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fiddlers and their bows


crystal
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Actually, I think this question can pertain to any type of playing.

I play Scottish and Irish music. I have a 62 gr J.E. Martin bow, as one of my bows.

I have noticed that I really choke up on the bow, quite high. I have heard that some fiddlers even play with a 3/4 bow.

Does anyone like to play with a short bow? Maybe a baroque bow?

And, since I do like to choke up on that bow, does that mean that I'm trying to compensate for something? I need a heavier bow? A lighter bow? Would going to a very lightweight, full length bow accomplish the same thing? Would going to a shorter, heavier bow, accomplish the same thing?

My hand is slightly above the silver wrapping. When it's up there, I don't get bow bouncing like I do when I hold down on the frog.

Any thoughts?

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Bow bouncing is a good thing if you can learn to control it. Us fiddlers don't need to use sautillee or spiccato in the way that the classical guys do, but there are other reasons for wanting to make use of the bow's natural tendency to bounce. Bear in mind that if you go for a quick fix, whether holding the bow further up or getting a different bow, you might get rid of the unwanted bouncing, but you'll also make it harder to achieve certain bow strokes.

For instance I've seen Donegal players using a kind of ricochet effect in strathspeys, and I imagine Scottish fiddlers probably do something similar. A lot of Irish players do a sort of fiddle equivalent of a flute or whistle player taking a breath, by bouncing off the string, skipping a note or two, then letting the bow fall naturally back into the tune. Of course you can do something similar simply by lifting the bow off the string and putting it back down, but I'd rather use a bow and a grip that lets me do both. Variety is the spice of fiddling.

I don't think holding the bow further up is a bad thing. You can achieve a certain sound that is harder to get with a conventional bow hold. I hesitate to use the word "sawing" because it sounds so negative, but I don't mean it that way at all. Sawing can sound great if it's done properly.

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Concerning the choking up, I would first analyse the bow grip you use and the ability of your keeping the bow straight on the strings. Make sure your wrist is in good form and not pushing on the string. Also make sure that you arm is not pushing downward onto the strings. This takes practice in toning the arm and wrist, but it happens eventually. Just make sure your hold is beneficial and that your bow is straight.

If your comfortable with the placement of your hand, then I wouldn't change it, but I would suspect that choking in certain areas and bouncing are the player's doing, and can be overcome. As Simon said, bouncing is a great thing if under control, and I've actually found that more control of it comes when gripping closer to the frog.

So, work on your grip and/or keeping the bow straight and tone your arm/wrist/fingers to make the sound smooth. Keep an eye on the weight you place upon the strings and where any excess weight may be coming from.

If violinists can play on a full length bow, than fiddlers can't use the excuse that they need a shorter one. It's all about the player in that case...not about the bow.

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Thanks for your replies. You both make very good points. The only thing I would add to what HighStrung has said, about "if violinists use a full length bow, so should fiddlers", is that you really have to consider the type of music that's being played a little more.

Violinists play beautiful, long pieces of music, not typically at lightning speed. But fiddlers play a lot of reels and use some ornaments such as the birl, and possibly playing a different bow length, can make sense to some.

In fact, I've seen fiddlers have two bows at their side. One for slower airs, and one for those fast reels. This may be overkill, but obviously the varying lengths are serving a purpose for some people, and they have found certain qualities in each bow that serve that particular purpose better.

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I have a 'needle' short baroque bow that is the cat's pajamas for fiddling. It is cute with the hair being tightened to pull a nice straight line at an angle to the bow itself, like a low-angle triangle. The baroque bow hold is as you describe, up the stick ahead of frog, about at the balance point. The baroque bow stroke is a 'moon shaped' stroke with the tone tapered at the start and finish and executed like a 'painterly' brush stroke. Baroque is a whole world itself, and one that fiddlers would do well to take into careful consideration. Baroque pieces were most often played for dances and this is a major tie-in.

