Today we are going to look at the first cello grip that most of us learn. Some call it “French Grip”, I also refer to it as “Quick Grip”. It takes years to learn how to hold and use the bow correctly… When we first start to play arco (using the bow), we need an easy grip that everyone can understand right away, so we can start playing immediately. That’s where “French Grip” comes into play!
Quick History of French Grip
When some students, musicians or parents see that I’ve taught them/their child this grip, it can be confusing and even alarming… “Why would I teach a student an “incorrect” bow grip”, they say, “hey, they’re holding it the wrong way… ” etc, etc. Well let’s back up a second, this way of holding the bow was actually one on the main over-hand bow grips used in the early days of cello playing! It turns out that this bow grip (the first one I learned too!) is an Historical bow grip, pretty cool!
In the very first Cello Method Book, Méthode pour apprendre le violoncelle, Op.24, published in 1741 by French musician Michel Corrette (1707-1795), we find a diagram (below) listing multiple ways to hold the bow using an over-hand grip. In his description, Corrette shows two main hand placements. (1) The first being the common way Italians held a “convex” or “tapering” bow, choked up on the stick near the balance point (ABCD). Notice there are two placements given for the thumb (E stick, F hair) & two placements given for the 4th finger (D over stick, G under stick). (2) The second manner of holding the bow is at the frog (HIKM) with the thumb (L) underneath the frog. This second grip at the Frog is what we’re calling “French Grip”. So you see, holding the cello bow in this way goes back to the very beginning of cello playing!
It should be noted that for the first 250 years of cello playing much was not standardized like it is today. Some players held the cello with their legs, some on their arm, some with a strap, some sitting with the cello on the floor, some standing with the cello on a stool. Depending on the region, style of music, style of bow, and size of instrument; you may have played over-hand grip, in one of the two ways just described (see the diagram) or you may have played a third way, underhand grip. At a certain point, cellist began playing with the instrument between their legs, supported by the calves, like our cousins in the viola da gamba family. Players also adopted the underhanded bow grips that bass viol da gamba players use. Towards the beginning through the mid 1700’s, it was bass viola da gamba players who were switching to cello. I imagine some of them kept their underhanded grip technique… There are certainly many painted depictions showing all of the above, from the 1500’s to the mid 1700’s.
Here is a cello player (above) painted in 1535 by Gaudenzio Ferrari in the Sarrono Cathedral. If we zoom in to this painting (below), you can see the cello player is using the over-hand grip at the frog which Corrette describes 200 years later. It also clearly shows how a cello player using this grip would wrap the pinky around the back-side (“heel”) of the frog and under the stick to help stabilize the bow. As you can see, doing this puts you into a bit of a backwards lean… So instead of wrapping the pinky around the frog, as seen in this painting and described by Corrette (M), we will simply place the 4th finger on top of the stick (like the Italian grip, see photos), so to ease the transition into a normal grip at the frog.
Here are some photos of French Grip / Quick Grip, first on a Baroque era convex bow, then on a Romantic era Tourte style bow. Please model your grip on what you see in the photos.
There are some main differences for me when I am using this grip on my Baroque convex, tapering cello bow (pictured above) VS using this grip no my Romantic era concave bow (pictured below). The French Grip is more comfortable on The Baroque bow, which has a much lighter frog with no metal pieces and no metal winding on the stick. The bow is easier to manipulate, because of this lightness. It also has a convex shape where your fingers are holding the stick, so it is a little more natural to grip the bow in this way. The stick sort of “comes up” to meet your fingers. When I am using my Romantic era Tourte style bow, the stick starts to slope down right away and my hand feels a little more crunched when holding the bow in the French Grip. The frog is much heavier and has metal pieces. Gripping the bow in this way feels quite chunky and hard to use (when it comes to actual good bow technique). If you think about it, it makes sense, by time the more modern bows were developed cello players had moved to griping the bow at the frog with the thumb at the stick. So, the modern bow isn’t designed to be comfortable using the French Grip, like the old Baroque bows were. For these reasons, we don’t want to spend tooo long playing in French Grip on a modern bow. It’s just a beginners grip, a stepping stone to get you on your way to using the bow. That’s why I like to call it “Quick Grip: it is easy & quick to learn and we want to move quickly away from this bow grip to a standard bow grip. More on that in the following post!
Now let’s see how that translates when we grip a heavier, modern bow with a concave (rather than straight or convex) stick shape….
After you have studied these pictures, compare your French Grip / Quick Grip to mine. Are they the same? What’s different? Where is my thumb placed? Is it on the metal ferrule? Does my thumb line up in between my 2nd and 3rd finger? Does my 2nd finger touch the leather/rubber/winding? Is there enough space between 1st and 2nd finger? Does the bow intersect/cross through the middle segment on all of my fingers?
After you get the hang of bowing with a proper French Grip / Quick Grip, you’re ready to transition to a normal / standard bow grip at the frog. Look for my next post on this topic, where I’ll cover how to transition from one grip to the other! Good luck, Keep your Hand and Wrist Relaxed & Happy Practicing! ~ Brian
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