I am happy to report that I picked up my freshly rehaired Maline bow yesterday. It is quite the quintessential ‘french’ bow, you see, which is why I make such a fuss over it. Yet before I explain what being french has to with bow quality, let me talk about bows generally.
There are basically 3 factors that establish the playing characteristics of a bow; weight, flexibility, and balance. I say ‘basically’ because there is something of a 4th factor as well; a ‘je ne sais quoi’ quaility I might best describe as ‘nerve.’ Some bows seem to have it, many don’t.
Now, violin bow weights range roughly between 56 and 66 grams. Generally speaking, of course, lighter bows do not draw as full a tone as heavier bows. Yet as bows go into the heavier range they also become more challenging to manage. Most experienced players will select a bow in the 60-62 range, all things being equal.
My Maline is 61.
The distribution of weight in a bow, balance, is also critically important. When a bow is balanced one is not aware of heaviness at the frog or tip when it is lifted in the air.
Mind you this is a relative phenomenon I’m speaking of, since the bow is held at the frog. Yet there is, as you compare one bow to another, subtle and not so subtle variation in the balance, and with experience you begin to sense that balance ‘sweet spot’ where neither the tip nor the frog predominates when it is held in the hand.
Having said what I just said about balance, I have played a bow at 65 grams that felt like a feather in my hand, produced a terrific tone, and was as responsive as a top of the line Masserati. This was a bow with incredible balance. Problem was, the price tag of that extremely rare bow (a gorgeous Simon) was equivalent to a Masserati as well; $100,000 back in 1996.
Having mentioned responsiveness, let’s talk about the next factor, flexibility. The bow I just mentioned has the perfect amount; it is neither too soft nor too stiff.
When I tighten a bow such that there is one stick’s worth of diameter between bow hair and stick, I want to feel that I am in a ‘sweet spot’ of pliancy, where the bow has both the ‘spring’ necessary to bounce and the ‘grip’ to easily draw a full tone.
Bear in mind, all these factors are variables, and each player is unique. Heifetz, I understand, liked to play with stiff bows. And I, myself, have gravitated through the range of bow weights over the years, finally settling in the middle.
Now, I’m happy to report that one does not need to spend $100,000 to acquire a really fine playing stick. Nor does a fine bow necessarily need to be made from Brazilian pernambucco wood, any longer.
And if you are in the market for an affordable bow of quality, I’d take a good look at the graphite, or composite bows available, some for as little as $500.00. Many of my professional colleagues in town use these non-traditional bows, in fact, and they are a vast improvement improvement over the fiberglass bows that were an earlier alternative to wood.
All the best,