Tone vs. Playability in a bow


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I've been shopping for a violin bow for the past few months now, and have been to all the major shops in my area, but I still haven't found anything that I love. My problem is that the bows I find with the rich and warm tone that I'm looking for have been harder for me to play - less control, harder to get off the string, feels a bit heavy. And of course, the bows that I find easy to play have a lesser tone to my ear - either weaker in general, or just a harsher/brighter tone than what I'm looking for. At first I thought this was just due to the weight of the bows, but I have been weighing them now and find that I will still experience this in similarly weighted bows. Are this type of tone and playability in a bow at odds with one another? Is this a real trade-off, or just something in my head?

I realize that playability is subjective, and none of the bows with a nice tone are poor playing sticks, but just not quite the way I'd like it, especially with how much these bows cost (in the $5-10K range). Friends have suggested that I am just too used to the way my current bow plays, a Hill bow that is getting replaced due to a crack in the stick, and that I will not find something just like it so I should stop trying. But it is hard for me to buy a bow, knowing that I sacrificed on one side of the equation. Does everyone go through this when buying a bow/instrument that isn't in the highest of price ranges?

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Compromise, compromise. Which price range have you been looking for? You might be surprised to find that a cheaper bow is actually the one that will suit you the best. try to swap the frog of your favorite bow with one of another one to see if this changes the playablity etc...

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Friends have suggested that I am just too used to the way my current bow plays,

 

Does everyone go through this when buying a bow/instrument that isn't in the highest of price ranges?

Points for endless discussion here. Naturally, your perceptions will be influenced by your previous bow(s). A new bow after the novelty of its strangeness has gone will perhaps offer new possibilities to your playing.

 

On the second point I would be sure that the same issues are being faced at the top end of the market as well.

 

As Robertdo wisely says: All is compromise.... But having a couple of bows with different feel is not a bad thing, budget permitting.

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ooh .... great question!

I will go out on a limb and say that with bows as with violins, playability is everything, and tone doesn't really matter that much. My own experience is that what distinguishes a great violin or a great bow isn't its inherent sound but its potential for dynamic change and the articulation of musical ideas to an extreme level of subtlety.

Yes it's natural to think that what you want from a bow is a full warm tone, but actually you need to make that sound, not the bow.

I always find myself gravitating towards bows that aren't as inherently powerful or loud or "dense" as some, simply because that fullness is always bought at the expense of articulacy. I'm sure this varies from player to player, but I think it's a reasonable generalization.

I watch a lot of people trying out violins and bows, and one of the commonest mistakes people make is to listen to the sound! Strange thing to say, I know, but what I mean is that they are constantly referring in their head to an ideal which is kind of fixed or static. They don't really play music, but prefer to switch rapidly from one instrument or bow to another, measuring the weight of sound. This appears to give them the information they need, but really tells them nothing. What I think they should be listening for is how their own expressiveness improves or not, and how relaxed they feel, irrespective of the "sound".

It should be possible for you to find a great bow which feels like it fuses with the strings and with you as a player (in other words you rapidly forget it exists) - it's far from inevitable that such a bow will sound overly bright, but it's unlikely to be as rich and warm as you think you want it to be.

I've had a few really great bows (of course they sell rather quickly) and my observation has always been the same - a bit unimpressive to start with but very comfortable, a few surprises in how easy they are to use, then a slowly developing understanding that they are "complete".

With bows, you want a good companion, not a bimbo or a hunk!

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I don't believe playability is as subjective as tone quality.  A great bow is smooth, quick, and feels right for all the bow strokes, and doesn't tire the player.  It feels perfect from one end to the other.  Until you've played one—and they are as scarce as hen's teeth—you don't quite have that "ah hah" moment that changes your taste in bows forever more.  I've only played two perfect bows.  So unfortunately we usually DO have to make compromises just to have something to play on.

 

It might be helpful to work backwards in defining a great bow, since it is harder to think positively.  Bows can feel too weak or too stiff, unbalanced, bobbling or shaky, sluggish, too heavy, too light, good in one spot while not so good in another.  Probably some other bad features if we think longer.  All in all, I'd say the minute anything negative about a bow crosses your mind, just don't accept it.   

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I will go out on a limb and say that with bows as with violins, playability is everything, and tone doesn't really matter that much. 

I'm on another limb then.

