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Karen Allendoerfer

Bow shopping--and buying

February 12, 2013 at 10:28 PM

After my Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Rehearsal, I needed a new bow. Fortunately there is a good shop about a half hour drive from where I live. I got my viola there a few years ago, and a Codabow for it that I like.

I've been often enough now that I know how the shopping experience goes: the representative puts a few collections out in the price range that I requested, and I pick my favorite in each class. Then I take a few home on trial to evaluate.

I had hoped it wouldn't take that long to pick my top 3, but I was there for at least an hour. At first I wasn't sure what to play, even left alone in the room with all the bows and violins, I was feeling self-conscious. So I started with some of the more difficult bowing challenges: the "Lone Ranger" ricochet section of the William Tell Overture, the bariolage section of the Bach E-major Partita in E, spiccato from the Fugue section of Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" that we are playing for our next concert. Those were so challenging that, while I managed to play them all with many of the bows, I had to work hard enough at it that I wasn't sure by the end when it was good whether it was the bow or just my getting warmed up. After a while they all started to feel the same.

Except for one bow, in the most expensive, pernambuco class, stamped "D. Silveira". It was lighter, bouncier, more responsive. When I played the Preludio I felt like I was back in high school, first learning that piece, but better. But again, I'd played the same section about 4 times now on 4 different bows. Was it the bow, or was it me?

Of the Carbon Fiber bows, the Codabow Luma seemed to be the best. In any case, I had to admit (grudgingly) that all of them were better than my old one.

The rep came back after about half an hour and I told her that the only one that seemed to stand out above the others was this one stamped D. Silveira, but it was on the high end of what I wanted to spend. She said that she had some others from the same company, Horst John, that had nickel instead of silver trim, were factory made but still pernambuco, and cost about half as much. She brought one of those. I tried it. It was a lot like the others: better than my old one but not better than the Luma. I left the shop with the 3 bows to try (the Silveira, the Luma, and the Horst John factory bow) feeling unsatisfied, the way I had a few years ago when I was getting a new violin, tried a few bows too, couldn't figure it out, and gave up.

At home I dutifully practiced my orchestra music with the Luma and the Silveira in turn. Given the price of the Silveira, I had subconsciously decided to try to talk myself into the Luma. It was better than my old one, after all, and I really just needed a bow, quickly. Then I had a violin lesson, and I brought the two of them along.

It's really different when it's not just you in the room. I played the usual things for my teacher (Bach bariolage, William Tell) and, like me, she thought they both sounded pretty good but not that different from each other. Then, though, I played a very high section of the Bloch Simchas Torah and the Silveira was clearly better--brighter, sparklier, more silvery--a tone that often eludes me on the E string.

But what really sealed it was the Fugue from the Britten Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. I was like, "okay, I'm just going to play this orchestra music that I've been working on." It's a little off the string and fast. And there the Silveira "won" hands down. It was easier to control, the string crossings were clearer. I tried to replicate the same thing with the Luma and I couldn't. I had been seeing the difference between them as incremental, but this wasn't.

Then my teacher admitted that she had always thought my old bow was really too heavy, and she thought this was a good opportunity to upgrade, and I should take it if there was any way I could. She said she was surprised this bow was under $1000 (although only just) and thought it was a very good value for the price, and I'd "lucked out" finding it. She doesn't have any stake in my buying that bow--other than my sounding better when I take lessons--so I trust what she's saying there.

I took the others back today and bought the Silveira. I had the bows longer than I planned, because snowstorm Nemo prevented me from getting back to the shop within 7-10 days. During that time it was again interesting how, now that I had pretty much decided on the Silveira, I saw signs that it was clearly better, even just practicing at home. It really could be like getting my new violin a few years ago, finding out all kinds of new things I can do with better equipment.

