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Samuel Thompson

On Buying a Bow...

November 29, 2009 at 9:35 PM

In a March, 2009 interview with Laurie Niles of, soloist James Ehnes recalls many of the facets of his career, including the search for a fine instrument and his studies. During this interview Mr. Ehnes shares a story in which someone complimented him on his bow grip and asked the questions "Who taught you? What happened?"

The answer was quite simple - Mr. Ehnes was playing on a much better bow than he had been ten years ago when the person questioning had originally heard him in concert.

While a student at the Shepherd School of Music many of us were in the process of acquiring better equipment, and I very fondly remember one student saying "It's amazing, you spend so much time practicing, doing what your teacher says and learning the technique, and then BOOM! You get a better bow, and it all makes sense, there's no more struggle, just application." I have found this to be true on many occasions during my search for a good stick, and the past weeks events have not only confirmed both Mr. Ehnes' and my former colleague's thoughts.

Last week I took an audition - as I have been coming to Knoxville, Tennessee often since March 2008 due to my work with Carpetbag Theatre, I thought it wise to take the audition being held for section positions with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. The week before this audition I had the good fortune to spend a week with a dear friend, also a Shepherd School alum, during which she graciously let me play with her violin and bow. Playing on a fine instrument like hers did indeed make a difference in how I approached sound production for the remainder of my practice period: with an instrument like that, there is no need to force. What one does is simply "find the sound". Her bow, a fine modern French bow, was made by a maker whose work I have tried before, and it was much the same - less "effort" and more attention to the quality of the strokes and the sound being produced.

The audition results - well, those aren't important. What IS important is that immediately after this audition I went to a violin shop and asked to see some of their inventory. Seven bows and about one hour (that FLEW by) later, I found one that is truly making a difference, a bow made by German bowmaker Sebastian Dirr.

Of course, the next questions are being asked: "How do I afford this? Will I spend this much time practicing, away from family and friends, and am I willing to spend the amount of time it may take to work and earn the funds necessary to purchase this? Is the violin playing the most important thing?"

There are so many stories about violinists and instruments, and the question of cost: In his Violin Dreams, Arnold Steinhardt speaks of acquiring an instrument after being hired by the Cleveland Orchestra and being somewhat shocked at the price. Nigel Kennedy also speaks of the soaring cost of instruments in his autobiography, also suggesting many ideas for bridging investors and musicians together so that these costs can be borne.

The question, though, should not be of the cost, but rather on the worth, the value of making such an investment. As I ponder - and enjoy practicing - this bow I find myself incredibly grateful for all who have spoken of the cost/value/worth conundurm and truly thankful to Mr. Ehnes for his candor.

In the meantime, does anyone have any ideas on how to go about making this purchase?

The metronome ticks,

From Royce Faina
Posted on November 30, 2009 at 1:11 AM

Value and Worth... I doubt I would have ever thought about what you brought to light!  Nice Blog! Thank You for sharing this!


From simon lyn
Posted on November 30, 2009 at 2:11 AM

 Hey Samuel - I'm preparing my way towards a similar commitment, and I don't mind making reasonable sacrifices, because like many here it's that important to me.

One route I'm thinking about is simply a bank loan, at a decent rate of interest over five years a $10k loan is about $200 per month. I could take on an additional two students and cover this direct. Another option I have is a local dealer who is happy to rent instruments and bows at about 1/50 value per month - if in the future I decide to buy outright, previous rent is deducted.


Good luck with your puzzle!




From Manuel Tabora
Posted on November 30, 2009 at 2:27 AM

Well, just today I finished paying off my bow. It is a very beautiful Russian made bow, dark chocolate brown stick, round and quite thick, mammoth ivory vuillaume style frog, colorful silk wrapping, gold mounting, the works! It cost me $3000, which is probably nowhere near the price tag of what you are looking at. However, for a poor college student like myself, putting that much money together is a huge undertaking.

I was only able to afford it because I have been cultivating a relationship with a violin shop near me for quite some time and they were nice enough to let me pay a down payment (I did have to save up for it for a while) and then pay the balance off through monthly payments. I told them how much I had in cash and how much I could pay each month and they agreed to it. Of course, that is an exceptional situation and I feel very blessed; not many shops or individuals would be willing to offer me that kind of a deal. Although, if you speak to some American makers, maybe you can get someone to finance a bow like that. By the way, they did not charge me any kind of interest. I also paid my violin (which was $6500) the same way.

