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The Physiology of Bowing.

Under the title, “The Physiology of Bowing,” Dr. F. A.    Steinhausen, a German physician, has published a book which should be peculiarly interesting to all violinists. It is unfortunate, however, that the book is published in the German language, for the majority of our readers are doubtless unfamiliar with German, or they are probably not sufficiently familiar with it to grasp the more or less complicated sentences employed, as a rule, by a German of a scientific mind. Indeed, it is to be regretted, on general principles, that Dr. Steinhausen’s manner of expression and general style are what may be termed old fashioned. His sentences are needlessly long, their structure is complicated; and throughout his whole book one looks in vain for the more simple and lucid language employed by scientific German writers of the present day. Dr. Steinhausen maintains that few teachers or players are familiar with the physiologic truths of bowing; and the facts and ideas which he presents in his “Physiology of Bowing” are intended to prove that (1) the belief that all skill with the bow depends chiefly or solely on a loose wrist is a widespread fallacy, and that (2) far greater skill would result from a thorough knowledge of the anatomy of the arm and an understanding of the physiologic side of correct bowing.

We are probably correct in assuming that Dr. Steinhausen does not mean that every boy or girl studying the violin should make a careful study of the technical questions which he discusses. His protest refers, in all probability, to the ignorance existing among prominent teachers, authors, and so-called authorities on a subject of such vital importance to every student of the violin. He maintains, and quite correctly, that, if the teacher has no actual knowledge of the physiologic truths of bowing, he is unable to guide his pupils in the right direction, and that, as a consequence of this ignorance on the part of the teacher, the pupil’s accomplishments depend upon guesswork and chance. And that the whole structure of good bowing does not rest on a “loose wrist,” as most so-called authorities affirm and believe, is simple for Dr. Steinhausen to prove, though it may not be equally simple for all his readers to understand.

Before entering upon the purely technical side of the question, Dr. Steinhausen offers his readers the most logical, convincing evidence that the widest disagreement exists among prominent authors and teachers on most questions appertaining to bowing, and that our accepted authorities of the past and present have groped in the dark in their effort to teach the correct principles of good bowing. It is a translation of this portion of Dr. Steinhausen’s work which we herewith present to our readers. We regret the infeasibility of reproducing the entire work, but we promise to acquaint our readers with other interesting sections of “The Physiology of Bowing” in future issues of The Etude.

“That no actual knowledge of the mechanism of bowing exists,” says Dr. Steinhausen, “is easily proven by a perusal of the literature existing on this subject. It is natural that practical illustration—that is, the knowledge personally imparted by the teacher—is preferable to, and more advantageous than, even the most lucid theoretic treatise. But if it is reasonable to assume that knowledge of a subject is reflected in existing literature treating of such a subject, we must not refuse to recognize the strange inconsistencies existing between theory and practice in all that appertains to bowing.

“Among violin methods, Spohr’s work stands prominently at the head of the list.1 It is generally maintained, it is true, that this method has not achieved results comparable with the results of Spohr’s personal influence and teachings. But it is an indisputable fact that, despite this master’s fine powers of observation, the truth escaped him, though he seems to have had a faint glimmer of the natural laws that govern the axis and activities of the wrist. He emphasizes the importance of ‘drawing the bow to and fro with the thumb and the second finger’; he insists on the independent action of the fingers; teaches a ‘change of grip’ (Griffwechsel) as the fundamental movement; and correctly estimates the importance of the wrist as a secondary matter.

“It is quite characteristic that this close relation between change of grip and the whole art of bowing has remained neglected, despite its obvious possibilities of development. Spohr’s correct conclusion is almost forgotten; and it seems to me that the wholly unnatural views of Courvoisier are, in a great measure, responsible for this. Spohr’s ideas of the manipulation of the bow and the general position of the hand may differ from strictly modern ideas on the subject, but Courvoisier goes so far as positively to declare these ideas erroneous and to condemn them. Surely the principles taught by David and Sitt are less clear and definite than Spohr’s, and the same may be said of more modern authors, such as Wassmann and Jockisch… .

“Every well-trained violinist and ‘cellist of the present day draws the bow more or less correctly despite all the false theories existing on the subject. Indeed, to do otherwise is practically an impossibility. No one, however, cares to account for such inconsistencies. The time and strength wasted by every player in struggling through all the false theories before arriving at the truth” seem incredible. Spohr was certainly correctly guided by the feeling that there should be freedom of movement between the fingers and the bow.”

After strongly condemning Courvoisier’s whole scheme of bowing, and expressing the greatest astonishment that this author’s ideas have been accepted on all sides, or, at least, that they have remained unchallenged, Dr. Steinhausen lays before his readers the following interesting facts:—

“There seems to be general agreement that all the fingers are employed in drawing the bow. No one seriously believes that the fourth finger takes no part in the act of manipulating and controlling the bow. As the question, however, of how close together, or far apart, the fingers should be placed on the bow, there is absolutely no agreement. Some maintain that the fingers should be pressed firmly together, permitting not the slightest intervening space between them; others, again, that they should touch one another but lightly. Spohr assures us that even the tips of the fingers must be pressed firmly together.

