Bow technique is a mysterious, somewhat subjective, and frequently avoided subject in string pedagogy. Some violin schools seek to inculcate a “system” of bowing while others emphasize core bowing principles to guide the students' choices. Major treatises on bow technique date back hundreds of years and hold great value for the serious student, but none can show you directly how to swing. The fundamental concept of jazz bowing is swinging or grooving on a stringed instrument.
Jazz Bowing 101 addresses bowing patterns rather than techniques, e.g. slurs, direction, and accents as opposed to balance, sound point, and key strokes. If you don’t know about the latter three terms then I would suggest doing some “legit” bow investigation as it will inform and enhance your overall sound and expressive palette. I consider the two books by Simon Fischer, Basics and Practice2, to be invaluable resources for those who want to further explore the universe of bow techniques.
Where does one start when approaching the issue of how to swing with a bow? Jean-Luc Ponty and Zbigniew Seifert, two of the greatest exponents of modern jazz violin and both conservatory-trained virtuosos, openly struggled with jazz bowing because it seemed antithetical to their strict classical training. For Stephane Grappelli, who learned on the streets of Paris, the concept was less intimidating. Grappelli’s excellent, if overly terse, piece of advice was that “The bow must go up and down.”3 To that I would add that the notes must either swing or groove.
How will you know when you are swinging or grooving? Some of the fastest and most direct ways to tackle this issue are:
- Ask someone who knows how to swing if you are swinging
- Record yourself when you practice, listen back and critique yourself
- Play along with recordings and learn to mimic them perfectly
- Record yourself while playing with drummers and bassists who swing
Time-feel, swing, groove, etc. is mostly an expressive state of awareness (much like intonation) rather than a technique4, and it should occur regardless of what you are doing with your bow. When we discuss jazz bowing we are specifically talking about articulations e.g. combinations of slurred and separate bow strokes, long and short notes, as well as accents. The most basic jazz bowing is slurring on the off-beat. Why? Because changing bow direction always causes some type of accent, and the most common accents in jazz lines occur on the “and” of the beat. This is part of the common-practice “language” of jazz which has evolved considerably over the century. If you haven’t done this already, I suggest doing some comparative listening to recordings from different eras (ragtime, swing, bebop, hard bop, mid-60s to now). Specifically, it would be useful to compare and contrast the “beat” of the music. I find it particularly useful to listen to and transcribe horn players because the accents and slurs they create with their embouchures can, through detailed listening, show you how to bow or accent a phrase. In fact, both Ponty and Seifert became saxophone players in their quest to understand how to bring modern jazz articulations and phrasing to the violin.5
Basic bowing exercises can help to get the ball rolling. However, spending too much time on bowing exercises (or exercises in general unless they are incredibly creative and performance worthy) can be a waste of practice time. Remember that jazz improvisation infers the improvisation of our bowings as well. I suggest never spending more than five or ten minutes on bowing exercises. The purpose of these fundamental exercises is to acquaint your bow arm with the feeling of slurring on the off beat and in odd groupings.
When practicing bowing exercises make sure to always practice the bowings reversed and in different parts of the bow. If you are really improvising then you won’t know what direction you will be starting from or in what part of the bow you will be.
Set a metronome at a comfortable tempo that accents beats 2 and 4. Play Ex.1 starting in the upper 3/4 section of the bow. When you feel relaxed with this bowing continue playing in the upper 3/4 of the bow but reverse direction (Ex. 2). Play the same two exercises at the middle, lower 3/4, tip, and frog of the bow.
Do the same with Ex. 3 and Ex. 4.
Of course, your bowing should never be restricted to only slurring on the “and” of the beat. Experiment with groupings of threes, fours, fives, sixes, sevens, etc. Keep the metronome going on 2 and 4.
Try slurring in groups of two from beat 1. Does it sound “square?” Try mixing it up with slurs on the beat and off the beat.
What about slurring the entire example? Try making little accents (soft) with your right hand either by pulsing with your index finger or by slightly pronating your forearm. NEVER ACCENT WITH YOUR SHOULDER!7
Now try doing this with separate bows. Remember to direct your attention as soon as possible to the sound and physical feeling of what you are playing. 99% of the time your body will have a more efficient way of performing a physical task if you LET it show you what it wants to do. Let your brain do the explaining and let your body do the “doing.”
Now forget about all of this and just play.
1 Private Recording from Dec. 1976, NYC; published on We’ll Remember Zbiggy, Mood Records, 1979
2 Published by Edition Peters, London, 1997 & 2004
3 Jazz Violin by Stephane Grappelli and Matt Glaser, Oak Publications, 1981, p.34
4 Exercises abound that can improve one’s time-feel or intonation but they involve directing your attention to a sound or feeling rather than a physical position or action.
5 Seifert was considered to be one of Poland’s great modern jazz saxophonists before he became widely known as a violinist and a postage stamp bearing his image depicts him with an alto saxophone.
6 From Lush Life, Prestige Records 7188; recorded on May 31, 1957
7 Never say “never” but I wouldn’t unless you already have a bionic shoulder.