Bow tight enough?

Edited: December 22, 2020, 12:16 PM · Look at around 1:09. His bow is so tight that the stick looks to be bent in the opposite direction. I was waiting for it to snap! Why would he do this? Doesn't putting that much tension on the bow destroy it's playing qualities?

Replies (28)

Edited: December 22, 2020, 12:58 PM · Yes, it does. It looks almost like a baroque bow ahaha
But it must really work for him. I've seen more recent videos of him also with overtight bow.
December 22, 2020, 1:20 PM · Freeze at full screen and hold up a ruler to it. It's not quite straight FWIW. I speculate that the bow is by a maker known for the flexibility of their bows, and Shaham is just bringing it up to a tension more suited to stiffer designs because he's found the combination to work well for him.

Not to be dismissive of further conversation, people do tend to notice this about his bow (link to Google search):

Edited: December 22, 2020, 1:30 PM · One of my bows, my favorite as it happens, is about a century old and was bought for my mother in the early 1920s when her violin playing was starting to take off. According to the bow maker who rehaired it for me a few years ago, it was made in Germany in about 1920 - there was a feature of the frog that he homed in on that enabled him to deliver this verdict, and I hadn't mentioned its provenance.

It is light (under 60g) and I found early on that it plays at its best when it is tightened up until the stick is almost straight, as in the Gil Shaham clip. This "tightening" doesn't distort the stick out of its plane. If it loosened to the usually advised spacing between stick and hair (thickness of a pencil?) it becomes bouncy, more difficult to control, and less predictable. Tightened up to the level as shown in the clip it gives the best behavior and tone of my bows.

I'm not worried about the stick being straight, as long as it delivers what I want, which it does.

I think we may confidently rely on Gil Shaham knowing what he is doing!

December 22, 2020, 1:39 PM · One can also adjust the quantity (number) of hairs to balance the stick stiffness and the hair tightness (or strain) for optimum playing properties.

In my opinion it is the responsibility of the bow re-hairer to do this properly OR for the bow user to request it.

December 22, 2020, 2:26 PM · Maybe it's a noodle of a bow, and that amount of tension is where it works best?
December 22, 2020, 2:31 PM · Thank you for your replies everybody. I figured that Gil Shaham knows what he's doing. I just never saw a bow tightened like that. It was a little startling.

December 22, 2020, 2:43 PM · I have seen very tight bows quite often in performances. The way I learned the rule is: The distance from hair to stick where they are closest should equal the diameter of the stick at that location. If you are used to play with tighter hair (like I was when I first learned the rule) it takes quite some time to get used to.
December 22, 2020, 2:46 PM · The OP wrote:
>>> Doesn't putting that much tension on the bow destroy it's playing qualities?

Can you hear any destruction of bow's qualities, in this video? ...

Edited: December 22, 2020, 3:50 PM · Lol. It goes without saying that these things happen gradually over time.
December 22, 2020, 4:03 PM · Maybe it's worth it. What do we know? ...
Edited: December 22, 2020, 4:26 PM · I never said it wasn't though.
Personally I like to feel the flexibility of the bow, in the different levels of pressure. But you're right on that one, what do we know.
Edited: December 22, 2020, 4:28 PM ·

When I saw him I immediately thought of Mark Ruffalo, anyone else?

