Bow Tension

One of the very first things that I teach every beginner student is how to take care of their bow, and especially the hair. The basics are actually pretty straightforward. When you take your violin and bow out of the case, tighten the bow hair, then rosin the bow. After you have finished playing, loosen the hair, then put the bow back into the case. Avoid touching the hair whenever possible.

For beginners, my own “rule-of-thumb” for tensioning the bow is that there should be enough space between the stick and the hair to fit your little finger. (You really only have to do this once, after all, you’re not supposed to touch the hair. After that, you should be able to see if it’s tension properly.) However, the exact tension actually depends on your individual instrument. When you become more experienced, sometimes you may want to tinker the tension a bit, even during a performance, but the adjustments are always very small.

But one thing that I discovered working with professional musicians is that all of us sometimes forget that temperature and humidity can change drastically while we are playing. This is especially true at a concert hall during a well-attended performance. A bow that’s perfectly tensioned at the beginning can become loose (often on a humid summer day) or very tight (often in the winter when the furnace is turned on). And so it’s prudent to check your bow every now and then. My solution is a bit unconventional: I use a carbon fibre bow, which is less sensitive to thermal expansion to wood, and synthetic bow hair, which are also less sensitive than the natural hair from a horse’s tail. My problems don’t go away completely, but I do find that I have to check my bow tension a bit less frequently.

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