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A violin major that I spoke with recently was manking the same observation that you did, Ken. He got into fiddling at a young age, but learned classical so he could get a scholarship for college. During all of that, he discovered that playing baroque violin actually made him a better fiddler, and visa versa. Now he is considering going for a masters in baroque violin.

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Crystal, just think of all the fiddlers who play amazingly well with a normal sized bow. They can do it, so I believe any fiddler can do it. There is a reason that a bow is the size it is, and I think it is the masterful fiddlers who can play both fast and slow on the same length. When you think about it, classical violinists have fast passages that are much like reels, and they do it without a hitch. In some cases I think fiddlers are a little "lazy" and look for the easy solution rather than really work to use the tools given. Now, I'm sure I've offended many fiddlers by saying that, but if the best fiddlers can use a full sized bow, any of them can.

That being said, I'll completely contradict myself and say that what is good for one isn't necessarily good for all. Some fiddlers may have short arms, and since fiddling is a sort of "anything goes" sort of genre...well I guess a shorter bow is acceptable.

Gee, I'm pretty opinionated for being a "fiddler" myself.

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I know of some good fiddlers who choke up on the bow, Laura Risk for example. She taught a workshop I attended last Summer and I asked her about her hold; I don't remember the conversation in any detail but I think the gist was that for her it was simply where the balance felt best. I've tried choking up and didn't feel like it did anything for me (quite the contrary, actually) but since some fiddlers I admire use that hold, I won't discount it! Crystal, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts if you do try some shorter bows. I suspect that even with a shorter one you may still feel the inclination to choke up, because I think it may have more to do with the balance you're comfortable with than the length of the bow. Regarding bow weight, I have 2 bows: one is a heavy, octagonal fairly stiff stick (German Voirin copy) and the other is a light round whippy one (an old Emile Dupree). I find the heavier one to be optimal for my Scottish fiddling (which is fairly classically influenced ala Alasdair Fraser--the "San Francisco Bay Area Sound" I guess since he's influenced so many fiddlers around here) and the lighter one to be good for articulating the fast Irish stuff, but I find it doesn't produce as good a tone as the heavier one (BTW I'm not saying the weight affects the tone--I don't know whether or not it does--just that in this case the heavier one yields the better sound); since I'm now playing exclusively Scottish this one usually stays in the case!

I know one local Scottish fiddler who uses a Baroque bow and also loves it, even though he's using it with a modern violin setup rather than the low-tension gut strings it was designed for. I suppose if you consider that a lot of the Scottish fiddle music we play comes from the middle of the 18th century or earlier, this makes some sense(?) -Steve

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"even though he's using it with a modern violin setup rather than the low-tension gut strings it was designed for."

There, you've said it. I use my baroque bow on my modern set-up and it works fine, but it stays in the case with the gut string 1740 violin which is tuned 1/2 stop lower than 440 A. This puts it out of the realm of usefulness in playing with others.

I must say, it is quite a kick to play the Irish tunes on the gut strings.

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I think Im just having a weird day with my bows. I have 4 different bows, and each week I have a different favorite. Is it me, or does the weather seem to affect our bows? Since it's hotter and so humid, seems that I'm liking my carbon graphite bow...this week. Is anyone else as wishy washy as me?

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I am in agreement with high strung on this subject. Keep using a full size bow and learn a proper grip, it will make you a much more versatile player. I feel a short bow often cheats you out of some great sounds. As an example in Danny Boy there are places I use the entire bow and wish for more and if I was choked up I could not get the sound I wanted. It is also not true that classical players do not play fast there are several pieces of classical music that realy rip.

