How to test bows

PUTTING BOWS THROUGH THEIR PACES

While researching an article for the Strad Magazine (Objects of Desire August 2002) I interviewed international bow makers and connoisseurs to discover how bows work their subtle magic on the sound of an instrument. Contemporary bow makers gave dazzling descriptions of the almost alchemical process of producing a finely tuned and graduated bow and the quality of their work was strongly endorsed by Paul Childs, a New York bow collector and connoisseur, who believes we are living in the time of the best bow making in history.

Inspired by this experience and aware of the trouble many players have in finding a good and affordable bow I decided to organise a selling exhibition of contemporary cello bows by makers from all over the world. My husband, Robin Aitchison, suggested that we could also make the bows available to conservatoire students to give them the chance to experiment with and learn about bows.

The result was Take a Bow, an exhibition of over sixty contemporary cello bows which took place at our studio in Ely, Cambridgeshire. The response from players was stunning. Cellists travelled from all over the UK to try the bows and spent up to five hours working through the collection. Over a third of the bows were sold during the first ten days of the exhibition.

When Robin wasn’t in Ely helping cellists work through the collection, he and his assistant, cellist and luthier Ruth Caldwell were off on an educational tour of conservatoires and orchestras. Armed with a large wheeled suitcase full of bow boxes, they travelled to Birmingham Conservatoire, Trinity College of Music, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, the Royal College of Music, the Guildhall, Chetham’s School of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music.

Robin and Ruth gave students an insight into the process of assessing bows, with the help of cello professors and students who demonstrated the different playing qualities of selected bows. Students were then given boxes of bows for short test periods, during which they played each bow and made a record of their impressions. The students who took part seemed fascinated by the process and felt much better equipped to select a suitable bow in the future.

By the end of November we had learned an immense amount about the bow testing process. The fruits of our experience are summarised below, illustrated by the comments of seven of the cellists who came to the exhibition: Caroline Bosanquet, cello teacher, composer and ESTA member in Cambridge, Benjamin Davies, a professional London cellist and Junior Academy professor, Louise Davis, a professional player and teacher in Suffolk, Edward Halliday, a talented young cellist and music scholar at Winchester College, Veronica Henderson, an ESTA member who teaches in Cambridge, Hannah Roberts, soloist, chamber musician and cello professor at the Royal Northern College of Music and Jayne Spencer, a teacher and professional player in Surrey.

Matchmaking. Most players are aware how personal the choice of a bow is. One bow may suit one instrument and player extremely well, but would be a disastrous choice for a different player and instrument. Finding the right three-way match between instrument, bow and player is quite a task.

Blind dates. As a general rule, it is best to test a collection of bows without referring to their price, maker or weight until you have narrowed your choice down to a few bows. This allows you to make a more objective selection, based purely on the bow’s performance in your hands. Also, do not be swayed by the jewel-like ornamentation of some bows. Gold mounting and decoration are a maker’s way of expressing his opinion of the quality of the stick, but they are no guarantee that the bow will suit a particular player and instrument.

If you are looking for a bow, it helps to have a clear idea of what you are looking for, whether it is greater playing comfort, more agility or an enhanced, more colourful sound from your instrument.

If you are testing a large selection, discard as many bows as quickly as possible while reserving those you like best. Then work through the finalists, comparing them closely. It helps to make notes as you go along. It can also be useful to ground yourself with a ‘control’ bow; either your own or one in the collection which you particularly like. Jayne Spencer quickly found a bow she admired: ‘Robin gave me a lovely bow to start with which was already sold, so I kept it on my lap and whenever I came across another good bow I would compare it to my control; if it wasn’t as good as the original bow, I’d send it straight back to its box. If I came across anything better I’d keep that with me as well, so I’d have up to three or four favourite bows with me all the time.’

First Impressions. A Trinity cello professor we met on tour told us he had known by just picking up a bow that it was to be the love of his playing life. The feel of a bow is certainly very important and is something to assess the moment you pick up a bow. Ask yourself: Is the bow comfortable? Does the balance feel good? Does it feel a natural extension of your arm? Edward Halliday, a sensitive young player, was overwhelmed at first by the bows he tested because they were all so much better than his own, but he quickly became aware of their differences: ‘Some bows felt different in my hand without playing a note. With others, I could tell whether I would like them or not just from the balance.’

Picking up good vibrations. Check whether the frog sits snugly onto the stick and look down the bow while it is tightened and untightened, to check its alignment. A bend to the left is bad news for cellists, while a bend to the right is fine. For violinists and violist, of course, the opposite it true. Hold the bow lightly in your left hand and tap the bow with your finger to feel the vibrations along the stick. Good bows often have more lively and sustained vibrations than their lesser counterparts. Does the screw mechanism which tightens the hair work easily? Good makers take great care over this detail.

