The Flexible Thumb or Loose as a Goose Wrist

Here's an experiment you can try to see the logic of keeping your bow thumb bent and loose.
Ask yourself these questions: Does your bow hand start to ache after a few minutes of playing the fiddle? Does your bow arm start to ache? Does your thumb cramp? Do your fingers hurt? Can you only play fiddle for a half hour before you have to set it down and take a break?
Go get your fiddle, pick up your bow and play a few notes. Stop. Take a look at your thumb - the one on the bow. Is it bent nicely at the knuckle or is it locked at the knuckle and straight?
Now go build a campfire. Get a good weenie (hot dog, for some of you - depending on where you're from.) You're gonna roast that weenie so you're going to have to find a decent stick for roasting it. You could use your bow, but you might need it later. Got the stick? No? Then pretend that your bow is the stick that you have found and pretend that you have built a campfire and pretend that you have just put a hotdog on the end of your "stick." Now hold it out over the campfire and pretend you are roasting it. Stop. Look at your thumb. Is your thumb nice and straight on the stick with its knuckle nicely locked? Good. Then, you are holding the stick nice and firm and you won't be dropping the hotdog into the ashes. Now bend your thumb. Did the stick flop down? Did you lose the hot dog? Well, you should have. You see, having your thumb bent is how you relax your hand and arm when holding a stick. It is great for the fiddle, bad for the hot dog.
When playing the fiddle with a straight thumb we are holding a stick the way we naturally hold a stick - with a good firm pressure on that stick whether it be for poking at something, lifting something or roasting something. Therefore, most beginners will naturally hold the bow this way. It will seem very unnatural to hold a fiddle bow any other way. As human beings we're just not used to it.
Here's how to hold a fiddle bow:
Hold up your right hand. Make a circle with your thumb and index finger. Pick up your bow in your left hand and gently hold it up. Touch the tip of your thumb to the notch at the frog of the bow. The tip of your index finger meets it from the other side. Notice that your index finger bends forward slightly and comes to rest on the stick. Now let all four fingers just hang over the bow. At this point if you let go of the bow with your left hand, the bow will flop down. Hold it up again. Place the tip of your baby finger on the tip of the bow - the bit you use for loosening and tightening the hair. Now let go with your left hand. The bow should stay straight out. The contact points of hand and bow are at the tip of the thumb, middle fleshy joint of the index finger, somewhere around the middle fleshy joints of the middle and ring fingers and tip of the baby finger. Check your thumb. Still bent? Good. The thumb works like a fine flexible hinge that opens, closes, opens, closes. Place your bow on the A or D string of your fiddle. Just let it rest there. Gently guide the bow across the strings. When playing with the thumb in this position you will notice that your thumb moves. Let it.
It can become very painful to try to hold the bow using the tips of the fingers and a locked thumb. For an immediate comparison, try it once more that way and you'll see what I mean. Straighten your thumb out, go back to the weenie roast hold, grip the bow with the tips of your fingers and draw the bow across the strings.
The key for a good bow hold is to relax. (I know what you're thinking here: Right! And how can I relax when I'm trying my hardest to play this fiddle that I just got!) The hand and arm are a marvelous arrangement of flexible hinges that allow us to naturally relax depending on how we bend them. It is not so much a mind-set as it is a physical technique. Try it. Be aware of it. If you feel your hand and arm tensing up, check your thumb, see that your fingers are properly flopped over the stick and just keep at it. Eventually, it will become second nature. You won't even have to think about it. And you'll be fiddling away for hours long after the food is gone and the coals from the campfire have faded.
This article was previously published in the newspaper of The National Oldtime Fiddler's Association
Copyright Beverley Conrad 2001 All Rights Reserved
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