Players Test Bows

We interviewed a selection of players who came to one of our bow exhibitions about their experience of testing bows.

Colin Carr, cello soloist and RAM professor:

‘Bows are such a mystery but when a bow works for a string player the result can be magical. Trying the exhibition bows was a positive experience – after all, the more you test bows, the more sensitive you become to the process. For example it’s possible to be seduced by a heavy bow which will instantly draw a big sound but I realised time and again that a heavy bow tends to be less flexible and once it has made its big sound it can’t really do a lot more.

You can get anxious when you start experimenting with cellos and bows – it’s alarming to think that something you’ve been perfectly happy with for years can actually be improved upon. However, I do tell my students they need to play on other cellos and bows, even if they are not thinking of buying, just to expose themselves to different tonal possibilities.

A bow that resonates and makes you resonate – there must be a word for it. I am always looking for clarity and depth in the sound. If those two things can be achieved together then you are really on to something.’

Hannah Roberts, cello soloist and RNCM professor:

‘I had been looking for a bow for a long time so the exhibition was a wonderful opportunity to look at a range of bows which wouldn’t otherwise have come my way, let alone be able to test them under the same roof. The whole process was very illuminating. I found it very helpful to try the bows with a fellow player giving feedback because this stopped me discarding some good sounding bows. A bow might sound noisy under my ear or feel lighter than I am used to, but the listener could let me know if it was, in fact, making a very clear sound.

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 but the better bows in the exhibition seemed to draw out its tone. Either a bow can improve your instrument’s focus, like adjusting a pair of binoculars, or it can sound blurred if it is not the right choice.

I found it important to play all the way through each bow, using different speeds. Many of the less satisfactory bows had a weakness or inconsistency just after the midway point which seemed not to behave the same as the rest of the bow. To test each bow’s overall strength and sustaining power, as well as its ability to play off the string, I used the opening of the Dvorak Cello Concerto, Popper’s Dance of the Elves and the opening of the Prokofiev sonata.

One of the most remarkable features was the way some bows had a very strong spiccato which would initially be very attractive, but unfortunately other qualities such as strength and tone might not be as satisfactory. With more detailed testing, it became easier to see which bows had a broader mix of really strong qualities rather than just one stunning feature.

Working through the bows made me feel confident about my own ability to choose for myself. The fact that there were at least ten bows in the exhibition which 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 huge scope for players who are looking for one or more bows to suit them and their instruments.’

Josephine Horder, professional cellist:

‘The exhibition seemed like an excellent opportunity to find a bow; I’d needed a good second bow for a long time and I thought there surely must be a bow in the exhibition that was going to fit the bill and save me a lot of tramping around to different shops.

At the beginning I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of bows in the exhibition but fortunately I had a clear purpose – finding a bow to compliment my current bow – and the more I kept my purpose in mind, the easier the task became. I kept asking myself, ‘What does this bow offer that my bow hasn’t got?’ I was looking for a bit more weight and a bit more power which my own bow lacked in certain circumstances. I kept referring back to my own bow in my imagination but didn’t need to keep picking it up as it’s well fixed in my physical memory.

Having this framework with which to eliminate bows was what I found most helpful. If I had just been looking for a nice bow, I think I would have been lost because there were so many good bows to choose from.

When testing each bow I ran through the typical demands of the repertoire I tend to play, playing the same excerpts with each bow. Hearing the sound of the bow was the thing I found hardest but my husband helped a great deal with this. I was more in tune with the feel of each bow and how it behaved rather than how it sounded.

Robin was an enormous help, making encouraging comments, popping in and out and helping me to keep going. I felt Robin was very genuine and impartial. At times I wanted more advice than he was happy to offer, but I’m glad now that I made my own way through the jungle – the right bow found me in the end.’

Paul Barritt, violin soloist:

‘I knew nothing about contemporary bows before I came in 2003 and I was pretty impressed by what I saw. There were so many good quality bows in the collection and they were all very different. There was no shortage of bows I liked; out of 50 I kept 15 back for a second try; I was testing myself as much as the bows and I became quite quick at noticing the ones which didn’t interest me or were dull. It was a very interesting, worthwhile and rewarding process.

First and foremost, you want to make sure that when you put a bow on the string it has a distinctive sound. I also put each bow through a test of different bowings to discover where the bow articulated well and whether it would articulate evenly throughout its length.

