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The topic title is very much a trick question, but it isn't.

I've been relentlessly working on straight bowing since I joined Violin Lab (and before that), and after just over a month, I've been working nonstop on straight bowing. I've been setting a timer with the metronome, and working at all bowing positions (middle "square", tip, and frog) and though I acknowledge I have progress to make - particularly at the frog - I'm not TOO awful (frog be damned) at maintaining a relatively straight bow. Whole bows are tricky.

I have developed an "eye" for seeing what is straight and what isn't, thanks to parallax. What you see as "straight" when playing isn't necessarily straight, and likely isn't. I've tried to "burn" that angle into my mind. It doesn't help much at the tip and frog (especially the frog), but when I try and watch in a mirror I'm all over the place. When I concentrate on watching the bow connect with strings, I'm comfortable, but the moment I try to play whilst watching myself, my arm drifts A LOT. By that I mean I can go from playing in the middle, to watching myself in the mirror and my arm goes from fingerboard to bridge abruptly.

Then I watch people play on YouTube (professional players, at that) and they're not necessarily straight. Not even a little bit. In fact, they're often quite crooked.

Being left-handed (but of course a bit ambidextrous by default), I don't know whether I'm obsessing over this too much, not enough, or just the right amount. I have no teacher (location) to call me an idiot and tell me I'm wrong, which is why I subscribed to Violin Lab - it has the structure I need and desire - but I'm afraid of falling into bad habits, like I did with programming. I spent years learning all of the in's and out's of languages, but never DOING anything with that knowledge. I fear I may be doing this again.

I enjoy playing "Ode to Joy" from "Essential Elements 1" despite the fact I haven't even touched the left hand in Violin Lab (which I consider a GREAT thing, and I did not properly hold the bow previously, and have been practicing the bow hold exercises extensively), but I find myself torn - the right-hand is of utmost importance, and you're at a disadvantage being left-handed - and "If you dwell on this, the most you'll ever play your violin is open strings practicing straight bows."

Must I be "spot-on" as I practice? I've been aiming for perfection. I realize being left-handed puts me at a disadvantage, but does that mean I should work harder at perfectionism?

I'll do it. I love this instrument. It's beautiful when others play it (and often enough, sounds good when I play it), but I don't want to fall into the same trap of doing basics for years and never doing anything with it. One day, I wish to be able to play well enough my friends and family (and only them - I have no major ambitions) will appreciate it as well. I played "Ode to Joy" for my wife, and she recognized and appreciated it. Made me feel like a million bucks, even if she was being kind! :P

11 Responses
Posted: May 4, 2018
Last Comment: May 7, 2018

Barbara Habel
Posted: May 7, 2018
Dear Joe

I am a lefty. When I started playing I did so for 9 month on a regular violin. Then I switched and got myself a lefty violin. I have not regretted this. This would be the obvious solution in hindsight. But it does not mean that it makes learning the violin easy. It is not an easy instrument to learn.

The drawback on a lefty violin is that you have limited choices when buying an instrument. And going to the luthier and asking for a lefty violin will have their eyes roll. But there are some people who do sell lefty violins. For starters though I would try and find a lefty violin for rental. I was able to find such instruments here in Germany. Go on the web and try to find something in your country.

And as far as professional players and their straight bows go: depending on where you are on the string - the sound will be more forte or more piano. That is why the pros keep changing where the bow is. They are doing it on purpose to achieve a certain sound. Beginners do it at random and have no control over the sound they produce.

To make progress on the violin takes the normal person years and years. There are some fast trackers here on the site. See them as inspiration but do not compare yourself to them. Judge only your own progress and be gentle with yourself.

Beth Blackerby
Posted: May 6, 2018
Joe, I woke up this morning, made a fresh cup of espresso and opened the Community page and read your kind and generous comments. It is incredibly affirming that what I try so hard to do is working! And I do see it every day. You and the other members of this fine community who follow the curriculum, take seriously the technical goals (that sometimes I feel I ramble on too much about), prove to me that the combined efforts of my planning and your hard work allow for mind blowing progress on this devil of an instrument. (Every day I am humbled to it's intractable demands for consistent practice).

And so that you know, I'm nowhere close to feeling like I have accomplished what I have set out to do. I think there are still other and better ways to communicate "how to play the violin" and other and better ways to leverage the technology we have at our disposal. I am currently dreaming up an Uber Violin Lab with new and better ways to engage my adult learners. So thank you for your inspiring feedback as it fuels me forward (even more so than the jump-starting brain fuel in my coffee cup).   

