“How can I add weight to my bow and keep my wrist relaxed?”
Getting and keeping a relaxed wrist is every fiddler’s goal. But it can seem counterintuitive when you hear that you’re supposed to have a relaxed wrist while also adding weight in your bow. It’s possible to do both (we promise) but you might need to shift your mindset to make it happen. Read on to learn how to maintain a relaxed wrist and maintain control of your bow weight (read: how to be relaxed and get a clean, assertive tone at the same time.)
Step 1: check your paradigm
When you think about relaxing your wrist, you’re thinking about one isolated part of your bow arm. This doesn’t work because your wrist is not an isolated part: it works in tandem with the rest of your bow arm (and your body as a whole). You can’t relax your wrist when the rest of your arm is holding tension. For that reason, think about relaxing your whole bow arm (and your whole body) to achieve a relaxed wrist.
Step 2: think holistically
Even though you have a very specific focus in your practice right now, remember to think about the big picture. Feel your whole body as you play and don’t hyperfocus so much that you stop listening to the music you’re making. The reason we all play the fiddle is because we love the sound of it. Keep that fact at the top of your mind as you work on the details of your playing.
Step 3: scan your body
Beginning with your back, check your body for anywhere you may be holding tension. Straighten your spine, gently engage your back muscles to lift yourself a little taller, roll your shoulders back and pull your shoulder blades down, let your neck muscles release, and bring your attention in turn to your upper arms, forearms, wrists, and fingers. All these parts should be relaxed before you begin playing.
Step 4: find your structure
Your bones create your structure while your muscles create your motion. If your posture is unbalanced so that your bones can’t create a stable structure, your muscles will try to take on a structural role by tensing up to support you. We don’t want that. Set yourself up for relaxation by establishing good posture:
- Put your feet flat on the floor under your knees and about hip-width apart in front of you.
- Center yourself on your sit bones. Don’t lean forward or backward; find where your weight is balanced and your bones, not your muscles, support your torso.
- Feel your spine lengthen toward the ceiling.
- Make sure both your shoulders are level. Often, the right shoulder has a tendency to pull upward.
Step 5: feel the relaxation of constant motion
With your structure in place, take your hands and gently wave them up and down in front of you as if fingers are painting up and down a wall. Allow your muscles to be totally relaxed as you do this. Notice how your arms and hands remain relaxed when you remain in consistent, slow motion. If your motion stops, tension appears. When you bow, the same principle applies: constant, consistent, slow bow motion makes for relaxation.
Step 6: remember the role of each component of your bow arm
Your spine provides structure.
Your back muscles gently engage to help you lift your bow arm without tension.
Your shoulder blades are relaxed and pulled down to keep your posture open and tension-free.
Your shoulder raises and lifts your upper arm as you cross strings. Otherwise, it remains still and keeps your upper arm stationary.
Your upper arm is the wall that provides structure and stability in your bow arm. It raises and lowers when you cross strings. Otherwise, it remains still.
Your elbow is a spring-like joint that opens and closes as you bow.
Your forearm is the motor of your bow arm. It initiates your bow motion and provides the power in your bow stroke.
Your wrist is another spring-like joint. Think of your wrist as a shock absorber that smoothes the transitions between your bow strokes and allows you to keep your bow arm in continuous, relaxed motion. Your wrist does not initiate motion, but rather responds to the motion initiated by your forearm.
Your base knuckles are spring-like joints that alternatively round and flatten as you draw your bow strokes.
Your middle knuckles are another set of spring-like joints that alternatively round and flatten as you draw your bow strokes. Both your base knuckles and middle knuckles are rounded so as not to hold any tension.
Note: if a joint is straight, it’s holding tension. None of the joints in your bow arm should be straight. That goes for your elbow, wrist, and fingers.
Step 7: get out of the weeds
It’s easy to micro-analyze your bow arm, but at a certain point you’ll experience paralysis by analysis. Instead, take a step back and work from a more intuitive standpoint. Ask yourself, “How can I move naturally?” Your body innately wants to move in the most relaxed way possible. Let it! It’s helpful to work from a visual (rather than mental) standpoint here: watch yourself bow in the mirror and make adjustments to make your bowing look as natural as possible. If you see yourself exerting a lot of effort when you bow, find ways to use less energy.
Step 8: pull the sound out
Don’t fight against your fiddle. Instead, work with it. Don’t try to press or push the sound out of your instrument; instead, pull the sound out. Ask your instrument to respond—don’t try to force it. This mindset shift can produce amazing, immediate results.
Step 9: stay playful
This is fun, remember? Even when your working on details such as those we’ve discussed here, you can still approach your practice from a playful place. Enjoy the learning process as you try different techniques on your instrument and learn how it responds. Above all, keep coming back to why you play the fiddle—don’t you just love that sound? Even as you develop new skills, take time to enjoy each note for its simple beauty.
Want more help with your bow arm? Become a member of Fiddle School or sign up for a private lesson.