The Long-Awaited Bowhold Comparison

(Update: Check out this great video of Itzhak Perlman talking about his bowhold!… And, watch a video of me teaching a Basic Bowing Lesson, excellent for understanding the basics to achieving a great and steady tone! )

Finally, the photos of a few of history’s violin Greats and their bow holds are here!

In general, there have been two schools of thought concerning the bow hold: the Russian bow hold, and the Franco-Belgian bow hold (although, there is what can be considered either a third school or a variation on the Franco-Belgian; this hold is generally called the Galamian bow hold). Arguably, it appears that more violinists have favored the latter hold(s), and the Galamian is the bow hold most predominantly taught to beginners, at least as of late. However, as you observe the gallery of historic pictures, notice how each bow hold becomes a variant on the theme, adequately suited for the individual’s hand, and sometimes the distinction between the main holds is fuzzy.

Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz. Notice the sharp leaning of the hand toward the index finger, and the leaning of the whole body, really, into the instrument. In the Russian hold, pressure is exerted through the bow by way of weight in the right index finger, providing great power and sharp rhythmic control to the violinist’s tone. It is said that some Russian-grippers do not often approach the frog, due to the lack of flexibility in the right fingers. Perhaps to compensate this phenomenon, the bow hair is kept looser (it is not stretched so tightly, and therefore feels softer along the strings). Milstein is said to have been the master of bow speed and contact point, moving his bow rapidly near the fingerboard.

Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, David Oistrakh, Yehudi Menuhin, Pablo de Sarasate, Isaac Stern, Joshua Bell, and Shinichi Suzuki. Characteristics of the Franco-Belgian bow hold include flexible, rounded fingers (especially the rounded pinkie, as opposed to the straight pinkie of the Russian hold), a slightly defined rise in the right wrist, tighter or firmer hair, and a tendency to tilt the bow-stick away from the violinist. The Galamian hold seems very similar, except for a smaller, more natural spread of the index finger and a flatter wrist. It has been noted that this hold is more and more the “American school” of current bow holds. Zukerman, a recognized master of the Galamian hold, is said to have used more bow pressure than speed in his sound. For both of these like-minded holds, it is the fingers and wrist that do much of the work in the bow stroke.

It is important to note that there is more to a violinist’s tone than the shape of their bow hold; namely, bow speed, contact point, and bow pressure or weight. The combination of these factors , while shaped by the bow hold, is what brings color and emotion to the music. Also, notice the slight variations, or hybrids, in the different bow holds. Every violinist is unique, and each of these presented in the gallery has more than proved their technical capability! The “ideal” bow hold, therefore, is one that simply does the job of emoting the subtleties of the musical style most fitting to an individual performer. Each one has tended to remain within a Classical flavor that compliments their style of playing; in a word, it’s comfortable for them to play, it suits them.

Yehudi Menuhin

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