On which Piece did you realize your bow limited you?

October 20, 2018, 5:32 PM · Although my question is mainly directed at advanced or professional violinists, I suppose it also applies to anyone.

Which piece of music were you on when you suddenly realized "this bow is preventing me from making the sound I want to make?" (Or, perhaps your teacher was the one who informed you this was the case)

And, at that point, what bow were you using and what bow did you upgrade to?

I'm assuming that for most, this event probably occurred multiple times over their playing history, so if there were multiple pieces of music where this happened, it would definitely be worth mentioning all of the them. It may also be worth mentioning a specific passage within a piece that prompted this epiphany.

Replies (23)

Edited: October 20, 2018, 6:55 PM · I remember a specific time a fair while back where my teacher and I both realised that my bow just wasn't cutting it.

I was learning some piece for my upcoming exam, and it made heavy use of controlled ricochets and sautillé strokes. My bow being both extremely light and frog-heavy, the ricochet was all over the place and my sautillé was hardly audible. My teacher stopped me, gave me his bow, and then I suddenly played all those passages perfectly!

... Then I reached a lyrical section and I had to ask for my bow back. Regardless, I knew I needed to look for a new one. I ended up buying a Christian Wanka bow (unforunate name, I know) off of my teacher and it's served me as my main bow ever since. I just keep a cheap CF bow lying around a spare, since my good bow can do just about everything.

October 20, 2018, 7:53 PM · cotton, what piece was that?

I don't think I had a specific piece - it was more a general need to upgrade or overall feeling of dissatisfaction no matter what I was playing.

Edited: October 20, 2018, 9:29 PM · I was using a German-made workshop bow worth maybe $500 or so, in late intermediate-level repertoire (playing Kreisler's Schon Rosmarin, I think), when my teacher asked me to upgrade. At his recommendation, I got a bow from an award-winning contemporary maker, Douglas Raguse. (Raguse's bows are worth $5k+ today.)

My upgrades since have been driven by violin upgrades. And my current teacher was never keen on my previous bow, a light and flexible Claude Thomassin. (The upgrade decision was driven by Khachaturian, though I had known as a kid playing Tchaikovsky that my teacher desperately felt I needed an upgrade.)

When I got my current violin, I bought a Victor Fetique -- a stronger, more resilient stick, that was a much better tonal match for the violin.

October 20, 2018, 11:23 PM · You ever tried a Benoit Rolland bow?
October 20, 2018, 11:41 PM · Erik, Wood, Spiccato or Arpege?
Edited: October 21, 2018, 5:24 PM · Wood! I think I actually have one of his spiccato bows for viola :P

EDIT: it's an arpege bow, not spiccato.


If you have any experience with his spiccato bows, what do you think of them?

Some background info: the most expensive bow I've owned is about 500 bucks and I've finally decided that I really need something better, so I'm trying to decide whether I should upgrade in sort of a traditional way, where I get an "intermediate" bow until I have a better handle on what I need out of a bow, and then splurge on a professional bow, or if I should just bite the bullet and go straight for a high-level bow (this is what I'm tempted to do).

I've recently decided I'm not going to be buying a different violin for quite a long time, and since one should generally pick their violin first and their bow second, this decision has led me into looking into getting a bow that is a match for my instrument and myself.

October 21, 2018, 10:26 PM · I found that I was limited by the equipment exactly when I received an employment bonus or sold some property, and think that it could work in the other direction as well, except for the imbalance of effort/benefit for sale vs. purchase. So I decided to test that theory with an older bow which I still have, and I found that, although it was more difficult to work with, I could use it, better than I had been able to when it was the primary. So apparently the bow has exceeded its limitations somehow over time. Imagine how much better it might become if I set it aside for a decade. Then I went back to the newer bow, and found that it's easier to handle, and draws a better tone with less effort. So a choice might be like this -- work harder and maybe get better with the addition effort using the old bow, or work less hard and sound better despite that with the new bow. But time is short and the money is spent, so again the decision could largely be made on an economic basis.

As to how to choose a bow - the standard advice applies - try many; ask others whose knowledge and skill you trust.

October 21, 2018, 11:38 PM · J Ray, it may be that your old bow still meets a minimum standard of functionality for bows though, don't you think? As an example, my current bow is very much NOT balanced (most of the weight is at the frog), and it's quite a soft bow, so it doesn't attack like I feel it needs to. For me, it's not so much of matter of working harder" as it much as it is "working at all" for certain techniques.
Edited: October 22, 2018, 12:25 AM · I upgraded early and didn't realize the problems with the old bow until I was in a situation where I was using my backup viola with my backup-backup-backup bow. I had a situation where I had to leave class abruptly and didn't have time to collect my equipment (I trusted the professor, correctly, to take care of it given the time sensitive nature of the situation).

