Simon Fischer's Basics is the best nuts and bolts book on the violin that I've ever read. Fischer was a student of Dorothy Delay, is a faculty member at the Guildhall School in London and writes a column for the Strad on technique. He delves into every aspect of technique and has solutions for almost every technical problem that is out there. More importantly, he explains everything in a very clear and concise manner, with lots of pictures and illustrations to clarify difficult concepts. I encourage you to explore his website, which contains a number of insightful articles on rhythm, practicing, mental rehearsal, and more.
I got this book when I was an undergrad and spent a month or so in the summer exploring it. At the time I was interested in developing my tone and vibrato that were giving me trouble, and I largely ignored large sections of the book, or just didn't think they applied to me. Boy was I wrong!
I came back to the book for possible solutions to problems I was having with spiccato and decided to try some other exercises in the book for fun. My experiment convinced me that there's a lot of merit in practicing technical exercises even if you don't think they apply to you!
I've been inspired by this article at Study Hacks, one of my favorite blogs, to create a textbook of my own as a way to encourage deeper and faster learning. What follows could be considered my first entry in my personal violin/viola textbook.
Anyway, to the problem: I've always noticed that at the end of my practice sessions I would have a bruise or red spot on my index finger where it contacted the bow. I knew this meant I was likely putting too much pressure on it and that I should be spreading the weight of the bow throughout all five fingers, but no matter what I tried I tended to pinch too much with my first finger and thumb.
The first exercise "Thumb Counter-Pressure" got me to feel how pressure from the thumb is really only needed slightly at the middle, more at the tip, and not at all at the frog. Right away my thumb started to feel more relaxed, a feeling which only increased after trying the "Thumb Flexibility" exercise on pg. 3. This exercise essentially has you flex and release your thumb while playing at various dynamic levels, showing you that it can be quite loose no matter how loud or soft you are playing.
Those exercises did a lot for my poor, overworked thumb, but what about my first finger? I had been taught the "Hand Balance" exercise on pgs. 5- 6 many years ago by Jeffrey Irvine. In this exercise you hold your first finger off the bow for the entirety of a long bow, putting it down lightly only for the last quarter of the bow. This is a great exercise but it hadn't really solved my own problem.
The hint of the solution posed itself to me after practicing Heidi Castleman's spiccato series, which has you start with dropping and "dribbling" the bow, lifting it off the string with forearm rotation and using the pinky to support the weight of the tip. After practicing "Balancing with the fourth finger" (pg. 3) and "The Give of the Hand into the Bow" (pg. 6) I realized that I had very little awareness of how the back of my hand balances the bow, especially at the frog. This new awareness has proven to be really useful not only in spiccato, but also while playing at dynamic extremes, which have given me a lot of trouble in the past. I feel a much greater sense of control and ease in this strokes now!
In a short amount of time this has totally changed my approach to the bow, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how it develops! More soon!