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Jeremy Davis

Bow Purchase Indecision/Regret

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Hi Folks, 

I've recently decided to upgrade my viola bow in an effort to reinvigorate my efforts in the practice room. I've played the viola for over 30 years, but only for fun the last 15 or so. Recently though I've rededicated my efforts and study, and am steadily getting back to my former ability. I'm not a professional player and am only searching for a bow to enrich my studio and practice. One day I hope to play in a small group or semi-professional Orchestra again, but right now it is about technique and form.  

Never having had a nice viola bow, I've always suspected that it was holding me back. So, I saved up the money, did tons of research and created a list of makers who's bows I wanted to try in the $5k-$6k range

Ultimately I chose 10 bows to try: a few antiques like Bazin, Nurnberger, & Pfretzchner but most were contemporary makers by design: Mohr, Begin, Tepho, Zabinski, Gagne, Raguse, & Halsey. 

The good news is that my suspicions were confirmed. Indeed my bow was holding me back. With most of these bows I could suddenly play difficult passages more easily and tone was improved overall. Almost immediately my right hand was in sync with my left and familiar music was new again. So, needless to say I was excited and set down to the task of choosing one of these bows to purchase! This methodology might seem presumptuous to some, but I know myself and the rabbit hole of endless decisions and doubt (over having too many options) will only make my eventual decision impossible to backup. So, I decided from the beginning that - even if I was happy with only one or two of these bows - I would not do a second trial.

So, I won't go into the details of each maker's bow,  but suffice to say that I played on each bow to get first impressions about which of them made an impression. Ultimately I took comprehensive notes on each bow's pro's and con's before settling down to a top 3. This took several days and, by the end, I felt that I had a good sense of what each bow could offer me. This was also an educational process and I learned that I needed a stiffer stick (as I have a rather heavy bow arm) as all the soft sticks fell flat for me. 

While several makers jockeyed for the 3rd position, there were two major stand-outs for me. Emmanuel Bégin and Georges Tepho. Both bows were round sticks of medium stiffness (maybe the Bégin a little stiffer) well-balanced, and produced wonderful tone on both of my violas: a late 18th century viola and larger contemporary instrument. (note: not all the bows traveled-well between the two - and this was a major concern for me)

So here's my dilemma. The Tepho and Bégin were neck-to-neck most of the time. I would like one for one piece but the other for a different one. In some cases, I like them both for the same piece but for different reasons. I would characterize the Bégin as a super-charged race car. It played fast pieces extremely well and with almost surgical-like precision, but was a bright bow in tone (and a glorious resonance would be produced on the D and A strings) but sometimes lacked the ability to pull emotion out of my viola's lower register. On slow pieces requiring more finesse, it seemed to be hard to control - or hold back - if you will. Still a lovely bow and a strong contender. 

The Tepho on the other hand is much more refined in terms of handling and tone. It is darker than the Tepho, but brighter than many of the other bows I tried. It too played fast pieces well, but not with the precision of the Bégin . It is a few grams heavier, weighted a bit more towards the tip, and that really gave me much more control over the bow when playing in the upper 1/3, not to mention advantages with tone. My wife compared the Tepho's tone to a well-aged wine - smooth but with lots of color, whereas the Bégin  was like Champagne - bubbly and bright. 

In my notes for the bows, the Bégin blew me away with what I could do with it, but the Tepho I fell in love with. I still struggled with my decision so I made lots of recordings of back-and-forths between the two bows so I could hear them from a distance. In most cases the Tepho won each time. While the Begin transmitted it's precision and lovely upper-register tone, it didn't move me like the Tepho. So, I made my decision and purchased the Tepho. 

I had to take about a week of rest after the intense bow trial as I was experiencing some finger-tip numbness in my left hand. So, when I started playing again I was a bit rusty to say the least. So, I tried to ignore my bumbling and get back to playing as I did during the trial. I'm close now, but finding the bow much changed. Maybe it's all in my head and I'm just having regrets now that all my options are back in the shops. It seems very heavy to me all the sudden, and my control of it seems to reflect that. I'm not playing with the same confidence as before.  I find myself thinking about the Bégin quite a bit and wondering if I made a mistake. 

I'll be the first to admit that my bow technique is not good. I tend to play at the tip too much and because of my stronger heavy arms, I don't play with much finesse in the lower bow. This is something I am working on. It's also something that makes me think that the Beginning - with its effortless lower-bow playability - was the better choice for my goals. I mean, it didn't sound bad, I was just moved emotionally by the Tepho more. Maybe this is simply a matter of indecision and poor bow technique and I'll grow into the Tepho. 

Perhaps some of you have had similar issues with new (& expensive) purchases. I would appreciate your advice. 

 

(sorry for the long read, but congratulations for making it to the end...) -Jeremy 

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Hi Jeremy,

As I was reading your story, I realized you fell in love with the Tepho as you went along, and while you were playing a lot. I've also had the experience of thinking "I can't play at all" after taking a break from the viola during a business trip, or sometimes even after playing the violin for a week or two. I suspect that once you get back into the routine, you will fell more comfortable. 

The other thought I had is that you mention early in your story about your general indecision and doubt. This is part of your personality and it is something you alone can deal with. It is easy to obsess about "the gear" and wonder if there is something better out there (there often is) and whether or not you made a bad decision. I think you were methodical during the process, and picked out the best of what was offered. 