You must beware of being flattered by a bow which caters for your safety and tells you you’re a wonderful player. However, if you are having bowing problems or bow shakes and need something that’s perfectly secure, that’s a different matter altogether. It’s about the person as much as the bow.

When looking for a bow it’s terribly important to know what you are going to use the bow for: if you need it to play a Brahms concerto, don’t test it with Mozart, or if you’re an orchestral musician, don’t play solo passages. If you want an all-purpose bow then go for something which will do the widest range of things – but that may not be the bow with the best sound.

At the end of it all your gut instinct is the most important thing. You get to know yourself a bit better as you work through the bows. It’s an exploration of the bow-self!’

Rachel Samuel, professional violinist:

‘It was very daunting at first, facing all those bows. You have no idea what you’re going to find as you open each box – with every bow you pick up you are going into the unknown. No-one can tell you what you will like or how a bow is going to play but I found that as I played through the bows, I worked out for myself what was important and what I was looking for. I used repertoire excerpts to show what each bow could do; I’d try chordal, legato and spiccato passages and I’d also try something delicate like Mozart to see if the bow could respond and then something romantic to see if I could get a real depth of sound and get the whole instrument ringing.

I’d definitely recommend the exhibition. There’s no comparison really. You just never get so many bows in one place at one time and having the choice in front of you is unique.’

Ben Davies, professional cellist and junior RAM professor:

When testing the bows initially, I tried making different abstract sounds with each bow: different volumes, different points of contact, biting the string, sinking into the string, articulating the bow. I discarded some quite quickly on the basis that they either didn’t bounce or had a particular weakness in the stick – there were a lot of bows to work through and I decided it wasn’t worth wasting time on a bow I knew wasn’t perfect.

Then, after I had narrowed my choice down to ten bows, I let each bow play itself; one would encourage me to play in a very legato way, another would play more off the string. I also went through and repeated a single phrase with each bow to make a closer comparison between them. For me the most important thing about bows is the character of the sound. Some bows I tried were amazing at playing off the string but what I was really after was a bow which would produce a beautiful, full legato sound on my cello.

Simon Smart, cello student:

‘I hadn’t tested bows before and I really had no idea how much difference bows make. At the very beginning it was difficult to tell which bows were good or bad but I was surprised how quickly my choice narrowed down and by the end I was convinced that my selection had been fairly consistent.

I tried all the bows with one piece I really enjoyed playing and immediately discarded the ones that just didn’t work well with that piece. Then I tried another piece and discarded the bows which didn’t work with that and finally I tested the remaining bows with all sorts of excerpts to see which one I liked the best. I was surprised at how little time it took.

Towards the end when a lot of the bows sounded fairly similar it was quite hard to hear the differences myself so I needed some feedback. It was satisfying and good fun, narrowing the bows down. It felt great to be able to develop the confidence to discard any bow I didn’t like! If there hadn’t been the range of bows there to compare I wouldn’t have been nearly as confident in my selection.

Rebecca Spencer, viola student:

‘I really enjoyed coming to Ely. You were so welcoming and the acoustics of the room and the character of the house were so delightful that I felt completely at ease – in the best frame of mind to focus and make decisions.

I was delighted, for these reasons alone, that I found the perfect bow for me (and maybe not just me – my teacher still comments on it with envy!) from your exhibition. The bow has made a huge difference, not only to the gestural subtleties of my right hand articulation, but also to the tone I produce. Revolutionary!’

Ruth Funnell, professional violinist:

‘It was great being able to try a huge range of bows in such a lovely relaxed environment. I was left to my own devices when that suited me but when I needed help it was fantastic that Robin was willing to sit with me and listen to the same bits of the same concertos over and over again. It was lovely to be able to play for hours and not feel that I was outstaying my welcome.

Initially I cut the bows down to about 20, then quickly down to about ten. Working down from ten bows was tricky but I had a clear idea of the sound I was looking for: that was the most important factor for me and for this I used Mozart, Bach and Romantic concertos. Then I picked more technical passages from concertos to make sure I could get a smooth legato and a good spiccato etc.

It is difficult to judge the sound of a bow under your ear and it was extremely useful to have Robin there listening and describing the sound each bow made. When Robin’s response agreed with my own impression of the sound it helped to confirm my sense of how the bow was performing.’

For more articles on bows, click here.

Players Test Bows © Robin Aitchison & Sarah Mnatzaganian