The bow search has turned out to be okay, it's the conductor search that I'm really dreading!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 13, 2013 at 2:46 PM
Sounds as if your bow search was a great success. Congratulations! One of the truths of buying string instruments is that the money spent to upgrade your bow gives you a lot more bang for your buck than spending the same amount to upgrade your instrument. This is a good example. Given the price, however, I suspect you will need to spend some time busking in Harvard Square and/or Belmont Center (lol).
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 13, 2013 at 5:30 PM
Yay on your choice!!! Reading this, I was hoping you'd go in that direction. I ended up spending $$$ on a bow (almost the same cost as my violin) four years ago and I have no regrets. In fact I feel like it's the type of bow that will keep teaching me how to use it better, if that makes any sense.

Always fun to hear these stories, particularly when the purchase involves a higher quality/higher price than anticipated. I've never heard of anyone regretting the higher quality/price purchase either.

And yes... now onto the conductor search. Not so easy, that one, huh? ; )

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on February 13, 2013 at 5:48 PM
Yes, if conductors would just lie down in a row and let you try one, then another, then back to the first and on to the third, how easy choosing one would be! Congratulations on the bow purchase. You won't regret it for a second. I have a violin bow I paid more for than I had been planning on. Paying for it is long since forgotten, and it makes me happy every time I open my case and take it out.
From elise stanley
Posted on February 13, 2013 at 7:29 PM
Karen - I just went through almost exactly the same process - and you put it so well. All those bows and then one sounds/plays bettern and then all of a sudden they all do as if you are magically improving in the shop!

And I ended up buying the lighter, fast action one too. I'd say its tone is not quite as good as the heavier german bows I had on the table but its action was what I was really after, nimble spiccato, rapid bow changes. I bought mine about a week ago and have shunned my other two bows ever since. I think the only time they will come out is when this one is in the shop or if I have to play a slow piece solo when my old german bow is hard to beat.

Congrats and thanks for sharing, it was particularly timely. And maybe the violin gods just thought it was time you had a change....

From elise stanley
Posted on February 13, 2013 at 7:34 PM
By the way, the shop (in Philadelphia) let me try an 18K french bow. Oh yes, it was wonderful and suited me perfectly. But it was THAT expensive and not THAT much better that I did not leave with any angst. I'm happy!
From Paul Deck
Posted on February 13, 2013 at 9:25 PM
Wow, the piggish cliche' is to go shopping for shoes after something bad happens. Shopping instead for violin bows really does seem much more civilized.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 13, 2013 at 9:54 PM
Congratulations! It sounds like a good choice!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 13, 2013 at 11:28 PM
Paul, the reason I went shopping for a violin bow is because I broke mine. It wasn't just retail therapy, I needed one. I did have a spare of sorts, it was a very old "BSO" that accompanied my "VSO" that I left at school in high school. It was ok as spares go, except that my daughter is now using it for the same purpose that I used it for. She has back issues that are exacerbated by schlepping a violin to and from school, so we borrowed a violin and are using it and that spare bow for her to leave at school. So I have no spare at the moment.

A couple of people told me that it wouldn't be worth fixing my old bow: it would cost more to fix it than my parents paid for it, and the repair might not even last a year, given where the break is. So I will probably get the Codabow Luma eventually--or whatever the latest and greatest is at that time in the Carbon Fiber universe--as a spare.

Tom, I have not had the courage to busk in Harvard Square, although I've thought about it, and think I'd be as good as the cellist who sometimes plays there (and I could play the prelude from Bach Suite #1 without all the schmaltzy rubato that he always gives it). The thing is, nowadays you need a permit. I'd be afraid I wouldn't make enough money busking to pay for the permit!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 14, 2013 at 6:34 PM
>Yes, if conductors would just lie down in a row and let you try one, then another, then back to the first and on to the third, how easy choosing one would be!

Lisa, I am just cracking up over this image. Am visualizing a scene like this to follow:

((Walks up to retail counter)): Excuse me? Yes, I'm debating between these three and would like to take a pair of them home for the night. Test drive them. Be back with them in a few days after I've seen how well they perform.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 15, 2013 at 6:23 PM
You need a permit? Oy. I have every confidence that you would do just fine as a busker in the Square, judging from what I have seen in DC.

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