Playing at the heel

and other notes about teaching

( all this while I wait for Frontpage to re-publish my site )


An awkward place to be for some : Some violinists arenít comfortable at the heel. Perhaps they stopped going all the way to heel, some time ago. There may be 2 inches of greasy bow hair at the heel which has no rosin, and slips on the string .... another indication that the owner of that bow doesnít play at the heel. Well is there anything wrong with this ? The answer is yes ! Itís very wrong not to feel comfortable at the heel, but on the other hand itís hardly surprising, because many things have to be working in the right way before one can feel at home when playing at the heel.


Some difficulties : Firstly I would say that the start of an etude or concertino may require you to start right at the heel. If your bow hold is very slanted, or your thumb or little finger is stretched out, then your wrist could also be in a slightly "locked" position without you realising it ! Your wrist may be very high, and cover your eyes and face when you position the bow at the heel in this case. Well, it all feels very wrong and uncomfortable, and you may even realise that your elbow is too high, and seems to interfere with your general freedom and well being.


A quick fix ? Well, if you identify with the above symptoms then itís time to give some thought about your bow hold, especially regarding the role of your finger muscles at the heel. Firstly I would urge you to observe very very carefully how your fingers meet the bow. They should meet the bow straight on, curve and point straight down into the strings ( at the heel ) then you will feel the little finger, very rounded, bear almost the whole weight of the bow. The inside of your wrist should be pointing to your nose, and your hand and arm should form a continuous line.... in other words your wrist should not point up, and hide your face when you are at the heel. Your thumb must be well rounded and placed firmly in the bow, without being too deeply embedded so it sticks out the other side of the bow ! It should remain on the side of the bow really ; the side closest to you. This is to give it mobility and freedom...if it were deeply inside the bow it may run the risk of straightening out, and it certainly would feel a little bit trapped.


The upper arm : A common error in placing the bow at the heel is to raise oneís shoulders. Well to relax them you could try raising them even more, then just drop them gently, feeling their weight as they sit with all their weight in your shoulder socket. Now, playing at the heel, your elbow should not be raised, but in order to bring the right hand comfortably to the strings where it will place the bow at the heel, you will have to move your elbow forwards, by swinging your upper arm around in front of you while also curving slightly to your left side. This is perfectly normal. If you try to move your hand from the middle of the bow to the heel ( say on the A string ) , then you will find that you canít bring the hand to the strings ( i.e. the heel ) unless you conduct it there using your upper arm, and of course by moving your elbow there ! Try getting to the heel while keeping your elbow pinned to a fixed point.... isnít it difficult and stiff ? So, by now we have established that the elbow, or the upper arm moves the bow from the middle to the heel. To move from the middle to the tip of the bow our upper arm hardly needs to do anything, rather we simply need to extend our forearm in front and away from us. It is also clear now, that using the bow in the lower half and the upper half requires different components of the arm. Now imagine someone is very frightened, stiff and rigid ( argghhh ) ... well wouldnít their shoulders tense up, and wouldnít their fingers squeeze the bow too much and wouldnít they find it an uphill struggle to reach the heel ? Yes they would, and you can see the awkward effort people struggle with getting to the heel, or in extreme cases, just bowing !


Simply Using the whole bow : When beginners start, they are so rigid ( and weak ! ), usually, and they hardly use more than an inch of bow. Oddly enough, over teaching posture to children can lead to great tension and a somewhat artificial mechanism to their bowing. However, it is possible to have many students play with the whole bow, quite naturally and freely, even though one may have only "touched up " their bow holds by a minimum amount. Generally, such students have simply been encouraged to use all the bow, and in trying to do so, they are guided by their teacherís high quality tone. I personally accompany children who are on open strings with the piano. The objective in passing the bow over the strings, is to produce a beautiful, unforced tone. Playing at the heel should be no harder than playing in the middle, and, in fact, one can learn from the example you give yourself when you play at the heel. Your hand must simply move from A to B, and nothing must stop it ( or make it hesitate ) in doing so. This famous phrase comes from none other than David Ostrich, who once said that Violin playing is a lot simpler than what we often think it to be. He said all you have to do is move your hand from A to B. Forget the theories about making figure 8 s because another great Violinist, Jascha Heifetz, once set out to prove with special lighting that the best tone was always produced by a bow at right angles to the string.


