Advising your students on bow selection is a bit like telling a friend how a pair of shoes will fit. It doesn’t mean much until the equipment being described is put to the test.
That’s because every bow stick is acoustically unique. Finding the correct bow that will enhance the sound of a particular instrument is an individual process. No bow will feel identical to two people because the true weight and balance point of a bow are correlated to each individual’s unique muscle structure and physique. As with an old pair of shoes, however, a player or teacher will be most comfortable with his or her current bow and is likely to recommend one similar to it.
That’s fine for a start, but always remember that the most critical aspect of a bow is its “feel.” The player must be able to perform all required bowings, but even more crucially be able to express the artistic intent of the music. To accomplish this, the bow must respond well throughout its entire length.
Bow weight, balance and strength (or resistance) of the stick determine its “feel.” As the balance moves out toward the tip, the bow will get heavier. When it moves back toward the frog, it will seem lighter.
A top-heavy bow can be seductive and seem to perform certain bowings more easily, especially sautille and other bouncing bowings, but it will likely become physically tiring to play. A heavier bow will not produce more sound because of its weight. Instead, look for a strong stick — one that is supple enough to give the player control but strong enough to resist playing pressure. While the weight and balance of a bow can be manipulated, its strength cannot, except possibly by adding to the curve.
It’s important to remember as well that no bow, regardless of the price, is guaranteed to be free from lateral movement. The stick has approximate diameters that range from 6 mm to 25 mm and functions under continuous stress. Subtle lateral movements are inherent.
The best bows are made from Pernambuco wood. Slightly lesser grades are made from Brazilwood. Carbon-graphite bows feature a computer-designed stick that yields a highly responsive bow. Octagonal sticks may have a denser grain and fewer flaws, but any individual stick can surpass another — much depends on craftsmanship and the materials used.
Compare only two or three bows at one time when you are auditioning them. If there is a larger number available from which to choose, narrow down the group as quickly as possible to avoid confusion.
Use the same musical passages when testing each bow. Choose passages that utilize every open string, noting the differences in response among each stick. Pick short, easy passages. This way the focus is on the sound each bow produces, rather than technical acuity. Include all levels of dynamics to learn the full ability of each bow. Remember that every bow is not suitable for all occasions; although one can be fine for use with an orchestra, another might be more suited for chamber music, recitals or solo work. A lighter bow might be perfect for extended practicing to avoid fatigue.
The best news is that there are plenty of good quality bows for advancing students that don’t cost thousands of dollars. You can find the right one by spending the time necessary to learn each sample’s strengths and weaknesses, and selecting the right “fit” for each player.
Greg Schoeneck is the national sales manager for Glaesel, Scherl & Roth and Wm. Lewis & Son string instruments.
Schoeneck, Greg. Hands-On Bow Selection. Band Director.com, 2008.