Upside Down Bow – Balanced Bow


Notes from my studies with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki


Every Monday afternoon each week there was a concert for Suzuki Sensei in the Concert Hall. It was called Getsu Con or Monday Concert and it was several hours long. This was such a great way to begin a week of tone study! Suzuki Sensei could hear everyone play and understand their tone. We would help accompany our friends by playing together in a small orchestra for the Vivaldi A minor, Vivaldi G minor or Bach A minor Concertos.

I was surprised when I attended my first Monday Concert in Japan. Mistakes were very few and far between, and yet I rarely heard these people practicing their pieces! I wondered if they snuck home to practice at night. It seemed amazing– a student was assigned a new piece and then, next Monday Concert the student would perform it from memory, in tempo, and musically with beautiful tone! Yet, as far as I could tell, everyone only practiced Panda, one finger, open strings and Chorus. It was fushigi (mysterious)!

As I went to take my first private lesson with Suzuki Sensei, I had decided to play the Bach Adagio from the Unaccompanied Sonata No. 1. I had practiced it for years and felt prepared to perform. As I took a breath and raised my bow to play the first chord, Suzuki Sensei was out of his chair in an instant. “Later you will play this much better? he said. I don’t believe my horsehair ever made it to the strings. “Oh, great?, I was thinking– “stopped before I’ve even played a note!? I cleared my mind to concentrate on what he was asking me to do. Open D string. Start of tone. Start of tone means that the very beginning of the sound must be clear.

Suzuki Sensei asked me to hold my bow upside down. This means that my little finger was right on the tip of the bow, and the frog was way out where the tip usually is. Suzuki Sensei said, “Upside down bow, always upside down bow.? I felt that it was very cumbersome and difficult to play while holding the skinny little tip rather than the heavy, big frog. And with the frog out at the end of the bow, it was so heavy that it made my bow crash into my string. It was frustrating. I could not do this ‘tone with living soul? thing, and besides, why did my elbow need to be so low?


Suzuki Sensei worked with me on the start of tone. The very first note. This instant, the moment the sound begins, it must go to ones heart. I tried and I tried. Suzuki Sensei told me to only practice open strings. “Upside down bow makes wonderful tone!?, he said. It didn’t seem so wonderful to me!



The bow weighs the same upside down or right side up


Still, it felt much heavier upside down. “You must study D string tone. Tone, tone tone– upside down bow.? said Suzuki Sensei. And then the lesson was over.


I went home frustrated and practiced open strings with upside down bow for as long as I could. I really, truly wanted to be a “majime seito” or a serious student. I had come to Japan for this reason, to study and learn from Suzuki Sensei. “I must study what he has told me to study!? I decided. However, I was worried that if I only practiced his assignments, then eventually I would forget all of the Concertos and Bach and scales that I had worked very hard to learn. I became anxious and thought I would lose my “chops?, and besides, I was sure that everyone else played their “real pieces” at home. Surely he didn’t mean for me to never practice left hand skills too! I played my “real pieces? and went to sleep much happier.


The next day Suzuki Sensei said



Didn’t you understand what I said? I said only study open strings every day– just open D, upside down bow, tone, tone, tone, this moment, elbow play you. No need anxious– take off anxious.



I was in awe and agreed readily. I made a new vow to only study open strings. I wondered if the little house I stayed in had been bugged. Maybe there were spies? Maybe it was some kind of Japanese video technology? It was 20 minutes by motorcycle from the school, so how could he know? I went home and tried to play only open strings and study the sound and research his ideas. Upside down bow was getting to me. My pinkie hurt and it sounded bad. The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of Sibelius Violin Concerto with my bow right side up. Oops. I didn’t mean to break my vow, it just happened.


The next day, Suzuki Sensei came to me again.



Am I speaking English? Do you understand English? Then, why do you not study only open strings?



I felt horrible.


And I was sure my place was wired. I tried finding clever places to practice where no one would hear me. Yet Suzuki Sensei always knew!


Finally after a few weeks of this frustrating process, I became depressed. I decided to give up the violin. I would never be capable of playing the violin, especially not the way Suzuki Sensei wanted me to play. I resolved that I would never really play the violin again. Who ever heard of a violinist who could only play open strings? I believed that having fast and accurate fingers was the secret to good violin playing. But now, I would forget my Music Degree and fifteen years of study. Eventually, I would have to find another profession, because I could not stand his admonishments every day. Suzuki Sensei won and I quit. I only played in group class, and then I observed lessons. I only played upside down bow. “Upside down bow is balanced bow? he would explain. I played only D string. I listened and listened to lesson after lesson. And I began to hear what he was after.