Other ideas : Well, to be truthful, there are schools of violin playing that encourage somewhat more participation of the fingers and wrists in bowing. Capet, for example, speaks of "son roule", rolling the bow, like a pencil, to keep a certain friction and participation of touch continually present during the bow stroke so that the bow will always be "kneaded" and "caressed" ...and therefore the sound too. Well, in these cases, valid points are being made, but the advanced violinist must study "son filees" and detache to great depth, building up the components of his / her arm in such a way as to focus the contact of the bow on the string to produce a very efficient and compact sound.


Leaning at the heel : So, string contact is important throughout the bow, and this is ever so true when playing at the heel. Most players know that the little finger must bear much weight off the bow, so it doesnít scratch and overload the string. This is true, to a large extent, but what is also true is that you still need the same weight and leaning on the string at the heel as you do in the middle or at the tip. So this is something to take care off and to pay attention to. Detache and tonus ( tone ) at the heel must be sought. One must seek the best quality of sound, and the proper elasticity of the fingers, wrist, forearm, and shoulder at the heel. In fact, feeling a certain weight and tone at the heel is the first sign that one is starting to get comfortable !


Study material : Many detache studies can be practised at the heel. Detache at the heel is a slightly different technique in its own right. Depending on tempo, the elbow may or may not participate to different degrees. What is good for general heel playing are studies which require the use of the whole bow. Even if many notes are involved, the quality of bowing at the heel should be excellent. It is very easy to see that playing limited to the middle of the bow, or near the point shows little understanding and mastery of the right hand. Perhaps a guaranteed study would be scales with 2 , 4 or 8 notes or more slurred to the bow. In such a study, ( using 1 , 2 , 3 or 4 doesnít matter which ! ) the bow should be evenly distributed from heel to tip. Ask a violinist to do a 4 octave scale with 4 notes to a bow. If they sing and move their bow fluently and surely throughout those 4 octaves, and especially in the register where they soar up the E string, then they are good violinists. If their bow shortens as they fumble up the fingerboard into the highest positions, then they are scared and inexperienced at singing their violin tone throughout its whole register. This test alone will reveal immediately a good, well schooled fiddle player. Beware of charlatans who race up the fingerboard with a grossly magnified "show off" vibrato, and a ruthlessly heavy hand on their bow. A scale should not have vibrato. The skill involved in scale playing combines superb bowing distribution and smooth string crossing with accurate , and somewhat delicate , left hand vertical finger work.


Chords : The left hand should always succumb to the command of the right. This is also true when playing at the heel. A heavy left hand will take away much from the weight of the right hand. Rhythms start to suffer, and a general perception of awkwardness creeps in. Other important techniques involving playing at the heel include placing the bow before drawing it, and getting the bow straight. When one begins a note at the heel, the bow should first be firmly laid in position, resting firmly on the string. The start of the note is not spoiled that way by the sound of the bow crashing down on the strings. This is a horribly ugly sound to have to endure, especially on the E and A strings. Unfortunately, it is not just beginners who may be tempted to do this. Some students, who think they are reaching the stars, and tackle the Bruch concerto in G minor, say the 3rd movement, violate their E and A strings with heavy bowing which comes crashing onto the string from far above. 80% of their sound is instantly converted into cold, hard noise. The carelessness involved in chord playing can sometimes be attributed to the banging of the bow on the string from off the string. Well chords ( which are mostly started at the heel ) should be started from on the string. This is an absolute truth which is best adhered to. There are sloppy schools of violin playing which insist one should go straight into a chord, but the correct use of this technique is rare, and often misunderstood. Chord playing is a big test for a violinist, and here, especially one can observe how tenderly yet with so much vitality and rhythm a master violinist conjures up perfectly cantabile chords. So we can see chords are very much to do with the heel, and also of course string changing with the bow. Dont Op.35 number 1 is a famous chord study. These chord must sing sweetly, and it is very very important to play some of them with quite a light touch. Given the high quantity of strings involved in a chord, it is imperative one does not attack them aggressively, forcing a tone which simply over powers the resonating chamber of the violin. Such weight breaks and spoils the tone. And, that is simply what this whole article tries to avoid. So, heel playing is a technique for the very advanced and well equipped violinist. In certain cases, where lesser violinists are messing up their piece at the heel, it may be advisable to avoid or re bow certain passages, assigning them to the middle for example, where the players might render his / her passage with much more beauty and quality of tone.