On the other hand, today since I went to the shop to finish paying off my violin bow, I decided to look at some viola bows just to see what they had and maybe to get an idea of how long I will need to save up for a viola bow. I found another $3000 bow by the same maker of my violin bow that I really liked. However, I also found a couple of very cheap bows, one chinese made hybrid (CF core, pernambuco shell) and a Jon Paul CF bow that I really liked. They are both under $500 and I am so impressed that I am probably going to end up with one of those. The $3000 one is better, for sure, but the difference to me is not worth the $2500.

From Manuel Tabora
Posted on November 30, 2009 at 2:57 AM

I made a mistake. The Jon Paul bow is not under $500. It is actually a little under $800. Still, quite affordable considering the options, and the bow seems to do everything I need it to.

From Casey Jefferson
Posted on November 30, 2009 at 4:03 AM

If you go beyond $1500, things start to sound like you pay a lot more for small increment. So things started to not sound like they're worth the money = quality ratio. It's what you have to pay when you start to learn advance techniques.

However, it's not that it's impossible to pay less for a fine bow. I just purchased mine recently, a fine old bow without stamp and certificates. Beautiful bow that plays very well and draw a sound that belongs to a whole new world - the sound I'm hearing I'd associate it with those "soloist" sound. It's more than just sounding cleaner and clearer, it sounded just like when a piano receive a fresh tuning and overhaul after collecting dust for few years.

I'd say, try as much as you can, within your reach like shops and dealers. Then find the one that have the most band for buck you can buy, and of course, within your budget.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on November 30, 2009 at 5:42 AM

Samuel, you wrote about the issue very well.  Things that were difficult to do with your old bow become easy, almost effortless, with the right bow. It's almost as if the sound in your head and heart comes out without any conscious effort on your part.  When you find the right bow for your violin and your hand, you'll know it.

Some people underestimate the importance of the bow.  If you'd like to upgrade your violin but can't afford it, buy a better bow.  Your violin will play and sound much better.  People often say, "Buy the best you can afford," but how do you figure out what you can afford?  I can't help you with that.  I can only tell you to think about how many hours you play the violin and how much better you'll feel and sound with the new bow.

Good luck, and tell us what you decide to do.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on November 30, 2009 at 3:57 PM

Pauline, your comments were really brought home to me recently when I bought a new bow.  I explained to my bicyclist husband that the violin with the bow is more analogous to the frame of a bicycle, rather than the bicycle itself.  I actually find myself practicing more with my new bow, even though I loved practicing with my old, more unwieldy and less precise bow.

One thing I'd like to say regarding "buy the best bow you can afford": Rather, I'd say: buy the best bow you can afford for your instrument.  My luthier pointed out that after a certain point, the bow will not be able to contribute any more due to the drawbacks of the violin.  (I probably didn't say that quite right.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on December 2, 2009 at 2:33 AM

Good blog.  As Pauline says, it reinforces very well the  old adage that you are likely to get more bang for your buck upgrading your bow rather than your violin.  I do not need a really excellent bow because I am not a professional, but I would love to have some "walking around" money I could take to the local luthier and spend on a really good bow that would help my playing and sound production.

From Smiley Hsu
Posted on December 2, 2009 at 2:52 AM


Nice blog.  From your profile, I would assume you are a professional musician.  That being the case, isn't a nice stick a necessity?  Assuming you can figure out a way to pay for it, I would look at it as an investment in your career.  Your chops are certainly far better than mine, and I can't imagine trying to play violin with an inferior bow.  Violin is tough enough even with the best equipment, wouldn't you say?  For mere mortals (Jascha, Fritz, Itzhak excluded), we need all the help we can get.


From Gabriel Schaff
Posted on December 4, 2009 at 4:46 PM

You may want to check out my book. I cover all of these issues and more.

Finding a great bow for both you and your instrument can be a fascinating experience, and need not be prohibitively expensive. Don't get caught up in the name game. Judge every bow on its individual merits, not the hype or spin surrounding it. Antique or modern, pedigree or workshop, let this intrinsic nature of the wood and the skill of the crafts-person speak to you and your music making.

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