Stuttering Bow

Leslie said: Dec 12, 2012
Leslie ThackerayInstitute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Taylorsville, UT
26 posts

I have an adult violin student who has a really hard time getting a clear tone. Her bow “stutters” like it’s shaking on the string. Any ideas why this is happening? It never happens with the kids but it’s driving her crazy. I don’t know if she’s nervous and shaking a bit when she plays. It seems like she needs to relax and put more weight in the bow, but we’ve tried that and it still stutters. Anyone have this problem? Any ideas?

Leslie Thackeray
Make Practicing Fun!

Jennifer Visick said: Dec 12, 2012
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

I’ve encountered this problem with some adult students too. It does seem that the solution is to relax! I’ve tried doing whole lessons on stance, balance, relaxation, focusing on feet, knees, hips, lower & upper back, shoulders, neck, & head placement—which does seem to help the arms to relax a bit.

Another thought—have you tried the student’s bow yourself? Maybe there is a better bow (different weight or balance point) out there that the student can afford. Lend the student your own better bow during a lesson & see if that changes anything… also check the tenstion & see if loosening or tightening it significantly helps. Or … over-loosen their bow on purpose and get them to try to let it be smooth… then perhaps doing it on regularly tightened bow hair will seem easier?

I try to get adult students to “let” the bow do the work it was designed for: they like to over-control it sometimes. Also, maybe long-bow or long-note exercises are appropriate—the problem may be spotlighted and worked on, not to perfection, but improved, so that when going back to “normal” playing it is less obvious.

Or, perhaps teaching bounce, brush, or off the string bow strokes in combination with working on longer legato strokes will help the student’s muscles feel that different kinds of control have to happen on different kinds of bow strokes. After all, the bow wants to bounce—natural off the string bow strokes are actually easier than sustained notes.

Maybe some of the exercises from Simon Fischer’s “Basics” will help: choose 3 or 4 that seem appropriate, and systematically assign them & hear them one per week, or one per every two weeks, or however you think is a good pace.

Also, is the bow & instrument tilted or angled appropriately, so the student isn’t unnecessarily fighting gravity in order to keep an appropriate contact point?

Paula Bird said: Dec 12, 2012
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Viola
Wimberley, TX
386 posts

Does the bow stutter for you? Sometimes the bow quality is not very good.

Paula E. Bird
TX State University
Wildflower Suzuki Studio (blog) (podcast)

André said: Dec 12, 2012
André AugensteinViolin, Piano
55 posts

It is necessary exercises with the bow on the strings without using the fingers of the left hand.
i have helped

Violin Student(International Suzuki Association) in Germany 1987
Violin teacher (International Suzuki Association) in Dublin 1995

Wendy Caron Zohar said: Dec 12, 2012
Wendy Caron Zohar
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Ann Arbor, MI
94 posts


It is only with adult beginner students that I often find this same scratchy, stuttering, tremulous bow that you describe. Young children don’t seem to have this problem; their joints work smoothly. The problems set in as the body ages. Older adults have trouble with tendons, joints and muscles that have grown stiff and locked. If the joints do not flex smoothly in a flowing motion, the bow will reflect even infinitesimal amounts of stiffness in the elbow, shoulder, wrist, fingers, and torso. The sound provides immediate biofeedback to locate the stiffness. A student suffering from stiffness will sound this way even with the highest quality bow. (Likewise, even a cheap $5 bow can be made to sound optimally if the bow arm is steady, supports the sound, and moves correctly.)

Giving the student the command to relax does not do the trick, nor does the instruction to flow smoothly. They need to physically relearn how to open and free up the back and all the joints. It is a process something like physical or occupational therapy. Some of my adult students have fingers which are starting to show signs of swollen, arthritic joints. They may have early bursitis in the shoulders and elbows which fail to flex. I have to be gentle and careful about what to ask of them, and what to expect, but they claim at the end of their lessons that it is more effective than all the PT they’ve ever had.

Following are abstracts of some of the actions that seem to help reclaim freedom of motion and awareness in the necessary joints and muscles, which are useful for all students, and particularly helpful for older adults who suffer from stiffness.
- We draw large circles in the air with the right hand, keeping the shoulder low, first counter clockwise, then clockwise, feeling the hand passing through the 12 numbers on the face of the clock. The elbow should be free and loose, the fingers and wrist relaxed. -Then let the clock become a giant Ferris Wheel, and the hand follows the motion of a carriage on the wheel, freely swinging as it hangs, moving and swaying at each stop. (this would be best shown in a video demonstration; one day i shall post it!)
- Helicopter motion (a Paul Rolland concept): let the hand become like a helicopter aloft, which takes off from the side of the body, follows a trajectory orthogonal to the strings, and lands at the frog and takes off; likewise for each string. Feel the lightness and ease in the bow and feel balance and flow in the arm, and openness in the back and shoulder.
- Helicopter strokes: Land at the frog with rounded fingers & thumb, and flow straight to the point and return to frog and take off like a helicopter. Also single direction helicopter strokes. Also circles at the frog, down and up bow circles. Roundness of motion.
- After making circles that touch the string along the bottom of the clock (7-6-5-4 o’clock) and in reverse, we then have the bow hand describe just the bottom arc of the circle, like a bowl. In the air it swings back, so that there are no sharp ends to the motion but rather a loopy figure 8.
- Only after much of this loosening and reclaiming arm motion, and watching for loose, available joints, do we try to make straight, open bows on the string. It takes months of this kind of work to get the gurgles worked out of the bow arm and the elbow free of tension. Eventually they can hear the openness of the sound of open strings, and learn to find that pure sound each time in their practicing.

The wrist and fingers may take more time as that demands a more refined motion of smaller joints and needs other exercises. I can’t really post all of that here but write to me if you would like more details.

I hope you find this useful. Try it, and let me know if this works for your student, or if you have questions about how to teach and do these exercises. Breathe, relax, and enjoy! and good luck!

Wendy Z.

Wendy Caron Zohar

Sue Hunt said: Dec 13, 2012
Sue Hunt
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
389 posts

Stuttering is very obvious when you try to control a down bow stroke. The more you try to take charge, the worse it gets.

You have at your disposal two splendid tools to help, the instrument and the force of gravity.

-1 Get someone to hold your hand at chest level and then suddenly let go. Your hand should drop loosely to your side. Feel the release at the top of the biceps, when this happens. If it doesn’t, you are working too hard at holding it up.

-2 With violin and bow, stop trying to carry the whole weight of the bow in your hand. Give it to the instrument and let go of those tight muscles in the upper arm. Because the bow is an extension of your arm, the violin will be holding your arm weight too. Let it take the weight.

-3 Let gravity do all the work on the down bow stroke. The friction of the bow hair on the string will stop things from getting out of hand.

Barb said: Dec 13, 2012
Barb Ennis
Suzuki Association Member
678 posts

Wendy and Sue—thank you for your helps with this! I teach a few older adults. Wendy, I would love more on wrist and fingers!

Music Teachers Helper—for individual teachers
Studio Helper—for entire music studios or schools

Andrea Hudson said: Dec 14, 2012
Andrea Hudson
Suzuki Association Member
26 posts

Me too!

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