Culinary Arts

Violin 101: What Is Bow Direction? Learn Violin Bowing Techniques From Itzhak Perlman

Written by MasterClass

Jun 21, 2019 • 4 min read

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Itzhak Perlman Teaches Violin

Violin playing requires two distinct techniques performed by a player’s two hands. The left hand is used for producing specific pitches. This is done by pressing down on the violin’s strings at various points along its fingerboard. The technique is known as “stopping.”

The right hand is used to vibrate the strings. You do this by either plucking them (known as pizzicato) or by gliding a bow across them (known as arco). The arco technique is by far the most prevalent within violin literature, and it requires both down-bowing and up-bowing.

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What Is A Violin Bow?

A violin bow is a wooden stick that is strung with hair (traditionally the hair of a horse’s tail) that is rubbed against tuned strings to produce sound. The bows used on violins, violas, cellos, and basses vary somewhat in terms of length, weight, and the number of hairs used in the stringing process.

There are a few parts of the bow a string player must familiarize herself with before learning about bow direction:

  • The bow stick. The wooden backbone that runs down the length of the entire bow.
  • The bow hair. Horsehair string parallel to the bow stick; used to vibrate the violin’s strings.
  • The tip. The upper edge of the bow where the hair connects directly to the bow stick. The tip of the bow is the uppermost portion of the bow that can be used by a violinist.
  • The frog. A small piece of wood attached to the handle of the bow; this is the other place where the hair is attached to the actual wood of the bow.
  • The grip (or pad). A rubber and metal part near the base of the bow stick.

Most players will place their first finger on the bow’s grip and their second and third fingers on the frog.

What Is Bow Direction?

Bow direction refers to the motion of a violinist’s arm when playing the instrument. There are two bow directions: down bows and up bows.

  • Down bows move the violinist’s arm away from his or her body. As such, the bow moves in the direction of the instrument’s lowest sounding strings to its highest sounding strings.
  • Up bows move the violinist’s arm toward his or her body. The bow moves in the direction of the instrument’s highest sounding strings to its lowest sounding strings.

How Is Bow Direction Used When Playing the Violin?

All forms of arco violin playing require the use of both down-bows and up-bows. These techniques include:

  • Legato. Legato playing, which is typically notated with long slurs drawn over a sequence of notes, involves a violin bow moving in one direction for several notes before reversing course and playing several other notes in one bow stroke in the other direction. By sustaining your bow strokes, you produce the smooth succession of notes that characterizes legato. Learn more about legato playing in our complete guide here.
  • Détaché. This technique involves alternating bowing direction on each successive note. In this sense, it is the opposite of legato.
  • Martelé. A more pronounced version of détaché, characterized by detached, strongly accented notes.
  • Staccato. A playing technique where each individual note is sounded briskly. Staccato playing intentionally leaves a small rest at the end of each note’s allotted duration. Staccato passages do not have to be played with alternating bow strokes, but most violinists find that technique to be the easiest way to achieve proper staccato. Learn more about staccato in our complete guide here.
  • Spiccato. A string technique involving detached notes played with a bouncing bow (the bow comes off the string). Generally, spiccato is used in faster passages than staccato—but not always.
  • Sautillé. Detached, very rapid bounced strokes played in the middle of the bow. This is marked in the same manner as spiccato and chosen in the context of the music.

How Is Bow Direction Notated?

Some composers choose to specify bowing directions on their musical scores. This may be to aid the player in making a passage technically possible, or it may be because the composer desires the specific timbres associated with either up bows or down bows.

The notation for a down bow looks like this:

down bow marks

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The notation for an up bow looks like this:

up bow marks

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What are Pronation and Supination in Regards to the Violin?

If you’ve heard the terms “pronation” and “supination,” it might have been in relation to your feet (specifically your walking or running style). But hands can also pronate and supinate, as any great violinist will tell you. Pronation is when your fingers are leaning sideways on the stick and your wrist is up.

Diagram of hands on violin bow

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Supination is when your fingers rotate up as your wrist goes down.

diagram of hand on violin bow 2

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Learn Itzhak Perlman’s Violin Bowing Techniques

Itzhak Perlman offers the following advice to violinists who are refining their bowing technique.

Don’t let your bowing hand be rigid; let it move to facilitate your bowing. When moving the bow from the frog to the tip (down-bow) and from tip to frog (up- bow), it is important that the bow remains relatively parallel to the bridge. Perlman suggests as you play a down-bow, move the hand slightly out. As you reach the tip, bring the hand slightly in as you transition to the up-bow. Then, as you reach the frog, pivot the hand slightly forward again for the down-bow. Think of it as a very, very narrow figure 8 (as shown below).

Diagram of a figure 8

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Pronate and supinate. To make your changes in bow direction smoother, Mr. Perlman recommends cushioning the bow change with your fingers. This requires your fingers and hand to feel loose and flexible when holding the bow. At the frog, slightly “pronate” your fingers before you switch from up-bow to down-bow, then as you begin the down-bow, you “supinate” the fingers.

Learn more practice techniques for the violin in Itzhak Perlman’s MasterClass.