Don't be a slave to your bow

March 15, 2020, 6:29 PM · Brian Hodges and Jo Nardolillo write "Don't be a slave to your bow", (p80, Cello Secrets: Over 100 Performance Strategies For The Advanced Cellist). "When you allow the technical limitations of the bow to dictate the musical phrase, you become a slave to the bow."

They recommend playing a phrase with different bowings. If the nuances of your phrasing are different, and consistent with your intentions, then you are "free"; but if all the renditions of the phrase are the same, then the bow is your boss.

At a basic level, this notion is a "test" of a player's development: Can you bow a phrase in different ways and achieve different nuances? Indeed, can you conceive different nuances?

But once you have the ability to bow any chosen phrase with a host of nuances, and produce what you expect, is this a test of a bow?

Using a $2,000 bow, I claim I can readily achieve a range of nuances when bowing a phrase: do I ever need to buy another bow?

Replies (15)

March 15, 2020, 7:31 PM · If, when trying great-playing bows, you do not feel any difference in what you are able to do, there is no point in upgrading.

I have found that great bows allow me to do a lot of things with greater ease and precision.

March 16, 2020, 3:59 AM · Better bows sometimes make things easier. Even when they don’t, they can improve sound— often dramatically.

They can also, sometimes, make available interpretive choices you didn’t know you had.

Edited: March 16, 2020, 4:55 AM · Perhaps in agreement with the OP,

If you have enough musicality to convey feeling, people take that to be interpretation. Examiners' notes used to comment on my interpretation, when I was either copying someone else or unaware I was interpreting at all - I was just playing the music, as far as I was aware.

I notice on recordings of classical guitar that the performers pay almost zero attention to dynamics, and there is great variation in speed, this too with violin (compare Menuhin's and Heifetz's Spring Sonatas). A lot of music comes from the sort of originals you can see in IMSLP and is then edited by self-selecting people with individual tastes which might also vary historically. Their word doesn't have to be taken for gospel. Some people are taught that the printed word is never wrong. Others go to university and learn how to criticise the word.

My parents bought me a piano (it cost £100). I had to borrow the school's plastic oboe (it cost £99). It was all I had until I gave it back when I finished university.

Nowadays people have too much money. When they can't do something, they upgrade. I firmly believe that you have to learn to wring an instrument's guts out. Others think it's only hardware and it works automatically. Nicola Benedetti's Strad has two wolf notes. What's she gonna do, upgrade?

Edited: March 16, 2020, 5:06 AM · I think great bow (one that also matches your violin), like Lydia commented, makes things a lot easier. It’s really similar to driving a 3 speed shift car vs a 7 speed shift car. 7 speed shift gives you more control, precision and options.

But a 7 speed F1 is also harder to drive (as it’s more sensitive and react immediately with less tolerance) than a Prius (less sensitive to changes).

March 16, 2020, 10:32 AM · Once you get to the point where you're ready for an upgrade, the upgrade itself opens up a skillset. You can then apply that skillset backwards, but it's very hard to get that skillset without proper feedback, which tells you what should happen when you do something one way vs another way.

Even great instruments have trade-offs. Indeed, a lot of great instruments have wolf notes. You work around that one problem because everything else is pretty awesome.

Many players may never get to the point where they are pushing the limits on their current equipment, and that's fine. It's not wrong to be satisfied with what you have.

March 16, 2020, 1:05 PM · Playing a bow that makes a perceived superior difference in tone certainly does open up possibilities, however there is a distinct differences and marriages between the skills of the player and the what the bow can do.

The OP asked:
"At a basic level, this notion is a "test" of a player's development: Can you bow a phrase in different ways and achieve different nuances? Indeed, can you conceive different nuances?"

This is more of the skill of the player setting forth their musical imprint on their equipment. The equipment may respond in a differently depending on the quality combination of equipment used.

"Once you have the ability to bow any chosen phrase with a host of nuances, and produce what you expect, is this a test of a bow?"

This is a test of the player's skill in conjunction with the bow and instrument. I believe with players a matching bow can make things easier for players, where the listener gets the same result. Some musicians prefer an evenly balanced bow, others a tip or more frog heavy bow. The model of the bow (20th vs 19th c styles)as well as the density and quality of the wood will aid in the timbre of tone production.

"Using a $2,000 bow, I claim I can readily achieve a range of nuances when bowing a phrase: do I ever need to buy another bow?"

A bow that is light will have certain characteristics that a heavier bow won't have and vice versa. If the player has the luxury and flexibility of using and playing contrasting bows that they are equally comfortable adjusting to, there can be more radical differences in the sound. Of course for the listener, they will only know the sound that they hear at that moment, but if one is doing sound tests to decide what to use in varying equipment, the results can be drastic, for better or worse.

So having different bows at any pricepoint or collectibility standpoints can garner different results, one may be harder to play but produces a better tone for the repertoire played, or their could be a clear choice. Asking colleagues, going to a shop or doing your research to trial old or modern bows through shipped trial (probably the best method considering the outbreak now!)can be revealing at various price points. For me, its not so much as the term "upgrading" as it would be a term of options available. I prefer to have options while enjoying what is available to play, while some players prefer to have their swiss army knife bow or that's where they've placed all their eggs into one basket. Others simply enjoy the aspect of collecting and having a piece of history and enjoy the residual benefits of being able to play and use their investments.

March 16, 2020, 2:24 PM · OP: "But once you have the ability to bow any chosen phrase with a host of nuances, and produce what you expect, is this a test of a bow?"

