Inside-the-Shop are informative articles written by Kevin Smith, Luthier of The Violin Shop

The Violin Shop

San Diego | San Diego County | Southern California

Matching Your Bow to Your Instrument

Last year I heard the San Diego Symphony perform a terrific program, compliments of one of my customers. The heart of the program was the 21st piano concerto by Mozart and the 1st symphony by Mahler. I was so exited by the end of the concert that I couldn’t help standing up to cheer during the applause.

Later, when my customer swung by my house to pick up her newly rehaired bow, we started talking about the concert. I mentioned what a great combination of music it was, and that started us talking about programs. She said another great combination with Mahler was the Bruch Violin Concerto. I got excited and asked her what she thought would go well with Brahms. With a bit of a startle on my part, she came up with Stravinsky because of a compatible counterpoint (sorry to say I still have to give it a try on my CD player).

But the impact of compatible forces adds up to so much more than when they’re added up separately. It’s almost embarrassing to bring up the cliché “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” But there it is.

Another example of this dynamic is the combination of your instrument and bow: if you have a great instrument and a mediocre bow, it doesn’t make the instrument any less of an instrument. In fact it will probably make you think your bow is better than it really is. But when you find the bow that matches it… well, it’s enough to make your jaw drop.

The small things you could do better because of the violins’ (read: violin, viola, cello, bass) abilities advance from merely “doing them better” to synergistic punctuation. What was once a concerted effort to not mess up becomes a point of acceleration into the next phrase. It is transcendental.

The key to finding this magical combination is to first search out the instrument you want. Go through the evaluations we’ve discussed in previous messages and eliminate the non-contenders. Boil it down to a condensed selection and then sharpen your expectations another notch. Find a couple of instruments worth spending more time with and take them home. Play them in your own acoustics. In a hall. A chapel. Your teachers’ studio.

Once you’ve found the instrument that suits you best, and made it your own, play it for no less than 3 weeks as your regular instrument. That’s the time it takes the mind to fully adjust to a new way of doing things. If you can go longer it will be even better.

When you’ve finally settled with your instrument and you feel the need to upgrade your bow, go through the same process.

Pick up each bow you try and feel the weight. Feel whether it’s heavy or light toward the tip. Tighten it up, lay it on your strings, and without bowing the string, press down to feel if the bow is stiff or flexible. Then run it through your battery of tests: staccato, spiccato, legato… all at different locations on the bow, the tip, the frog, the entire length of the stick. Feel where it does what best.

When you find a bow that works well for you, test it with different bow tensions. Start with the tension that you’re used to, and then back the screw off half a turn- then another half. Next, retighten your bow to your “normal” set, but this time tighten it a half turn, doing all of your tests again at each tension. It won’t be long until you’re able to quickly evaluate any bow you get in your hands. And when you find the one that fits your instrument, and you—a sense of balance and calm, in the face of a storm, settles in.

In future messages I’ll get into specific things to look for when choosing a bow. What to look for condition wise, the differences you can create from a bow rehair, what damage constitutes what devaluations.

But for now test the bow you play. Get together with your friends and have a bow testing party. Try each other’s bows in a fun, exploratory environment. And later, when the pressure is on and you’re seriously looking for a new bow, you’ll be way ahead of the game. At least that game.

As for the game of program arrangements, mixing and matching composers and the different pieces they wrote, the possibilities look wonderfully unlimited.


PERNUMBUCO: Pernumbuco is a Brazilian wood from which the finest bows are made. It has a resilient spring to it that allows articulation of the wide range of bowing actions.

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