Posted: May 6, 2018
Also, Wanted to Thank You For the Site
While I'm here, and maybe you will or won't see this, I wanted to thank you anyway for ViolinLab!

I had been trying to piece together some structure for learning for awhile before I found ViolinLab, and it was tough. Even with beginner books and YouTube - which, by and large, you CAN learn a lot from - you've actually sat down and made a rubric for everything, organized lessons in a thoughtful manner, and are active in engaging people. Having watched and read your introduction, you seem to understand the adult beginner for what they likely are - people that WANT to learn, are doing it on their own time, with their own money, because they enjoy it. It's probably a refreshing break from having students with parents that pressured them into it, they don't particularly care or want to do it, and are doing it because they "have" to.

As a person with no means to a teacher (even if one lived nearby it would be ridiculously expensive, as well as embarrassing) this is the next best thing. Possibly better. It's all laid out. I know what to work on. I have the rubrics, the practice material, and am one of few people that can and enjoys teaching myself. Perhaps I need to be told to move on and not dwell on aspects (fair enough), but THE STRUCTURE is there.

Much like a college syllabus, you've laid out what needs done, what you're expected to know, and several diagrams and listings for how to accomplish it.

I wasn't sure at first, but it's already money well spent! It was a pittance for what I paid for the violin anyway (which was only $600, to be fair, so for certain it's not a Strad, but not insignificant), but in that short amount of time I've learned:

- Stop holding the violin wrong!
- Don't hold the bow wrong either!
- Play straight on the strings! Ok you're doing that well enough, so here's some extra practice for you.
- The reason it keeps scratching at the frog is you must lift your hand and wrist, then angle the bow to catch less hair!

And it hasn't even been a month. I can say I feel as though the videos have helped me improve tremendously! Frog playing notwithstanding - nobody expects you to be a miracle worker, you DID mention the "bounce" being probably related to hand/wrist tension, I DID see you made a video about that I'll be coming upon shortly, and playing at the frog is something many beginner resources don't tackle for a LONG time - I feel GREAT about the violin! It finally stopped sounding like I attacked a cat with a weed eater at every draw of the bow! Of course occasionally the cat runs into the weed eater, but it's now the exception rather than the rule.

So thank you, Ms. Blackerby! Credit where credit is due: in a short time and with some practice your help has dramatically improved my ability to make a decent, inoffensive sound from an instrument that is more than capable of being every bit as annoying and grating as it is can be beautiful. In fact, I can't think of another instrument that possess this ability quite as well as the violin. Maybe the drums, but it really can make some awful sounds in the wrong hands, those being mine about a month ago. Even I would shudder at some of those sounds, but now? Now I hear and think "Right, that could be much better" more often than "There's going to be a law about you touching a violin if you keep that up."

Posted: May 5, 2018
Thank You Ms. Blackerby!
I sincerely appreciate the response! I was in no way expecting it, but it was marvelous and cleared up my issues and doubts I was having!

The performer I saw was... how to say... very MOBILE. It turned me off personally, but as he was the soloist, I suppose nobody wants a completely rigid performance. To me, it was just a bit TOO much spectacle. His bow was all over the place. He sounded GREAT, don't get me wrong, and I suppose that's what matters in the end.

I completely understand being hesitant to suggest to a beginner that it's acceptable at any time to not bow straight. We're (almost certainly) not doing any types of special bowing - just straight, detache (believe is the term) bowing that doesn't require much in terms of advanced musical aptitude, and saying to a beginner that doesn't WANT or HASN'T worked on straight bowing and is everywhere between the bridge and fingerboard at all angles is likely to result in some detrimental habits needing broken later. When I tutored mathematics I was VERY hesitant about telling a student "it's not THAT important" or "you really don't need to go deep into it" because often enough it was interpreted to mean "pretty much the entire course is optional learning" and you VERY MUCH need to know this come exams.

However, you've probably noticed my mindset. To follow the analogy above, you might need more work on your algebra basics, but need not pursue proving everything to follow along in your Algebra I text.

I think as you said, it would be wise to invest a bit more time at the frog. I don't feel as though my hand/wrist is tensing up, and I do have the mute in the way (I DO have to ensure not everyone around hates me), but my wrist doesn't necessarily raise to the proper height, and don't correct the "lopsided" nature of having a few feet of wood at the top allowing it to "fall" towards my shoulder a bit.