I wasn't able to collect it from him before the time and date of my next lesson, so had to play my backup viola. Unfortunately, my backup bow was in the case with my regular viola, so the backup bow was something that really should be firewood. Of course, until that point I thought it was a just fine bow because the last time I had used it it played fine and did everything I wanted it to do at the time.

It was at that point that I realized bows actually matter and I really can't do much with this bow without trying very very hard. I'm not sure if that bow was limiting me, or I just made a large amount of progress in 6 months. Either way that was one of those 'lights on' moments.

It's the little things.

The bow was unnamed junk and my normal bow at the time was a Knoll I had hand picked from a rather large pile.

Edited: October 22, 2018, 5:08 AM · I... didn't realize how much my bow was holding me back until I got a good bow.

When I started on violin, it was on an old German workshop violin I inherited with no bow. The violin sat on my uncle's shelf in Taiwan for 20+ years and the bow got lost at some point. So I bought the cheapest wood bow available in my local shop (it cost about $100) and a year or two later upgraded to a slightly better bow ($150). Those are still the only two violin bows I have, because I switched mostly to viola after a year and half. These days I know that those violin bows are far inferior to the violin I use them on, but play violin so rarely that I haven't gone shopping for an upgrade.

I started on viola with a student instrument that I was able to borrow for free. I think I got to the Telemann viola concerto and realized the bow was keeping me from playing the string-crossing passages comfortably, so I bought my own upgrade. At the time I had some idea of the price ranges for instruments, but didn't realize bows could cost more than a few hundred dollars, so I bought a $250 bow, thinking it was a "good" bow. When I eventually returned the borrowed viola and bought my own, I'd just been accepted to medical school and was going into debt anyway, so I splurged on a viola well above my level... but at the time, not realizing what a mistake I was making, I decided not to buy a bow and just continued to use the bow I had. For about five years, I played a $15,000 viola with a $250 student bow.

And then I finally went shopping for a better bow, having finally learned what the range was for bows. At that point I was still a student, having quit medical school to go to law school instead, so my budget was lower than it otherwise would have been -- I planned to spend $2,000 on a bow, and ended up spending $520 on a hybrid bow (CF core, wood sheath) that I preferred over bows I tried that cost up to $2,500. But every single bow I tried was light-years better than the cheap wood bow I had before. I jumped into Romantic solo repertoire within a month or two after upgrading.

I still use the student bow as a spare bow, and sometimes use it for Baroque music because it has the feel of a Baroque bow when held a few inches above the frog. But for most music it's still rather limiting.

October 22, 2018, 5:36 AM · I am following this with interest. The problem is that most seem to realize that they had to upgrade the bow when they tried a better one, and they realized that what was difficult turned easy.

I would like to ask if you can identify any particular technique, music passage or exercise that would work as a bow quality test. Something that points that the problem is the bow, not the player.

October 22, 2018, 6:30 AM · Separating the bow from the player -- very difficult, I'm afraid. My suggestion is to just try your teacher's bow every once in a while when you're struggling with some kind of bowing issue.
October 22, 2018, 11:25 AM · Erik, if I were you, I would definitely not go to to an intermediate bow. Get a bow intended for professional use. Anything less is going to hold you back.

I have tried a Rolland Spiccato before. I suggest if you are looking for that feel in a CF bow, you try a JonPaul Avanti -- there's a historical relationship there that someone else can explain. Plenty of pros use those for day to day orchestra playing, and at a street price of $750 or less, it's a very economical choice.

If you are looking for a professional bow but you need it to be unbreakable, and you have a generous budget, try an Arcus S8 or S9.

Otherwise I'd just go try every bow that you can, within your price range. Search in the Bay Area for starters.

October 22, 2018, 12:25 PM · Specific pieces: Tchaik Concerto mvmt 3, the first sixteenth notes section. I tilted at this one for many years before stumbling into a bow with a much quicker response to direction changes than my prior ones, and discovering that my decades-long inabiliy to play this at speed melted away in a matter of a few hours. The sustained double-stop section on the fifth page of the first movement is also quite sensitive to bow balance, though IMHO the left-hand challenges of that dwarf the right arm ones.

The harmonics in Paganini's D Major concerto mvmt 3 seem to prefer a rather stiff, light, frogg-biased bow, the kind that can transition between regular notes and artificial harmonics quickly. I have no real explanation for this, but some bows definitely prefer harmonics more than other bows.

