Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

How to Hold the Bow on the Cello

Learn the basic technique of the bow on the cello.

In this video, Prof. Mendoes teaches the basics of holding the bow on the cello. If you are a beginner, you don't want to miss this video!

Released on October 1, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello, this is Joseph Mendoes with another video for Today's video, well there's been a couple of people who've asked me about this, not necessarily in these comments. But some issues about the bow hold, I think, need to be clarified. You can look at so many different cellos and their bow holds, and it seems like there's a lot of differences and there are. But there's also a lot of similarities if you look really carefully.

For example, something I like to frequently do for students is put together a series of clips from YouTube from different angles of different performers to show what certain things in the bow hold people haven't caught. I'll start off with by far the most controversial one, and that's whether the thumb, the right hand thumb, needs to be straight or whether it needs to be curved.

Now this. I think. actually depends quite a bit on your own physiology, but I do think that in general, just based upon the research that I've done, in general, most of the great cellists of the past and of the present use a straight thumb. There's a couple of examples, notable examples of people who use a crooked - I shouldn't say crooked - I should say a bent thumb like this, where the bow is -You can kind of see there where the thumb is bent that way.

One would be Leonard Rose, he was a pretty famous exponent of this, and the idea is that the thumb needs to be bent - You can kind of see there - It needs to be bent in order for it to be able to flex back and forth like that. I don't know if you can see that there. During the bow change the thumb needs to flex. Now I personally find this to be an incredibly complicated motion. I don't think that this is actually something that most of us can do. I think Leonard Rose could do this because the ratio of length between his thumb, the length of his thumb and the length of his fingers allowed him to do this. Same with Tortelier.

Tortelier was another one that taught this, but even when you watch him play there are certain angles where you can see actually he is using really more of a straight thumb. Now the vast majority of performers, Rostropovich and Yo Yo Ma included, use a straight thumb. Steven Isserlis, as far as I can tell, uses a straight thumb. There's Pierre Fournier, again, as far as I can tell, the video image quality is a little bit fuzzy, but there's clips where it looks like that he is using a straight thumb. And even if they're not, then it's pretty close to one, and it's probably has something to do with just the shape of their thumb.

For example, some people's thumbs bend back quite a bit like mine. You can see mine bends back a lot. I don't know if you can see that there. Some people's thumbs bend back only to there. I had a student once where this was a straight thumb, where it actually was bent and actually that was his thumb being bent back as far as it could. It was about there. That's why I say it really depends on your individual physiology, but I think it's best in what I teach from the very beginning with beginners and also with any new students that I get, what I teach is a straight thumb.

Now the reason why I teach a straight thumb is because I think that the straight thumb is actually the best way to do two things. It's the best way for the thumb to work as a pivot point that needs to be able to pivot it back and forth like this. And by having more of the flesh of the thumb instead of the tip interacting with the bow, well, like I said, it does two things because that's actually what you need here for a straight thumb as you need more of the flesh encountering. And, again, maybe I should get up here so you can see this. Let me show this closely here.

So you can see it here from this angle. That's kind of what my bow hold ends up looking like. You can see it from that angle as well where the thumb is pretty much straight. So that's what it is. As you can see here, if I use the tip of my thumb, then I'm able to get that curved thing like that, and if I use more of the flesh of my thumb, then I'm able to get the straighter thumb like that. Like I was saying - So I'm jumping around here - Like I was saying, the straighter thumb it allows you to pivot so that you can pivot back and forth in the bow change like that and get this real good flexibility. It's a lot easier for it to pivot around there.

This, I find actually that this locks me up. It's very difficult for me to go from this position to unlock the thumb to get it to there and then to bring it back. Let me show that. That's kind of the idea of that motion. Some people may be able to do this very well, but again I personally don't teach that because I've had many students now who've developed this kind of flexibility from having a straight thumb. There's another big plus and this plus may be a bigger one, and that's just overall comfort. Really, if you take this part of the bow, which you can see this kind of this edge here, which is where we are supposed to put our thumbs, is why I recommend you putting your thumb as well. If you put the tip of your thumb right into that, like that - You can maybe see it a little better from there, right into there.

This is very painful and maybe some of you who use a curved thumb have experienced this pain before on the tip of your thumb. after playing for. I don't know, 30 minutes to an hour or something. There's an almost kind of dead or almost a numb feeling or even worse a sharp pain in the tip of the thumb, and this is just pure physics at work here. This is why any sort of sharp point going into something has the ability to kind of break through.

The bow has that kind of a sharp - You know, even if it's some people even grind that part down there. But even if it is ground down a little bit, it doesn't really make that much of a difference because you are still having to force your thumb, the tip of your thumb, into this very tough place. Whereas if you put - I'll show it this way again though. It's helpful now if you put - now you see the fleshy part of the thumb on there, then you're spreading ... You're almost kind of spreading the pain around, so to speak. You know, you're covering a much bigger surface area, and it's so much padded surface for you to contact the bow.

