Tomatoes and Swimming Pools: Methods of “Touch” for the Bow Hand

Take a moment to recall what you did yesterday.

Now, think about your recollection. Chances are that the majority of it is visual, and out of what remains is probably aural. We have the five senses – what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell – but we tend to use some senses a lot more than others.

Our education system seems to reinforce these traits. Visual memorization cuts across the various school subjects, most clearly in historical facts, but also for mathematical formulae and carpentry, even the best chess moves and football strategies. In many cases, these are supported by aural skills: “Repeat after me, class.”

Teaching music seems to follow this system – we start young people on violins by putting little stickers on their instruments so that they can see where to put their fingers, and little stickers on their bows to keep tabs visually on where they are playing. And we hope that eventually they can connect what they see to what they hear – in other words the connection of visual and aural.

The problem with this is that we do not consciously teach young people to use their tactile sense – that is, their ability to feel or touch. This in my opinion is a fundamental setback for musical education, at least for string instruments. We see this in students’ reliance on their violin stickers to “tell” them whether they are playing in tune, and memorizing notes so that they can focus their visual attention on their fingers instead. Students who progress ahead of their peers often are those who instinctively apply their tactile abilities, using feel – and its connection to what they hear – to determine how they should readjust the bow or their fingers to produce sounds that are better in tune, with better tone quality.

Put another way, it is a risky assumption that an advancing student owes his/her success to having better hearing or visual memory (often just labeled as “talent”). Chances are that the student simply maximized the use of those senses, and decided to see which other senses could help propel him forward. Chances are also that that decision is more subconscious than conscious, which is what makes that “talent” so mysterious, and because of that, even more respected. And the subconscious and instinctive skill is that much harder to teach, and for a long time, students like this one end up as teachers who put stickers on students’ students’ violins and bows.

However, modern pedagogical approaches – particularly that of multiple intelligences – help point us in clearer paths. Here are just some ways that the tactile sense in particular can be used to allow students the full use of their sensory abilities.

1. Challenge a student to bow to the very tip, the very end of the horsehair. Then see how close the student can repeat it with his eyes closed. If the student is unable to instinctively achieve the same result, ask him to open his eyes and bow again, this time being sensitive to the speed of the bow, and trying to use the whole bow at varying speeds.

2. In order to focus attention on one particular finger, dip it in a glass of warm or cold water.

3. A common problem is putting too much pressure on the bow hold – understandable because we hold the bow at the end and not the middle, meaning that there’s a lot of pressure on the little finger. We usually react by tightening the bow hold, and after a while we get used to keeping all that additional pressure. For a long time I have advocated a rather unconventional way of being sensitive to the amount of pressure on the bow – by using tomatoes. Student Ian Lim is the first to actively take up the offer:

The Tomato Bow Hold
The student is asked to intentionally grip his bow tightly – so that a stark contrast can be made to what he’s about to do: quickly grab, with the lightest touch, the tomato, and replace it to the table without leaving a mark on the fruit*. Then he is asked to hold the bow again, with the same kind of light touch.

4. Encourage students to try out an exercise the next time they are in a swimming pool. A bow hand at complete rest (meaning totally at ease), when pushed through water will form a perfect bow hold. Pushed both left and right (meaning only the arm is active but the wrist and fingers at ease), will provide an ideal example of wrist activity in using the bow.

5. Ask a student to grasp a pen in the style of a bowhold tightly. Then to release very very gradually, saying “NOW” when he thinks the pen will drop – my experience with students is that they will be surprised that the pen has a few seconds left of additional pressure. These few seconds translates into additional pressure they did not know they had on the bow.

*Yes, it’s a fruit. Which happens to be used as a vegetable.

11 responses

9 07 2009

Very interesting approach to rediscovering your instrument. IMHO, “Visual memorization” as you put it; proves to be the fastest method to learn almost any instrument. A hit & run teacher would probably leave your approach to the later parts of his/her class. Maybe 5 years later 😀

9 07 2009

Thanks for your comments. Marvin – I forgot to mention an easy in-between way suggested by violinist Mark Ostyn: instead of stickers, use little dots of liquid paper right down the centre of the instrument. They’re small so kids have to balance of tactile with visual, plus it tends to disappear on its own – a gradual shift to feel.

9 07 2009
Joshua Tang

Hey Andrew! How r u doing man? Thats a very interesting post i must say..haha connecting bow hold with tomatos…maybe we can try bow on the tomato and see if that leaves any mark..hmm…anyways hows ur application for ur phD in Victoria Uni?? Hope to hear from u soon its been a while!

9 07 2009

Hey there Joshua! Actually the idea came from watching an old Oral B toothbrush commercial which used tomatoes as a comparison to gums (i.e. the Oral B toothbrush was gentler on the tomatoes).

Will be starting at Victoria March 2010! Will be in touch on Facebook, cheers.

8 02 2012


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