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Buying a Bow by Ivo-Jan van der Werff

Finding a good viola that suits one’s style, concept of sound, and physical build can be very challenging. I feel that finding a good bow is even more of a challenge. Bows tend to be more subtle in their characteristics; often not so obvious as to what they can do. How many string players have been into an instrument store and tried out bows, not really knowing what to look for or how to try them?

In my experience it is often worth looking at your bow before even considering another instrument. Every now and then we feel a need to “upgrade” and get something that better suits our talents. Often we are right, but, how often is there a financial issue that stops us? Getting a better bow or one more suited to your instrument can be a cheaper option and can often delay that dreaded (but exciting) day when really serious money needs to be spent. I’ve seen many of my students’ instruments sound so much better with a different bow.

So, what constitutes a good bow? I admit to being a bit of a bow nerd. Not that I have extensive knowledge of them, but I just love them. I love the workmanship, the wood, the amazing differences they can make. I’ve been very fortunate to have owned a few beautiful old French (and English) bows. Currently my two best create a problem every time I open the case . . . which one do I use? The problem is really about the fact that they do different things. One is rich and dark, very strong and powerful; great for a composer like Brahms. The other is lighter, not as powerful, but actually can make a bigger sound due to the resonance it creates from my viola. I can’t use it in the same way; it needs a different technique. I can’t use the same amount of arm weight, and it needs more horizontal motion to create the amazing sound.

The first thing you have to understand is that no bow will do everything you want it to. Like any instrument, bows are always something of a compromise. Some are fantastic at legato strokes but don’t bounce easily. Some make a great sound but might not be strong enough. It depends so much on your instrument and you, the player. Some violists prefer a bow with a weightier tip; others prefer more weight at the frog. These things can often come from your particular bow technique. How much are you prepared to subtly change things in order to play a different style of bow?

A good starting point is to think about your viola. Is the sound darker or brighter? If the former, you might want a bow that enhances the treble frequencies; if the latter, then you want a bow that brings out more of the lower frequencies. Ideally, there is a balance between what your viola produces and what a bow can produce on your instrument. If you want a rich, dark sound and your viola already produces that, then what can a similar sounding bow add? Perhaps you can get more color and clarity with a bow that enhances the higher frequencies.

When trying a bow for the first time, ideally have someone you trust listening. What you hear under the ear might be very different even a few feet away. Listen first to the quality of the sound . . . do you really like it? Does it inspire you? Will it help you create a bigger palette of colors? If not, whatever else the bow might do well doesn’t really matter. Sound must come first. If I’m trying a bow for the first time, I like to play whole bows on open strings to see how the weight distribution feels; how the bow resonates through its length. Don’t forget to see how quietly the bow plays. We all get excited about playing loud, and, of course, the bow must be strong and flexible enough to do this, but try playing a real pianissimo on the C string. If the sound is clear right up to the tip, then the bow suits your viola.

If a bow doesn’t do these things, it doesn’t mean it is a bad bow, it just means it isn’t the right type of bow for your viola. When I bought my current viola, the bow that I had been using before (a beautiful Tubbs) just didn’t work well. It was a wrench to part with it, but I learned a lot then about what to look for.

If you like the sound, then try different bow techniques: spiccato, sautillé, martelé, etc. Find where the optimum balance is. Bows can feel so different in the hand. Don’t be put off by this. Like playing a different instrument, we have to learn how to utilize our arm weight. Some bows can take more vertical weight into the stick and a slower bow speed, while some work better with less weight and a faster bow speed.

Cost is an issue and can become a real problem if you have a budget for both a viola and a bow. How much should be spent on each? My advice would be to leave enough to get a decent bow, perhaps 15–30% of your budget. Or, as probably happens most often, one falls in love with and buys a viola first, playing on a lesser quality bow and then, a few years later comes the consideration of upgrading the bow.

Especially if you’ve never considered bows before, do try as many as you can, not just 1 or 2 but 20 or 30, or more. Either go to dealers or try friends and colleagues’ bows just to get an idea of what sound you like, what balance suits you, what weight of stick feels the best (viola bows can be anywhere from about 66–75 grams). If you’re spending $1,000 or $100,000, these are all things to consider.

A final thought is this: I can be ridiculously enthusiastic about bows and want to share their amazing qualities by asking friends to listen. I expect to get a strong reaction. Disappointingly, sometimes they can’t tell the difference from one bow to the next; the differences are just too subtle. This can be frustrating, but the important thing is that if a bow makes you feel you can play better, then whatever someone else might think doesn’t really matter. I liken it to an artist who can create a wonderful painting with just two colors, but if they had three or even four colors, imagine, given time, how that can open up their imagination!

Having given this advice, I have to admit to not following it always myself. With the last bow I purchased, I knew after playing just one note that I had to have it even though I didn’t know whom the maker was and how much it was going to cost me. I just fell in love with the sound straight away!! (After selling another bow and 3 years of payments, I’m happy to report this bow is very nearly mine!)

Comments from Students:

Mr. Van Der Werff has written a great entry on how to assess bows for trial and what characteristics to look for in a bow that would better match one’s viola.

I’m in the process of finishing up an extensive bow search (having tried many bows from different shops/makers, finding what I thought was “the one,” only to have to part with it the week I was expecting to purchase it, and then having to start the search all over again). I agree with Mr. van der Werff that sound and color should be at the forefront in choosing a bow, then feel and playability. If one ends up in the predicament where two or more bows are so similar that friends/colleagues/teachers can hardly pick out the differences, then playability will most likely be the determining factor between those bows, granted that cost is within the same range.

When trying bows, there is only so much you can hear under your ear when playing. What might sound clear and focused to you may not actually be carrying through to an audience further away and vice versa. In an effort to be less of a nuisance to others, I spent many hours on my own playing and recording the bows I had on trial, giving each one a fair chance. After narrowing my choices down to about 3–5 bows, I then played for friends and in studio class to help pick the final one. This was certainly an enlightening experience! Exquisitely crafted bows from renowned makers that felt great and played well ended up not sounding the way I had hoped when paired with my instrument. This is important to remember: don’t let price tag or a bow maker’s reputation pressure you into thinking a bow is the right match. What may be great for you and your instrument isn’t necessarily going to be a good match for someone else. Friends often joke that finding a bow is like a wizard finding his wand. Trip to Ollivander’s, anyone?

Some resources and shops I used to help in my bow search:

Gennady Filimonov, a violinist in the Seattle Symphony and bow dealer, has a great website that I highly recommend browsing through. He lists many of today’s award-winning bow makers along with their biographies. I found it helpful to speak with Mr. Filimonov about these makers and how to go about acquiring bows for trial. Filimonov represents quite a few of today’s top makers but unfortunately did not have any viola bows available.

http://www.filimonovfineviolins.com/Filimonov_Fine_Violins/Welcome.html

Benning violins:

Eric Benning has a nice selection of bows from modern makers that are listed on Gennady Filimonov’s website.

http://www.benningviolins.com

Ifshin violins:

They also have a number of bows from renowned makers.

http://www.ifshinviolins.com

My best advice is to do as much research as possible and scour the Internet. You’ll be surprised to find what bows are on the market and at what shops. Eventually you’ll end up with a number of leads, and hopefully will find some good options. Commissioning a bow from a maker is another option and one I look forward to eventually doing. Depending on the maker, however, be prepared to expect a 3-month to 2-year waiting period.

-Sergein Yap, student of Ivo van der Werff


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