A straight bow at the heel : The straight bow problem at the heel requires the teacherís input. Usually the tip will be placed to near the player, because of a wrist position which doesnít orientated the tip of the bow away from the player, thus straightening up the bow. We are talking about having a bow which meets the string at right angles, or at any rate with the opposite direction as the one described in the above defect. In other words an error in which the heel is closer to the player and the tip further is good, as long as we are talking about the heel ! It is good, because it enforces a correct heel posture, in which the bow hairs are sure to adhere to the string fully. This angle is also good, because it counteracts the natural tendency for the bow to curve around the player as it is drawn from heel to tip. The bow stroke in reaching the tip should end up with the heel away from the player and the tip closer. This, therefore, would describe a circle that curves away from the player, and it is a desirable habit to install especially in a pupil whoís bowing is curved in the opposite direction due mostly to laziness in posture. Eventually such a habit can cure the bad angle and a perfectly perpendicular bow should be obtained from heel to tip. This good angle which I have described at the heel should allow the little finger to remain fairly curved, and brought slightly closer to the player. I do think playing at the heel involves bringing the scroll ( or neck ) of the violin around toward the right. The left hand therefore has the role of bringing the violin closer to the right hand, in order to achieve maximum comfort and closeness and the heel. Closeness is very important for the right feeling of contact and control with our instrument. A pianist who plays half a kilometre from the piano with fingers straight and arms extended is going to have a hard time approaching his keys with roundness, richness and body of sound. This same concept applies to the violin, and it is precisely at the heel, where all the awkward violinists might show up their bad habits and uncomfortable postures. Take beginner violinists who are taught to hold their violins up and out to the extreme left, along the line which extends from their right shoulder to their left and beyond. Such a position is favourable for playing on the E and A strings, but when playing on the G one has to reach right around, ( almost half a mile away ) with their right hand to position it anywhere near the G string. So when playing on the D and G strings one must bring the violin closer to the right hand, thereby facilitating access to that string. There is another "rotation" ( or slight vertical inclination ) of the violin which can be made to favour the angle of the bow on the lower strings. Conversely, by flattening the instrument, one favours general playing on the A and E strings. This is referred to as the "open" position. In all cases one can sense that there is no such thing as an absolute and fixed posture in which to play the violin. Playing at the heel requires a violin which is held in a favourable position in order to be played comfortably at the heel.


The power of imagination : For a beginner violinist, it is very necessary to build up all the good feelings and techniques on easier pieces. A hard piece requires lots of note learning. Such a piece will generally degrade the style of the student, because they will be concentrating on note reading and not on playing with a healthy style. Often one must talk to the student, and conjure up a fantasy world full of imagery and pictures and stories that convey all the right feeling and sensations involved in a certain technique. For example, today I had a clever 6 year old, on their 3rd term bowing all 4 strings with piano accompaniment. The bowing was very pleasing, with the exception that the G string was played a little lightly. Then the stories came out as to which animals were heavy and why - a cow ( D string ) is heavy because it is full of milk, explained the student...... and so are Elephants ( G string ). Now when we talked about the nature of Elephants, and their weight, I produced a slow heavy G sound using all the contact and weight I could on my superb violin, and then asked my student to do the same. Most of what had gone on in the previous ten minutes ( ! ) had been descriptive, but the image of heaviness had grown so great that the student produced an astoundingly weighty G there and then, many hundreds of times richer and fuller than before. Of course such a tone had been searched for ( and obtained ! ) in previous lessons... but it was only by seeking for it and working for it that it was re-acquired. Needless to say there was as much imagination and psychological value to that G tone than their was physical. In other words, good technique is never purely a physical circus act or trick learnt in half an hour. It is, more likely a whole universe of feeling and well being, that is associated with holding the tone and having excellent vibrations emanate from the instrument.