I would adjust my playing a bit to cope with a slightly awkward bow (one of which I have)

for the sake of the sound it appears to draw from the instrument and the pleasure it gives me.

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Concerning playability vs tone in a bow, some thoughts presented if for no other reason that others might disagree:

 

-- Only you can know the playability of a bow.  It's how a specific bow feels and responds in your specific hand.  If someone else thinks a bow has great playability, your own reaction to the same bow might be very different.  And bow playability is more or less isolated in the bow.  A bow which has great playability for you on one fiddle will probably have great playability on another fiddle, too, although the tone color may be different from fiddle to fiddle.

 

-- Tone is a function of interaction of bow, instrument, and player.  Unlike playability, tone can be evaluated by someone else, someone listening to you play.  Indeed, it's probably a good idea to have someone else listen to your sound with different bows to confirm or deny the impressions you have of the tone being produced by you, the bow and the fiddle.  It's the old story of a fiddle sounding different out from under the ear.  The sound you attribute to the bow coming from the fiddle under your ear may not be the sound heard 20 feet away.

 

-- Because tone is the interaction of bow, instrument and player while bow playability is resident, more or less, in the bow alone in your hand, you can have adjustments made to the instrument if you like very much the playability of a bow but not the tone.  A strident fiddle can be adjusted in setup, with soundpost, bridge, and strings, to sound less strident. With a fiddle sounding too dark for you with a bow whose playability you like very much, that fiddle might be adjusted to sound brighter with that same bow.

 

Assuming that a bow is properly haired at the right tension with good hair, a bow either has or doesn't have good playability for your hand from the outset.  Adjustments to the bow are rather limited to improve playability.  But tone can be modified by setup changes to the instrument, if a bow doesn't quite produce the tone you want.  If I had to choose between playability and tone in selecting a bow, I'd select the bow that gives the best playability, because things can be done through instrument setup about tone, while playability of the bow probably can't be changed.

 

PS: Maybe the bow specialists will note that I'm underestimating the playability changes that can be brought to a bow by changing certain of its features, such as adjusting weight and balance point  and by adjusting camber.

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Hi There, 

 

As I've done quite a bit of bow shopping over the past 3 years, I'll add my 2 cents.

 

If you're looking in the $5k-$10k range for a bow, and can't find the right combination of warmth and power, I just can't believe that you're looking in the right places. A bow is extremely personal, but you can't just look for something that feels exactly like your old hill, because even you (after a few months) no longer remember exactly what it felt like. Unfortunately, whenever a bow you love breaks, there's also the " rose-colored-glasses-effect" to consider. You remember the bow for everything it did well, and overlook the things that it may not have done quite as well as you'd like. Every bow, no matter how good, has both positive and negative qualities, You CAN NOT have everything in a bow, because some qualities are simply mutually exclusive. 

In my first rehearsal as principal with my current orchestra, my bow snapped at the tip in the middle of a solo. This was my first full-time professional job, I was just starting my trial period, and I only had a codabow as a backup. I was panicked, and started looking all over for a replacement (thank god for insurance). 
 

What I found was quite amazing, really. For a similar budget to yours, I saw a large number of not-so-great Bazin, Morizot, Hill, Pfretzchner, Nurnberger, and assorted "unidentified" french bows from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were mostly overplayed, recambered, wobbly, or otherwise worn out or in not-such-great shape. The really excellent bows from that time period that were not overused were mostly out of my price range, or had some slightly "unique" qualities no longer sought after in a bow (strange balance, extremely lightweight, or that fuzzy middle-ground of 64-68g between violin and viola).

 

I started to get quite frustrated, but when I revised my budget downwards, and started looking at modern makers, I couldn't believe what I found. I went to a modern makers' exhibition in Berlin, and found 10 bows that handily beat everything I'd seen looking around at various shops, and trying out plenty of bows, and at a significantly lower price than I'd looked for preciously. Modern bowmaking has reached an extraordinary level, and I can't speak highly enough of the playabilty, sound, or craftsmanship of both of the bows I bought from multiple-award-winning makers for *less* than the price of one older and significantly lower-quality (albeit collectible) bow. 

