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Violin and Archery

Rebecca Darnall

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Published: January 3, 2014 at 3:03 AM [UTC]

What a wonderful ending to the year 2013. I was able to spend Christmas in the gorgeous mountains of Joseph, Oregon with my fabulous husband. It was probably the best Christmas I have ever had! We were there for almost a week, and while we were there we partook in some of our favorite outdoor activities, including archery.

Archery is one of those activities I had always been interested in as a kid because my best friend growing up did it, and her dad did quite a bit of hunting. I was exposed to it from time to time, but never really caught on. However it was always something I had hoped to become good at one day.

Years passed and I got married to someone who, as it happens, is a fantastic archer, though I know I’m biased. My husband Nathan is a very successful hunter as well as archery coach, as he has coached many youth leagues. So, with his instruction, I have taken up archery myself.

Soon after I began my archery skills, I learned that, to my surprise, archery uses some of the same groups of muscles that violinists and violists use! However, they are used in a different way; in a way that actually stretches the muscles the opposite direction. When we play violin or viola, everything is “out in front”. With archery, whichever side you draw back with works the muscles in juxtaposition. When I found this out, I felt that aside from swimming, this could be one of the best sports for me specifically as a violinist (though I certainly cannot claim I get as much exercise from archery as I do my Zumba or dancing!).

But aside from the physical aspect of it, after many conversations with my husband I have come to realize just how many parallels there are between playing an instrument, especially a string instrument, and archery. After all, I have always joked about setting up a shop with Nathan, where I would specialize in violin bows and he would specialize in archery bows (although Nathan would be more capable of setting up archery bows; I am by far not a luthier and all I know about violin bows is how to play one and the basics of how it is made). I don’t know what the shop would be called; maybe Bow n’ Bow. Real original, I know.

First, there is product. For those of you who may not be familiar with archery, there are bows and there are arrows. Embarrassingly enough, it took me a year to actually call arrows “arrows”, because I shot the arrows in my right hand and they more resembled a violin bow than did the archery bow, which of course I held in my left hand (my violin hand). Thankfully I have it straightened out in my brain now. :) But I digress. There are many different brands of archery bows, but there are a few that stand out. The top three are probably Hoyt, Matthews, and BowTech (in case any of you cared to know). Just like anything, of course, you can get top of the line, or something factory-mass made. These top brands also have different lines, or models. The compound I currently shoot is a Diamond Razor's Edge model made by BowTech. And, just like instruments, not all brands and models, even if they are of high quality, will work for every individual. You have to figure out whether the compound, recurve, or whatever you are shooting feels good and comfortable in your hand (and unlike violin, it is by far more commonplace to have left and right hand shooters equally). For example, even though they are top of the line, Nathan doesn’t like shooting Matthews’ line of compounds. They just don’t feel right for him because the grip isn’t comfortable. If you try to shoot with a bow that you don’t feel you have a good grip on, the bow will move as you shoot, which of course causes a lot of missed targets. This is very akin to choosing a violin (or any stringed instrument, for that matter): not all violins work for all people, and you have to own one that feels right for you--like it has been attached to your neck all this time. For me, next time I need to purchase a violin I will look for an Amati copy, because those tend to run smaller than Stradivari or Guarneri copies. Why don’t I have an Amati copy now? I didn’t know this important fact when I was last looking for a violin. :) Then, you have to choose a bow that works well with that violin. Why violin first and then bow? Well, that topic deserves an entirely different article. Suffice it to say, it is much easier to chose in this order than the other way around. The arrows are then chosen according to bow being used. There are dozens and dozens of different types of arrows for different bows and different uses.

Then there is setup and adjustments--and wow, there are just as many adjustments for shooting archery as there are for playing violin! Just like in (particularly) violin and viola where we have to find the right combination of shoulder rest and chin rest, in archery you have to find the right combination of many things. Where to begin? Well, first you have to adjust your poundage. Poundage (with a compound bow) is how many pounds you are pulling at peak draw weight. Currently, since I’m a baby, I’m at 30 lbs but hope to move up 5 lbs in the next few months :). Then you have to adjust your sights. The sights are these little pins that are set up in the sight ring that you look through to a rifle. The pins measure yards, so if you guesstimate that you are 30 yards away from your target, you have to look at the 30 yrd pin. The whole sight can move at once, and you can also adjust each pin individually. You also have to adjust your peephole. This is the tiny piece of rubber you look through to your site to better help you line up your shot. Then you have to adjust your rest. This rest is what the arrow sits on before you shoot it. You can also do some adjustments to the grip like adding a pad of sorts, but as I said before, there’s only so much you can do and usually if it’s not comfortable at all, there’s not much you can change about that. However, the order of what you set up is not necessarily as clear cut as say, picking out the chin rest and then the shoulder rest (which I highly recommend). You have to play around with it for awhile to get just the right combination.

Also, there’s the arrows. Sometimes you have to get the length adjusted, just like I did a few days ago when I had them trimmed down to size. What you want is when you are completely drawn back, the arrow shouldn’t “stick out” past the bow more than an inch. If they are sticking out further, the arrows are too long for your draw-length and will fly incorrectly. Because I have arms the length of a T-Rex, I can only draw back 21”. I had to have my arrows trimmed down a lot, and by the time they were trimmed back I laughed for about five minutes straight to myself because they look like arrows that belong to a tiny cherub.

