Song of the Month: Bach Peasant Cantata Bowing Practice

June 2017: Part 2 – Bow Practice

Update: Last week I posted a recording of Bach’s Peasant cantata along with the sheet music and bowing practice. View and/or download these items at this link. I’ve updated the practice handout to make things more clear, so you may wish to download a fresh copy.


If there’s one thing you need to know practicing music, it’s that the sheet music on the stand in front of you doesn’t begin to capture the heart and soul of the music.

It’s your job as a musician to create that aura or mood around the music while your playing it. It won’t happen by accident.

Beginning and intermediate violinists don’t get a pass on this idea. Your job as artist and interpreter starts on day one. Leave out this crucial step and your music resembles playing a tune using the keypad of a telephone. Dull and lifeless.

The heart and soul of your interpretation begins with the bow arm, so that’s where we’ll begin our work.

The Peasant Cantata, like much of J.S. Bach’s music is adaptable to almost any style of playing. For our purposes, create interest and variety in the music by introducing variety of bowing styles.

We’ll use three separate bowing techniques:

  1. A relatively fast smooth connected bow, also called legato
  2. The “slow bow” which retains the smoothness of the of the fast bow but at a markedly slower pace.
  3. The swoosh bow, which features a subtle gap in sound between strokes and a slight acceleration/deceleration in during each stroke.
  • Begin by practicing the swoosh bow on open strings. Support the violin with your unused left hand while you bow.
    • Play either open A or open E swooshes in the tempo of the song
    • Next, play swooshes on the A or E string using the practice sheet to indicate where your bow will ultimately
    • Create a subtle gap between your up and down strokes along with the “swoosh” speed up in the middle of the stroke.
    • Practice Tip: Choose a tempo that enables you to fully control these motions and speed up over a few days until you reach your desired performance tempo.
  • The smooth bow is straightforward. Make the change of bow direction seem inaudible to the listener. Use open strings, just like the swoosh bow practice above.Some smooth bow practice tips:
    • Always feel the a “sticky connection” between your bow and string. It’s feels more like swimming than ice skating.
    • Your bow speed will be consistent both in the middle of the stroke and at when you change directions.
    • There no need to use the entire bow. Instead opt for as much freedom of movement as you can muster while retaining a sense of ease and control.
  • In this music, slow bow follows on the heels of the smooth bow. Practice it by simply adding a single slower “gooey” extended note to the end of a series of faster smooth bows.Slow bow practice tip:
    • The volume and tone of your slow bow should match the quicker smooth bows that proceed it. You may need to adjust the bow position a bit closer to the bridge while you produce this note.
  • Finally practice all three bowing styles in sequence on open strings while following the bowing practice guide.You are now “performing” the entire song with the bow alone, a valuable experience.

    Practice tip:

    • Practice two note groups, i.e. moving from smooth/fast to slow or moving from swoosh to smooth. Do this at the full tempo of the song as you intend to perform it.

Taken together, this practice sequence will give you a nimble and dynamic control over the bowing process. At the same time, your performance gains in variety and color.

Experiment with “hamming it up” by moving your bow arm with the grace and fluidity of a ballet dancer. It’s fun to try this in front of a mirror.

Resist the temptation to immediately add the left hand (pitches) to your practice. Waiting a few days will give your bow arm the attention it truly deserves. I like to say the bow is 90% of your performance.

Also, it’s great to enjoy the sonorous quality of open string playing. Playing on open strings is under-rated! Just be sure your strings are in tune before you begin your session.

Next week we’ll expand on our bow work by adding a relaxed control over pitch in our left hand. In the mean time, enjoy your Bach bowing! Remember, ham it up! It’s your job to entertain the listener. 🙂

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Bill Alpert

About the Author

Bill Alpert

Bill Alpert is a performer, teacher and author with a unique focus on personal development and mindfulness viewed through the lens of violin study. Mr. Alpert's resume includes recordings, performances and film scores with artists such as The Moody Blues, Pepe Romero, Tina Turner and Johnny Mathis. The co-founder of the award winning Alpert Studio of Voice and Violin in California, he is professionally active in the American String Teachers Association and the Suzuki Association of America.