If you saw, I suspect you'd PROBABLY tell me to work on the frog, then before practice spend a bit of time doing whole bows. I've been spending a minute (minute and 20 seconds - have to prepare first) on every string doing slow whole bows and trying to ensure straightness. Probably a good idea to begin EVERY practice that way (which I believe you mentioned in your whole bows video is a good warm-up anyway) for awhile, then spend a bit of time at the frog, then move on. We're trying to learn arithmetic basics here, and once you can do it without the calculator (only making a minor mistake every now and then) it's probably safe to move on haha!

Thank you so much Ms. Blackerby! You've gone above and beyond again, and I certainly appreciate it!

Beth Blackerby
Posted: May 5, 2018
This discussion includes members-only video content

Posted: May 5, 2018
Many Thanks!
Thank you all! THIS is the type of constructive feedback you don't receive in other communities!

Dianne and Elke made a point I hadn't even previously considered: when I need to read music (which I'm not particularly good at) I won't have the benefit of spectating my bowing for that "angle."

I think I may have thrown people by discussing "angles," but what I mean is simply I've come to know by sight whether the bow is straight (or "pretty straight") by noting the angle of the bow to string at playing angle by looking in the mirror and noting the orientation. When I began, I made the mistake of assuming what looks straight from playing angle is straight. It most emphatically is not. Not that I have to tell you all this, but when I looked in the mirror, what was previously "straight" was all kinds of not even close. Luckily I caught this early.

As odd as this sounds - particularly when the majority of the population is overwhelmingly right-handed - I think being left-handed is possibly a boon. Most right-handed people don't realize (because it never requires thought) that the majority of things that require any sort of hand dexterity are designed for right-handed individuals, so most left-handed people (myself included) have been forced to adapt an ambidextrous approach to many activities. While I certainly wouldn't pen a letter or throw in the MLB right-handed, it's far from useless. It most certainly lacks the grace and dexterity a naturally right-handed person possesses, but is quite capable, and through some training I feel can do the job more than sufficiently... but HOW much training, haha!

I think - and this is just me - the suggestions here may be on the right path. It's not that I'm completely bad at bowing, and recognize strengths and weaknesses. I believe it's probably in my best interest to spend the next few days continuing with bowing practice, focusing on the frog and whole bows, and then moving forward. Unless I somehow regress towards bowing all over the place (which Beth comically demonstrated in one of her videos with regards to what children usually do), it needs to move forward.

I tend towards perfectionism in activities. I know you're (rightfully) thinking "Way to pat yourself on the back" but it's not a compliment. Not even a little bit. I could obsess over "perfect" bowing for an extended period of time (easily encompassing weeks, months, and possibly years) and do obsess over things in my life to the detriment of progress and/or productivity. Being able to show all of you that my bowing is superb, perfectly straight, and never deviating from its path would be wonderful, but becomes less valuable if I share that I spent 18 months to achieve it and can do nothing more than play open strings haha!

Thank you all for the suggestions and videos!

Also, I saw you playing in the discussions Lee! I haven't been here long, but well done sir! Hope to see more of you!

Posted: May 4, 2018
Hi Joe,
You sound like you're on the right track to me.  I, too, am working diligently on my bowing as a beginner.  I think it's really important (and Beth agrees) so I don't think you can obsess about it too much since that means you're working on it with determination.  I'm the same way and I'm seeing progress (with Beth's wonderful feedback along with advice from the VL community).

Consider taking a private lesson with Beth by submitting a video.  I have and will continue to do so.  She's amazingly helpful and encouraging.

Good luck and good playing!

