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Spela Bättre! #2

The right hand & bow

by Matt Fichtenbaum

My first article emphasized the left hand’s role in playing nyckelharpa, so it seems only fair for this article to discuss the right hand and the bow.

Although the bow is only a simple object – a mere stick with some horsehair attached – there are many dimensions to its use and many ways it affects the music you make. In fact, exploring the possibilities of the bow can be a lifetime pursuit, but there are some good places to start.

Preparing the bow

The bow hair should be neither very loose nor absurdly tight. Halfway between these scientifically specified extremes is a good way to start. You can experiment with different bow tension and its effect on feel and sound.

Bows need rosin, in moderation. A bow with too little rosin skids across the string without grabbing. The rosin on the bow eventually transfers to the strings and the surface of the instrument. Strings don’t need rosin: accumulated rosin on a string changes its tone in a not pleasing way. Clean the rosin from the string with a cloth, and, for the continued congeniality of those around you, lightly rest a finger on the string when you clean it, to damp out the screeching that would otherwise occur.

The feel of it all

Bowing a nyckelharpa is a physical activity. It uses “motor skills” – muscles acting in a coordinated fashion, doing the right things at the right times in several dimensions. Walking, for example, is another physical activity. I’ll wager that few of you learned to walk by reading a set of directions. Instead, you tried, and stumbled, and learned what the movements feel like, and eventually became able to do a truly good job of walking, even without conscious attention to every movement. Bowing is like that, too, which means

  1. The more you practice, the more natural, easier, and less conscious it becomes.
  2. In order to learn it, your relevant parts – your arm, wrist, hand, and fingers – need to learn what it feels like when done right. There’s no way you’ll learn how it feels from reading this article; at best, you might get some guidelines with which to experiment.

Then, when something goes right, you can say “Aha! That’s how feels!” and try to recreate that feeling.

Holding the bow

The shortcut to holding the bow is to have someone show you whose playing you admire. Lacking the near presence of such a person, you can read the following, which describes what I think I do when I hold the bow.

  1. Make a circle with the thumb and middle finger, so that the thumb’s tip touches the middle finger at the first (outermost) knuckle. Both thumb and finger should be relaxed, which means naturally bent (yes, it’s difficult to make a circle without bending your fingers).
  2. Separate the thumb and finger just enough to fit the bow stick between them. The tip of the thumb should touch both the bow stick and the end of the frog, and the bow hair should rest lightly against the top of your thumb.
  3. Let the other fingers drape over the stick, relaxed and natural. Their function, when you play, is to control the bow’s angle and thus its pressure on the string, so their position will adjust to do this.

Most treatises on bowing, usually in violin books, tell you that the bow is always pulled, never pushed. For me, that didn’t mean much until I could translate it into what it felt like; what it feels like for me is that I hold the bow so lightly that I can feel when it pushes back, that I apply bow pressure not by gripping the bow tightly, but with my index finger on the stick. It is important that the fingers be no tenser than necessary. Make sure the thumb is gently bent.

Moving the bow

You’re standing (or sitting) there with your nyckelharpa. Your right upper arm is leaning on the tailpiece holding the instrument and, incidentally, fixing your elbow in position. If you move your arm, your hand naturally traces a circular path.

But the bow should move up and down in a straight line, at a right angle to the string. You can’t do that if your wrist is rigid, for it’s the wrist’s job to keep the bow straight (i.e., approximately vertical) despite the arm’s motion. The combination of movements that do this doesn’t always come naturally. It’s a basic element of playing, though, and it’s worth practice.

The bow should touch the string you’re playing about halfway between the bridge and the end of the keybox. An excellent way to practice moving the bow in a straight line and keeping it at the proper place on the string is to play in front of a mirror. Find a comfortable playing position, then watch your bow as you play. Play open strings as a start: without worrying about what the left hand is doing, you’ll have more concentration available to watch the bow.

