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Mendy Smith

The Bow Factor

December 9, 2008 at 2:10 AM

I have a small bow collection - 5 total.  One is a cello bow, so it really doesn't count in my comparison.  Of the other 4 bows, one is the very first student bow that came with my first viola.  Another is a very cheap bow I purchased in Malaysia while I got my student bow re-haired.  The other two I would classify as my playing bows - in the $600 price range (ish).  These two bows are balanced differently. 

One has a wider frog (more space for the thumb), is octagonal and weighted more at the frog.  The other is a round with less space for the thumb and balanced more towards the lower third.  For both of these bows, there is a definite shift in the balance towards the hand.  I favor the later bow, the one with the smaller frog.  When I played the Tourte, there seemed to be no discernable weight focal point.  It felt more like an extension of my own arm.

This got me thinking of making a bow-upgrade.  I occassionaly have pains in my right arm - a tingling sensation that starts from the elbow that makes its way to my fingers.  This occurs more frequently in very fast bowing passages.  Granted, my bowing technique needs work, and some if not all of this pain is related to my technique.  However, upgrading to a bow with a balance more suitable to my technique would be beneficial.

So now, it is bow-shopping time.  Think of it as my contribution to keeping the economy going.  I haven't shopped for a bow in years.  I have a good idea of my price range, about 1/4 of the price of my current instrument, give or take.  I do know that when trying out bows to not limit the price factor at first so I can get a feel for what is available as far as weight distribution and balance so I don't eliminate models that are outside of my price range due to mainly cosmetic factors (gold windings, frog aesthetic details, etc...).  I also know to try a variety of bowing techniques to get a feel of how the bow works for me and my instrument. 

Past those basics however, I really don't know how to evaluate a bow.  I'll engage my teacher in the process.  I hope he has a little time to go shopping with me.

From Ray Randall
Posted on December 9, 2008 at 2:41 AM

A friend of mine, a violinist in the first violin section of a major symphony suffered a severe shoulder injury a few years ago after being hit by a hit and run car as she was walking on the sidewalk. She purched a high quality Arcus carbon fiber bow and loves it.She said it's better than her high superb old French bows. Easier on her shoulder with a superb tone and response.

From Casey Jefferson
Posted on December 9, 2008 at 2:38 AM

Bow, IMHO, is even more dependent on your technique.

Generally, a good bow will have balanced feel on weight distribution, smooth on the strings when doing legato, and agile when doing bounce bow thing. Then, a good bow will also produce a refined sound, less noise, and sometime, bigger sound.

You mentioned that shopping for bow shouldn't be limited by the price tag, at least for trials. It's a good point, because you'll never know that your technique demand a better bow, and you know where's your limit. I've play some $5k'ish to $20k'ish. To me they don't give much difference to me, not because of the price tag or something, because I can't even draw out 50% of the potential of the bow. Generally $3k'ish bows seems to fit my playing although I still can't afford them anyway.

And finally, when it comes to bow shopping, when the bow is for you, you'll know it right away. The first time I picked up my Arcus bow, I immediately fell in love with it. Incredibly stable and smooth on the strings, despite the ultra light weight, and many other good things about it too.

Happy bow shopping!

Posted on December 9, 2008 at 4:04 AM

SLIGHTLY, over tighten the bow, then look down the stick to check for warping...a slight bend to the left is acceptable since you lean the weight to the right, but a straight stick is important. Beyond that, it is a very personal thing. In many ways a good bow will make a mediocre fiddle come to life but not vice versa. Gold mountings are pretty but do not let that sway you. Many of the finest bows are silver mounted with no adornments at all. You never disclosed what the price point was so, no info to share. Remember as the bow prices escalate, the differences may be slight in comparison. No big bang for the buck sometimes going a couple thousand up. Collectig bows is exciting, an investment that you can use daily. Enjoy the quest.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on December 9, 2008 at 5:03 AM

My max price point is at the $4K range, and only if I fall in love with a bow that I can't live without.  I'm looking for something more in the $2K range though.

I'm not swayed by pretty fittings.  In fact, my preference is for a bow without the "bling".  My money is better spent on a better bow without bling.  Gold wrapping doesn't make a better bow.

From Nigel Keay
Posted on December 9, 2008 at 6:13 AM

If a bow appears warped when the hair is tightened it could simply be that it was rehaired badly in that the hair has more tension (is shorter) on one side than the other. Perhaps better to check for straightness or lack of a warp with the hair completely loose. 

From Josh Henry
Posted on December 9, 2008 at 10:05 AM

Hi Mendy, You've got a fun path ahead of you. Picking out a bow is often one of the most revealing and interesting things that many players will do. It is revealing in the sense that you will notice huge differences in sound and playability when you play different bows. Some you will immediately like, and some you won't. Of course the things to pay attention to regarding playability are things like balance, weight, flexibility, and so on that will determine how the bow responds to your right hand. But also listen to the sounds (bright, dark, focused, warm, etc.) that each bow pulls out of your viola. You are already on the right path with the involvement of your teacher who can help advise. I like your comment about the 'bling' features on bows--you're correct in your observation that gold (or other fancy) is not always an indication of a better playing and sounding bow.

