step 2 in the middle of the bow and at the tip of the bow.

Watch yourself do the index drill in the mirror and make sure you see no muscles moving in your upper arm as you’re pressing.

Focusing on your thumb

As far as pressing, guiding, and moving the bow, you shouldn’t use your back fingers at all. The most important two fingers that you should use to do the index drill are your index finger (applies pressure) and your thumb (absorbs the pressure of the index).

Try picking up a sponge with just your index finger and thumb. If you were told to squeeze the sponge, you wouldn’t have to use your back fingers to do that, right? The same concept applies to putting pressure down into the bow with the index drill and bowing in general. You don’t have to use all your fingers to apply pressure to an object.

So what exactly should your thumb be doing during the index drill and with bowing in general? If your thumb isn’t at all on the bow, the bow will fall over as you apply index pressure. So basically, your thumb is holding the bow up for you as you apply pressure down with your index.

Focusing on your pinkie

An important part of playing the fiddle is having your pinkie curved, which helps create a flexible movement of the bow. Do this properly right off the bat, as it can be hard to fix later on.

Here are some things that can happen if your pinkie isn’t properly curved:

  • You may cause tension in the bow, which will lead to bad sound and the inability to play fast.

  • You’ll rely on your pinkie instead of your index finger to guide the bow. Although you won’t notice the difference at first (using the index or pinkie to guide the bow), you’ll find it difficult to create a clean sound in harder songs later on down the road.

  • You’ll struggle to play at the frog down the road, which will restrict your ability to use the entire bow.

Normally, when you finally start to do use your index finger properly, your pinkie or thumb is always next in line to be improperly used to guide the bow. Don’t let this happen to you, as you need to keep your thumb and pinkie curved while using your index finger.

Here’s a great drill that helps with pinkie flexibility on the fiddle.