Breathing & Bow Technique - Piecing The Elements Together

Putting It Together - Breathing & Bow Stroke

By Rozanna Weinberger

In previous blogs we have discussed components to a natural, more intuitive approach to violin & viola technique. Practice often entails a process of learning to become aware of physical experiences while playing. This blog entry will focus on micro observations related to how we breath and its impact on how we utilize the bow arm & back.  So here is a run down of fundamental observations along with learning to incorporate breathing in a manner that helps the player open the shoulder, torso, arm & back. 

Breathing - The Starting Point of All Things

For starters lets observe our breathing and discover what we tend to do with our breath. 

    1. Sitting comfortably in a chair one may observe the up & down movements of the chest and stomach as air goes in & out of the lungs. By placing the hands gently on stomach and chest, its possible to observe the ways these parts of our body responds to our breathing. Does it impact our shoulders in any way? When exhaling do the shoulders remain as they are or do they seem to relax down or forward in some manner?  In elderly people its quite common to see shoulders that tend to slope forward. Thanks to the impact of gravity this is a common occurrence. 
    2. Next place the hands above the chest area below the collar bone and observe the up & down movements in the upper body as one breaths in and out.
    3. This time place the hands along the sides of the upper body when inhaling.  Imagine its possible to expand the upper body outward, as if making as much space as possible in the torso as possible. Feel the breath opening the expanse of ones chest, sides and upper back.  Is there a way to expand the chest area as if the breath were opening out our torso, making it as wide and expanded as possible? Notice how the upper body contracts back inward as exhalation occurs. When breathing in this manner, is there a different impact on the shoulders?  Do they tend to slope downwards as in step 1 breathing or do the shoulders tend to open out more to the sides.
    4. Repeat step 2 but during the exhalation see if its possible to keep the rib cage expanded while allowing the exhalation to occur. Does anything change in the shoulders or rest of the body? Does anything change in the feeling of the shoulders, neck or other parts of the body?

As the chest opens out, so the shoulder follows, making possible a tendency for the shoulder & arm to relax back rather than pronate forward  in a sloping manner that encourages vertical force and pressure to produce  sound. The opposite of this tendency is ‘passive arm weight’ that is possible when the muscles are used efficiently without overusing unnecessary muscles. The difference between vertical force and a more horizontal feel utilizing arm weight combined with bow speed is a key difference between the more 'natural technique' espoused by modern teachers compared to Russian technique, Galamian technique among others. There are fantastic players who incorporate different approaches including the above mentioned from what is considered a more 'natural' approach of course.  The question is whether the player is experiencing pain during practice or performance or whether technique feels excessively challenging. These are the reasons that a player may choose to find a more natural approach to technique. 

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The starting point in natural and efficient playing may be influenced by the most basic aspect of being alive - that of breathing, breathing awareness, and discovering how expanding our breathing awareness impacts technique because it impacts how we use our bodies, what we relax and what we hold tensely in our posture.  While many players are primarily utilizing the kind of breathing that entails a kind of vertical up & downward movement in the chest area, this kind of breathing may also facilitate a bow arm that primarily utilizes the arm itself in ones technique combined with vertical force. In contrast it's possible to expand the chest & upper body when playing thus facilitating the opening out of the shoulder and use of larger back muscles. 

Utilizing the back is often the rallying call of teachers that try to approach playing and technique more organically, but may need to also point out that utilizing the back muscles are reliant upon expanding the chest area thus allowing the shoulder to open out as well. This openness makes way the use of the back muscles under the scapula to initiate movement rather than a reliance on the shoulder as a fulcrum.

William Primrose was an ideal example of an open, natural looking bow arm.

Learning to expand the ribcage when breathing also effects the right shoulder and the ability to open out the shoulder area. The back, shoulder and breathing are all inseparable in the scheme of things.  It is also worth noting if it feels like theres a tendency to collapse the shoulders inward.  This is actually typical of most people as the body begins to make less than efficient responses to the daily effects of gravity on ones body.

Utilizing the Shoulder Like a Hinge

Many players are encouraged to keep the shoulder and upper arm relatively stationary.  Players of course want to make a bow stroke that remains parallel to the bridge naturally and in this aim are encouraged to keep the upper arm relatively stable. . But the truth is its still possible to maintain a proper bow stroke thats parallel to the bridge while opening out the shoulder like a hinge in the bow arm when playing from the frog to approximately the first 1/3rd of the bow. 

1. While playing a down bow from the frog to the middle, imagine theres something behind you that must be shoved away with the right elbow. 

2. The hinge at the shoulder, which is normally kept static, is now able to open at the pectoral region. FYI the pectorals are also typically unnecessarily tightened as a result of excessive control attempted in the shoulder and upper arm. 

To understand the extent to which the upper body is used in the bow stroke, as an experiment try playing from the frog to as far as possible moving nothing but the torso to do so. By turning the torso upper chest area towards the left, its possible to draw the bow without actually moving the arm. While the arm is of course used in a bow stroke, discovering the extent to which the bow arm can actually be powered by the torso and even the hips, is an invaluable discovery on the journey to liberating ones playing. 

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