Today my good friend and stand partner came over to help teach me how to evaluate bows and provide his thoughts on the selection I have.
What interested me most is what he did first. He took each bow in hand, held it straight up with the tip in the air and made little circles with it, then tilted it over in a playing position and raised and lowered the tip using his pinky at the frog, and then back to the tip pointing in the air again. When I asked him why he was doing that, he said it was his way of determining the balance of the bow.
He then found the balance point of each bow (which I measured). Both bows had a balance point of 10 1/2 inches. The two bows that I play with now have a balance point of 9 inches and 11 inches. The 9 1/2" one feels a little heavy at the frog and the 11" one too heavy at the tip. The bow my friend plays also has a 10 1/2 inch balance point.
My friend then had me play a series of techniques with the two top contenders (#1 - light & #4 - heavy): very loud, very soft, legato, spiccato, retakes, and string crossings from A to C back to A again. I would play a technique and then pass the bow to him to play the same technique and we compared notes, then repeated the process with the other bow.
Not surprisingly, the lighter bow took more effort to play FFF on the C string, but it was surprising that the heavier one was quite easy to play very softly. I had an easier time with spiccato and retakes with the lighter bow while my friend found the heavier one just as easy but produced a larger tone. We both found the heavier one easier on extreme string crossings (A to C), where getting the C to speak clearly can be a challenge in such a circumstance. He found the heavier one more difficult to pull a consistent tone from frog to tip, however for me it was easier to do. We then tried the other two bows, and agreed that #1 and #4 should remain the focus of the trials.
Aesthetically, both bows are beauties. My friend commented on the color of #4, saying that it was particularly pleasing. We then flipped through my Etudes and decided that Mazas was the way to go to really get a feel for the bows.
Tomorrow afternoon they will get their first chamber music trial - a piece for three violas :)
The bows from Josh Henry arrived today, patiently waiting on the front porch for me to get home from work. Though excited, I remembered to not tear into the box, but to open it cleanly so I can reuse it for their return later (maybe minus one). I was going to take a picture of them when they arrived but my camera battery died, so the pictures will have to wait until this weekend.
I quickly realized that color coding them with thread for easy note taking would not work. The thread wouldn't stay put. However, they were marked by a little sticker on the frog with their weights, so I'll just refer to that instead: #1 - 4 where #1 is the lightest #4 is the heaviest.
Each bow got a progressive series of the C Major 3 octave scale to get the general feel and balance of the bow and then put through an initial set of paces with Vieuxtemp's Elegie - the piece I'm working on at the moment (full range of dynamics, sF, low open C to nosebleed section, jumpting from A to C and back). the Vieutemp's Cappricio (up-bow staccato, and 3-part chord progressions), Bach's Brandenburg #6 final movement (16th note runs covering all strings), the Andante movement (dolce), and Bach's Cello Suite #3 Prelude (string crossings, chords).
#1, the lightest of the 4 weighing in at 68 grams, felt very comfortable in the hand and produced a warm smooth sound, like milk chocolate. It was very easy to control and has a very quick response. A slurred cadenza section came across clear, sF's were easy to execute, rapid string crossings didn't take much effort, and upbow staccato was effortless - all areas that I've struggled with on my current bow. #1 quickly became a favorite.
#2 felt a little cramped in the area of my thumb. The sound was smooth, and the stick well balanced. However the thumb space bothered me enough that it was put aside for the moment. #3 felt comfortable in the hand and warm tones and a little more focused tone than the first two. It was a little more difficult to execute the sF's and upbow staccato.
#4, the heaviest weighing in at 70 grams plus change had a balance point different than what I'm accustomed to, being higher up on the stick with a heavier frog. This distribution of weight made legato very easy. It performed best on Brandy #6 Final movement with the 16th note runs. With my current bow, those notes always sounded "scrunchy" but with this bow they come across clear. #4 produced the fullest sound, more along the lines of a dark chocolate than a milk chocolate. Upbow staccato and sF's took more effort and weren't as dramatic as the lightest bow.
After 3 hours of playing, #1 and #4 are the early favorites in a solo, practicing at home environment. The first "Chamber Music Test" occurs this weekend.
At long last I'm back to hunting for a new bow.
The first decision was whether or not to go down the Carbon Fiber rout or stick with pernambuco. I spend weeks researching carbon fiber bows from reviews, discussions on this site, current and previous teachers input and music friends. The overwhelming response was to stick with pernambuco unless I needed an impervious bow for the hot and muggy outdoor Houston gigs or a decent back-up bow.
The second decision was where to start shopping. The local shops down here stock mostly CF bows and a limited selection of pernambuco bows. I looked at bow offerings at two of the largest on-line shops. Then I looked at bow makers on this site and e-mailed Josh Henry. He called me today and we had a good discussion on what I liked and did not like about the bows I have now and what I was looking for in a new bow - mainly balance and response. Josh will be shipping me four bows to try, one of his own making.
I've been thinking quite a bit lately about how to go about evaluating bows. I play in a wide variety of settings from orchestra, chamber, solo and even the occasional rock back-up band. My musical tastes are as broad from baroque to ultra-modern. Over the next few days I'll be selecting a few passages from pieces that cover the bulk of what I play.
