The N S E W of your bow stroke

Prior to a shamanic journey, those in attendance will usually begin by smudging with smoke from burning white sage, sweetgrass or palo santo which is for cleansing and purifying one’s energetic body. The shaman will then call in the spirits of the four cardinal directions as well as the sky, earth and the inner world spirits. When I created this card, I was reminded that we use the four cardinal directions in many aspects of our lives in “ordinary reality,” most especially using a compass for finding our way in the physical world.

A violin bow is aerodynamic in its design. The modern violin bow is concave in shape. The various parts of the bow offer the violinist a multitude of “strokes”for which to create articulations, dynamics and the shaping of phrases. The bow is heaviest at the frog which is a chunk of ebony that falls mostly under the violinist’s right hand. Moving a few inches away from the frog, there is usually silver wire coiled around the bow stick with a small leather wrap right next to the frog. The silver winding is used to favorably balance the bow so that it could balance on one’s finger just below the midpoint of the bow, called the balance point. A few inches above the midpoint is where the deepest part of the concave shape is located. There tends to be a little bit of a wobble in this part of the bow. Then there is the tip which is the stiffest part of the bow.

Volumes could be written about the myriad violin bow strokes. For instance, there is détaché, staccato, legato, spiccato, marcato, martelé, portato, ricochet, sauté, sautillé, jeté, collé, tremolo and don’t forget flying staccato! Depending on what articulation is required, the violinist will choose one of these strokes and will exploit the best part of the bow to carry it out. Violinists spend years learning all of these strokes as well as mastering a beautiful clear tone and control of the bow. Furthermore, these strokes do not exist in a vacuum. Just because a particular stroke works best, at for example the balance point, doesn’t mean that all of the notes around it work best there as well. Therefore, the violinist must work on bow distribution: the process by which all of the various strokes are fit together like a jigsaw puzzle so that all of the notes are accurately articulated. Articulation refers to how a note is produced; literally how a tone begins and ends. The correct articulation is determined by whatever has been marked over a note by the composer. If there is no marking, the violinist will draw upon his or her own interpretation including taking into consideration the style of the piece and the era in which it was composed.

For the image on this card, I superimposed the cardinal directions on a shamanic inspired sketch of the player’s view of the violin. The scroll being a sacred spiral and the violin’s sound post and bridge area falling at the center of the compass, literally the heart of the violin. Students learn early on that the bow stick must be parallel to the bridge to produce a clear tone. We do this so that the bow hairs move exactly perpendicular across the strings. Hairs that do not cross exactly at a right angle with the string will produce “noise.” Ironically, in order to keep the bow parallel to the bridge, the bow must move in a circular path through its full excursion. There is a lot of math and engineering involved with playing the violin.

All of the bowing elements previously mentioned impact the sound produced. In addition to the direction of the bow and the part of the bow employed, there is also speed, weight and location to consider. The violinist will constantly work with bow speed and weight to affect volume and density of sound. The index created between these two elements is constantly being adjusted. A dense, dark chocolate sound may be created by moving the bow slowly with a lot of weight in it. Or, a gossamer sound may be produced by moving the bow very fast with relatively little weight. Finally, the violinist may choose to experiment with where the bow is located on the string. Although the bow is usually about halfway between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard, there may be times one is called upon to play over the fingerboard, called flautando, producing an airy flute sound, or right next to the bridge which creates a raw, scratchy sound with extremely high pitched overtones.

Then, there is getting all of this to work together with the left hand. It’s no wonder that we spend so much time practicing. An excellent warm up is to practice long bows on your open strings. It helps to practice in front of a mirror as well as looking down at the point of contact which is the place where the bow hair contacts the string. Moving the bow parallel to the bridge should be considered an ongoing project the way you continually work on intonation. If you find it challenging keeping your bow “straight,” check your violin hold and bow hold. Also make sure that your shoulders are relaxed and not elevated. Making changes to your shoulder rest, chin rest and even your shirt collar can move your violin slightly which can affect its location in relation to how you are moving the bow.

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