Mushin and the Art of Hooked Bowing

February 24, 2010

In the martial arts, at least the Japanese based ones, there is the concept of mushin, or mind of no mind. Basically it means something that you do without thought. The example I like to use is tying your shoes. When you first learned as a child it required effort and thought. You had to break the process down in to steps and perform each step deliberately in order to get your laces tied.

After a while the actions became automatic. As an adult I am unaware of the act of tying my shoe laces - it just happens. I've achieved a state of mushin with regard to tying my shoes. There are aspects of mushin in learning to play a musical instrument. Skills that are required which you must learn step by step at first and, only after many repetitions do they start to become fluid and automatic.

For me right now playing using hooked bowing is still at the step by step phase. The notation is two notes connected by a slur, with the first note having three times the duration of the second note by virtue of being thw next longest note plus a dot. In other words, a dotted quarter note followed by an eighth note. Or a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note. The two notes are played with the same bow direction, either two up-bows or two down-bows.

The first step for me was to play the rhythm on an open string. Long-short, long-short. Up-bow-up-bow, down-bow-down-bow. Over and over until the bowing pattern began to feel more natural. Next I started moving from one open string to another. A long-short, long-short rhythm on the C-String using up-bows followed by another long-short, long-short on the G-String using down-bows. Again until the pattern began to feel natural.

Next I started playing a C-Major scale, using a long-short for each note in the scale. Finally I played the scale changing the note for each bowing. This last step proved to be the hardest as it requires changing your left hand fingering at the same time as you are repeating or changing the bow direction, and, every four notes, change which string your are playing. The first few attempts at this were halting and surprisingly difficult. After several repetitions things began to flow together and the bowing was less conscious and more automatic. The beginnings of mushin.

It will take weeks of focus on this technique to really begin to make it completely automatic, and years before it is as natural as tying my shoes.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.