Lesson #3 Bowing Techniques

What is the right bow hold and bowing techniques?  While there are many opinions on bowing techniques, these are the ones I’ve found work best.  You’ll need to experiment and find what’s best for you.


Hold the bow firmly, but not too tight.  The bow should not wobble or tilt back and forth while you’re playing.  Try holding the bow near the end, with your thumb and little finger on one side, and index, middle and ring on the other - this is a very natural relaxed hold that will stabilize the bow and allow a greater dynamic range.  With a little practice you’ll find this hold is extremely natural and comfortable, gives better use of the bow length and allows for greater overall control of the bow.



Try to keep the bow about a 90 degree angle to the strings – this will greatly improve accuracy as you play faster tunes.  Move gently from one note to another by simply moving your hand closer or further from you without tilting the bow.   While it might take a little getting used to, you’ll find you have much better control and begin to feel the distance between notes on your psaltery.   Each builder uses the spacing he/she believes makes the best tones and ease of playing.  Spacing is not necessarily the same on all psalteries.  The spacing (distance between notes) on your instrument will become almost second nature to you once you’ve played the instrument for a while.



Holding the psaltery on a slight angle (about 30 degrees) with the natural notes (non sharps) being slightly lower (or closer to the floor).  This makes changing to the sharp/flat side easier as the notes will require a shorter distance physically to reach.   Just a slightly angle the bow toward the sharp side for non C scales and accidentals.   Try playing a D scale (D E F# G A B C# D) with the psaltery paralell to the floor - then try the same scale with the psaltery on a slight angle.  You'll notice it is much easier and more efficient to reach the sharps with the psaltery angled.



Bow the notes as lightly as possible.  Practice using as light a touch as possible to get a clean clear sounding note.  The lighter touch will eliminate the string attack sound made when the bow first makes physical contact with the string.  A lighter touch will also help eliminate the screeching (or growling in case of wound strings) sound made when a bow is held too firmly against the strings.  The note will ring out clearer with little notice of the bow being removed from the string.  With practice, you’ll find the perfect pressure to use to create the most pleasing melodic tone.


I prefer to use a great distance on the bow – not just the center.  This allows for a more pleasing tone by using the same bow direction for several notes before changing direction. 

Try an experiment: Practice playing a scale - C D E F G A B C in your normal bowing pattern.   Now try getting as many notes using same bow direction.  Eventually you’ll be able to play all eight notes in the same bow direction as if you’re skating across the notes. 


Next practice playing four notes in the same direction C D E F, then change bow direction G A B C.  You’ll hear an accent on the bow direction change.   Our natural instinct is to press harder when changing direction, thus creating an accent or louder note.   When we change direction on each note the accents have to be forced by applying more pressure on the bow.  

You’ll find this method also has better audience appearance – the bow will look like it’s gliding across the strings, rather than sawing the strings.  

Remember - experiment - never be afraid to try something new.   Most of all -  Keep on bowing!


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Comment by Rick Long on July 11, 2012 at 10:09am

Hi Dona, Donna, and Tish,  All great tips on bowing the psaltery.  I'll just throw out a few that I feel are important.  First there are so many different types of psalteries, string types, bow hair, and types of bows, it is hard to give a definitive answer that will work for everyone.  I think it is very important that you are comfortable in how you hold your psaltery, your bowing arm position, and your grip on the bow.  If anything is in a strain, look to make a change toward comfort.  I use pretty much the same grip as Dona, but my thumb is across from my middle finger and all four fingers are on the same side.  Either of these will work fine if your bow has a large flat area to grip.  If you use a small violin bow or one with another shape, you will need to find what feels the best.  Use good posture, but relax.  I have seen folks, that are just starting, holding their bowing arm raised above their side.  I suggest letting it be relaxed and pretty much rubbing your side while bowing, this will work great for a smaller psaltery, but may be difficult to do on a larger one, where more reach is required.  This goes back to what I said about so many differences in the psaltery sizes, you will just have to adapt to what you have.

In meeting so many folks over the years, I see what they  struggle with when just getting started using a bow.  A couple of common problems are making their starting point at one end of the bow, gripping the bow too tightly, their bowing movements are too large, using too much pressure with the bow on the string, and the bow stroke speed.

My solutions are have a starting point along the length on your bow that you use consistently, I start every song at somewhere around a third of the distance from the tip, a third to a half will work fine, just remember to start there and return to that position.  I recommend a loose grip, but just firm enough that you have full control of your bow.  This is something you have to practice to develop the correct feel.  If your fingers are cramping, loosen your grip slightly.  Beginners on most instruments start out with very large movements, but if you really look at what the professional players are doing, their movements are very compact and efficient.  If you use too much pressure when playing the psaltery will tell you, listen.  There is a point that you can cross into using too much pressure on the string when bowing.  The note will go down in pitch slightly or you will hear that screeeech of the bow hair chattering on the strings.  That's your psaltery telling you to back off and be a little more gentle.  As everyone else has said, light touch, but learn to use the pressure of the bow to adjust the volume of what you are playing.  If you listen to someone singing and adding lots of expression, it is in changes in volume.  It is a great thing to learn to do with your psaltery.  The last thing is you bow stroke speed.  I don't know that anything will do more to make a great psaltery sound bad than a really fast bow stroke on any note you need to hold out.  There is a definite difference in the sound when compared side by side.  If you are having problems in this area, you probably don't even realize it.  This is the first thing I work on when teaching a lesson.  I always ask if the student can hear the difference when we have worked on that for a few minutes.  The answer is always in the affirmative.  A lot of times a spouse or friend will be there, they always agree that there is a big improvement in the tone and are usually shaking their head when I ask the student.

Practicing your bowing technique is something I recommend doing before each playing session, just play scales.  Boring I know, but if you are working on your technique your mind will be distracted on the melody of a song.  Scales you can do automatically and you can concentrate on getting the best sound.

Don't forget to rosin. 

Comment by Tish Westman on July 9, 2012 at 8:12pm

Yes, Donna and Dona.....keeping a light pressure is important but you can mix it up to create some dynamics as well, like in a Gypsy tune or a Klezmer tune. 

I hold the bow differently.  I find it works best for me to hold the bow more towards the middle and my hand is more over the center of the instrument.  I get less bounce in the tip of the bow and less movement to get to the sharps or flats.  But by all means you must experiment to find what works for you and gets the best sound you can from your Bowed Psaltery.

Comment by Donna Malus on July 1, 2012 at 3:03pm

Thanks Dona!   I try to stay conscious of my bowing pressure but I get caught up in other things and find myself pressing too hard. I think that is one of the MOST important things to remember about playing the bowed psaltery. KEEP IT LIGHT!

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