Edited: December 22, 2020, 8:27 PM · Greetings,
in the end , some people like it that way. Some people say the really tight bow is associated with the Franco Belgian school. Notable players with tight bows include Bron and Vengerov. I guess they just feed a lot of weight in through the stick . the sound isn’t forced. On the other hand, I have noticed that slightly lesser ranked players tend to sound a little forced tonally. My first good teachers was an amazing player who studied with Antonio Brosa who used a really tight bow. That teacher was a highly respected orchestral player who I heard perform the Brahms concerto and Tzigane among other things really well. But to be honest it did seem like he was crushing the whole caboodle to get as much sound as possible. Of course he tightened my bow to the nth degree. When I auditioned for the Czech teacher Vanacek at the RCM he immediately took the bow out of my hand and reduced the tension by half. Thins didn’t go well after that...;)
I much prefer a somewhat more relaxed singing tone and approach. (although Vengerov is as close to god as is possible...) Fritz Kreisler used a really tight bow and he wore them out all the time. Thus when he came to england he used to buy five or six hill bow at a time which were gradually destroyed. On the distaff side, the loosest bow hair of any soloist was probably Enesco and although I find his playing both inspiring and moving the result is just a little scrappy and rough at times. I just use the middle line as it were.
December 23, 2020, 5:28 AM · Glad to hear that Mr. Brivati is alive and kicking!
December 23, 2020, 7:56 AM · I'm not really sure why his bow is tightened that much. Would it allow for greater control in certain bow strokes? Perhaps more of a trampoline effect?

I wonder if a carbon fiber bow would last longer than a wood bow with more tension applied. I assume it would.

December 23, 2020, 11:19 AM · "I wonder if a carbon fiber bow would last longer than a wood bow with more tension applied. I assume it would."

In fact this comes full circle in the fact that Arcus bows are stiffer than normal bows and intended to hold the hair at a higher tension, resulting in all sorts of interesting differences from regular bows, apparently.

Edited: December 23, 2020, 12:21 PM · I’ve known a few people who have had trouble with the bow hand shaking under pressure, so they opt for using a tighter bow because the stick is less likely to bounce on long notes. I think it’s better to investigate what’s causing the hand to tremble rather than ruining a nice bow’s camber by over tightening it. If you get to play a really good 19th Century French bow, you’ll notice they vibrate more than your average decent bow.
December 24, 2020, 8:33 AM · While he is playing rather soft at that moment, you can see later where he is playing a bit more aggressively and the stick is much closer to the strings. Unfortunately, he's really using the wrong bow for this performance and you can really hear it in his tone. It's very sterile and lacks dynamics and projection. This is do to more "slip" than "stick" motion of the hair. Which I discuss in more detail in this article:
Edited: January 9, 2021, 8:41 AM · I have a significant number of bows. Twenty years ago I measured the force required to bend the sticks measured amounts (and some others I had in hand - a total of 29 violin, viola and cello bows) and tabulated the results in units of k=Newtons(force)/meter(deflection). I also measured all characteristics of the bows and their hair that I could. I also generated some equations to calculate the number of hairs that would optimize the performance of each bow. I have kept the results in a spreadsheet. The spreadsheet was available in a website that I ceased supporting in around 2012.

Yesterday as I contemplated this thread I decided to see how some of the bows I still own behaved. The "softest" bows (with N/m= 63) are a F. N. Voirin and a 1950 "Tourte copy" (at least the maker said it was a Tourte copy that "Wurlitzer had approved" - I heard him tell the story). The bows do indeed perform every well when tightened with the stick practically straight, although to tell the truth I never previously tightened them that much. All the other pernambuco violin bows tested have higher N/m values up to about 90 (a "R. Weichold, Dresden imitation de Tourte" bow). The composite bows seem to aim to be within the same stiffness range although a couple of brands got up to N/m=101. The stiffest stick I have is an "ARCUS Concerto" CF bow with N/m=133; it has almost no camber bend at all and when tightened the bend changes very little. Two other ARCUS violin bows I was able to test had N/m=158 & 167.

Twenty years ago I made similar measurements on 6 viola bows and 8 cello bows, but that is not relevant here.

I think Shaham knows what he is doing - and Vengerov too, Bron - I don't know him!