 

Do you want an investment in a collectible, or a playing tool that is tailored to your specific wants and desires? A good bow maker can dial in a bow to feel the way you want, and the wood quality i've seen in top makers' bows nowadays easily matches that of older bows as well.  I'd try to look at the best modern makers in your area, or take a trip to a big city (NYC, London, etc.) and go to every maker's shop you can. When you find a maker whose style you like, and whose bows feel great, you can always commission something that is even more specifically to your taste . . . and when your taste is as specific as it seems, there's no better option!

 

Good luck, and I hope you find the bow you're looking for (whatever it is!)

Chris

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I don't have a very strong opinion on this, but a few observations:

Some really strong players I have met, try bows by picking them up, playing a few strokes and select them for tone only, most of the times they are looking for that ringing, carrying sound. They notice how the bow is balanced as a sideline.

When they have made their selection they choose their favourite bow by determining how tiring it is to play that bow.

These are normally the players that are technically so well equipped that they can make any bow do what they want...

Orchestra players usually look for ease of articulation, smoothness, liveliness and so on. They might be putt off by the same ringing sound...

Adjusting camber can change a lot in playability and a little bit in sound, adding weight usually doesn't do much.

I don't think there is a 'right' way to choose bows...

Florian

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Some really strong players I have met, try bows by picking them up, playing a few strokes and select them for tone only, most of the times they are looking for that ringing, carrying sound. They notice how the bow is balanced as a sideline.

When they have made their selection they choose their favourite bow by determining how tiring it is to play that bow.

Florian

I like and can understand that approach, Florian.

There is a certain 'depth' to the sound I listen for which appeals to me.

If a stick doesn't have that, no amount of control or playability can compensate.

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Florian makes a very good point. The requirements of soloists are quite different, since volume and carrying power trump all other considerations.

I assumed from the OP's budget ($5-10K) that he was a) looking mainly at old bows and B) wasn't a professional soloist. Forgive me if I'm wrong on either count.

If someone came to my shop with prodigious technical equipment I would let them get on with it (!), but the majority of my customers are a bit unsure what to look for. The ones who are sure what to look for are often barking up the wrong tree, and expect the bow to produce the sound - they slightly forget to play!

If I think about my own approach to choosing bows (the success with which I do this has a direct result on my income) it seems to combine my own advice with that of all the other posters ...

I pick up a bow, play it for a few seconds, and either reject it or put it in a "come back to it" pile. It would be rejected because it was weak, lifeless, very granular, or uncomfortable at the handle or had a very eccentric balance point. Once I have a few I like, I try some basic exercises, just to see if they actually DO spiccato, whether a legato stroke has a stutter (very important to do this with one's eyes closed), and whether there's enough rigidity in the stick to use it off the string at the point etc.

If they pass all these tests, then I stop testing and just play. If I succeed in playing after a minute or two, then it's a Good Bow - if I'm thinking about the bow, then I reject it.

There's a strong belief in a magical marriage of a particular violin and a particular bow - my experience as someone who always has a few dozen violins and bows to hand is that one should rather believe in the magic of a particular violin, since a bow which works best on one violin will work best on pretty much all of them. The exception would be if you're looking for a bow to compensate for the inadequacies of a particular violin, or vice versa, in which case you're no longer looking for the best bow!

To refer to Omobono's point, I think "depth" of sound is a psycho-acoustic phenomenon. I also look for this, but I think it's a feeling in the fingers as much as a tonal quality perceived by the ears, a sense of being in touch with the sound and reaching into it. I would definitely say it's an essential quality of a good bow, but not the same as "richness" or "warmth" of tone.

ps. price range - pretty much irrelevant, all the same problems with Peccattes and Tourtes and Pajeots! I would recommend trying new bows, though not many shops keep a wide selection.

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Martin, a very good way of talking through the approach to a new/unknown bow and very helpful.

Particular bows for particular fiddles is another whole matter, as you suggest.

 

I would probably include the idea of 'richness' or 'warmth' within the gambit of 'depth'.

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Omobono, would you be willing to share what your "cranky" bow is, and a bit more about why you like it, what its flaws are etc ....

I like the fact that you are willing to bend your technique to a bow which has some irresistible qualities if not all! I wish all players were willing to enter into that kind of relationship with their equipment.

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There was a big discussion about this some time ago.

My subjective memory of that discussion was ...

