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Violin 101: What Is Bow Speed? Understanding Bow Speed in Violin, and How Bow Speed Can Affect Sound

Written by MasterClass

Jul 17, 2019 • 2 min read

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Itzhak Perlman Teaches Violin

A violinist must master many elements of physical control in order to fully exploit the instrument's potential. The violinist’s left hand is accountable for nimbleness across the fingerboard, vibrato technique, and proper strength from the first finger all the way to the pinky. The right hand is responsible for bowing (as is true for all stringed instruments). This can involve dynamic changes (like crescendo or diminuendo) or it can involve manual dexterity. Perhaps more than anything else, a player’s bow speed will affect her ultimate mastery of the instrument.

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What Is Bow Speed In Violin?

Bow speed refers to how quickly violinists (or all string players) are able to move their bow back and forth across the strings of the instruments. Most notably this applies to detaché technique, where up bows and and down bows alternate with one another. It can also refer to other alternate bowing techniques, such as martelé, spiccato, sautillé, and staccato.

2 Ways to Hold a Violin Bow

There are two different ways to hold a violin bow.

  1. Russian bow grip. In this method, the hand is extremely pronated, with the fingers close together and the wrist up. This grip was used by famous violinists such as Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, and Nathan Milstein. The Russian bow grip allows for a lot of bow speed.
  2. Franco-Belgian bow grip. In the Franco-Belgian bow grip, the middle finger is opposite the thumb. The thumb should be slightly rounded/curved. It’s important not to lock the thumb. The index and ring fingers are resting on the bow with even spaces between them, and the pinky rests on top, slightly curved. This bow grip gives you more control and allows you to use more bow pressure from the natural weight of the arm.

How Does Bow Speed Affect Sound?

In general, a violinist can use a fast bow or a slow bow. A fast bow creates energy in the sound; a slow bow can be quieter and more calming. You can speed up your bow or slow it down all in the same bow.

  • Speeding it up creates a sense of urgency and usually creates a small crescendo, or increase in sound.
  • Slowing it down can create almost a sighing effect, or an effect of dying away; as the bow slows, it usually creates a decrescendo, or decrease in sound.

What Is the Difference Between Violin Bow Speed and Bow Pressure?

Speed is how fast you move the bow, and pressure is how much you press the bow to the string.

Bow pressure doesn’t mean tensing up the muscles in the bow arm, but by relaxing the natural weight of the arm into the string. The more pressure you use, the faster you must move your bow to avoid scratching. The less pressure you use, the slower you can move your bow and still make a good sound.

4 Violin Pieces That Require Exceptional Bow Speed

For examples of violin literature that requires optimal bow speed, consider these compositions:

  1. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” interlude from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan
  2. Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices for violin
  3. Samuel Barber’s Violin concerto, Op.14 (in particular the third movement)
  4. Antonio Bazzini’s Scherzo fantastique, Op.25 “Dance of the Goblins”

All require a masterful bow hand, but all are immensely rewarding when played correctly.

Learn more about violin playing techniques in Itzhak Perlman’s MasterClass.