What is the bow?
Your bow is a wooden or fiberglass stick that has horsehair stretched on it, kept tautly. If your bow’s stick is made of wood, it is usually one of the following woods:
Typically, the black parts of the bow are plastic or ebony wood. The screw is metal. Sometimes there is mother-of-pearl on the frog (the dot on the frog) and sometimes that’s plastic. Take also a look at this video about relatively cheap and expensive bows:
The bow hair, which is white horsehair, has rosin applied to it that makes the normally smooth horsehair sticky. Rosin’s stickiness is what makes the hair create the violin’s characteristic sound when it is drawn across the strings.
The bow may have other things on the stick near the frog, such as a pad or wound wire around the stick, which is there to help your hand to not slip around when you’re holding the bow and playing your violin.
Don’t Touch the Bow Hair
You must make sure not to touch the horsehair of the violin bow! If you do, that part of the bow hair will get some of your skin’s natural oil on it. This is especially important for children who just start out playing the violin.
Skin oil on the bow hair will make that part of the bow hair not be able to become as sticky when rosin is applied to it, which will make the bow not create a sound at that part of the bow. Touching the bow hair will also make that part of the hair attract dirt much more quickly. If your bow gets dirty, your playing might not sound very good!
How to Tighten and Loosen the Bow Hair
The bow hair must be tightened before every playing session and loosened after you are done. This is done with the screw, on the frog of the bow. You usually only need to turn it about 2 or 3 times to tighten or loosen it. This will increase your chances of becoming a confident violin player.
If you hold the bow as shown above, with the screw on the right, you should turn the top of the screw away from you (to the right) to tighten the hair. Then, to loosen it, you turn it toward you. Right-y tight-y, left-y loose-y.
What I show my students is how to tighten the hair enough to where, in the middle of the bow (see picture below), the space between the hair and the stick is about as thick as a standard wooden pencil or perhaps slightly thicker.
Rosining your Violin Bow
Rosin should be applied, at most, only once per playing session. If you apply too much rosin, it will attract dirt and shorten your bow hair’s life. You only need to apply about 5 to 7 strokes of rosin, most of the time. Many children who teach themselves the violin, are not always aware of how important this is.
To apply rosin, hold the rosin in your left hand and your bow in your right. Use your usually bowing motion to rub the hair against the rosin cake. Use long smooth strokes at a slightly slow bow speed (compared to playing speed). You can go slower if you want. Be sure not to touch your bow hair to your hand.
With round cakes of rosin (like in the picture below), try not to wear a single groove in the rosin. Each time you need to rosin your bow, rotate the cake just a little bit.
Replacing the Bow Hair
Sometimes, bow hair just wears out. Usually, this is after it becomes so dirty that it will not pick up rosin any longer. It doesn’t make a good sound and it begins to turn an ugly grayish color. Time for new hair!
You have two choices. You can either take it to a violin shop and get the hair replaced or you can try to do it yourself with a bow re-hair kit (which I do not recommend…there are a lot of tiny parts inside of the frog that can be easy to break or lose).
If you are offered synthetic bow hair, I don’t recommend using it. Real horsehair, in my experience, always gives a better sound. I also recommend not using bleached horsehair, although it may not be marked, because the bleaching process makes the hair more brittle and likely to break sooner.
When you get a bow back from the shop, after the bow hair has been replaced, you may find that it makes no sound when you try to play with it! This is because the bow needs to be rosined for the first time.
It takes a looooooooooooooong time to put on enough rosin. Keep putting on rosin and trying to play with the bow every once in a while until it starts acting like a proper violin bow (making a sound when drawn across the strings)!
For a couple of weeks after you bring back a newly re-haired bow, sometimes hairs will fall out of one side or the other on the bow and hang loose. This is normal and happens once in a while anyway. Simply (and carefully) clip the hairs close to where they are anchored with fingernail clippers.
How to Store Your Violin Bow and Avoid Damage
When you are not actually playing your violin, you can do one of two things to safely store your bow. You can either put it into the case with the violin or you can hang it up with the violin on a violin hook. Children who learn to play the violin should additionally learn well how to take care of their instruments at the same time.
Violin cases have bow spinners to store at least one bow. Usually, cases have places for two bows. The bow’s tip is usually tucked into one end of the underside of the top half of the case and then the spinner secures the frog end of the bow.
Violin hooks mount on the wall and allow you to quickly hang your violin gently on the hook. You then, just as gently, hang your violin bow from the extra extended piece. Take a look at the picture below:
Additional Tips on Taking Care of Your Bow
Finally, here are a few tips on how to best take care of your bow.
- You always want to loosen the hair after you’re done playing so that the stick of the bow does not warp.
- Also, never play without tightening the bow because the hair will not be taut enough to draw a good sound from the violin.
- Never overtighten the bow because it may break the parts inside the frog that keep the hair taut.
- Never over-loosen the bow because you can make the hair so loose that it catches on things or even falls out.
- Don’t tap things with the tip of the bow. The bow is not a sword! It can break.
- When you’re not playing the violin, during a break, for example, either put the bow on the music stand or hold it straight up or down. In an orchestra, it can be very easy to accidentally poke someone. It is no fun to be poked in the eye with a bow!
- Don’t put your bow in your chair. Put it on the music stand if possible. It’s too easy to not see the bow and sit on it, possibly breaking it.