This actually, I think, is something that allows even more freedom in the bow in terms of how you are able to move your fingers and the whole motion of the whole bow. Mainly because this - Sorry, I know I'm getting off track here - but the thumb, the cushioning of the thumb that way. That kind of soft feeling of the thumb allows you to grip the bow less. You can hold the bow more naturally that way. Oh, I just thought of two more cellists who have the straight thumb. They were very clearly straight thumb people, both Piatigorsky - remember, Piatigorsky - and Emmanuel Feuermann. Both of them also used the straight thumb, and that's very clearly evident in even some of those older videos that you can see on YouTube in the Dvorak Rondo that Feuermann has up. It's very, very clearly a straight thumb, and all of the videos of Piatigorsky that are up there. There are some really great camera angles showing that they're using straight thumbs.

It does seem to me that the majority of people do use straight thumbs. And, wow, I don't think that should be a hard and fast rule for everyone. I think I'd say for 95% of us that probably is the way that we should play and the way that we should first start approaching the instrument. And then if you're not able to pivot, like if your thumb is really way too long that you do need to bend it in some way, you can't bend it back that way, of course. But if you need to bend it that way a little bit in order to get more flexibility, do it. The point is always try to go for this, this flexibility as much of it as you can get. That's the point. And if a straight thumb gets that to you, which it has for me and has for many, many of the great performers then I think we should probably do it.

Okay now, how do we really get this straight thumb? Well, a really good thing to do, a good exercise to do, is to actually hold the bow at the point of balance and to practice this way. Play some scales or just kind of play back and forth and get the feeling of this in your hand. The reason why this works is because there's really no place to put the tip of your thumb there. You see there's this nice little spot on the bow, you know. I've got to keep getting up here. There's this nice spot on the bow here, right there, where you can kind of drive that there if you're using that bent thumb like that.

But here just on the stick it's kind of difficult to do that. It feels pretty awkward. It feels more natural just to kind of hold it like that. That's a good way to practice, and then eventually what you do is is that you work your way back. So you practice a little bit holding the bow there, and then you eventually work your way all the way back here. And then, you know, there's your bow hold. Then you're all set.

So another thing that I'm sure you've probably seen in some of my videos, I don't do this all the time, but I use my pinkie quite a bit. I know it's a little bit of a violin trick, and maybe that's blasphemy, I don't know. But it really helps for certain things, like string crossings. I didn't really get a chance to talk about this in the very first video I did for, the one on the preview to the first Bach Suite. But these string crossings actually are pretty manageable if you're able to use that pinkie.

What you end up being able to control is this level really well independently of the wrist and of the arm. You can control it just in the fingers. So all of these string crossings, I can really control well with the pinkie and there's a lot of different examples of that. So, again, the pinkie is not something critical. There's obviously plenty of cellists who don't use the pinkie who do really well, but you might want to try it.

There's another thing it helps you with. It helps you actually to get pronated if this is always kind of your problem with your bow hold where you're always kind of slumping back in the hand like this. And you can't really get a lot of power, and there's no flexibility in the hand and all that. Then practicing actually with that pinkie up on top automatically get you pronated. It's kind of hard to put the pinkie on top and to do something like that. That's kind of tricky. So by putting that pinkie on top, it gets you set in the right way so you can be nicer playing and get that nice, cool sound. So anyway, those are just a few things about the bow hold.

I know this video is a little bit long and rambling, but please, if you have any questions leave them down there in the comments. Again, just to kind of wrap it up, I covered straight thumb versus crooked thumb, and I talked a little bit about the use of the pinkie in the cello bow hold. And, again, please leave your comments. Any more suggestions for other videos, I love hearing them, and I might even do some of them. So thank you again. Thank you for watching, and this has been Joseph Mendoes for
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

LaurelGibson * VSM MEMBER * on July 5, 2017 @9:49 am PST
I have been teaching over 40 years....Sometimes I don't why I teach certain things - except that I always have...Thank you for this "refreshing" of techniques and authority other than my own! I like to teach a "twisty" long bow to beginners - away from the bridge for up bow, and toward the bridge for down bow. It gets rid of that flat beginners tone....Any comments?
Joseph - host, on July 12, 2017 @5:44 am PST
Hello Laurel,

I am guilty of the same thing! Sometimes it is a blow to our ego when we realize we were teaching something wrong. I feel sorry for the students I taught ten years ago, I said a lot of unhelpful things to them! I am sure I will feel that way ten years from now. But that is the price of growth!