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I do agree with you, Tom, but wanted to point out that using "Danny Boy" as an example probably isn't the best way to endear yourself to Celtic fiddlers! I subscribe to the IRTRAD-L mail list (Irish Traditional music) and there's always a long thread about "That #@&% Danny Boy" around the middle of March, being as it's one of those stereotypical tunes that people who know nothing about Irish music come up with as their favorite on St. Paddy's day (if I remember right, it wasn't even written by an Irishman). However, there are plenty of slow airs and laments that do want full bows, in my opinion! -Steve

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Hi Ken, the subject of general dislike of The Irish Washerwoman did come up in one of the discussions recently (I don't remember if it was one of the Danny Boy-bashing threads or not). It didn't seem to generate the same passion and hatred that Danny Boy did; although a lot of people objected to IWW the consensus seemed to be that it's really a pretty decent tune if you can get past how overplayed it is! -Steve

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Steve,

You are correct, Danny Boy was written by an englishman while he was in Scotland and the music is Londonderry Air, he just wrote the words. I know most traditional irish musicians don't consider it a true irish song. It sure is pretty and requires a long bow I used it mostly as an example perhaps I should have used another tune.

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Here's what I have, and use as appropriate:

1) 1970's top quality pernambuco hand made English bow - heavy on the scales, light on the string, great full frequency sound.

2) Coda Conservatory - light in the hand, focused but lighter sound than 1), mildly floppy compared with 1). Good for dangerous gigs, sometimes sounds better than 1) depending on hall acoustics but mostly doesn't.

3) David van Edwards snakewood Baroque style bow ('snakehead' rather than 'no head'), heavier and longer than a true Baroque bow. Works well on a modern setup fiddle with a few minutes adjustment on my part. Excellent for 'Gaelic fiddle '(if you know what I mean), sort of plain and lonesome with little vibrato, very fast 'snaps' (eg Tullochgorm), plus volume 'surges' during notes and tailing away to nothing, or constant reels and jigs thrashing with the amp taking the strain (some Scottish country dance gigs, esp. 'reeling'). Surprising how little volume you lose with 30% less hair. Very focused sound, bounces better than I expected, how much more can you do with 1" more bow?.

4) Glasser composite, hideous to look at, but it has its uses and sounds better than you can expect for $80 or whatever.

I tend to hold 1) in Classical frog hold, 2) 1/2" further up the stick, 3) grip it more or less baroque-ly but anywhere between the frog and 2" further up, and 4) wherever I can catch hold of it. These sticks might cost anything between $80 and $4000, but I use them all. The more bows I use, the more I seem to be able to do on any one of them, apart from being kinda out of practise at present due to cello influence. Haven't tried my cello bow on the fiddle yet, but that's a big stiff beast of a thing.

I'd suggest, try every bow you can find, get any advice you can including maybe a Classical analysis of your bowing, use whatever works?

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  • 18 years later...
On 8/22/2003 at 12:32 AM, crystal said:

My hand is slightly above the silver wrapping. When it's up there, I don't get bow bouncing like I do when I hold down on the frog.

I'm an old-time fiddler. I see great players with either conventional holds or creative adaptations, so no judgment here. Some seemed to just discover what worked for them, others are motivated by alleviating hand pain, a few choose to emulate another player they really admire.

I play with a conventional hold and struggled with unwanted bow bouncing for a while. It eventually just disappeared after a teacher encouraged me to first really focus on the tactile aspects of the pressures felt in the bow hand. Then on to the sense of drawing the bow across the strings with different pressures and speeds, using different ranges of the bow. And all the while really listening to the sound that was drawn out of the fiddle.

Initially I could only control and play with a fairly stiff bow but after a while I came to favor a somewhat softer and more lively bow. Now, I really enjoy the creative range of playing with the whole bow for different sounds and passages. Long bows for waltzes, right up at the frog for some quick and crunchy things, and so on. Playing this instrument is an endless rabbit hole!

So to my mind, no right or wrong here.

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I'm a classical violinist and I was advised by a teacher that my bowing hand was too stiff and I should use my fingers actively in bowing.  I worked on that and it solved my problem of the bow bouncing when I didn't want it to.

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