French or German bow? Q&A

I was recently interviewed by a graduate student in Switzerland about teaching the bow to beginning bassists. Here are the questions and my responses.

First, I am in a Master of Pedagogy. I played with french bow during 17 years and one year ago I changed to German bow and it’s a good  choice to me. However, I’m French and I would like to return in France to teach…
So, this my thesis’s subject : “French bow, German bow : Which bow propose to an adult beginner?”
The interviewees are professors who teach both types of bows to their students.
1. Some of your students play bow French , other German bow.
How do you explain this diversity in your class?
(How do you explain the diversity to an outside observer?)
 
I teach each student whichever style bow works best for them. We go through a process (explained in a later question) to determine this.
 
I also feel that French and German bow are more similar than people often think. Instrument position and technique is based on proper body mechanics, posture, and alignment.
Therefore, if we take a relaxed bow arm – that is the arm hanging naturally at the side of the body – the palm of the hand is generally facing the body. This is close to the German hold. For a relaxed French bow hand all we have to do is rotate the hand slightly counter-clockwise.
 
2. For you, this plurality in your class is an  advantage or disadvantage ?
Both.
3. Why ?
While it would definitely be easier to teach a class of one bow style, a mixed class allows students to see each style in action. This helps me and the students find the best bow style for them.

4. Have you yourself learned to play these two bows ?
Yes. When I started learning the bass I was not told of both bows. I was taught French bow only and did not know of the German bow until a few years later. I continued playing only French bow until after graduate school. I then took lessons with Greg Sarchet of the Chicago Lyric Opera who plays German bow. I wanted to learn German bow so I could better serve my students.
As it turned out, German bow was much easier for me! I wish I was given the choice earlier in my musical education.
5. Do you do both actually?
I currently play German bow exclusively but did study French bow in both undergraduate and graduate school.
6. Is it in function of style (classic; baroque, jazz…) ?
No – I now play German bow exclusively.
7. How do you see that a student needs to change bow ?
I look for muscle tension in the bow arm and hand. If one style leads to tension, we try the other bow.
8.  How do you decide with which bow on a beginner will begin? What are your criteria?
I first have the student relax their right arm. Then raise the arm so their hand hangs completely relaxed. Then we rotate the right hand from the neutral position (like French bow) clockwise to a German style hand position. We do this a few times and I observe if any tension develops.
 
Next, I’m going to place each style bow in the student’s hand. Again, the student relaxes their arm and then hangs their hand in a neutral position. I instruct the student to stay relaxed and not squeeze at all. I hold the tip of the French bow and gently place the frog area of the bow in the student’s hand. I repeat these steps with the German bow.
 
Almost always, the student’s arm and hand will prefer on style bow over the other.
 
There may be other considerations that you mentioned in your questionnaire. These include which bow may have been included with the student’s bass or if the student would prefer to learn one or the other.
 
 
9. Is there an easier bass’s bow to start?
 
I find that most students have an easier time with German bow at the beginning. In my experience about 70% of beginners do better with German bow. However there are always students who are better suited to the French style. I feel I would be doing a disservice to my students if I didn’t offer both styles.
10. Are there technical aspects ( spiccato , sound …) that are easier to address and achieve with either bow?
 
Absolutely! I think most teachers would agree that initially, tone production is much easier with the German bow. I find that in the early stages, French bow better facilitates spiccato and faster bowing and note divisions. I also find endurance is easier with the German bow as muscles tend to fatigue earlier holding a French bow.
However after continued studies these differences fade away.
 
For me, I still find that switching between arco and pizzicato is easier with the French bow.

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