Better response on a viola with violin bow?!

Edited: June 20, 2019, 4:08 PM · In general, I'm pretty happy with my viola bow, a contemporary German bow from a renowned maker, chosen out of maybe 80 sticks (antique and new, of various provenance) for sound and playability. With my viola / bow combo, it's easy to pull a big, warm, juicy, "typical viola" sound. However, in faster passages when there isn't the time to start the motion slowly, I've got serious issues with response, especially on the C string. The hair just doesn't catch the string in time, no matter what I try and do, and until the string reacts, music will have already proceeded to somewhere up the D-string, at least. I'm pretty sure that this is due to bad technique most probably. On the violin, my bow arm is fairly good enough and my main fights are rather left handed, but the viola is quite some different animal! And despite regularly performing in public (most lately the Telemann and Doemming viola concertos and Schuberts Maerchenbilder, mostly for beneficial purpose) without completely losing my human dignity, after less than a year without specific formal viola training I would still regard myself as a viola novice.

After getting more and more used to my latest acquisition, a wonderful German violin bow from the early 70ies (62g, maybe slightly stiffer than average and making my violin really stand out of the flock but without getting sharp, so rather for solo performance than for orchestra, and allowing me a precision in articulation I would not have dared to dream of a few weeks before) I once again tried it on my viola today. Which I already did several times, as well with some other violin bows, but never with favorable results. Today I somehow (accidentally?) clicked into a modification of my bowing technique, higher elbow / heavy arm, et voila! Responsive C and all the rest, a small chop of that huge tone missing but still gamechanging. What is that?!? I would have thought that with a heavier bow (71 vs 62g) and the slightly thicker ribbon of hair that comes along with that, it should be rather easier to activate the heavy C, and now this...!

I know it's nigh impossible to tell anything serious without knowing instrument, bows and player, but still - any ideas about what's going on are welcome! Especially from the violists among us. I know that there are other people out there who are using violin (and cello!) bows on there violas. Do you, and if so, then why?

Replies (23)

June 20, 2019, 4:01 PM · Forgot to tell... The viola is a 42 cm Amati model, so not a really small "violinist's viola" model...
June 20, 2019, 4:33 PM · Seems like I remember that Primrose was an advocate of using a violin bow. Also, it seems like Bob Vernon (Cleveland) used a violin bow.
Edited: June 20, 2019, 4:54 PM · That's interesting. I'm sure Mr Primrose explained why?
One reason for this might be more agility due to less weight. But my viola bow is well balanced and feels neither heavy nor sluggish. And as I mentioned earlier, tone wise the viola bow is great with my viola, obviously a perfect match of resonances. Are there any physics going on which I might have gotten wrong?
June 20, 2019, 5:03 PM · Apparently Lionel Tertis also used a light bow.

Personally, I like the bow to do part of the extra work, otherwise the extra muscle action interferes with articulation. I also use a low elbow, with a "cat's paw" bow hold.

The C-string is usually sluggish, and muddy when played fast.
Well-written viola music does not put lots of quick notes on this string!

June 20, 2019, 5:14 PM · I think the low elbow is more important on viola than violin. I used to play with a high elbow, and over time it killed my back.

It may be worth trying a different rosin. My C string articulation improved instantly and quite dramatically when I switched from Hill Dark to Jade. (I didn't switch deliberately, I dropped my old rosin on a hard floor, needed new rosin urgently because I was performing in only a few days, and decided to try Jade because the shop had it in stock and I'd seen good reviews.)

June 20, 2019, 5:28 PM · A very fine viola player here in Albuquerque used a violin bow as well. I agree with Andrew, though, that the elbow is more important on viola and may take some experimentation (as you found) to realize the right place for everything. Primrose advocated for a lower right elbow, thus adding weight to the string. Also, violas often don't respond well to the typically faster bow strokes for violin. More weight, more "into" the string, possibly closer to the bridge - all of these are typically viola bow issues.

Some violas have sluggish C strings, too. You may want to try the Peter Infield strings - I love their C on my viola.

Edited: June 21, 2019, 8:01 AM · Whatever instrument and bow you use you want to be sure to start moving the bow with enough "weight"to instantly start the string vibration.
"Set the bow!!!"

My ARCUS viola bow weighs about 60 grams - same ballpark as my violin bows (~60 grams), but it pulls tone from the viola differently and just fine - a little more overtones than my wooden viola bows (~70 grams) making it good for "cutting through" other players' sound.

