This is a post for the strings players among us. One of the most valuable items in my teaching kit is a piece of chalk. I keep it carefully wrapped in plastic wrap to prevent chalk dust from getting in my case and instrument. Occasionally children will ask me what it is because they have only experienced dry-erase boards in their classrooms. (It makes me feel very old to explain to them that when I was a child, we learned from rubbing a messy powdery substance onto a giant piece of rock mounted on the classroom wall. I’m pretty sure that they imagine my childhood classroom was in a cave.)
The chalk is a useful tool for teaching and practicing bow management, especially control for smooth slurs. No, we don’t put chalk onto the hair like rosin. Here’s what you do once you have a piece of chalk: look carefully at the length of the bow hair. You may want to consider how much of the bow hair is actually playable, and ignore the bottom inch or two if your thumb position prevents you from playing in that area. Eyeball where the center of the playable bow hair is (I have my students do this so that they have control over what I do to their bows), then draw a chalk line around the stick of the bow directly above that spot. You’ve marked the functional center of the bow.
At this point, you’ve already set up a challenge. The challenge is to start at the frog and play a single note using exactly half of your bow. It’s much harder than you think it would be. Play a note and try to stop exactly at the mark that you made. When you have a reasonable accuracy rate, perhaps landing precisely at the chalk at least 75% of the time, change from doing a single note to hooking two notes using the whole bow, making sure to divide the two notes by pausing exactly at the center mark that you made.
Do you see what this is doing? When you use the full bow and hook those two notes, you are using exactly equal amounts of bow for each. A common problem is to “spend” too much bow on the first note of a hook or slur. This approach forces you to use be equitable with your bow distribution.
Back to the exercise. Hook downbows and upbows in alternation. If you notice that you are consistently inaccurate in a certain circumstance, isolate it. For example, if your downbow midpoint pause is usually above the chalk mark, go back to playing only that first half-of-a-downbow, then lift the bow and repeat that single bow motion. Notice when you use too much bow and tell yourself to use less bow next time, or vice versa. (Usually once you are accurate at the downbow division, the upbow division comes easily.)
If you are playing a piece or a scale with slurs of two, substitute the notes of your slur into the hook. Once you’ve combined the notes with accurate hooked bowing, all you have to do is smooth out your bow stroke, continuing to change notes at the chalked midpoint. The two notes of your slur will be equal.
If you are trying to slur four or eight notes, it’s time to add more chalk marks to your bow! Practice hooking on a single note, aiming for complete accuracy by pausing your bow at those marks before adding in the pitches of your slurs. If you need to broadly slur three, five, six, seven notes, etc., you can still use this exercise and mark your bow accordingly. If you are not trying to play a particular musical passage but want to develop your bow control with this method, play a hooked bow for every note of a scale and remember: it’s all about the accuracy.
This is a great approach for developing your bowing control and accuracy. Like any technique, you can’t expect to master it in a day. It takes time and regular practice to develop.
When you are done with the exercise, you can wipe away the chalk easily with your fingers or a cloth. Alternately, you can keep the chalk in place for a few weeks if you are careful with how you handle your bow. Chalk lines are much less obvious than the colorful tape that you see on the bows of Suzuki students.
Finally, a disclaimer: this is a mathematical approach for developing your technique, not your musicianship. You’ll be a stronger player if you have precise control over your bow distribution, and being able to make notes equal can be an important step in the learning or mastery process… but rarely does music call for notes to be mathematically equal. Food for thought.