“As regards the application of strength in holding the bow, no two opinions can be found to agree. Campagnoli tells us that the bow must not be grasped too tightly; that, indeed, it should be held quite lightly; Courvoisier maintains that it must be grasped so firmly that the position of the hand, once assumed, cannot be disturbed. Jockisch, on the contrary, says that the bow should be held loosely enough to enable the hand and arm to yield to the requirements of all long strokes. According to Dancla, all the fingers should press the bow with an equal degree of strength; whereas Hohmann-Heim insists (quite correctly) that each finger has its own peculiar functions and duties. But even in this latter ‘School’ we find the inconsistent injunction that ‘the position of the fingers must remain unchanged.’ Kummer and Lee tell us that the position of the second and third fingers and the thumb must not be changed, but that the first and fourth fingers should be allowed freedom of action.

The Position of the First and Fourth Fingers.

“According to Dancla, the bow should be grasped at the first finger joint, whereas Leopold Mozart permits a choice between the first and second joints.

David teaches that the first finger must clasp the bow at the second joint, and that, in the down stroke, it should gradually be more inclined toward the stick. Spohr says the bow should rest in the hollow of the first joint, but that it should approach the second joint in the down stroke. Casorti confines finger pressure to the first digit, and limits this pressure to the down stroke. Jockisch advocates a change of position for the first finger during the stroke; that is, from the first to the second joint. In direct opposition to this, Courvoisier asserts that the position of the first finger must be definite and unfluctuating. Rode, Kreutzer, and Baillot vaguely declare that all the fingers should be so placed that they are neither outstretched nor twined about the bow. Bewildered by such conflicting opinions, the player must surely wonder whether there are any possible positions left for the fingers to assume!

“Similar conflicting opinions are expressed regarding the utility of the fourth finger. If we are to believe Kross, the little finger is a sort of regulator; if we accept the convictions of Casorti, Hohmann-Heim, and Sitt, it carries the bow to and fro, is easily capable of lifting it from the strings, and, for this latter reason, more especially, should always remain on the stick. Courvoisier maintains that, when playing at the middle or the upper part of the bow, the fourth finger is a superfluous digit, and that its usefulness is limited to a certain degree of control in the maintenance of the general position of the hand. Singer and Seifriz, however, inform us that it is absolutely natural to raise the fourth finger in the down stroke, but add that its immediate return to the bow is imperative. Strange to say, they do not tell us anything definite or comprehensible regarding the precise moment when the fourth finger should again rest on the bow. Hohmann-Heim insists that the fingers must not shift about on the bow, whereas Jockisch assures us that all the fingers, and more especially the fourth, may change their position.

The Position of the Thumb.

“All authors, with the exception of Baillot, agree that the thumb should assume a bent position, but Baillot’s injunction is to avoid this very position. Some insist that the tip of the thumb be placed directly opposite the second finger, others declare that its best position is opposite (between) the second and third fingers. Singer and Seifriz lay stress on the inadvisability of pressing the thumb firmly against the bow, on the ground that such pressure unnecessarily taxes the hand; but Dancla assures us that the player’s strength depends upon this very pressure. Hiebsch seems to be of the opinion that the thumb and the first finger play a sort of antagonistic part against each other; that the pressure of the thumb unbalances the stroke in every attempt to play softly at the heel of the bow; that a diminuendo in the up stroke requires increased pressure of the thumb and a yielding of the first finger; that the contrary is the case when playing crescendo in the down stroke; and that additional pressure of the thumb is imperative in every change of stroke.

“Courvoisier is the only author who maintains that the nail of the thumb must constantly remain pressed against the metal band which encircles the hair; but such an opinion is obviously a part of his theory that the position of the hand must be inflexible.

The Wrist.

“It has already been pointed out that the functions and activities of the wrist have been given the utmost prominence by all writers on the subject. Indeed, the wrist is narrowly regarded as the predominating factor in bowing, with the result that little or no importance is attached to the other joints and members of the arm. In a word, the entire mechanism of good bowing, according to general opinion, depends upon flexibility of the wrist. As a natural consequence of such opinion, there is no agreement among the authors respecting the wrist’s co-operative work. Beriot, for instance, declares that the forearm must invariably remain in a straight line with the wrist, even when playing at the point of the bow—an attitude which manifestly precludes the possibility of more than the slightest degree of co-operation of the wrist. According to Kross, only the wrist should be used in bowing, and no other part of the arm should be sympathetically active. Meertz believes it impossible for the arm to do excellent work. Courvoisier says that the transverse axis of the wrist must be in a parallel position with the bow. He does not seem to know that this is a physical impossibility when drawing the entire length of the bow. Kreutzer, Rode, and Baillot demand a similar impossibility in requiring that the hand be in identically the same position at the beginning and the end of the stroke.

“The wrist must remain in a ‘natural’ position, according to Singer and Seifriz, but in a ‘more upward’ than ‘downward’; while David tells us that, when playing at the heel of the bow, the wrist should not be raised too greatly. How is it possible, we ask, to understand such vague injunctions? …

Sevcik has written hundreds of studies intended to develop flexibility of the wrist. His absorption in the one idea that everything depends upon the wrist is a striking illustration of the prevailing ignorance of the fundamental principles of bowing.”


[1] If Dr. Steinhausen’s estimate of Spohr’s work is based on its musical interest and worth, we heartily agree with him; but every intelligent violinist surely knows that this famous method is of practically no value to the beginner.—G. L.


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