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A Left Hand "Bow Direction" Technique, thanks to Shane Cook

Posted by bj on Sunday, May 3, 2009

Yesterday I had a 90% fabulous day (the 10% that wasn't fabulous involved road construction, mapping software that doesn't take 3 traffic lights per mile and an overburdened road into account on a 40 mile stretch, and a Delaware River Bridge that was closed to traffic from both directions for awhile with NO easily available alternate route! Over 3 hours to drive approximately 70 miles! UGH! I made it back home in under 2.5, even with a nasty detour, simply by travelling the county roads and taking a different river crossing.)

Well, I did make it to Nancy's house barely in time to meet her husband Wally, and bolt down her fabulous homemade lunch of  Lasagna and Green Salad prior to us rushing out the door to show up a few minutes late for the Shane Cook workshop.

Shane is an amazing fiddler and a truly nice guy. And his love of the fiddle comes through so strongly that you can't help but be inspired! He had a nice turnout for this, probably around 30 or so fiddlers, some of whom I know either from the P'burg jam or other jams. Shane's a very informal workshop leader, but that is really deceptive, since we still seemed to cover an enormous amount of ground, some of it which was above my current skill level (rolls and triplets), but that I now know enough about to file in the gray matter to revisit in future when my left hand fingers do some catching up in the speed department. I'll probably be adding them to my slow exercises in the next few days, to start working them in sometime in the future.

I've figured out, now that I've attended two of these types of workshops, that if you take ONE valuable technique away from it, then it's successful, given that you have so many people at so many different levels of playing and it's so challenging for the instructor to cover the gamut. With Shane's workshop, I took away more than one technique, so I figure it was wildly successful!

Shane's playing is very  . . . lyrical. He phrases things with an approach that shares both elements of an excellent percussionist and a premier vocal stylist. He showed us a lot of ways to change up the interest in bowing by very subtly holding the long note in a phrase a very tiny fraction of a beat longer in order to impart swing and lift to playing. He didn't point this out, but I noticed that, when he does this, he also sometimes varies the bow pressure from the beginning of that long note to the end, sometimes ending it more strongly, and other times starting it with a stronger bow. He also varies a tune by changing the accent to different beats in the measure. When he does his rolls, he holds the first note a fraction longer, another way to add "lift".

By the way, Shane's a "Downbow on the Downbeat" kinda guy. Which means that so far out of two expert fiddlers I've taken workshops with, in addition to my fiddle teacher, all are directional bowers. Which means I am now firmly and totally convinced I'm on the right path in learning Downbowing (or upbowing, as the case may be!) Anyway, bidirectional Laissez-faire bowing is not for me. Directional bowing is just way too powerful a tool in the toolbox to take what I perceive as the intellectually lazier way, even if you can get good results with bidirectional bowing. Too many powerful fiddlers whose playing I love and respect have chosen directional bowing, which I feel is such a strong vote in its favor that I'd be a fool to ignore it.

What I think of as a "scrunch" is something else Shane taught us. This is where you dig in the bow pretty damn hard on purpose to make that scratchy sound all us beginners try to avoid, but you do it on three quick strokes (up down up or the reverse) and it actually ends up sounding good since it's so fast and adds a percussive ornament which is very distinctive. He showed us how to make the string "pop" by starting the bow stroke with the bowhair having enough pressure on it to almost be on the stick at the start of the stroke, so when the movement starts the pop happens. I'm gonna find that pop useful in adding drive to my oldtime playing. I'm just starting to feel at home enough with the bow to add this kind of stuff in. Interestingly, you tighten your wrist to do this. The pressure comes from the upper arm. Those are bad habits for beginners and cause problems for those players, but when done by a more experienced player for a deliberate purpose, can be great fun, and add a dimension to the tune.

He also covered slurs on blue notes to make a piece sound a bit bluesy. That was fun, especially since we got to hear him play some of the more Texas Swingy kind of stuff while he was demonstrating that. Wow, can he ever play! It's a joy to hear him, even when he's horsing around. He's definitely serving the Muse(ic) every time he puts bow to strings.

But the best of all the things I learned was the Left Hand finger flick trick. Us directional bowers are always looking for tricks to keep the bow going in the direction we want. This usually involves combinations of bow patterns. But sometimes the way I hear a tune in my head doesn't allow for the usual turnaround tricks, or falls short when I use one. This trick may work in those instances when a ghost bow doesn't give a strong enough percussive difference to two identical notes going in the same direction on the bow. You simply break up the note by flicking any one of your left hand fingers against the string in question to break up its vibration. The trick here is not to stop the string, since you don't want to "make a note", you simply want to interrupt the vibration. So you simply flick your fingertip across it, and not in a way that will "pizzicato" it, but simply in a way that will stop/interrupt the vibration. This will take some practice since it's fairly granular, control wise, but WHAT A GREAT TRICK!!! It definitely makes the two notes on the same bow very distinct, which ghost bowing or pulse bowing doesn't do as well. And there are times when you want very distinct notes for percussive/accent reasons, so I think I will find places in my playing where this will be the perfect trick to keep my bow going the way I want it to, and still be able to get the sound I want. This is not as intuitive as the usual bow tricks, so I'll probably have to contrive a couple exercises to get it working well for me, but wowza, it is POWERFUL! It's really pretty amazing, since you can make two identical notes going the same bow direction sound pretty damn close to sawstroked in emphasis, though they're not bowed with two bow strokes.

