Have you ever been in a lesson during which your teacher keeps saying, "keep your bow straight!"? If so, it's because playing with a straight bow is incredibly important for even tone, sound production, and overall control. So if you THINK you're playing with a straight bow, but then come in to your lesson only to hear "keep your bow straight!" it must mean something is amiss.
When I keep reminding a student to keep his or her bow straight, it means that the student has memorized incorrect muscle movements. Think about it-- when you are playing, you generally aren't thinking very carefully about the mechanics of what you're doing. You're probably more concerned with getting the notes, rhythms, dynamics, and expressive elements correct. So if your mind is occupied by all of those things and your bow is not straight, it means your default right arm motion has either been learned incorrectly or has disintegrated from what was once correct.
So how to fix it?
This exercise comes from Carol Rodland, who taught it to me more than a decade ago. Since then, I've assigned it to every student who has had crooked bow issues and have had 100% success.
The Two-Inch Stop Exercise:
1. Stand in front of a mirror so that the end of your fingerboard and your bridge make two thin, straight, parallel lines (you will not be facing the mirror-- the strings will be. If this is difficult to comprehend, face yourself in the mirror with your viola in position, then turn your body to the left until you can see the parallel lines of the bridge and the end of the fingerboard-- then make sure to move your feet so as to untwist your body and put it back into a neutral position).
2. Place your bow on the string at the absolute frog (as in, not an inch above the ferrule, but at the actual point where the hair begins!). I generally have students start on the D string.
- Looking into the mirror, adjust your bow so that it is exactly parallel between the line of the bridge and the line of the end of the fingerboard. You'll now have three parallel lines.
- Make sure your hair is flat (you'll know it's flat because in the mirror you'll be able to see hair on either side of the stick).
- Pick a sounding point (a good place to start is in the center-- exactly between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge).
- Sink your arm weight into the string (keep your shoulders relaxed!).
3. Once everything is parallel and properly set up, close your eyes. Move the bow two inches, with your eyes closed. Listen for rich, zingy tone (the viola should ring even though you've only moved two inches).
4. Freeze. As in, don't move at all.
5. THEN, open your eyes and assess the motion you just made. It’s super important to check in the mirror, and not with your eyes over the bridge— it’s easy to see in the mirror if your bow is parallel, but not so much when you look over the bridge. The angles get all confused there, and it can look as though your bow is straight when it really isn’t.
Now that you're looking into the mirror, did your bow go crooked? If so, in which direction (i.e. did the tip move towards the scroll or towards your head)? Did your bow move out of the sounding point in which you started? If so, did it move closer to the scroll or closer to the bridge? Did your hair stay flat? If not, did you turn the stick towards the scroll or towards the bridge?
- It's very important to stop and think. Don't simply correct whatever mistakes were made, but try to assess your tendencies.
6. Once you've assessed your tendencies, correct everything so that your bow is again parallel to the bridge, in the correct sounding point, with flat hair and arm weight in the string. Freeze here for a moment and try to memorize how it feels. This is the most important part. It should feel a little weird, and not exactly like what you're used to. But try to memorize the feeling so that it becomes the new natural, because THAT is how you'll be able to play with a straight bow pretty soon-- you'll have to rely on the muscle memory you are now instilling.
7. Repeat steps three to six.
The average viola bow is 29 inches. That's 14-15 stops per one down bow. It's okay, of course, to take the two inches with a grain of salt. Try to have 10 stops in each down bow and each up bow. It'll take a few minutes to pull an entire bow in this method.
NOTE: For short-armed violists who cannot reach the tip with a perfectly straight bow, stop the two-inch stop exercise as close to the tip as you can without having to compromise physical comfort or straight bow. If you fall in this category, be sure to ask your teacher for modifications.
Once you're successfully able to navigate the length of the bow with only minor adjustments (both down and up!), go ahead and increase the length of each closed-eye pull or push.
Warning: This is tedious. It's not especially fun to play two inches, stop, freeze, assess, move around, etc. but it is INCREDIBLY useful for reteaching your right arm what a straight bow FEELS like. The whole point of this is to retrain your body. You are using your eyes to confirm to your body that what you are feeling is correct. The more you do it, the more normal the new, straight bow motion will feel.
If every time you open your eyes your bow has gone crooked, it means you're probably opening your upper arm more than necessary (if your tip is going towards the scroll), or that you're closing your upper arm too much across your body (if your tip is going towards your head). Try to remember the 3 shapes made by your arm when playing: When at the frog, you are making a small triangle (upper arm, lower arm, viola). When you are in the center of the bow, you are making a square (bow and upper arm are parallel; viola and lower arm are parallel). When you are at the tip of the bow, you are making a large triangle (bow, arm, viola). In the next week I'll ask someone to take a few photos so I can post them here, but in the meantime I found this nifty photo of the square. It's from the website http://www.violinistinbalance.nl/.
Also try to notice if your bow goes crooked at a certain point. Maybe everything is just fine in the lower half, and then goes crooked as you travel towards the tip? What does this mean for your existing muscle memory?
If you're able to concentrate on this exercise very diligently for a week or two (maybe spend 4-6 minutes at the beginning of your practice session every day), you'll notice very quickly that your teacher will stop commenting on your crooked bow!