I think you are right on, one of the worst things we can do to beginners is to try and teach them a straight bow! Especially since none of the great players ever bow straight! What we want is for the bow to stay locked in to a spot on the string so that the tone is consistent and sustained, which is usually better achieved by a bow angle that forces the bow slightly towards the bridge. I have found that this is only necessary on the down bow, and that if this is done correctly then the up bow will start on the right place on the string and the proper resistance will be felt in the right hand for the duration of the up bow. Up bows are much easier to sustain, so why worry about them!

Thanks for your comment,

Steven D. * VSM MEMBER * on September 6, 2016 @3:42 pm PST
I am thinking about trying a high quality 73 gram carbon fiber cello bow $1800. Are you familiar with these bows? If so, what is your opinion?
John Lyons on January 21, 2016 @8:49 am PST
Thanks, Joseph. I am 80 and on my second (rather successful attempt at the cell. I have not liked the bent thumb position and will go to straight. Also appreciate the use of the pinkie. I bow on the viola and use the pinkie, of course. Yes, better control.
Joseph - host, on January 22, 2016 @8:08 am PST
Hello John,

Glad you enjoyed the video! While the pinkie is not mandatory, I have found that it helps many students!

Russell on January 10, 2016 @12:36 am PST
When the bow touches a string, is the bow supposed to be completely flat on the string or do you angle the bow so that only part of the bow strings are touching the string you are playing?

Thank you so much! I just got a cello as a holiday gift and I'm learning to play it by watching your great lectures!
Joseph - host, on January 10, 2016 @7:38 pm PST
Hello Russell,

Angle it, but not too much! This helps you in many ways, but primarily it helps you get a more focused sound by driving the bow a little towards the bridge. If you angle it too much, you will hear the wood of the bow scrape on the string, which is not desirable!

Russell on January 11, 2016 @10:49 am PST
Great thank you so much for your reply and for your inspiring video lessons!
Katerina on October 7, 2015 @5:43 am PST
Hi, I am Katerina, thank you so much for the informational video it is very much appreciated. I am teaching a beginner student right now. He is progressing in theory, technique and music very well but he lacks good tone. I believe the reasoning behind this is that he allows his fingers to curve around the bottom of the bow while he is playing. Do you have any suggestions on the best way to prevent this from happening?
Miguel Angelo HC on June 25, 2015 @6:23 am PST
Hello, I am Miguel from Portugal, thank you for this remarkable Video. In the beginning of the video you mentioned Leonard Rose that plays with a bent thumb, I have had an accident when I was young and lost part of the muscle tissue involving the base of the thumb just below the start of thumb (coming from the hand) so it's my natural position to have it bent, and that is the only way I seem to manage to play and have strength to hold the bow, it is really hard for me balance the bow with a circular thumb position. I also use some pressure in the first finger to get a better hold, but I think that is not really advised to do. If possible I would like to know more about this alternative thumb position handling to see how I can better that position and holding for the bow. Do you also known anyone with this kind of hand disabilities that manage to play the cello ? I know my information is a bit vague on the problem so I donĀ“t expect a really detailed answer, nevertheless, thank you so much for your videos and your teaching, they are wonderful for a beguinner like me.
inwerp * VSM MEMBER * on May 28, 2015 @1:46 pm PST
Hello. Your videos are one of the greatest technique videos online. I just graduated from Moscow Conservatory and i find them really helpful. I was taught in "monkey" style and i always had to figure out most things by myself by observing my teacher who did never really opened technical topics for me. It would be so much pleasure to see some video on classical bow strokes - sautille, spiccato and martelle.
Joseph - host, on May 31, 2015 @11:38 pm PST
Thank you so much for your comment! I am glad that you are enjoying the videos, and yes, I have been meaning to do a video on some different bow strokes, showing how all bow strokes can be derived from a simple detache. It is an idea I got from the great string pedagogue Demetrious Dounis, and it is very helpful!
Edith on April 11, 2015 @12:31 pm PST
During my first half of a century I played the piano. For the second half I decided to pick up the cello. Of course progression is somewhat slower, therefore your bow grip video was really helpful. Especially the instruction to just hold very naturally in the middle and move downwards. Your virtual lessons are a great addition to the real live lessons of my teacher. Thank you!
Holly C on March 21, 2015 @8:22 pm PST
Thank you! Cramming and cramping my thumb for years! I playing fine but then notice that my thumb was straight or bending back. OH NO! So I would stop and curve. I was looking for thumb tape or something when I came across you video. By the way last week I picked up a Baroque cello bow and found relaxed freedom. No thumb issues at all. I'll now try a straight thumb with my bow and stop worrying about "wrong" thumb position. And my thumb looks a lot like yours.
Davide on March 17, 2015 @2:40 pm PST
I like the way you are open to different approaches, like the bow hold.

I would love a lesson about the first position and some exercises on how to train your ear and hand to be in tune Smiley Face

Thank you and congrats for your work : )
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