By Emily Wright
There is a scene in the first Harry Potter movie where the young wizard is tasked with purchasing his first wand. The setting is not unlike many old-fashioned violin shops: the smell of wood; stacks of dusty old boxes teetering to the rafters; the purveyor, an elder mage who has an uncanny sense of what each customer needs. After several attempts with wands that are clearly wrong for him, Potter tries his luck a third time. As he grasps the wand, his eyes widen, the lights flicker, and a gust of wind blows through the shop. It’s clear that there is a connection, that this is the right one for him. “The wand chooses the wizard, Harry,” says the purveyor, knowingly.
To an extent, the same can be said of shopping for a first “real” bow. Many musicians will say things like, “I knew it was the right one as soon as I placed it on the string.” While there are certain ineffable qualities that make up the right bow, there are also obvious, empirical characteristics to look for, too. I talked to Carolyn Foulkes and Aaron Feeney of Perrin & Associates Fine Violins to come up with some guidelines to point prospective buyers in the direction of the crossroads where magic and common sense meet.
The Starting PointBefore investing in a better bow, a player should spend some time developing his or her technique on a starter model. At bare minimum, a player’s first bow should have real horsehair, a decent amount of camber (curve), and a straight stick, when looking from frog to tip. Bows like these—the elusive “reasonable but not terrible” class—frequently do not have much trade-in value because it tends to be cheaper to buy another one than pay for a rehair. Pricing generally sits between $80–$200 for the typical Brazilwood or composite example likely to be part of a rent-to-own or entry-level outfit, and they depreciate rather than acquire value over time.
The Step Up
It’s generally time to upgrade bows when a player’s technique surpasses the results his or her first bow is able to reliably deliver. For the advancing cellist, the right bow can be miraculous, fostering proper mechanics, more exacting articulations, and masking some of the holder’s own technical idiosyncrasies.
With prices for a decent step-up bow starting around $500, it’s important to choose carefully. The biggest mistake most buyers make is going into an appointment without a trusted professional (usually a teacher) to offer an objective opinion from across the room as well as playing with the bows as well. The physics of sound means that the perceived resonant quality is hugely impacted by the distance between the instrument and the listener. For instance, the length of a single complete wavelength of the open C string is over 17 feet! Sitting close to the sound as it is created means the player doesn’t have access to the full breadth of the tone. Imperfections are also magnified at close range, so a player may be distracted by scrapes and scratches while a listener several feet away might notice an easier, more robust tone.
Another reason to have someone who is more advanced in the room is to hear her play using the bows in contention. Professionals whose technique has long been settled can demonstrate the potential of a bow in a way that a more intermediate player might not be able to, and many students gravitate toward bows that feel easier in some way but do not actually produce better sound or foster solid habits. Bringing a teacher to the appointment has the additional benefit of a larger vision she brings to the occasion: She tends to know what a student is capable of long before the student knows it.
What & Where to Play
It may be tempting to blast through a favorite piece or challenging excerpt, but the best way to test a bow’s mettle is with a selection of passages that are well in hand and showcase a few essential techniques. Do your best not to practice during this appointment: It is too easy to become distracted by matters of the left hand instead of listening intently to the sound. Instead, choose two or three short excerpts that employ legato détaché, bouncing at the frog, and playing at the tip. Ask: Does it speak without hesitation? Can you produce a vibrant forte and a pianissimo sound that still has core to it? Is the balance suitable for producing sound at the tip? Is playing at the frog ungainly, or does it create a clean attack that is easy to sustain?
If you’re choosing between several bows, work in groups of three, selecting either a clear winner or loser so that the decision comes down to no more than two examples per group. Once one has been excluded, add another into the mix. Keep excluding one until there are only two left. If no clear winner emerges, take both home on a short trial and be sure to play for a teacher, even if it’s been a while since you’ve had lessons. On the trial, take the bow and play it in a large room, a small room, your practice space, and any ensemble rehearsal to see how the sound blends within a group.
The Only Place Not to Shop
While it might take a while for the perfect bow to find its way into the right hands, eBay and other similar sites are nearly guaranteed to deliver the wrong one. There is no incentive for online non-specialist proprietors to be anything other than profit seekers of the lowest common denominator. That’s not to say there aren’t excellent bows on the internet: There are occasionally treasures on Craigslist, and many shops have online showrooms to serve customers too far away to make it into the shop. The difference is that you have options: At garage sales or on Craigslist, you can play with the bow before purchasing it. Reputable online retailers have return policies (that is, in large part, what makes them reputable) and have knowledgeable staff to help clients select the best options for their skill level and price range.
No matter where you shop, never feel pressure to purchase if nothing emerges as the right bow for you. Sometimes it takes several appointments before you walk away with a sense of confidence in the decision, but it’s important to be patient with the process. Had Harry Potter left the shop with the first or second wand he’d tried, he may have doubted his abilities, or worse, not been able to reach his potential. Take some time, be methodical, seek guidance from a professional, and before long, the right bow will choose you.