Testing for strength. Using the open strings, test the strength, evenness and sweep of the bow along its length. Some bows will feel longer than others because they produce more sound than expected from a given stroke. Others may ‘give up’ in a certain place and reveal a hidden weakness. Jayne Spencer was bowled over by her experiences: ‘The even quality of a bow stroke with a really good bow was just totally different from anything I’d experienced before. It was only when I started working my way through all those bows that I realised, ‘This is what I’m looking for’. Until then, I hadn’t even been aware of what the problem was with my old bow.’

Hannah Roberts was also in search of a perfectly even stroke. ‘I found it really important to play all the way through the bow, using different speeds. Many of the less satisfactory bows had a weakness or inconsistency just after the midway point which seemed to not behave the same as the rest of the bow. This causes the player to tense up in an effort to try to produce the same response at the weak point. So I eliminated any bow with this sort of weakness.’

Ideally, the stick should be flexible enough to allow the bow hair to ‘wrap’ itself around the string and make good contact at all points of the bow, but strong enough never to allow the hair touch the stick.

Testing for agility. When testing for agility, it is important to assess not only how easily the bow comes off the string in, for example, spiccato, but also to check the quality of contact it makes with the string and how good the resulting tone of each note sounds. One bow might be quick to leave the string and to re-engage again, but might not give a clear, reliable sound. Another bow might respond more slowly, but give a better tone. By playing along the bow’s length, you may find that one bow has a particularly good bouncing point or that another has several good bouncing points which allow you more influence over tone.

Reaching a compromise. There are many strong, heavy bows which excel at playing powerful romantic passages but which fail to allow free and easy spiccato. Conversely, other bows may be exceptionally agile, but fail to sustain strong chords and powerful solo passages. The issue for players is to find a bow which is both strong and agile. This presents quite a challenge, as the best legato bow cannot also be the best at playing off the string. Again, you need to assess your personal priorities as a player. Benjamin Davies knew he was in search of a glorious legato sound, rather than an athletic response: ‘For me, the sound of a bow is the most important thing. Off the string agility is appropriate in places but it’s not the quality I would choose a bow for. So the fact that a couple of other bows were better off the string than the one I bought didn’t bother me because their sound wasn’t so interesting.’ Hannah Roberts reflects: ‘When testing through my final selection, I looked for a bow with a broad mix of really strong qualities, rather than a bow with one stunning feature.’

Repertoire for testing strength and agility. Most players used extracts from repertoire or technical exercises which put the bows through their paces. Caroline Bosanquet used the opening of the Brahms E minor and the Elgar Cello Concerto to test power and legato bowing. For string crossings and delicate strokes, she played extracts from the Bach Unaccompanied Suites.

Hannah Roberts wanted to test each bow’s overall strength and sustaining power, as well as its ability to play off the string. For this she used the opening of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, Popper’s Dance of the Elves and the opening of the Prokofiev sonata.

Benjamin Davies was instinctive in his approach, feeling towards the personality of each bow he tested: ‘Initially I would just pick up each bow and play whatever came into my head. One bow would encourage me to play in a very legato way, while another would make me want to play more off the string. I just followed my instinct, letting each bow play itself.’

Witnesses. About half of the cellists attending the exhibition brought a friend or relative along to give them feedback about the sound of the bows. Louise Davis brought her father with her: ‘When you pick up a bow you instantly get a feel for what it does, how it feels to you and how it responds to the cello but I find it quite hard to actually listen objectively to the sound I am making. My father’s feedback was invaluable.’

Priorities. For some players, the priority was to find a bow to support their technique. One student happily selected a bow which had been rejected by many others. It had been made from a beautiful piece of pernambuco which had extraordinary power and strength of tone, particularly in the upper register, but it had an eccentric balance point and very uneven shaping which put most players off. But this student adored the bow for its ability to produce an exceptionally sweet legato in the upper registers of his cello, which was something he had always struggled to achieve.

Other more advanced players were concerned to find the bow which brought out the most beautiful sound colours in their instrument. Hannah Roberts is a case in point: ‘When testing ten bows selected from the initial sixty, I tried to assess the clarity of sound they elicited from the instrument. My old bow tended to act as a blanket over my cello rather than drawing out its tone, which the better bows in the exhibition seemed able to do. Either a bow can improve your instrument’s focus, like adjusting a pair of binoculars, or it can make the sound blurred if it is not the right choice.’

Intuition. After working through sixty bows, most players developed an unerring instinct for a bow which would suit them and the bows they selected were undoubtedly the best in the exhibition. Hannah Roberts felt she gained from the experience: ‘It did make me feel confident about my own ability to choose for myself, and strangely enough, I also feel less judgmental about bows in general. I think the fact that there were at least ten bows in the exhibition that I would happily have used for a concert made me realise that there are infinite combinations of qualities in the very best bows, and there is a huge amount of scope for players who are looking for one or more bows to suit them and their instruments.’

Copyright Sarah Mnatzaganian 2002
Published in ESTA News & Views Spring 2003.