Singing with the Bow

Eliot Heaton – Violinist

Photo of Eliot Heaton

Over the past few years, I have had the wonderful pleasure of working with Eliot Heaton, Concertmaster of the Michigan Opera Theatre and Des Moines Metro Opera, and his bows. The way that Eliot shapes phases and uses his bow is inspiring to any bow maker and much can be learned from such high caliber musicians. We welcome him here on our blog, sharing some insight on how he draws insight from the human voice to produce thoughtful, vocal-like phrases. Eliot has an impressive resume for sure, check out his website for his full bio and calendar of upcoming performances at:

Singing with the Bow

I find that my bow arm works at its best when I am directly imitating the human voice. There are wonderful Concertmaster solos in opera that are in unison with a soprano or revisit a melody that was sung previously. When mimicking the human voice, phrasing and character become so instinctive that the right arm almost moves on its own. How can we as string players make that instinct a reliable part of our bow use and playing?

Connect the Bow to the Breath

We have all spent a good deal more time breathing than we have practicing our instruments. We understand air coming into and out of our bodies on a much more fundamental level than we do moving our arm back and forth across the strings. Anyone who has heard a beginner play Twinkle can agree that it would be far more enjoyable to hear that person sing the melody rather than play it; their musical instincts can take over more readily through their breath and voice than through their arms and fingers. If we use those breathing and vocal instincts to inform our bow arm of what we want it to do we can bring those more fundamental instincts to bear on our own playing.

Sing and Imitate

Take a simple melody like “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” In the opening ascending, we naturally give more support to the second note than the first. If we hesitate and tighten up during the leap, the results are comical and not nice to listen to. Our bow should function in the same courageous way as our breath does to support our sound, increasing our chance of an accurate leap rather than shying away from the possibility of a missed one. Stiffening the shoulder and pressing into the string produces the same result as trying to sing this leap with clenched abdominal muscles. Conversely, playing timidly with a stiff thumb that keeps the bow from flowing across the string is like singing the melody while sitting in a tub of ice cold water, each note becomes more shaky and difficult to produce accurately. It is easier to recognize blockages in our breathing than in our bow arm, so using one to imitate the other is a good way of uncovering and relieving unhelpful areas of tension.

Listen and Imitate

I find that there is as much to learn in recordings by Pavarotti and Callas as there is in those of Heifetz and Oistrakh. The tone production and phrasing of great singers can directly inform how we want our bow to resonate sound out of the instrument. Play Schubert’s “Ave Maria” along with Jessye Norman or “O mio babbino caro” with Maria Callas and see what the bow does to match those sounds. Feeding different sounds into our creative imagination gives us more diverse options for creating something beautiful when we play ourselves.


We ultimately want to gain enough fluency with our bow that is able to accomplish anything that the music requires. Equating our bow with our breath and singing through the instrument allows us to access our musical intentions through a different part of our mind, one which is further from the physical act of playing but closer to our physical instinct and intuition.

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