The mechanics of a Texas fiddler’s bow arm are completely different from any other style. These mechanics are created by the Texas fiddler’s approach to the instrument. To them, as Dick Barrett says, “The fiddle is not a stringed instrument, it is a bowed instrument”. Thus the emphasis is placed on bow technique and right arm mechanics.
The following description of the Texas bowing technique and resulting tone production should help explain this styles slightly different focus. Although I edited and expanded on it, much of the description was related to me by Dick Barrett the morning after a jam session at our house during the summer of 1990..
Most budding or book taught fiddlers, including those who play other styles and are now attempting Texas style, use entirely too much bow.
If we were to draw the sound of a single bowed note as played by most fiddlers and classical musicians, we would see that the loudest and strongest part of that note is at its center or towards its end.
They let the note build intensity:
The bow begins its stroke (A), and the sound of the note builds as the bow accelerates, then peaks at its loudest most noticeable point (B), and dies off as the bow decelerates to change direction (C) for the next note.
A series of bowed (not slurred notes) would look like this:
The player changes bow direction and begins the new note right on the beat (A), holding it for the time value of the note. Since the strongest and most noticeable part of the note is in the middle or toward the end of the bow stroke, the note and the player tend to sound late because the beat was at the start of the stroke and the notes emphasis was in the middle or towards the end of the stroke. This late feeling is especially noticeable when contrasted with the plucked note from an accompanying guitar since the strength of the plucked note is at its beginning.
The gaps between each of the previous diagrams are referred to as “air-time”, which consists of the time necessary for one note to end, the bow to change direction, and a new note to begin. A Texas fiddler seeks to make that gap as small as possible, ideally to eliminate it.
Eliminate the air time:
Even if a player were to accomplish the elimination of air-time, he still would not sound like a Texas fiddler because the strength of the note falls slightly after the beat.
The goal is to move the strength of the note closer and closer to its start, right where the beat hits. You are then playing “on top of the beat” or as Matt Hartz calls it, “riding the wave”, and the perfect note would look like this.
A series of perfect notes played on top of the beat with no air-time would look like this:
This approach, playing on top of the beat, produces the drive which makes the song dance. To consistently play on top of the beat, a players up-bow must be as strong as their down-bow which other styles do not advocate. A short bow stroke, about two or three inches long, appearing to move slowly, accomplishes this on top of the beat feel more effectively than a longer stroke moved quickly and is less work. It will also produce a thicker tone.
Air-time cannot be entirely eliminated (except when slurring) simply because you must first stop moving in one direction before going the other way. By using the bow correctly, the ear can be tricked into believing the air-time is gone. This is why it is so difficult to decipher a Texas fiddler’s bow direction. While a copyist can find the notes, the music still does not sound the same as the original, they must also find the bow.
To deceive the ear into believing the “air time” is gone, several changes must be made with the bow arm to distinguish it from a classical approach to the instrument.
The right elbow must be lifted to a point where it is level with or slightly above the right hand. There are times when the bow strokes are led with the elbow or with both the elbow and the shoulder. If the elbow is up the bow will travel back and forth across the strings rather than up and down so you won’t be fighting gravity on the up bow.
Some Texas fiddlers, although not all, use what is normally considered by classical players as a beginner bow hold with the thumb under the frog, which changes the fulcrum within the hand. Others tend to favor more of what would be considered as a Russian Bow Hold. Either way, the knuckles of the right hand should then be tilted toward the fiddle.
Contrary to popular belief, a loose or floppy wrist is not used. It should be relaxed but firm. If it is floppy the arm will change directions on the beat, ahead of the hand and the bow, making the player sound late.
When crossing strings, most players have been taught to finish the note they are playing, then drop or lift the bow to the new string and then begin the new note. The angle formed at the point where the first bow stroke ends and the hand/bow drops or lifts to start on the new string will be almost 90 degrees.
This angle needs to be eliminated or reworked into a circular effect. The bow should not finish its stroke, move to the new string, then begin a new stroke. It should circle into the new string while finishing the old stroke.
The bow should be played just slightly beyond the middle of the bow instead of on the tip. This is the strongest part of the bow and the stroke. Playing there will help in string crossing and moving in circles. The hand will not need to be raised or lowered as far when changing strings if the bow is played in the middle instead of the tip. Think in terms of economy of movement.
During one of my many discussions with the chair of a university music department about allowing students to major in fiddle performance, we eventually managed to define one of his questions as, “Why do violinists or fiddlers tend to sound late when playing in a rock band?” As it turned out, this question was a major concern of his. I responded by saying:
During the song, when the beat arrives and the guitar player picks one string, or the drummer hits a drum, the strength of the sound – the power – arrives at the same instant as the beat.
However, for the violinist or fiddler, when the beat hits, he or she is usually just beginning to move their bow, which makes the weakest part of their sound. The strength and power of their sound doesn’t happen until the middle of the bow stroke, or slightly after the beat, so they sound late.
Texas fiddlers strive to get the power of the note out when the beat arrives.