Getting the best, richest sounds from your violin depends on a number of factors. And, if you’re a beginner, one of the challenges to getting your best sound involves learning to properly adjust violin bow tension. That means that the looseness or tightness of the bowhair can make a big impact on not only how you sound, but how easy it is to play and practice.
You violin bow must be adjusted every time you play. But, like all things, it gets easier the more you practice. Two good rhyming tips to remember are: Lefty loosey, right tighty, and: Tighten for playing, loosen for staying. You must tighten the bow (add tension) to play, but when you’re finished, you should loosen the bowhair (remove the tension) before you put it away. This is critical for keeping your bow in the best condition. If you don’t release the tension on the bow after each practice, the stress can eventually warp it, or even break off the head of the bow!
One of the most common questions new players have about adjusting their bows is ‘how tight is too tight?’ There’s a tendency for new students, when adjusting their violin bow, to be a little over zealous and apply way too much tension on the bow. But, your violin bow is fragile, and making your bow too tight can cause lots of problems.
The bow will be harder to control (especially as you learn past the basic up and down bow strokes)
Too much tension can snap the head right off
It causes over stretching of the bowhair (which means you’ll have to rehair your bow more often, and it may eventually warp the camber—the curvature of the bow)
Constant overtightening can strip the eyelet contained in the frog—once that happens, you’ll need a replacement eyelet right away (a relatively inexpensive fix), but you can’t play with a worn or stripped eyelet.
Rules for Tightening
Turn the adjustment button right to tighten the bowhair, left to loosen it.
When you adjust your violin bow each time you play or practice, there are a few tricks you can use to learn the right “touch.” Many teachers will tell you that a pencil is a handy thing to use to gauge exactly the right level of tension.
Place the end of a standard pencil between the bowhair and stick, at about the middle of you bow. The tension is good when the pencil just fits in the space. That means that the hairs and the stick should both slightly touch the pencil.
Until you get more familiar with this technique, it’s a good idea to keep a short golf pencil in your violin case. Having the pencil in plain sight can also help remind you to loosen your bow before putting it away.
Knowing You’ve Got It Right!
You can tell if you’ve adjusted your violin bow correctly by looking at it. The bowhair will be closer to the stick along the camber of the bow, and slightly further from it at the head and frog end of the bow.
Your bow will perform better and the bowhair will last longer when you make sure to follow basic care techniques concerning adjusting your violin bow. But, when you really need to have your bow re-haired, don’t wait. Uneven tension along the hairs can also warp your bow, and it’s much less expensive to have it re-haired than it is to repair the warped camber. To do that, a Luthier would have to heat and re-shape it, and this process is tricky.
By taking care to adjust the tension of your bow every time you play, you can make sure that you're playing your best, and that your bow will last. Learn more about taking care of your instrument.