Perhaps - but only if you were to try several bows and find one that gives you even more control/options/colors/better tone on your instrument.

OP: "Using a $2,000 bow, I claim I can readily achieve a range of nuances when bowing a phrase: do I ever need to buy another bow?"

You may just have the "magic" $2000 bow that has no equal anywhere near it's price, with you as a player, and with your instrument. But that is probably unlikely. Again, playing different bows as you come across them (from friends & colleagues, at shops) will give you a sense of what's out there and what you might be able to do with a superior bow.

Since a bow has to match your playing and the instrument, you may find that no bow makes your instrument sound better. But with a different instrument, you might also need a different bow.

March 16, 2020, 3:04 PM · Bow does matter to a certain point imho. I used to have a cheap bow that wasn’t even a straight stick! It didn’t articulate on off the string strokes...
March 16, 2020, 4:08 PM · I take responsibility for my bad playing and the work I need to do to get better. So I have never blamed my instruments or bows for my slow progress. But a month ago my gamba teacher put a $1,500 Grabenstein bass viol bow in my hand and I cannot stop thinking about the surprising difference it made in how I could make my strings sing! Now I am indeed in the market for a better gamba bow, and no, I don't expect it to miraculously make me a better player...but I hope practicing might then hold even more pleasure and progress.
March 16, 2020, 7:18 PM · Rise up against our opressors! Down with the bow-geousie!
Edited: March 16, 2020, 10:46 PM · "can you conceive different nuances" is the phrase that hooks my thoughts.
The difference I guess between being a practitioner and technician of something, and being a real lover of something and immersing oneself. It's a matter that results in our drive and personal focus. For me, a fledling and spread too thin over several instruments, and not wanting to give any up- it's encouraging, because before I was a late beginner struggling with the basic rudiments on my little Casio keyboard back in '87, I was also a great music lover, and listener and had a huge record collection of a wide range of music. Someone told me a few years before that that I had "eclectic" tastes in music- and I didn't even know what that meant. But always very much loved the sound of strings, so that no matter how much I gain or don't in whatever time I have beyond my 66 years, the violin will always be my friend...

I found out, I've got time.

The Comparative Literature courses I had in college- including nine hours of Film Comp Lit, asked us to look at the movies with more nuance, and so challenged my mind. The last 3 hour course I had was "Music in popular culture" and looked at music history from jazz and Dixieland to contemporary- one of my class textbooks was a book of Beatles lyrics. We might not all perform a symphonic performance, but we may tune in on some nuances.

"It's not wrong to be satisfied with what you have."
Absolutely not- the quintessential discipline in a torrid world of hurry, competition, danger and strife all around.

It's a great age for being able to have instruments- unsurpassed in all history I think.

March 19, 2020, 12:46 AM · The test of a bow comes down to the way it responds in your hand and the kind of sound you produce with it. A great bow will make phrasing easier and will help you draw a rich and full sound from your instrument. Once you choose a price range that fits your budget, you can play all kinds of bows in that range to find the one that performs best for you. It’s not uncommon to find bows that seem to outperform their price tag if you invest some time in your selections.

There’s an old saying in the violin world: up to about $10,000, you can get the best upgrade by buying a bow (assuming your violin is set up well and free of issues).

March 20, 2020, 1:37 AM · Thanks for this comment, Rich: "A great bow will make phrasing easier and will help you draw a rich and full sound from your instrument."

I think such a clear statement is invaluable for intermediate players, in particular, a cohort still mastering phrasing, for whom a new bow might be a critical step.

So, before venturing to trial a "table full of bows", prepare half a dozen phrases, (or, more substantial passages), and a range of nuanced approaches for each, to use as indicators of the performance of bows you might consider.

March 20, 2020, 5:00 AM · On bows I'm a fully paid up, card-carrying sceptic (there an old saying in my world, "nullius in verba" which essentially means don't believe in old sayings), but surely the very idea of auditioning a "table full of bows" is absurd. How long does it take to assess the qualities of one bow and (even more importantly) what you can do with it? Ten minutes, an hour? More like a month I'd say. Take home a handful.
March 20, 2020, 8:32 AM · I've spent hours auditioning a table of bows (which is usually not more than a dozen or so at a time.) For me some bows can be rejected immediately on tone or performance. Others feel and sound immediately good. Others feel like there's something there but not sure. So you take notes in several categories: tone (lows, highs and overtones), long tones/cushion (does it sink in or skim the surface, does it feel nervous), balance (feel at the frog/tip, especially on rapid mixed bow changes and strong crosses), resonance (especially for detache, off string and chords), articulation (does it catch the string at all parts of the bow or resist, and how fast), off string (is it controlled and responsive), tricks (ricochet, staccato, flying staccato), etc. Play two bows at a time and eliminate in these categories to whittle down. Compare the finalists and pick two to trial at home (1 to 2 weeks if the shop is generous, private dealers may give you longer; a well known dealer used to say you only need two weeks to decide: one week to convince yourself and the second to talk yourself out of it, which is to say, unlike a violin, you know pretty quickly whether the bow is a good match and performs well for you.)

At home, with further testing, you discover things you didn't notice at the shop. The really lively bow turns out to be kind of nervous feeling; that bright tone you thought you liked turns out to be too brash or pinched, etc.

I agree it takes a lot of playing, especially if the feel of the bow is very different from what you're used to, but I think you can tell a lot within an hour, even 30 minutes, about a bow.


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