Thank you, Shane Cook, for giving us some very valuable knowledge, and making it fun in the process. I learned a lot! And hearing you play was a joy. I just wish I could have stayed for the concert. And special thanks also go to Steve Jacobi for organizing this wonderful workshop. After organizing the Ken Kolodner workshop a couple weeks ago, I know exactly how much hard work Steve had to do to make this event a success.

After the workshop Nancy made her home available for some of us to jam for awhile. Rick and Nancy (regulars at the P'burg jam) and Sam and I worked for awhile on that tune we learned from Shane that nobody can remember the name of, but hopefully Nancy has on her recording. It's a tune he says is from the Cape Breton region, and is a lot of fun to play, though it for some reason has trouble sticking in the brain, and it wasn't just me who had this issue. Rick, a six year fiddle veteran, and Sam, who's been playing since he was a kid, both had the same problem! We've vowed to have it down for the next P'burg jam though.

Nancy plays guitar, and has just picked up the fiddle a bit over two weeks ago. The informal jam we had at her house has definitely set her firmly on the fiddle path. We played (slowly) the very first tune her teacher, Steve Jacobi, assigned for her to learn, Red River Valley, and she managed to play along just fine, with only a few minor mistakes. And when she did make an oops she got back into the groove pretty quickly, which is a very important skill. YAY!

Nancy and Wally treated me to another homecooked meal before I started my return trip. Bison Burger on a hard roll with coleslaw, some outrageously excellent dark chips I have to find out the brand of, and potato salad. Yum! Nancy, you can cook for me anytime! I set out for the long trip home, just as they left for the concert. I hope they all had an excellent time.

What a day! One I will remember for a very long time.

7 comments on “A Left Hand "Bow Direction" Technique, thanks to Shane Cook”

OTJunky Says:
Sunday, May 3, 2009 @4:05:03 PM

"Anyway, bidirectional Laissez-faire bowing is not for me."

"bidirectional" and "Laissez-faire" are two different things.


laissez faire


1. the theory or system of government that upholds the autonomous character of the economic order, believing that government should intervene as little as possible in the direction of economic affairs.

2. the practice or doctrine of noninterference in the affairs of others, esp. with reference to individual conduct or freedom of action.


of, pertaining to, or conforming to the principles or practices of laissez faire.

And it's not at all obvious what the adjectives - bidirectional and Laissez-faire - mean when used in combination to describe bowing.

Unless the combination is intended to imply definition "2" above - meaning that bidirectional, Laissez-faire bowers will not "interfere" with the freedom of other kinds of bowers to bow however they like.

I wish there were more Laissez-faire downbowers... ;-)


bj Says:
Sunday, May 3, 2009 @4:34:19 PM

From Wikipedia:

Laissez-faire (pronunciation: French, laissez-faire.ogg [lɛsefɛʁ] (helpinfo); English, En-us-laissez-faire.ogg ˌleɪseɪˈfɛər (helpinfo)) is a term used to describe a policy of allowing events to take their own course. The term is a French phrase literally meaning "let do".

OTJunky Says:
Sunday, May 3, 2009 @4:39:45 PM

Ahhh - in that case, it would be wrong to apply it to bi-directional bowing... ;-)

Or to any other rhythmic bowing style.


bj Says:
Monday, May 4, 2009 @11:21:50 AM

Ya know, OTJ, I've tried downbowing, and upbowing, and bidirectional bowing. I found upbowing to be most comfortable, followed by downbowing. Bidirectional is much more difficult to impart strong rhythm into. Have you tried downbowing? Or upbowing? If not, then maybe you should.

OTJunky Says:
Monday, May 4, 2009 @6:30:19 PM

I have tried downbowing. I think most people have and a lot of them like it and stick with it.

I've no objection at all to downbowing. My objection is focussed rather on the use of the adjective "Laissez-faire" when it's applied to bi-directional bowing. I think that "Laissez-faire" - when used in that context - has a pejorative connotation. Specifically, it can be read as implying that folks who use bi-directional bowing are less concerned about imparting a strong rhythm - an implication that I think is untrue.

As far as I know, any serious fiddler is concerned about imparting a strong rhythm - doesn't matter whether he/she is an upbower, a downbower, or a bidirectional bower and I think there are some pretty good fiddlers in all three camps.

Sorry to sidetrack your blog discussion by starting another "bowing war". Maybe I should've just let it pass.

rastewart Says:
Monday, May 4, 2009 @10:15:43 PM

I'll get it back on track, maybe. (Partial atonement for all the times I've sidetracked discussions. :-) ) Though I am about to turn in and will be brief. But I agree that if you learn even one useful technique you're ahead of the game, and you've got several here--very well described, too. I'm going to try to remember to come back to this post when I'm good enough to try some of them.

bj Says:
Tuesday, May 5, 2009 @4:41:19 AM

Nancy came up with the name of that swell tune we learned. It was Loggieville Two Step.

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