The Water Hose

Note: This tip can be used in conjunction with the previous tips, #23 The Arm Swing Cure, and #24 Thumb Vacation.

In the previous practice tip we talked about the critical (and hidden) problem of thumb tension. You can lock up all the way to your shoulder because of your thumbs. This is how I apply that thinking to the bow hand.

Water Hose - Edited.jpg

Finding the bad guy

“There’s a bad guy in there,” I say when I suspect a child's tense thumb. “Shall we look in the window and see what's hiding?” If I have the student lift up their second finger, I can see behind it to what is going on with their thumb. Usually it is pressed inward like a banana, but sometimes it is bent at a right angle the other way.

When this is a persistent problem (and it often is with note-readers and orchestra players) I ask them to pretend their arm is a water hose.

Shoot me with the hose

What happens when you pinch a water hose? No water comes out. Don't pinch the hose!

Your arm is like a water hose. Water has to pour all the way down through the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and shoot out the thumb. But when you pinch your thumb you close off the hose.

Any other area, when clenched or tight, will similarly pinch off the energy going into the bow. Listen for the diminished tone, it actually sounds "pinched."

“Shoot me,” I say, “with your water hose!” Young students love that idea. For older students I just tell them that water should be able to flow out through their thumb. The point is that when the thumb is relaxed, the whole system will flow better.

It will be awkward

The first time I tried taking out my thumb from my bow, it was so awkward at first I thought my bow was going to fall out of my hand! I realized that there is a certain way to do it without dropping the bow. I describe this process below. But be warned, it will feel awkward at first!


Practice putting your right thumb on vacation using the following sequence:

  1. Set the bow at the frog, on the D string.
  2. The bow hand should straddle the D string. (Looking down through the gap between your first and second fingers of your bow hand, you should see the D string.)
  3. Take out your thumb. Actually take it away from the bow.
  4. Feel the weight of the bow pressing UP into the fingers of your bow hand.
  5. This will feel awkward, and you may drop the bow at first. If you have trouble holding the bow without your thumb: BE SURE YOU HAVE LOTS OF CONTACT WITH THE STICK. The “water-spider” hold (fingers on top of the stick) will not work for this exercise! Wrap your hand around so that your second knuckles are touching the stick.
  6. Gently replace your thumb, as you continue to feel the weight of the bow pressing UP into the hand.
  7. Move your arm, letting the bow move without pressure from your thumb. You should hear a noticeable improvement in the breadth and openness of tone, both at the frog and throughout the bow stroke.

Other practice options

SCALE: Set the bow at the frog and take out your thumb--then gently replace it and move the bow--before each note of a the D Major Scale.

TONALIZATION: Play the Suzuki Book 2 tonalization exercise same as above.

CHORUS: Play Handel’s Chorus, stopping before each new downbow phrase to place the bow at the frog. Take out and replace your thumb each downbow, then play as normal.

WALTZ MADE OF WATER: Play Brahms Waltz, from frog to tip. Let water come through your thumb at every up-bow to the frog.

Left-Right Hand Sympathy

Often squeezing in the left hand produces squeezing in the bow. Releasing the left hand will help with the right hand. Work in a separate practice session on sending the left thumb on vacation. See Practice Tip #24 - Thumb Vacation.

Jellyfish fingers

The upbow-to-downbow motion is aided significantly by flexing the fingers at the frog. (See Practice Tip #14 Jellyfish Fingers for how to practice this finger motion.) Practice softening of the thumb while flexing the fingers at the downbow. 

Painting with lace

Some students have large, strong fingers and have to think very hard about holding the bow gently. In addition to picturing the flow of water, I may add other imagery. Painting with lace, holding a feather, or petting a bird can work wonders for those prone to overuse of finger strength. It's about softening just enough to hold gently.

So here's to an enjoyable vacation for your thumbs. Your ears will thank them for leaving!