June 20, 2019, 6:01 PM · I have a great viola bow that is my favorite one on the violin.
June 20, 2019, 8:04 PM · I have a couple of cheap, heavy, violin bows that work well on viola.
Edited: June 20, 2019, 9:13 PM · Once you try viola bow made by Eric Gagne, you will not need a violin bow!
In the meantime, it may be that you simply better utilize the bow you are familiar with. Whenever I switch from violin to viola, it takes at least 1 hour to start producing a solid sound. What helps a lot is open strings, very slowly with different contact points (from very close to the bridge, all the way toward the fingerboard). Single string, then 2 strings. Scales, again very slowly and especially double stops. I still can't explain where does the difference come from; it is not any of the elements per-se (speed, contact point, heaviness), but a combination. It seems to me that one has almost to unlearn violin approach and plug into viola energetic level. Lastly, it is very easy to get tense on viola and tension on left hand typically spills over to the bowing hand. Relaxing into the instrument is of the utmost importance for a good sound!
June 20, 2019, 9:30 PM · I enjoy my arcus. Light bows are typically great for fast and easy articulation and bowing. However it can be difficult to draw out the warm rich darkness of a viola. It’s a pick and choose
June 21, 2019, 1:14 AM · Thank you for your thoughts. High vs. low elbow - isn't it easier to give weight with a higher elbow?!
Andrew H. - I also use Jade, but also tried Bernadel, Oliv and Obligato.
Karl - my sting combo: Spirocore C, Evah G + D, Larsen A, all medium. (Came there from Obligato via all-Evah.) Eventually I'll try the Peter Infield C when it's next time to change, but do you think it is so different from the Spirocore? Well, and this Spirocore seems to last almost forever... (No it's not old yet, but on a colleague's viola it already outlasts the second set of GDA.)
Andrew V., Mark - I initially thought about an Arcus, but then decided that it would be "too light" for what I needed. Interesting observation that their weight is well within the range of violin bows. Eventually I'll give them a second shot, but first I'd like to sort things out for myself...
Rocky - as a dedicated bow nerd I definitely love trying bows from various makers. Unfortunately chances are low that any shop nearby in central Europe will carry a bow from Montreal based Éric Gagné. Agree on the importance of relaxing, which seems to be harder with a high elbow. The open strings practice is part of my routine I'm starting with whenever I find time to practice. The bow I'm most used to is definitely my viola bow. In the last ten months I play 80% viola / 20% violin. As I mentioned it makes it easy to achieve a huge warm violish sound as long as things will not become too fast on the C. While my "new" violin bow just arrived 3-4 weeks ago... But maybe it really has something to do with the weight of the viola bow that I'm not able to utilize it properly, especially in fast string crossings from D to C for example. I'll try to get some viola coaching during summer...

I'm not trying to argue here, and appreciate all your input! Could a thinner or thicker C make a difference in making the C more responsive without negative impact on sound? Or a harp-style tailpiece?!

June 21, 2019, 1:26 AM · It's much easier to dig into the string with a low elbow. You should never feel like you're pushing the bow into the string with your arm; the arm should pull, not push.

I wonder if you're still bowing like a violinist and relying mainly on your index finger to exert pressure on the bow when you want to dig in. Violists don't do that; we lean in with wrist and forearm rotation. A lower elbow makes it easier to get that leverage from the wrist and forearm.

June 21, 2019, 7:55 AM · ... and I thought the index finger pressure should mainly derive from wrist rotation anyway, also in violin playing?
June 21, 2019, 9:06 AM · You can't generalize that violin bows are better on violas than viola bows. Every instrument and every bow is different. A professional violist I know bought a snakewood cello bow from a retired SFSO cellist to use on her viola. I added 2 bow spinners to my viola case to add 2 cello bows - but there were viola frequencies the cello bows did not support so well, even though it was easier to be loud with them.

When I first bought my ARCUS viola bow over 20 years ago I found that on violin it felt and sounded very much like my CODA Classic violin bow.

I've got 8 cello bows and 3 cellos - but only one, my ARCUS cello bow, can bring out the upper 1-1/2 octaves of any of the cellos' C string (lowest string).

