Balancing the Bow Arm's Weight

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Confession time. I didn’t know what “arm weight” really meant in cello playing until I was...well, let’s say I was well past my student years.

It’s become accepted wisdom that we should avoid the words “pressure” and “force”when we talk about bowing, even though technically — in terms of the physics and mathematics of it — that’s what happens. The thinking is that the word “pressure” sounds tense, therefore we should say “arm weight,” which has a more neutral connotation of harnessing the body’s natural weight to get the job done.

…Which sounds great, as long as you understand what it feels like to do that. I wasn’t always a very physically self-aware person, and when my teachers used to say “More arm weight!” in response to my puny tone, I’d obediently do what I thought was applying more arm weight. In reality, I was forcing my shoulder up and my head forward, then wondering why I got so many neck-aches. Meanwhile, my arm’s weight was definitely not in the string — I was “holding” my bow-arm shape up, bicep tensed, which just isn’t a smart use of what Mother Nature has given us. Sometimes, when my performance anxiety was bad, I was so tense I could barely make a sound on my cello. After one competition (which I lost), one of the jury said to me “You have a problem with the C-string.” No kidding, I could barely make a sound on it.

In my teaching practice, I do agree we should choose our words carefully when talking about the human body. But we should also think about how the thing feels as well as how it looks and sounds. It’s easy to demonstrate to a student how a technique should look and sound, but very hard to demonstrate how it should feel. Especially in a concept like balancing your arm’s weight into the string through the bow. It might be natural, but it’s hardly intuitive to someone who hasn’t felt it before.

The following exercises help teach what arm weight feels like. The idea isn’t to use arm weight in the sense of having the arms slump down by the sides of the body. It’s to balance the arm weight, using the contact between bow and string as a kind of fulcrum.

The human arm is very heavy, around 5% or more of the body’s weight. In today’s first exercise, brought to you by the talented students in the University of Idaho cello program, the teacher takes a pencil by both ends and asks the student to hang her right-hand fingers off it. The teacher pulls up, asking the student to pull down. By “hanging” the bow hand off the pencil, the student understands how much arm weight is at her disposal. (Clue: it’s far more than you actually need!)

Next, the teacher asks a student to do the same thing with the bow. She lowers the student’s bow to the string, taking care to check that the student isn’t “lifting” the arm’s weight off the bow.

So where does the see-saw come into it?

Once the student understands how to feel their arm’s weight, the next step is applying it to cello playing.

In this video, the student places her bow on the string at the balance point...which after all is the best place to learn about balance. The contact point between string and bow is the fulcrum of the see-saw. The student places both her hands on the bow and makes a see-sawing motion that rocks back and forth across the cello strings. Both arms are completely “heavy” with relaxation as the see-saw goes up and down.

In the next video, the student takes away the left hand and does the see-saw exercise with just the bow arm, remembering how it felt to harness the arm’s weight.

If you add the see-saw to your daily practice regimen, you’ll be amazed at how much easier and more relaxing bowing becomes — and how much richer your tone sounds.