December 24, 2020, 12:40 PM · My daughter's 3/4-size violin came with a bow that really worked well for her -- it played well, sounded good, a great bow considering it was part of a kit. But, you had to tighten it until the stick was nearly straight. As David suggested, it was just a weak stick -- a "noodle." She'd go to summer camp and her teachers would wag their fingers at how "tight" her bow was, but tension is not measured in millimeters. The problem now is that the resale value is basically zero because everyone assumes it's a bad bow because of how straight the stick needs to be, but it's a really good bow actually, as fractionals go.
January 8, 2021, 5:43 PM · It worked for DuPre.
January 8, 2021, 6:07 PM · I tried a noodle-ish Simon last year. The dealer specifically suggested I look at Shaham (who allegedly uses a Simon), and said I could get better handling on this bow if I cranked it up.

I never got to the point of feeling comfortable having it so tight, so I decided to send it back.

January 9, 2021, 12:15 AM · Greetings,
Zhakar (?) Bron who taught Vengerov and Repin.
January 11, 2021, 7:32 AM · You are making a blanket observation about bows that is not supported by material science.

There are multiple failure mechanisms that can permanently alter or break a stick. These depend on a variety of material properties, stick geometry, and the presence of defects in the wood structure. All of these vary dramatically from tree to tree and even stick to stick carved from the same tree.

It is quite possible to design a stick that can be cranked up with no ill effects to its playing characteristics, as Gil Shaham convincingly demonstrates in your posted video.

January 11, 2021, 12:26 PM · Too many hairs on a soft stick = wet noodle!

Remove some hairs - CAREFULLY! I've done this, it works!

Edited: January 11, 2021, 1:38 PM · But then Carmen, on that same note, the bow-maker might not be able to tell which bows can or can't handle the strain. The changing flex of the bow is a pretty unambiguous way of being able to tell that a bow is under strain, and by inference, stress, so why not err on the safe side when faced with a lack of information? Perhaps the act of playing, itself, is a form of cyclical loading that would have outsized effects when the bow is already stressed. Although maybe the initial stress from tightening the bow is much more important a factor than any cyclical loading.

The, perhaps apocryphal, tale of Kreisler wearing out Hill bow after Hill bow might serve as a cautionary tale to those without a lifetime supply of Hill bows. I'd be curious if there is some data on what wears a bow out. Lacking that, I'll not tighten mine too much.

I'm thinking, of course, of lifetime wear rather than moment to moment playability.

January 11, 2021, 5:23 PM · I always tighten up two of my four bows until the stick is pretty well straight - but then they're baroque bows. If I didn't tighten up a baroque bow as it maker designed it to, then it just wouldn't play well.
January 12, 2021, 8:12 AM · If a bow maker cannot tell if the bows they make can stand the stress/strain, then I suggest they need to do more research.

It is possible to get decent estimates of the stress field in a bow with hand calculations. There is much information on properties and failure modes of woods, all publicly accessible with an internet search.

I can understand a reluctance to "not tighten mine too much", but with that reasoning how do you draw the line: one pencil width between hair and bow? Two pencil widths? It is a logic that proves nothing and provides no rational process for adjusting bow tension.

My first bow was an inexpensive wooden one with an inadequate number of hairs. I could tighten that until it was almost straight and the hairs would still flex like wet noodles. The number, diameter and quality of the hairs matters.

I now play with a somewhat pricey fiberglass bow. It does not take many turns of the screw to get a degree of firmness that helps me control the sound and execute bow techniques for my skill level.

Which bow did I "overtighten"?

A feature of tightening a modern bow until it is almost straight is that it dramatically changes how rapidly the bow will change the tension in the strings as the hairs deflect.

While the bow still has significant bend in it, pressing into the string will cause the hairs to pull the bow into a straighter line. This will quickly cause the bow to stretch the strings into a higher tension and resist the push into the strings.

As the bow approaches a straight line, its ability to quickly resist pressing into the strings will diminish. IOW, it starts to approach the playing characteristics of a baroque bow.

We can only speculate what Gil likes about a bow tightened until it is almost straight, but it is not necessarily high tension in the strings and dangerous stresses in his bow. Reducing the number of hairs on the bow would keep the tension in the bow to reasonable levels, while providing a response that does not overreact to pressing into the strings.

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