I've got 2 violas and 2 pernambuco viola bows and each bow is a better match to a different viola. Actually, the same is true of the 2 violas and my ARCUS and CODA CF viola bows. Just lucky, I guess!

June 21, 2019, 10:06 AM · Nuuska, I haven't tried the Spirocore strings, but compared to anything else I've tried (Evah, Vision Solo) the PI C string is the most responsive by far. The closest was the Warchal Brilliant, but it wasn't as powerful.
June 21, 2019, 11:25 AM · Karl, then I'll definitely give it a try and save my Spirocore as a spare. Meanwhiles I'll definitely have to train my close-to-the-bridge bowing - no matter if with violin or viola bow, this is something I rather suck on viola. It's such an incredibly low bow speed you need...!
Edited: June 21, 2019, 12:47 PM · One of my violas works very, very well with a full set of Spirocore strings years ago and a full set of Evah Pirazzi Gold now. In fact it has never been intolerant of any strings I've had on it since I got it in 1973. (I only tried the Spirocore viola strings after hearing that Bashmet used them (at least back then). As a cellist I have been very familiar with Spirocore G and C strings for a very long time - as are most cellists.)

Both Spirocore and EP-Gold were completely impossible on my other viola, which seems to be very picky and needs lower tension strings, but when it has just the right strings - OH MY!!!!

Edited: June 21, 2019, 2:55 PM · Besides playing around with bow weight, speed and contact point, have you paid any attention to the tilt of the bow? Especially on viola, I would aim for flat hair, as in, using all the hair. And also, are you spending most of your time in the upper half of the bow or in the lower half? I find that it is easier to get a big sound in the lower half. And also, definitely try to play closer to the bridge.

As for elbow height, I seem to find that the "elbow level with wrist" rule works well, and this applies equally to both violin and viola. I am someone who believes that using arm weight properly is something that is common to all string players, whether it's violin, viola, cello or double bass. I think the main difference between violin and viola is that violists need to use more weight than violinists. I suspect that violinists do not make as big of a deal out of arm weight because it is so much easier to get a big sound. The bottom line is that using true arm weight rather than index finger pressure is a common concept for both violinists and violists. I mean, it's totally fine to lean on your index finger a bit more than the others for weight, but no pressure, please.

I do find a slightly higher elbow more helpful when I need a bit more bow articulation or doing off the string strokes, and this is true for both violin and viola.

For various personal reasons, I am currently using a crummy violin bow on my viola. I can get a big sound no problem, although I do work pretty hard for it. It works well for most things and I am coping. My main issue is getting a clear sautille on the C string, so I do plan on trying slightly heavier bows and real viola bows and see what happens.

June 21, 2019, 4:12 PM · Ella, yes - full hair whenever possible. Still have to concentrate on that from time to time, but in general I'm getting along.
"Big sound" (or at least being loud) comes easier on the lower half, but since my viola has a huge reserve, I'm rather fighting with articulation most of the time, which feels easier in the upper half of the bow.
Had some three hours of practice today, and tried to spend it half-half on the viola and violin bow, concentrating on the differences in technique necessary to make it sound like anybody might want to listen. To make it simple, the violin bow as expected demands more arm weight which feels easier to achieve with a "high" elbow. With high I mean like Ella's elbow-wrist-rule, definitely not higher. (Obviously my violin playing is relatively violish from the beginning, with a relatively low elbow level.) the viola bow needs to be placed nearer to the bridge with minimum bow speed if clean articulation is needed. I still don't get the physics behind all that, especially why the violin bow allows more bow speed or is more liberal about the contact point (these things go hand in hand as you all know). Anyhow, main issue is bad bow control.
June 21, 2019, 4:16 PM · Andrew, my viola seems to be one of those which sounds great no matter what you'll put on. At least until today. Only thing is that since I switched for the current combo, it not totally even anymore between the G and the D, the D has become a bit more nasal. Since both strings are Evahs, this should have something to do with the A, I guess. Let's see how things will develop with the PI-G.
June 25, 2019, 3:14 PM · My viola came with a fiberglass bow that is just too stiff. I tried using my pernambuco violin bow, which feels much better. But the violin bow is just too light to get a good sound out of my (16 1/2-inch) viola. I have since gotten a wood viola bow.
June 25, 2019, 4:31 PM · I thought it was always "arm weight" the difference being which finger(s) apples it to the bow. Pronation, pronation!


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