Friday 31 July 2015

Choosing a Bow - #violin #cello #viola #bows - and How to Care for your Bow

A bow is another of those frequently overlooked elements when starting a stringed instrument, something that we take for granted because our outfit came including one and something we feel vaguely will "do" til we get better at playing. And this is largely true - most well made, decently priced outfits will come with good, student bows and they do exactly what is needed to begin learning. But even then, knowing how to take care of your bow can make a huge difference to making the most of what it has to offer, and making it last until you're ready to move up.

A bow consists of three main elements. The stick which is made of wood or carbon fibre (different types of wood include brasilwood and pernambucco) ; horse hair; and a screw and eye mechanism that tightens and loosens the tension between stick and hair. This latter is housed in the "frog" at one end of the bow, while at the other end is a delicate pointed area, called the Tip.

The average student bow is just that - average. It has an average weight, length, feel and uses medium grade wood and hair. These bows run between €25 and €90 for violin (€30 to €100 for viola and €50 to €120 for cello) and are ideal for beginning. These are the types that come with most outfits and are perfectly good for the first few years of playing. Their performance can be maximised by the following regime:

  • Always, without fail, loosen the bow after playing and tighten before playing. Never over wind the bow. The perfect tension should still see a slight dip in the bow stick towards the hair, in the middle of the stick and about a pencil's width between stick and hair at that point (slightly more for viola and cello.) 
  • Never over resin. Resin is very important to the bow - it is what enables the hair to make contact with the string and that contact friction pulls the sound out of the string. Hard, poor quality resin dust makes a harsh sound. Over resining the bow makes a harsh sound, and ruins both hair and string. If practicing a half hour a day use good quality resin once a week, if doing an hour a day use it every 3-4 days and be use we mean "pass the bow evenly three or four times across the resin block"
  • If you see lots of dust on your strings and violin, or a clud of white dust from the bow hair, you are using too much resin. Stop, don't reapply resin for a week or two, and dust off the strings after playing. Once you've used up what's on the bow hair, start again and follow the guidelines above.
Better quality bows - when you've progressed in playing a better quality bow can really help technique. Often purchased when moving to a higher grade of instrument but sometimes as a stop gap before hand, it can be very surprising to realise just how much difference the weight and feel of a bow can make.

Carbon fibre bows have a very even consistency of weight along the stick, which can be an advantage for some hands. However wood undoubtedly offers more nuance and versatility. A lot depends on your own technique, needs and the type of music you're playing. Better quality woods and hair as well as very fine tuned techniques of making can really emphasize virtues (and vices) in a players technique - it's a very personal choice. What suits one hand, won't feel the same in another. But once you're in a decent price bracket, with well made bows, choose the one that feels most comfortable and which realistically suits your needs. There are lots of choices so set a minimum and maximum price range and ask to try anything in between those points. If possible bring your own instrument to get the best idea of how you'll sound.

Avoid "label buying" - with bows, just because a certain make suits your friend, or teacher, there is no guarantee it'll suit your hand. Widen the search and look at all available options - you might just find that gem that makes you feel like Paganini :)

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