1. hair makes a big difference

2. there are subtle differences in tonal balance from one bow to another

3. mostly the differences from one bow to another have to be seen as part of a huge and very complex continuum which includes the player and his/her perceptions, the amount of feedback a bow gives, and many other psycho-acoustic phenomena

4. differences which are massive to a player are often irrelevant to a listener, although listeners will form opinions if asked for them

:)

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Omobono, would you be willing to share what your "cranky" bow is, and a bit more about why you like it, what its flaws are etc ....

 

Sure, it's an older nondescript viola stick stamped Lupot that I picked up almost accidentally and can't find another that draws the same sound under $5-10K.  It makes my couple of violas sound a lot fuller and darker than anything else I have among another four bows. Just one of those strange things.

Problem with it - not a great response time and difficult to control, but not impossible, for shorter strokes off the string. Feels heavy and soft at the same time in the hand.

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Not really, I'm pretty flexible about that sort of thing, don't even mind if there's no thumb leather.

It would be more to do with overly thin or thick sticks, poorly finished edges to the underslide, or other (subconscious) tactile stuff like very porous wood or an irregularity to the throat of the frog.

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Hi There, 

 

As I've done quite a bit of bow shopping over the past 3 years, I'll add my 2 cents.

 

If you're looking in the $5k-$10k range for a bow, and can't find the right combination of warmth and power, I just can't believe that you're looking in the right places. A bow is extremely personal, but you can't just look for something that feels exactly like your old hill, because even you (after a few months) no longer remember exactly what it felt like. Unfortunately, whenever a bow you love breaks, there's also the " rose-colored-glasses-effect" to consider. You remember the bow for everything it did well, and overlook the things that it may not have done quite as well as you'd like. Every bow, no matter how good, has both positive and negative qualities, You CAN NOT have everything in a bow, because some qualities are simply mutually exclusive. 

In my first rehearsal as principal with my current orchestra, my bow snapped at the tip in the middle of a solo. This was my first full-time professional job, I was just starting my trial period, and I only had a codabow as a backup. I was panicked, and started looking all over for a replacement (thank god for insurance). 

 

What I found was quite amazing, really. For a similar budget to yours, I saw a large number of not-so-great Bazin, Morizot, Hill, Pfretzchner, Nurnberger, and assorted "unidentified" french bows from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These were mostly overplayed, recambered, wobbly, or otherwise worn out or in not-such-great shape. The really excellent bows from that time period that were not overused were mostly out of my price range, or had some slightly "unique" qualities no longer sought after in a bow (strange balance, extremely lightweight, or that fuzzy middle-ground of 64-68g between violin and viola).

 

I started to get quite frustrated, but when I revised my budget downwards, and started looking at modern makers, I couldn't believe what I found. I went to a modern makers' exhibition in Berlin, and found 10 bows that handily beat everything I'd seen looking around at various shops, and trying out plenty of bows, and at a significantly lower price than I'd looked for preciously. Modern bowmaking has reached an extraordinary level, and I can't speak highly enough of the playabilty, sound, or craftsmanship of both of the bows I bought from multiple-award-winning makers for *less* than the price of one older and significantly lower-quality (albeit collectible) bow. 

 

Do you want an investment in a collectible, or a playing tool that is tailored to your specific wants and desires? A good bow maker can dial in a bow to feel the way you want, and the wood quality i've seen in top makers' bows nowadays easily matches that of older bows as well.  I'd try to look at the best modern makers in your area, or take a trip to a big city (NYC, London, etc.) and go to every maker's shop you can. When you find a maker whose style you like, and whose bows feel great, you can always commission something that is even more specifically to your taste . . . and when your taste is as specific as it seems, there's no better option!

 

Good luck, and I hope you find the bow you're looking for (whatever it is!)

Chris

 

Great post with great insights.  I especially like your emphasis on finding the right place to buy and your endorsement of contemporary bows.

 

The buying process, in order to be productive, might well be an exchange of ideas between three people: the buyer, the listener-evaluator whose opinion on sound the buyer trusts, and the shop.  Any shop having a large selection of 5 to 10k dollars bows should have a lot of expertise in bows and instrument adjustment, too.  So whatever complaints one might have about a specific bow (a specific bow's tone, for instance) might be addressable by a good shop, if one brings the issue up.

 

Concerning contemporary bows:  It really is amazing how reasonable prices can be for fine, contemporary bows.  And if the buyer needs any service or needs something in a bow that isn't there in an existing bow, the bow maker is there to provide service or, as you've noted, make a bow on commission.

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