Another thing that I usually mention to folks trying bows is that if this will be your main bow (rather than one of several good bows), try your 'usual music' and playing styles (for you, it might be the Bach suites) to make sure that it works you. Often, a player will limit a bow tryout to a specific action (often making it spiccatto), and feel (like stiffness), which results in them overlooking many bows that could be the right one for their instrument and playing style. Last bit of advice--people that upgrade from much lower priced bows often will pick out a more expensive version of the student bow that they are used to playing. Make sure that you pick your bow on the merits of professional level playing, not because it feels like a bow that you are used to.

In your budget, I would strongly urge you to look at a bow made by a contemporary maker. I mention this because the selection of great bows in the $2000 to $4000 range is often quite limited. However, there are many great modern makers whose bows fall in this price range.

I notice in your profile that you are in the Portland area. You are quite close to many of the top US bow makers (Rob Morrow, Ole Kanestrom, and others in Port Townsend, WA). Even closer are several makers right there in the Portland area--Ken Altman, Paul Schuback. Call some of these makers and see if you can set up some appointments to play some of their bows.

It is too bad that you didn't start your bow search a bit earlier. Just about a month ago, the VSA convention and competition was right there in Portland. You could have looked at many fine bows by some of the best makers.

Just a thought about:  "...I occassionaly have pains in my right arm - a tingling sensation that starts from the elbow that makes its way to my fingers.  This occurs more frequently in very fast bowing passages.  Granted, my bowing technique needs work, and some if not all of this pain is related to my technique.  However, upgrading to a bow with a balance more suitable to my technique would be beneficial...."     In addition to paying specific attention to the balance of your new bow, I would recommend that you also check out how you hold your bow. There are nerves in your fingers that if agitated can give the tingling sensation up your arm that you mention. If you are holding the bow with too much tension or your thumb is pressing into the frog with extra pressure, this might be where your pain is coming from. You also might pay attention to the shape of the front of the frog where your thumb rests. Is it rounded or fairly sharp? If it is sharp, you might be altering your bow hold, compensating with extra pressure, resulting in the pain.

Josh Henry, Bow Maker & Restorer

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 9, 2008 at 8:36 PM

A good test is the weight test. I used this test when I was a perfect innocent (I have the impression I'm still one some and I got an excellent bow that even my teacher liked very much.  A good bow is very light to allow bouncing, flexibility and is also able to produce a big sound. (better quality wood in the stick resonates more and make a rounder sound of your violin even if the stick is less massive (smaller diameter) than a cheaper bow).  So, close your eyes and be attentive because the difference between bows can only be a few or 1 g.  Take one bow in one hand and another one in the other hand and see which one is the lightest and by elimination, you will be able to select the lightest. You still have to try as many as you can but in general, since lightness is often a caracteristic of a better quality bow, it also produces a "better quality" feeling to the player who often likes it very much...  Pay as much as you can afford but go to a few shops just to be sure you won't get fool with the price if you ar not 100% in confidence with your maker!

Good luck!!!


From Josh Henry
Posted on December 10, 2008 at 1:51 AM

The above comment about bows that are light in weigh being better is not necessarily a valid test when trying out bows. It is true than many student bows are heavy (and badly balanced), but great playing bows can be found in any weight range. I believe that Mendy is looking for a viola bow, and due to the different body sizes of the instrument, there is even more variation in weight of viola bows than in violin bows.

A far more important factor than the weight of a bow is the balance. As you mentioned above Mendy, it sounds like you are already aware of the importance of the balance and how it can dramatically affect the feel of the bow.

Josh Henry, Bow Maker & Restorer

From Mendy Smith
Posted on December 10, 2008 at 4:07 AM

Mr. Henry -

Thank you so much for your advise and recommendations!  I plan on starting the bow-hunt experience after the holidays.  Re: my bow hold - yes I do have tension, but there are no sharp edges on my bow.  The leather wrapping where my thumb sits is starting to pull away if that is any indication of the tension issue :)  I'm thinking that this may be due in part (not in whole) due to the balance of my current bow.  My teacher has been working with me on my hold quite a bit and it has improved drastically over the past several months.

You are right, there is more variation in weights for viola bows.  The difference in weight and balance with the ones I have now is drastic.  I have one bow that is a chore to simply hold, and feels unnecessarily heavy in the hand.  I only use that one when my primary bow is being re-haired. 

You are also correct in trying a bow with the bowing styles I use regularly.  Yes, I study alot of Bach (and may consider a baroque bow in the future), but I also play alot or orchestral and chamber pieces as well.  A week with a bow would easily give me a chance to experience all my playing styles. 

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