Tone : Tone above all else, is the making or breaking of young violinists. Those who are given time to seek and perform gratifying tones are the ones who develop a love for their instrument, and subsequently a love for music and art. Needless to say, I spend most of my teaching searching and finding a special tone for every one of my students. No matter how many notes are played, if a tone is ugly, I cannot tolerate a students playing. I hate to mention this, but it is always the "advanced" students, who didnít start with me, who usually have a tone so ugly that it cannot compare in terms of beauty to the sound produced by a toddler ten years younger than them. This, then, is how I can tolerate teaching, by starting off my own students ( nearly always around the age of 5 if possible ), and teaching them ( usually indirectly by them hearing my tone as an example ) good tone. If a teacher doesnít have a good tone, nor will the student, for students always imitate their teachers, especially in the field of tone. On this aspect I am certain that students possess the same tone as their tutors. Some students are prone, however to spoil their tone in school orchestras, and in extreme, though not rare cases, this can entirely ruin a childís future as a violinist. With luck, however, one hopes not too much damage will occur, but there is the interesting case of students who keep away from these orchestras, and allow themselves only to hear their teacherís sound. They, of course, will always be seeking those pure, unadulterated tones, perfectly in tune. Their quality of tone will shine more brightly, and they will make better violinists, probably.


Conclusion / Violin Schools : To conclude this quick impression on playing at the heel, I would say that knowledge is paramount. The knowledge of technology and string playing. What we call the "school" of violin playing is crucial. In this case I have been talking about a certain Russian school, as may be evident from my other articles. The point is, that even if one follows a different school, like the Parisian school, one NEEDS such guidance. The violin cannot be grasped alone by chance, for it would take 2 million years to stumble across the answers that have been sent down ( through experience ) the schools. Many teachers do not belong to a specific school, indeed, many teachers have no where near the qualifications required to count themselves as belonging to a certain "school" or style of violin playing. But those who do have all the secrets that would otherwise be lost. It took myself along search to come upon such wisdom, but, as my teacher would point was not he, himself who invented this wonderful technology of violin playing. His particular school can be traced back to Auer, who actually had many differing students with their own styles and personality. In particular, my teaching was based on other previous schools, such as the French and Franco-Belgian schools of Rode and Vieuxtemps respectively. Their schools survive today, partly through teachers of the St.Petersburg school, who inherited their techniques, and partly through their etudes and studies, which are "bibles" of modern violin playing. Of course, they can be interpreted incorrectly by non believers, or bad players, but through the hands of violinists who have been trained according to the strict traditions of a school, they live and indeed the represent such schools. The etudes and concerti of the French school supply the backbone to the Modern St. Petersburg school. Violinist who donít know Wohlfarht, Kaysar, Mazas, Kreutzer, Rode, Dont, Gavinees and Wieniawski are missing out ! Sadly, in many parts of the world, teachers can qualify without such studies being undertaken. Furthermore, parents, friends and even record player collectors are all intent on running their Saturday morning orchestras for their bright little budding kids ! Needless to say, they ruin talent by the minute ! I recently took on a student, through the ISM, actually. Now the interesting story is that the student, having just moved to my city, had been asked to consult the ISM register by her previous teacher ( who happened to be the only ISM teacher in that county. ) Such a practice guaranteed that student a teacher who above all else was qualified. That in itself is a step forward, and my wish is that such organizations flourish abroad too, where they are much needed to represent decent standards in teaching and performing. In Russia, the main view is that only the best should teach, and only the best should learn ! That's a cruel fact, but rightly or wrongly, it's how the Russian system flourished. I have toned down ( or Westernized ) many of the principles that come from Russia, so that they are accepted and seem fair at least locally.




Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright © 2000 Westbury Park Strings
Last modified: November 08, 2000