Most people play with the bow leaning (rotated along its axis) away from the bridge. This gives you better control of the hair’s force against the string, and helps keep the bow from bouncing.

Moving from string to string

Of the nyckelharpa’s four strings, you play one at a time or, occasionally, two. To move from one string to another, your arm changes its position and your wrist and hand change the angle of the bow. This is easier than it sounds, and becomes one uniform set of motions rather than individual conscious actions. You can practice this while you’re making the bow go straight, too. Move from string to string and learn where the bow should be to play only that string and not its neighbors.

Articulating notes with the bow

Many Swedish fiddlers and nyckelharpa players play with very light bow force but apply extra force (from the right hand’s fingers) at the beginning of each note. This gives a light, singing tone and accents the rhythm; it also helps with string crossings – notes on different strings played with the same bow stroke.

The muscle skills to do this are subtle and take some development. If you’re relatively new to bowed instruments, they’ll take some time. Don’t worry too much about it, but experiment with bow force, how it affects the sound you make, and how you can use extra force to mark the start of each note.

Bowing patterns

It is with the bow that you play the rhythm of a tune, thereby lifting up the dancers and moving them around the floor. Playing fluidly and rhythmically makes the difference between a tune and a random bunch of notes. Slurring – playing multiple notes on the same bow stroke – is a powerful tool for rhythmic expression, based on when the slurs occur and which notes are slurred.

Bowing Patterns
(Click on the Music to download a PDF version)

There are some basic bowing patterns in Swedish music. We’ll look here at two of the most common. The polska bowing turns up in eighth-note polskas: hambo, Uppland (Viksta) bondpolska, Boda polska, to name a few. The bow “dances” in time to the music: down-stroke on beat 1, up-stroke on beat 2, down and then up on beat 3. The fragment of the common tune Tierpspolska illustrates this. Of course, some measures of some eighth-note polska tunes don’t fit this pattern – maybe there are too few distinct notes for all those bow strokes – so you won’t use it 100% consistently. Still, you should be able to play it without thinking about it, to use it as the base pattern that you’ll vary as the notes of the tune warrant.

(On the musical examples, a curved line extending over two or more notes is a slur, indicating that those notes are played with the same bow stroke. The square symbol above a note denotes the bow frog and indicates the note should be played with a stroke that starts at the frog, i.e., a down bow; the “V” symbol above a note denotes the bow tip and means an up bow. And the funny dots and lines are musical notation describing the tune.)

The second common bow figure applies to a group of four sixteenth notes, a pattern common to sixteenth-note polskas (southern slängpolska, some Hälsingland polskas), schottisches, walking tunes, but found in other tune types as well. This bowing slurs the first two notes, then plays the last two with individual strokes. The example phrases, of the common walking tune Gärdebylåten and the sixteenth-note polska Byggnan, show this.

Other bowing patterns exist and are used. There are even other common ways to play the example phrases. But the two discussed here are worth knowing, to the extent that you can automatically play an eighth-note polska with the polska bowing, or automatically play a group of four sixteenths as two slurred, two separate. Then you can apply your concentration to higher-level issues.

Hints for practicing

Every aspect of nyckelharpa technique is suitable for practice: bowing, bow patterns, scales, arpeggios, string changes, double stops, and so on. If you’re like me, exercises wear thin after a while. But all of these are used in making music, so it’s only logical that you can practice technique by choosing some tunes that exercise the relevant skills. If you’re practicing polska bowing, play every eighth-note polska you know with consistent bowing.

For string crossings, take applicable phrases and slow them down and play them over and over (the second and third parts of Spelmansglädje, for example).

For left-hand position shifts, choose a tune that gives you trouble and spend a half hour with the intent of learning it rather than just playing it.

In future columns

There’s a lot more left to cover. Trills and other ornaments. Choosing, playing, and articulating double stops. Left-hand technique for position changes. Tunes that sound difficult but aren’t so bad. Tunes that sound simple but are difficult. We shall see where this all leads.

On to the next article (#3)