Caprice 5, original bowing on the sixteenth notes, has got to be one of the finnickiest things I've ever attempted. Each bow that will do it at all wants me to do it totally differently (so that I've cluttered the margins with notes on how to hold multiple specific bows), and still none of them are secure enough I'd be willing to play it for an audience (but then, neither did Paganini as far as we know). The sixteenth notes are almost controllable with frog-biased bows (my usual preference) playing nearish the tip (2/3rds or so) but would prefer a tip-weighted bow to play in the middle the way the pros do...but the way I do the arpegios at the start (a string e string a string e string) definitely works better near the tip of a frog-biased bow. If I were recording it, I'd probably change bows in the middle, twice.

I'm still looking for a bow that makes Caprice 2 controllable. I bought a rather bouncy cheapie carbon fiber that _almost_ does it, and I have an old aluminum bow that does the bounce really nice, but only on one instrument...probably the bottleneck there is player ability, in addition to the bow.

October 22, 2018, 12:27 PM · Changing violins, too. When I bought my first good violin, I realized when I put my bow to it that it hated my bow, so I bought a bow with it right then (fortunately it had no objection to the quite affordable ones I'd been trying it with in the shop).

Violins have strong opinions about bows, or vice versa. I've bought bows because my violins liked them, and once I bought a violin because my bow liked it.

Edited: October 22, 2018, 12:44 PM · I used to live in a place with little access to bows (or violins, rehairs, repairs, etc.) so purchased one on a whim back on 2001 or 2002, mostly because mine was a bit beat-up back then, and definitely too weak. A visiting luthier sold me a brazilian-maker gold-mounted bow I use to this day, which was much better than what I thought later on, despite its heavy weight. I had trouble controlling it, but it really never held me back since (tends to produce a thick, warm sound that is nevertheless strong.) After I purchased a decent, light Codabow carbon fiber bow for backup, I realized how much I really prefer my older pernambuco bow, and sadly my synthetic fiber bow is hardly ever used as a result (notably, staccato runs are much easier on my heavy bow, and the bite is better for sautille-the Codabow is theoretically easier to play with, but that doesn't make me want to regularly use it.)

I am hoping one day to buy an excellent, light pernambuco bow to have as a contrasting bow, but these are rather pricey so I must wait for now.

October 22, 2018, 1:45 PM · It was spiccato that necessitated the change. The piece was Kreisler's Preludium & Allegro. Of course, spiccato is still a work in progress.
October 22, 2018, 4:07 PM · Great advice and stories all around.

Another poster who has a great collection of bows also emailed me mirroring the advice to get a Jon Paul Avanti if I'm looking to get a bow that, feel-wise, acts like a very good bow, but perhaps just doesn't have the coloring options that a great pernambuco bow does.

I think this is probably my "safest" option at the moment as a way of re-training my hand to know what a bow "should" be able to do, and then use that to choose/commission a much higher-priced professional grade bow that can pull a better tone out of my specific violin.

October 22, 2018, 4:22 PM · Note that JonPaul Avanti sticks are somewhat individual from a tonal perspective, so you may need to try several to get a sound you want, too. The feel in the hand is pretty neutral.
October 22, 2018, 7:25 PM · Hmmmm, I wonder how I could get several of the same bow to choose one...

Perhaps I'll contact some dealers and see if they'll send me like 5.

October 22, 2018, 9:10 PM · Or you could see if you could get 1 from several dealers. You'd just need to be careful to keep which is which straight.
October 26, 2018, 2:58 PM · A passage in Saint-Saens's Rondo Capriccioso, slurred Down-Down, Staccato Up-Up, repeat. Blazingly fast by the pros. So far best handled by a Benoit Rolland bow.

Polonaise Brilliante No 1 by Wieniawski. The G-string/E-string jumps are kinda tricky. Helps with something lighter.

Edited: October 27, 2018, 8:46 AM · I play violin in one orchestra and viola in others, along with quite a bit of quartets, etc- strictly amateur. The following applies equally to both- Beethoven 9, Borodin 2, Tchaikovsky various. For solo, the Bach sonatas partitas on both, but particularly on viola- a better bow let me get closer to violin on my viola performance.
I use both an octagonal glasser braided carbon fiber and the round stick version for orchestras and pits and often when practicing. Same manufacturer and model, but different playing characteristics. With the octagonal, articulation is crisper, jette and spicatto are livelier and clearer, and rapid passages easier. The round version gives more volume and a fuller sound. I find my hand and touch feel like they’re different as well.
Point being different bows let you do different things and play differently.
I still prefer a pernambuco bow for chamber music for colour and feel.


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