Mastering the bow

Though the bow doesn’t look like much, you simply can’t play the fiddle without it. The bow is the rhythm. The bow is what makes the fiddle sing. And bowing is probably the hardest thing to learn when it comes to playing the fiddle.

Learning to a bow a tune can be tricky. Sometimes when I learn a tune I learn it note for note and bow stroke for bow stroke, according to what I hear. The problem with this is that if you are in a session or performance, and you end up on an up bow when you practiced on a down bow, you could get seriously tripped up (or down).

One of the most passionate players I know is Irish fiddler, Martin Hayes. He doesn’t always play reels at top speed or jigs in equal 3/4 timing. But his music is moving and passionate because he has the freedom to play just what he feels without worrying what his bow hand is doing. Whether he’s on an up bow or down bow, it just doesn’t matter, the music just pours out of him naturally. See for yourself:

Martin Hayes didn’t become this good overnight, however. This is a man who has been playing and practicing his whole life. I was lucky enough to take a workshop with him a while back where he offered some great advice about how to practice mastering the bow.

After watching him play, we noticed that he is not consistent with his bow. When asked about his technique, he replied that he didn’t really have one. He just played whatever he felt like at the moment. He told us he practices tunes using one long bow stroke (versus a bow stroke for each note). He takes the bow and doesn’t go up or down throughout the tune, he plays the tune on one bow stroke and when he runs out of bow he goes the other way, no matter what note he’s on.

I have recently been working on this practice regime and it has helped my playing tremendously because it does a couple of things:

  • It gives me the opportunity to really learn the notes of a tune.
  • It makes me less committed to going one way or the other with my bow stroke, which gives me the freedom to play from my heart instead of from memory.
  • Allows me to play more confidently.
  • It gives me the opportunity to really make the tune me own.

There are however, bow patterns like cross bowing and slurring, to name a few, that help create specific rhythms that you should also practice and incorporate into your playing. This practice isn’t intended to do away with those bowing techniques. It’s simply a way to get more comfortable with your instrument. This practice is a way for you to get so comfortable with your instrument that you can truly play what is in your heart.

Bowing is one of the most difficult aspects of playing the fiddle. This is just one way to begin to master it.

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