I can’t explain it in words, I can just feel it. The closest thing to a description was brilliance in the sound. There was a glowing in the tone. I wrote something to explain what I noticed~ ‘The widest grin, the brightest eyes, the biggest tone, Suzuki Sensei’.



I took home a tape of a lesson and played it on my stereo. On the tape, when I played my open D string the LED reading went to a number 2, gradually almost 3. When Suzuki Sensei played his D, instantly the LED reading went above a 10. And he was standing farther away from the microphone!! This was technological proof that his tone was biggest. I kept listening.


“Everyone can play with tone. Such tone is clear, ringing in ear, can you hear? Tone is here– break away the blackness, the milky film in front. Kite (means “cut? in Japanese) Please try. So relax. Nail (right corner of thumbnail) and balance, also elbow comes down, the condition of beginning elbow, this moment determines tone. Like piano fingers (pianists go toward the keys, not to the side) then Panda. Tone emerges clear and strong. Suzuki Sensei helps people become tone. Despite all designs~ with him one can only fly.? (60.10.24–dated in my journal as Japanese date October 24, 1985)

And people were doing it, “Balanced bow–only put on and carry.? Suzuki Suzuki would say. Then one day at Group Class in Smith Hall, Suzuki Sensei asked us to each come up one at a time to play Chorus from Judas Maccabeus on his violin. It was a great honor. I waited and gathered strength– the “tsuyoi? kind of strength. I concentrated on letting go of all my ideas about playing the violin. So relax. I walked calmly to the front. His violin felt like a foreign object– I wasn’t even sure which shoulder to put it on! I don’t remember, but I think I played Chorus. I remember thinking how big his violin sounded. At least I didn’t get stopped before I began! Suzuki Sensei only smoked and nodded. Later the Senior Foreign Kenkyusei, said in front of many people, “Speaking of tone that was some pretty amazing tone you were getting there in Group Class, Suzy.? I didn’t believe it was true and tried not to grab on to this idea that I could play. I remembered that I could not play and kept only listening and doing upside down bow.

Upside down bow is like having a coach spot you each time you play. With very little effort, you are helped to have balanced tone. Pushing and sideways motion does not work with upside down bow. You can’t control it– eventually, in order to make any decent sound, you must give up and let go of pushing and sideways motion. This effort to work against the weight was what made my violin’s bow crash into the string! I learned to only carry the bow down and up. The frog is so heavy that gravity naturally pulls the horsehair into the string.

Suzuki Sensei would lift his bow upside down over someone’s head and ask if they would like it to fall on them. This would probably hurt. He never actually let it fall on a student’s head, but once he lifted it above a student who had on a wide plastic hair band. He got a kick out of this because she was protected from the weight of the falling frog and so she was not worried. Suzuki Sensei would flip his bow into the air from upside down to right side up….and catch it at the frog without looking. While flipping the bow into the air, he explained that this potential power of the weight of the frog is heavy enough for big tone.


Upside down bow is naturally balanced. In order to keep it from crashing and bobbling out of control, one eventually relaxes everything in the right arm and body. Then, we simply carry the bow down and up. For me, it took a long time, but it did become easier, especially on only D string. I did at least 100,000 circle tones with upside down bow on D string. Then, Suzuki Sensei finally said I could begin to play A string circles. I started to work on 100,000 circle tones with upside down bow on A string. Gradually, within a month I was given special instruction about E string. While playing E string, the bow is almost vertical which makes it a special case. Upside down bow is not enough because gravity does not pull the frog toward the string as much. It requires an even more relaxed arm sinking into the string. Also, you can create more gravity with your body position. By using the upper arm to move towards the string you can make more tone volume. Then later, I studied G string which is also a very special case. G string is the biggest string and takes the most “tsuyoi? thumb. One should always have the bow parallel to the floor on G string. Suzuki Sensei always explained carefully that parallel bow was the proper position for big tone on the G string. The bow must be parallel to the floor. When I played with a crooked bow on G string, Suzuki Sensei laughed and asked me if the floor in my house was crooked. As a matter of fact, it was! He told me to study G string while standing on a perfectly horizontal surface. Then, I began to study 100,000 up bow circles with upside down bow on D string….then A string E string, and finally G string. Although I knew it was useless, I studied each string thoroughly. I could never really play.


