By Rozanna Weinberger
Playing at the frog is probably one of the biggest challenges for the beginner. When asked to play whole bows, beginners tend to use only a part of the bow, which might best be characterized as the middle third of the bow, not too close to the frog or the tip. Mastering the tip and the frog require fine tuned execution. This is perhaps because most of us don’t have cause to cultivate balance in the fingers in practical daily use. It is in the refined skill of the bow stroke that the player strives to acquire, where the hand adjusts to the weight and feel of the stick from frog to middle to tip, that the hand learns to adjust to subtle changes. Indeed there are a handful (pun intended) of players deemed ‘natural’ who’s talent is such that they intuitively understand the difference between stiffly grabbing on for dear life and the more flexible approach of balance in the hand.
A basic understanding of this concept can be observed with this simple action. Take a pencil in the right hand. Note how the fingers drape over the pencil as the thumb naturally creates the counter to the fingers. With the left hand, gently push and pull the pencil, observing how the fingers react. It may be noted that the fingers react to what the push & pull of the pencil. The fingers are reacting to the pencil rather than initiating movement. In much the same way, the hairs of a paint brush passively responding to the movement of the artist moving the brush. The hairs of the brush react. It is the same with the artist who plays a bow. The fingers become the bristles of the artists brush.
Students tend to favor the middle of the bow and if asked to play a whole bow generally tend to avoid going all the way to the frog because it feels so awkward. The problem is to play all the way to the frog on an up bow its essential the student develop a flexibility in the right hand that must be cultivated through balance and awareness.A smooth bow change at the frog is the hallmark of a player with finesse which is why it can take years to really master if not addressed from the start of ones technical work.
Many players get around this problem with a bow technique that favors primarily using the index finger as the point where pressure is applied. (See photo below.) This ultimately creates a false sense of security. While it may be a partial solution, unless the player can fully explore and make use of the pinky and transfer of balance and weight in the fingers, there will always be a certain amount of awkwardness at the frog due to the limitations of using the index finger as the primary point where pressure is applied. The vertical pressure of the index finger can also crush the tone of instrument and cause player to have scratchy sound. But mastering the frog will also eventually lead to comfort playing chords with ease, which otherwise present a major challenge for players.
There are a number of things that need to be working together at the same time to play at the frog and staying on top of all these factors can be a bit overwhelming for the beginner. For the pinky to absorb the weight of the arm as one approaches the frog, the thumb needs to be working in tandem.
The thumb must also be in just the perfect place so it has sufficient flexibility to bend as the player approaches the frog. This is generally considered to include 2 primary points of contact with the bow. They include the fatty pad that is approximately a quarter inch below the nail as well as the inner side of the thumb adjacent to the nail. The primary points of contact on the bow include the curved corner underneath the stick and the under side of the bow to the right of the leather wrapping. See figure.
In addition, the joints of the thumb must not be locked or hyper extended.
Then comes the wrist. This joint also reacts like a shock absorber to the weight coming from the back and dropping of shoulder/arm. curl as one comes close. If the wrist does not sufficiently ‘react’ to this weight, it will be impossible for the fingers to do so. Reacting to this weight rather than collapsing the wrist altogether takes time to master.
Try curling and straightening the fingers of the right hand. Notice how the thumb tends to either remain slightly bent or bends along with the fingerers. Next try curling the fingers but make the thumb straight or even hyper extended. Note the tension this causes in the hand as well as how movement becomes much more restricted. It may be surprising to note that most beginners tend to approach the frog with a straight or even hyperextended thumb. Becoming sensitized to this tendency is the first step to changing it. Noting the easy curling and straightening of the fingers without a bow in the hand, can provide a reference point to what is possible with a bow!
While there may be no magic solution or easy way around the challenge of developing the bow hand, learning to reference what comes most naturally to the body can also be a clue as to what needs to happen when playing. If the player can begin to differentiate between stiffness and flexibility, they are on the right track!