My personal opinion is that you feel your bow technique is weak, then work on that. I think part of you knows you got a good bow. Now comes the task of getting the most out of it.

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It sounds like you liked the tone of the Tepho more but the Begin handled better...this is an age-old problem with bow selections, which is why may players have at least 2 great bows...and often many more.  A tip heavy bow can seem great AT FIRST...but then can grow tiresome as you continue to use it.  Not saying the Tepho is tip heavy, only you would know that, but it may be based on your description.  Can you return the Tepho?  If both bows came from the same dealer, then it might be very easy to swap them out.  Personally, I would tend toward a bow that handles better...tone can be adjusted in other ways.  And if somehow you can get them both, do that...  In either case, good luck!!

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Don't have an answer, but I can say that I've often second guessed my own equipment choices. One thing that gets it off of my mind are all the people I've met that have never fussed about equipment and still play fabulously. I've also looked at enough stuff over the years to realize that nothing is the perfect choice.

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I am someone for whom getting a great bow, and that changed everything, realizing my violin was also a problem, and then getting a great fiddle to play, and that changed everything... I understand some aspects of your problem.  We are rightfully instructed that it is a poor worker who blames their tools. and indeed, you've got to work with what you've got.  But it can be cathartic to change something like a bow and realize the profound difference that can make.  When I went through the bow process, a particular bowmaker gave me a bunch of bows to try, and used my response to them to make a bow that was truly awesome, but to be honest, there were two others among the six I had to work with that would have been delightful.  All of them were in another league entirely from what I had been using.  My guess, from what you have written, is that you had two bows that you really liked, and after wrestling between them, made a rational choice as best as you could...  It is REALLY hard to choose between two great choices, but you choose, and move on.  This philosophy is taken from a different aesthetic tradition, but it applies in this case, I think.   

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10 hours ago, Jeremy Davis said:

 One day I hope to play in a small group again or semi-professional orchestra, but right now it is about technique and form.  

.........

 I find myself thinking about the Bégin quite a bit and wondering if I made a mistake. 

.........

I'll be the first to admit that my bow technique is not good.

As someone once told me about a piece of equipment,  don't worry about it --  it's better than you are...   But what someone said about swapping if they came from the same dealer sound like a good possibility.

 

10 hours ago, Jeremy Davis said:

 Bégin as a super-charged race car. It played fast pieces extremely well  ...On slow pieces requiring more finesse, it seemed to be hard to control - or hold back

It's probably a matter of bow control on the slow pieces.  Very slow scales using double stops, whole bow, paying extreme attention to intonation and to not letting the tone break.  I've thought I've had bows that could do anything with no help from me,  but it was probably because I wasn't demanding enough at the time.  Don't get fixated on "stuff".

 

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I remember my first "Oh my god it can be so easy" moment when trying a bow of a teacher. 

I got a couple of good bows, basically to cover exactly the same differences you descripe. 

If I had to choose only one of my bows I would actually go for playability, assuming differences are small in sound and playability. I cannot tell you what to do. Maybe the following thought:

You get home after tireing long day but want to play that one piece shortly. Not testing bows, not working on technicd, just that small piece for fun. Which one will you grap?

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Thank you all for the excellent advice. Zeissica hit the nail on the head in describing what is "standard equipment"  in this body - indecision and doubt about all subjective purchases. If you were to go with me to buy new shoes, you would need to take a vacation day. I have yet to like a pair of shoes once I get them home!

True to form, I am also a gearhead. I am always tweaking and upgrading to something better in almost all aspects of my life. It's one of the reasons I got into the luthiery (for myself only) because I wanted to have complete control over all the variables of an instrument's sound and performance. In that respect bows mystify me because I can't tweak anything - only my own technique. (sigh)

Unfortunately, the two bows came from different shops. I've seriously thought about buying both bows, but could only do so if some more money becomes available to me. Then again, I really don't want two viola bows (see opening sentence) - I know that I would forever be torn between which I should use and never really committing to either. 

In some respects I am splitting hairs, that's why the decision was so hard - they both are great bows. If I'm honest, I do feel that the Tepho will serve me better in the long-run as my technique improves. Perhaps even as my instrument improves as well. 

I've played the same factory-made viola for most of my life. When it first came into my life it was a HUGE upgrade over the cuttingboard-with-strings that I started with. It has a big sound and lots resonance and, in truth, allowed my sound to develop to what it is now. As I've matured though I've come to discover that that big loud sound isn't necessarily a good sound. I now understand it to be "boomy" and "metallic". I recently purchased a very interesting smaller viola from the late 18th century that has a really sweet, if not, loud sound. As a narrow viola of awkward proportions it doesn't have the lower register extension of my more contemporary instrument, but is much smoother in all other respects. As much as I like it, it isn't what I'm looking for. Really, neither viola meets my needs as a serious instrument going forward, at least in-terms of what I define a viola should sound like under my chin. So, I'm currently seeking out a new instrument, and hopefully I'll get to play it in September. I'll report more on that later...

In the meantime, a good friend has lent me a nice well-made contemporary viola (Italian) and the Tepho really comes back to life on that instrument. I think I'll keep playing it until my new instrument arrives so I'll have something good to compare it against. Until then, I will be redoubling my efforts on improving my bow technique. The nice thing about spending $5k on a new bow is that there are no more excuses for putting it off. I need to live up to the investment. 

Thanks again all for the perspective! 

 

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