Greetings dear readers. This is part two of a series geared toward beginners who are looking for a basic introduction to the violin. For part one, which discusses the parts of the violin, click HERE. In this article, I will discuss the parts of the bow.
We will start from the bottom and make our way toward the top.
At the very bottom of the bow, there is a screw. This screw regulates the tension of the hair (which is from a horse’s tail). When you turn the screw clockwise, the hair tightens. When you turn the screw counter-clockwise, the hair loosens. I like to tell my young students “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey”.
How do we know how much or how little to tighten or loosen? Well, when you have finished practicing for the day, loosen your bow so that the hair starts to “hang” a bit. The hair does not have to be so loose that it touches the wooden part of the bow (called the stick). You can see the photo below of a bow with loose hair for reference. Note that the stick is of a somewhat concave nature.
When tightening the bow, you should stop when you have roughly a pinky’s thickness of space between the hair and the stick. Once you can play, you’ll get a feel for this in a different manner. You will realize that the ideal tightness is just enough so that you can push down the stick of the bow so that it touches the hair while the bow is resting on a violin string. In the mean time, however, the pinky-method described above is ideal.
Be careful not to over-tighten! Also notice that the stick now has a slightly flatter rod-like shape. If at any time the stick becomes convex, immediately loosen the hair. You have gone to far and serious damage can result to the stick! You may wish to refer to the picture below to see the bow with ideal hair tension.
Moving up the bow, we have a black almost-rectangular part called the frog. No, it is not made of frog and it does not ribbit! The frog is the heaviest part of the bow and often has decoration (such as a little white circle in the middle, often made from mother-of-pearl on expensive bows). The frog is also referred to as “the heal” by the French and is where one holds the bow (more on this in the next article).
Moving further up, you might notice that there are some leather covers and/or silver windings surrounding the stick. These are partly decorative and partly practical. When you hold the bow, your index finger will touch one or both of these sections. In my case, my index finger makes contact just above where the silver winding and leather covering meet. We will also discuss this in more detail in the next article.
Now, a quick word about the hair. We have invisible oils on our hands that keep us from drying out. We do not want to transfer these oils to the horse-hair because sweat can damage it, rendering it unplayable. If the violin shop you rented your instrument from gave you a bow that has black rubber-like material coating parts of the hair, ask for a replacement! This is a symptom of someone who regularly touched the hair.
I have been told that if one looks at it under a microscope, there are tiny little bristles that grab the string of the violin when you play. This is why horse-hair is so effective. Yet, it is not effective enough until we have applied rosin to the bow (see photo below). Rosin is a cake of melted and then dried tree-sap. This is not ordinary maple syrup! You may find different kinds of rosins in violin shops and as you get more advanced, you might find that you prefer one over another. In the mean time, however, it is not worth spending much on rosin. A relatively cheap one will do the trick. So how do we apply it to the bow? Well, this is best done once you know how to hold the bow, but in the mean time, I’ll give you a primer.
First, take your rosin out of the violin case. Then take it out of its own plastic case. You’ll notice that it looks very clear and beautiful. Unfortunately, we have to scratch it with a coin or sharp object. Just a few scratches will release the rosin dust so that it is “activated”. Once this is done, rub it all along the length of the horse-hair. If this is the first time your bow has been rosined, be sure to do this for a good few minutes. The horse-hair should turn white or off-white at the least. Be sure to get all parts, particularly the ends of the bow. Concentrate on one part of the bow at a time and don’t be afraid to be vigorous.
Speaking of parts of the bow, we can divide it into three parts. When violinists talk about phrasing, they often refer to the “frog”, the “middle”, and the “tip”. Playing in these different parts of the bow results in sounds of different qualities and colors (called timbres). I don’t think that it is necessary to tell you where the middle and tip are to be found! What I will mention, however, is that the tip is the lightest part of the bow and requires the most amount of weight and pressure into the string, unlike the frog, which requires that one suspend the upper arm to take weight off the string. We’ll get into this more at a later time.
Meanwhile, I hope that this has been helpful for you!
Stay tuned for part three in the series: “How to hold the violin and the bow”
Daniel Broniatowski, D.M.A.
Maestro Musicians, LLC