Over the next few weeks, these bows will go with me to lessons, chamber music rehearsals, orchestral rehearsals, and of course practice at home. Each bow will get a color coded string so I can stay organized and objective in evaluating these bows. The string won't add any weight and it will be easy for my music friends and teacher to refer to a bow by its color :) Much like a blind taste test in many ways.
I'm looking forward to the end of this week when a very special package arrives at my front door.
A few months ago I signed up for the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra's amateur chamber music program. After signing up, I was assigned to a quartet who rehearses weekly and receive monthly coached sessions with the opportunity to perform in a spring recital.
We have been preparing and studying Schubert's Death and the Maiden Andante movement for a few months and have finally been able to make the last section "click". It is the section which begins with an awesome cello solo at fff while the violins and violas play a 16th note rhythm, followed by what we term "rhythmic insanity": 16ths on triples, on duples, on a melodic cello solo.
Having achieved this seemingly impossible feat, our coach told us it was time to pick another contrasting piece. With help from fellow v-com'ers, we chose Haydn's Op. 76 No.4 "Sunset". I will be playing 2nd violin for the Haydn , swapping instruments with our 2nd violinist (who also primarily a violist).
Last Sunday we read through the piece for the first time. It was a little difficult for me to play 2nd violin - not due to the clef change, technical demands, or change in instrument size - but from the familiar strings being shifted over one notch to the left. From time to time I found myself playing a 3rd position A on what I thought was the D string only to discover that it wasn't the Ding that I was on, but the A. It was quite embarrassing.
After that rehearsal, I went home and proceeded to make string markings on my music. Not everywhere, but just where there is a string change in the same range that I play treble clef on viola: from about F on the D string to about G or so on the A string. It is the shared treble clef that confuses my automatic left-hand movements. These markings have helped me tremendously.
With a little practice, I may turn out to be a decent violinist.
As I work backwards from Z to A (skipping X for awhile) it became time to work on "V". I hadn't played the Vieuxtemps Elegie in a long time. I last performed the Vieuxtemps was for my Grandfather Smith's funeral several years ago, and it wasn't the entire piece, just the first several lines. It was the time to address the piece as a whole.
Picking this piece back up again meant revisiting memories and emotions dulled over time but still present. It is a second chance of sorts, taking the years of technical development and experience to finally be able to communicate in music what I tried to do so many years ago, but in my mind failed to do.
The Elegie is a virtuostic piece for the viola and makes use of the entire range of the instrument from the low open C to high C four octaves above. It begins on middle C with a somber mood. It shifts from somber, to angry, thoughtful, hopeful, then to a dazzling display of almost frantic movement, ending in a dramatic ho-rah.
The first several lines came back easily and within a week were memorized. Then came the "Turning of the Page" to finally start learning the rest of the piece. All that talk about slow practice? I'm using it in abundance. It is the only way I can learn how to navigate the "Finger Twister" measures. After many slow repetitions of those measures, I discovered the fingerings and bowings that worked best and began to work up the tempo. I'm STILL working the tempo up to where it will finally be.
In lessons, this piece is being used to address two of my biggest bad bowing habits: stiff wrist/fingers, and speeding up to make it to the tip/frog at each direction change. Though I've made some progress over the holidays on the stiff wrist/finger issue, there is still much more work to be done. I'm coming close to one of those "AHA" moments though - it is taking less conscience thought to keep my bow arm/hand/fingers relaxed and flexible.
The piece is also being used as a teaching tool for arm vibrato. The only vibrato I've been able to manage to some degree has been a wrist/finger vibrato. Engaging the arm is a challenge. My muscles aren't used to such movement and quickly become tired and a little sore. However I know that with time this will go away and begin to feel natural, only if I have the patience and fortitude to overcome the initial frustration.
In a clubhouse near downtown Houston, nearly 30 musicians gather on New Years Day to play through not one, but all six of the Brandenburg concertos. For me, it was my first. For a select few, a tradition spanning decades.
The violists were naturally attracted to one corner of the room to set our cases and warm up and high-five each other (what we normally do when there are more than two of us in any given space at the same time). The cellists made camp next to us, while the violinists setup in the main hall, their cases lining one wall. The odd wind players setup where they sat.
We started with #4, then #2 (solo played by v.com violinist Susan Jeter - hats off to a great performance!). And at long last, #6. We violists went to get our personal copies of #6 as the violinists cleared the stage and arranged ourselves in a semi-circle facing the cellists. It was the only concerto played sans conductor. After picking a tempo, the 1sts gave the opening notes and off we went. What an experience! 6 violas, 6 cellos, a bass and harpsichord in lower register bliss.
After a break, we played #3, #5 (solo violin played by may stand partner on my violin) and then #1. One of the violists concocted a "Violin piccolo" for #1 from a full sized violin (he plays a 18" viola!) using viola and guitar strings. He dubbed it a Bb violin.
I could not think of a better way of starting off the new year.
More entries: December 2010
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