How to Plan Bow Division on the Violin
Violinists always need to plan out their bow distribution so that they make the best possible use of those 24 inches or so of horsehair. Following are the most useful ways of dividing the bow so that you can get the sound you want.
Deciding how much of the violin bow to use on a note or measure
If a violinist runs out of bow, the sound simply disappears — or the bow makes a very peculiar little crunchy sound while the player tries desperately to keep bowing, using the last inch of bow. Running out of bow is a lot like running out of breath when you’re singing or speaking. So violinists figure out how to divide or distribute their bows as they go along, so as to maintain the sound quality.
When you first look at a piece of music, you determine if it uses shorter or longer note values. Many exercises use full bows for the purpose of beginner violin training. But you need to become more familiar with using different amounts of bow if you want to play more intricate songs, according to the sound and character of the music. Here are some special examples here to show you how to play the bow for maximum effect.
Below, you see a slow sustained theme, so you need to budget plenty of bow for the sound to speak out. You’re looking at using whole bows. Now observe the slurred sixteenth notes in measure 4. These notes occur on a down-bow — plus you need to use almost the whole bow on this stroke so that you have a full bow length for the next measure.
In measure 6, the two notes aren’t slurred, although the character of the strokes is still smooth. You know you need to be right at the frog to start the last long note, so in measure 6, be a little Scrooge-like when spending the first down-bow, and make sure the up-bow before the last note moves your bow lightly to the frog.
The next figure shows a cheerful little passage with eighths and sixteenths. Begin using small bows at about the lower middle of the bow for the sixteenths, playing quite lightly to sound mezzopiano, and use about twice as much bow for the eighths.
Things change considerably for the bow at measure 3, when you slur four notes in one bow direction. For this move, plan to use more bow on each four-note slur, at least double the amount you used on the eighths, to make the bowings very smooth.
If you run into an uncomfortable spot when bowing, look at what you’re doing in the preceding measure so that you come into the tricky section in the best possible position.
Dividing the violin bow by note values
The more variety of music you play, the more bow division becomes sophisticated. Below, you see a specific situation to prepare you for bow decisions you make to sound very fine in your repertoire.
The basic bowing pattern below is similar for several measures, so first decide how to approach the pattern. Because the music is slowish and mf, using a full bow for the quarter notes and half bows for the eighth notes makes sense. In measure 4, the rhythm pattern changes.
Here, you need to slow the overall bow speed to allow for the whole bow lasting for two beats, and you need to stop the bow briefly on the string, and then reiterate the up-bow for the eighth note at the end of the measure. The dynamic level is constant, so add a little weight to maintain the sound. Use about of the bow on the first A and the last or so on the second A. In the second-to-last measure, use about a full bow on each quarter note, and then halve the bow speed for the final D so that it lasts two beats.
Dividing the violin bow strokes in anticipation of the next note
Sometimes, you play a whole bunch of short notes followed by a long note. A violinist has to be very sneaky and must creep the bow toward the place it needs to be for the next note. Deciding where you want to be for the start of the long note usually gives you a clue about where you need to do the sneaky stuff! Below is an example of needing to get to a particular place on the bow.
Play the sixteenths as much as possible in the comfort zone around the middle of the bow. Then start to push a little more toward the frog (with sneaky up-bows) as you approach the last note, so you start the whole note from the frog of the bow.
Adjusting the amounts of bow for dynamics
The same notes can use very different amounts of bow, according to the volume of sound you want. Start with small bow strokes at about the middle of the bow for the p sixteenth notes, but then increase the amounts slightly as you make the steady crescendo. A steep decline in sound occurs in the last measure of sixteenths, and you also need to sneak a little toward the frog for the last whole note, which uses a slow bow, of course.
A very general principle is that forte levels are best played near the frog, because the frog itself is naturally the heaviest part of the bow. The extra weight of your hand and arm on top of the frog create a powerful tone producer! So where possible, arrange to play louder passages on the lower part of the bow, or make your way there as soon as you can.