As I mentioned before, there are different bows and arrows for different uses. Again, just like in violin playing, I have a Baroque bow for Baroque music, a heavier bow for Romantic music, and next I’d like to purchase a really nice bow that is a little on the lighter side for say, Mozart. Some even own Baroque violins (but I don’t play enough Baroque music seriously to justify buying a Baroque violin). Archery is the same way; there are different bows and arrows for different purposes. With archery, there are many different types of shooting. Nathan has four different compounds set up for different reasons: one for indoor shooting, one for 3D shooting, and one for hunting (archery-golf is another type of shooting but it traditionally uses recurve). His newest compound is currently being set up for hunting, since it’s at least 2 lbs lighter than the one he currently uses and therefore would be easier to hike around in the woods with. Nathan also has a few recurves and a long bow that he occasionally uses for hunting or indoor shooting. I have been discovering in playing violin that different situations (solo, chamber music, or orchestra) might call for a different setup, just as different archery situations would. Right now for my archery purposes, one bow is enough :). I haven’t decided if I want to go more of the hunting route or the indoor shooting route. It also should be noted that archery bows *can* be changed for different purposes. However, it’s just really annoying if you only have one bow and have to completely change it constantly for different reasons, because it takes so long to set it up at all for anything in the first place!

Different arrows will also respond differently with archery bows, just like violin bows respond differently to violins (I am deferring to violins but of course I am meaning all strings when I say violin). Also the tip of the arrow can be changed, which then affects the way the arrow flies through the air. There are many different tips, but the two I am the most familiar with are broad-heads (hunting only) and field-tips (generally everything else).

Then there are accessories...the wax for the bow strings (instead of rosin :) ), the armguard you put on the inside of the arm you hold the bow with, and the release which is a wrist band specially made with a clip on it you clip on the loop on the bow string to pull back. You can also buy different kinds of strings, rests, waxes, cams (the wheels on your compound...which is definitely what I would consider an adjustment), quiver, etc. There are many small pieces to own in order to be a successful archer, just as there are many pieces to being a successful musician!

I think overall I have covered the most obvious parallels. It would also be noteworthy to take a moment and discuss hunting, specifically. Archery has not only been a blessing as far as a newfound fun activity, it also is a real way my husband provides for us. I can honestly say that with a *few* exceptions, we never buy meat. The meat Nathan gets that hunting season is what we have to eat. I am always confounded when people who consume “organic and free-range” criticize those of us that hunt. Um...last I checked hunting couldn’t get more organic and free-range. I’m especially confounded by the people that criticize us but go out to buy non-organic, non-free-range ground beef at the local supermarket (and God knows where that meat has been...I can almost guarantee you won’t want to find out what actually happened to that cow). Yes, when you go out hunting you better be sure you know what you are doing. I am sure even after I get my license I will put in many hours before even attempting to shoot at something. And, the Fish and Wildlife people are around to regulate the areas and make sure the animals are still within a healthy population. That goes for ALL animals. Yes, if you are vegetarian for ethical or dietary purposes, I respect that, and would never attempt to serve you meat should you come to my house for dinner or even have it in your sight (granted that I know this about you).

But for me, right now, I am just having fun shooting at targets and seeing how accurately I can shoot. The focus on my music is the same sort of focus with archery. I also have a cousin in Ohio who is one of the best archers in her division in the nation! I am excited to see her this March and watch her school me in archery. :) So, violinists and violists--next time you are wondering, “hey, I want to try a new outdoor activity”, look no further than a bow...and a few arrows :).

From Randy Walton
Posted on January 3, 2014 at 4:59 PM
I had never considered the correlation of these two pursuits. You make a good comparison, and I would add; while the archer's bow can feed the body, the violinists' bow feeds the soul. The archer's bow is practically worthless without arrows; the violin bow is practically worthless without a violin. Both of these activities can have a profound effect on the heart: literally and figuratively.

I also never knew that there was so much to archery. Wouldn't the old American Indian be surprised by all the innovations?

Posted on January 3, 2014 at 6:08 PM
I was competitive collegiate target recurve archer :) You should try recurve...I think the feel is definitely more similar to a violin than compound! (My violin playing is better than my shooting, I have to say...)
From Ray Randall
Posted on January 3, 2014 at 11:48 PM
In an Indian Tribe I'm familiar with they call bad hunters Vegetarians.
From Rebecca Darnall
Posted on January 4, 2014 at 12:15 AM
@Randy: Yes yes and yes! I completely agree! Yes I do sometimes wonder what they think. I actually grew up on a Native American Reservation, but haven't asked them their opinions on that. It'd be interesting to know what they would say.

@ That's cool! :) I actually have done recurve, though I got rid of that bow because it wasn't a good recurve, and I was just telling my husband I wanted to get another recurve better suited for me, because I definitely agree with your sentiment. :)

@Ray LOL! Good one.

From Krista Moyer
Posted on January 4, 2014 at 1:17 PM
I'm another proponent of the recurve. Mine's a 35 pounder in ash. I don't have sights or any of that, just me, the bow, and wooden target arrows I make myself. There's something so relaxing about spending an afternoon on the local outdoor range. And I agree that it absolutely does work the violin muscles in a completely different, but complimentary way. Great blog!
Posted on January 4, 2014 at 10:51 PM
Loved reading this! Are you aware of Keshet Eilon International Violin Mastercourse in Israel? I have taught there from time to time. They used to have a whole program that explored the relationship between violin playing and archery. To this day, they still shoot arrows at the archery range.

As a result of my time there, I am also an archer and bowhunter. IThee is a story about that that is part of Keshet Eilon lore...

In any case, just for fun, you should look into the history of this idea at Keshet Eilon.

Have fun.

Posted on January 5, 2014 at 7:55 AM
The recoil spring effect on the bow arm at 'pull and release' of the bow proves helpful for a downbow to upbow change on the violin and I wonder what advantage there is to the archer at the arrow release.

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