Spring was arriving very slowly. The bitter cold was waning and my Shugi (calligraphy) teacher gave me poems about verdant plum trees. She laughed and nodded as she corrected my work. I carefully copied the work my shugi Sensei had given me several times, and then I waited in line for her to correct my work with orange ink. Her wrist never touched the table, but she had perfect control of the tip if her brush. The way she held the wood looked just like the way Suzuki Sensei held the bow. Was this part of the reason we were studying calligraphy?

The shugi Sensei would always correct something different from what I would expect. Also, she always knew if I started a stroke from a wrong place. Japanese have a correct order for making the characters. For instance, it would be like writing the letter “T? by making the vertical line from top to bottom first and then crossing left to right. Also, you should pause at certain intervals without lifting your brush and allow the ink to enter the paper. The shugi Sensei never watched me work, but she knew everything about how I had done my work and how I was feeling in my life from the way my calligraphy looked. She spoke to me quickly in Japanese. I tried to understand. I watched the plum blossoms emerge each time I walked outside. Every day the blossoms on these strong trees slowly became pinker.


Suzuki Sensei often spoke of service. Service first. He lived what he preached and always gave first without reservation. He was never selfish in life, and in playing the violin. He often said “Only service forthe bow. Upside down bow gives naturally, service to the string. It is balanced bow.? I went to the graduations of my seniors and helped serve at their tea parties. Service was so important. I bought bouquets of flowers and presents for the students who graduated. Suzuki Sensei had said, “Only service?. I cut fruit and washed endless cups and ash trays.

I tried to do service first– never greedy, but it didn’t always work. I superstitiously never took for myself first. “No need anxious? said Suzuki Sensei. I was not naturally good at this because I wanted too much for myself and was naturally nervous. I began to try harder, instantly reaching down to pick up keys for someone if they dropped them while at the bank or the post office. I went to visit my friend I Lucille in the hospital. She had broken her leg and needed company. I began to arrive early to school each morning to do osoji (cleaning up). My goal was to he the first one there and to have the tea water boiling and both the kenkyusei rooms clean before Suzuki Sensei arrived. I concentrated on doing this for the simple joy of serving and not for how this might improve my playing.


One day in Calligraphy Class the shugi Sensei said I was becoming a little deeper in my efforts. Suzuki Sensei stopped me in the hall one day to say that I had “caught something.? (“What did I catch?? I wondered as I smiled and bowed and smiled and nodded)


Then, my roommates were all going skiing. I was supposed to teach English, but they had invited me to go along. They argued with me when I complained of missing school. We could go and be back in time for the next group lesson because Suzuki Sensei was leaving town for a few days. We had free lift tickets and a place to stay. It would only cost the price of a train ticket. I went to teach English and was paid just exactly enough for the train ticket.


It seemed so decadent, but all of this Zen living was getting to me. I had lived for so many months being focused and intense all of the time, every day. At the last possible minute I hopped on the train late that night. All my friends met me at the station– how did they know that I would come and especially, on that particular train? My friend Joy was there! We danced all night. The next day we all went skiing and enjoyed the wonderful day. We laughed and played. I actually saw a bald Buddhist monk in robes skiing- he was like an eagle, he was so good and so fast! One moment he was there, the next moment he had practically flown down the steepest hill…. the widest smile, the brightest eyes….


We ate ice cream in a pink chalet and stayed up late dancing again. I gave Joy’s daughter Chelsea a ride down the hill on my back as I skied. We stayed up all night laughing and talking. It was cold, but it felt warm. Then as late as possible on the next day, we ran to catch the train for group class.


And then, there we were, sitting in front of Suzuki Sensei, out-of- breath and obviously sunburned from spring skiing. My row was called on first to play Chorus one person at a time. I had no time to center, no time to gather panda or zen or anything– just play. I went up. Like a penitent child, I was sure I was going to be in trouble (komatta na)!


Instead, for the first time, Suzuki Sensei said “Joozu? meaning proficient or “good’! He giggled and looked around. “She become tone? he said. I had to stare at his lips to make sure he wasn’t really saying “dame” or bad. He actually said “joozu? again! I sat down in shock. He looked around at the other students and said “She become tone!? again. I could not believe it!


In my next lesson, Suzuki Sensei asked me to play some Fritz Kreisler piece, any Kreisler piece. He looked bored and uninterested, sort of like “Why didn’t you do this sooner?” I honestly couldn’t believe he actually wanted me to play a piece– as in a real piece with my left hand too! I didn’t know if my left fingers could remember how to do anything! I was so excited that I forgot my resolve to never really play again. And what had prompted this change- was the secret to this tone in going skiing every weekend? It couldn’t be! At this point I was quite confused!! I had worked so hard, and then when I “sluffed? and went off skiing, suddenly I became tone! What was the deal?