Sonia Lancaster
Posted: May 4, 2018
Interesting discussion. Perhaps when beginning we learn “straight bows” which are parallel to the bridge and midway between bridge and end of finger Board as this is likely to give the best sound. Later we learn about different sound points (nearer the bridge for a more focused, harder sound to  nearer the finger Board for a softer, ethereal sound) plus bow speeds and weight. I have recently watched a few videos and read that the bow does 2 figures of eight, one which is in the plane vertical and the other the horizontal. The vertical plane means when bowing up and down the shape is a saucer shape not a flat line, and the horizontal motion is described when the bow is at the tip then the frog is more towards the back of the player (pulled in) and when at the frog it is pushed out (so the tip points more to the players left shoulder). This is hard to describe and easier in pictures. This can be seen when Itzhak Perlman plays Schindler’s List in the following video https://youtu.be/RYokqDoXQjU

Elke Meier
Posted: May 4, 2018
I have a few thoughts to your questions, Joe:

1. There is a difference between SEEING the bow going straight and FEELING it going straight. I know what you mean by the difference between trying to memorize the angle and watching the bow and then watching yourself in the mirror and being horrified at what it does to the previously straight bow. Here is what I did: I stopped watching the bow right on the string and trying to memorize the angle... For some time I just watched myself in the mirror and concentrated on how it feels in the arm and wrist if the bow goes straight in the mirror. Then I turned on the camera and tried to recreate this feel without looking. It took some time but for me this method was more effective than watching the bow directly. As Dianne said once you start to look at music you cannot have your eyes fixed on the strings any more anyways. And it is the feel in your muscles and your ears listening to the tone that need to give you the clue, not really your eyes.

2. Violin playing is such an involved activity where both hands/arms have to do completely different things (the "pat your head and rub your tummy" situation) that I do not think being left or right handed makes so much of a difference. I am strongly right handed and my left hand hardly ever had to learn something all by itself and independently like it does in the violin. Most of the time it just follows the lead of the right hand. But when I started with the violin I felt the left hand had to do such extensive learning that I wondered whether it would be easier to have a lefty violin so the right hand could learn all these complicated movements and the left hand could "just" deal with the bow. I have since decided that bowing is just as involved as left hand movement... But really, I can't see why you would be in any way disadvantaged by being left handed - just different. Now this is spoken from a purely theoretical point, there is at least one person here at VL, Barbara, who uses a left handed violin. She would be a good one to consult with about this specific aspect and find out why she changed. 

3. Most importantly, especially in light of what you know about yourself: One of the most important phrases I adopted while learning is "good enough for now". When I started I thought I would learn one thing after the other, nicely linear. I noticed pretty soon that that is not how violin learning functions! It gets very involved after a very short time, more and more aspects come into play and need to be juggled together, not independently. And then it becomes like a spiral: You come by the same topics over and over again, just on a different level. So "good enough for now" became my mantra. You need to keep these things in mind that are not as good as you want them and the next time there is an opportunity to go deeper into this topic you do. But you do not learn everything about it all at once. Think about toddlers taking their first steps. It is a pretty wobbly site and yet we all excitedly shout: "They are walking." What you are doing in wanting to really perfect straight bowing at the stage of such early learning is like saying: "Well, I better not try to show these toddlers how to do a puzzle (or use a pencil, or use stairs) unless they can really walk with good coordination." We would never do that. We would always challenge them in many areas realizing that coloring, walking, using fine motoric actions will be refined with time. You will find for example that when you re-watch one of Beth's early videos after several months you will see other things than the first time round.
Now there are other personality types around, people that don't struggle with perfectionism and just want to progress through the book. They will have to take as their mantra "not good enough yet" instead of "good enough for now" - growing and learning in a healthy way is different for each one of us :)

Happy learning and progressing!

Janice Branley
Posted: May 4, 2018
Hi Joe,

maybe this could explain what we see sometimes as great players seem to angle the bow 

- and this one is great for getting the feel of how the bow stroke feels sort of curved as the hand pushes away from the body on the second half of a down bow.

Posted: May 4, 2018
Trying for a straight bow is important when starting to learn to play the violin. If the bow drifts to the fingerboard on a down bow, then that needs to be corrected. If the bow points over your left shoulder on an up bow, that needs to be corrected. But it sounds like you have worked on those things. You also noticed that when you watch your bow it is straight, but when you look to the mirror it drifts. Later, when you read music, you may have the same challenge. It takes muscle memory and good listening skills- you'll get that with practice, but it will take time. Think of maintaining the sounding point for the best sound throughout the bow stroke. If you have a good sound, then the bow is straight. The problem with too straight is that as you move to each string, each string has its own optimal sounding point. In the beginning, you don't have to worry too much about that, but it's something to think about going forward. Yes, the frog is the most challenging until you allow the finger flexibility to develop. Professionals deliberately change sounding point for phrasing. From what you've written, I would say to move on at this point, and maybe watch the finger flexibility videos, but we'll see what Beth says.