I asked many Japanese students and they said Ai no Kanashimi was Suzuki Sensei’s favorite Kriesler piece. Maybe this would be a good piece for me to try. My friends helped me find a tape of Kreisler performing Ai no Kanashimi or Liebesleid. His tone was so beautiful and perfectly balanced. I loved to listen to it. I made a repeating tape and listened to it over and over 100 times. The name of the piece means “Love’s sadness? and my former boyfriend in America had just started dating my best friend. In fact, they were going to be married soon. It was very cathartic. I cried and listened. Suzuki Sensei started giving me hugs. I always wore my Sony Walkman.


Ai no Kanashimi is in 3/4 time. Takahashi Sensei explained 3/4 time in “Tone and Interpretation Class” or Opera Class as we called it. He said it was “Study, Study, Rest; Study, Study Rest; Study, Study, Rest…? The words for vacation and rest are the same in Japanese. Count to three and on the third beat, there is a feeling of being suspended in air. This is like being on a swing at the very pinnacle of the arch. He waved his arms like a bird on the third beat. We all laughed and enjoyed his unabashed musicality. I began to wonder if the secret to Balanced Bow and 3/4 Time were similar; study, study, ski…

And then, I began to play Ai no Kanashimi (Love’s Sadness) with the recording the day before my next lesson. I focused only on relax and carry upside down bow.


Study, Study, Rest; Study, Study, Rest… I never thought about my left hand– it just happened. I don’t remember having the printed music or worrying about the fingering, only the expression of the feelings of Kreisler.


Suzuki Sensei asked me to play on Monday Concert and I performed Leibesleid three weeks in a row. The first two times, I performed it with upside down bow. Suzuki Sensei would listen from the back of the auditorium and if he couldn’t hear it, he would stomp up the stairs to the stage (definitely not his usual, amicable shuffle) and stand right there with me, urging me on. I can still hear him singing with me– more power and more tone. I had no choice. The last time I performed this piece, he requested right side up bow. Suzuki Sensei did not stomp up the stairs and after I was finished, as I bowed to the audience, he raised his fingers in an “okay? sign from his chair. He could hear my tone! I was in heaven. At least for the moment, I had become upside-down-bow tone.




Filed under Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, Stories about Dr. Suzuki, Suzuki Method, Suzuki Sensei, Talent Education Research Institute, Teaching, violin

10 responses to “Upside Down Bow – Balanced Bow

  1. I’m really liking this series of stories about your studies with Dr. Suzuki. It sounds like being an uchideshi, even though there are many other students in the Institute.

  2. Thanks Yoko! I’m glad you’re liking it. We did have a lot of individual time with Suzuki Sensei. He was amazing that way. He always had time for everyone and he treated each student equally.

  3. Jennifer Gray

    Dear Susan
    What a great site! I have never seen your site before today and am totally inspired by your tales of study with the sensei. I have been forgetting the lessons of circle bows and upside down bow, and will start today to go back to that. Thank you for sharing your experience with us

  4. Suzanne, thank you for writing this. I enjoyed it very much. Now I want to do my work, computer programming, with upside-down bow! 🙂

  5. I loved this story: your devotion to your studies, and your Sensei’s obious respect for that, shine through. It is inspiring to read. Thank you also for explaining some of the Japanese words, it really helps!

  6. Jennifer – circle motion is so important! My students start every lesson with circle bows or circles in the air. A few years ago I was forgetting about how important circles were too! It’s amazing how fast your tone can come back when remembering circle bows.

    Andy – I think you already automatically program with upside down bow. You are doing so much to help so many people – service! I love the new changes to wordpress. 🙂

    wellwisher – I love your site! Write your hurts in sand, carve your blessings in stone! I will try to remember this ~ Thank You!

  7. Stephen Power

    I was in matsumoto in 84 and agin in 87 so reading you tales is a poignant trip down memory lane. I can see Suzuki Sensei and the kenks.

  8. “the kenks” hee! :mrgreen:

    Looks like we barely missed each other (surichigau) I was there in 85 to 87 leaving in May of 87…

    It was so great, wasn’t it?

  9. Pingback: Stay tuned » Blog Archive » International Suzuki Conference

  10. I’m an adult learner. Your sharing on Upside down bow is so enlightening! I think it’s very similar to the technique that my teacher stresses, the relaxing of the arm and to surrender the bow to the strings. I tried the upside down bow just – *hehe* amazing. I’ll try it with my practices.