Friday, August 27, 2010


A big chunk of our time in the last week has been consumed with the quest for the ideal violin bow. Like the ideal violin, the ideal bow is a chimera. The ideal bow is light, so it can be moved prestissimo possible; however, it is also extremely strong, so that it can transmit the player’s energy to the violin string. The ideal bow is supple, allowing the violin to sing like the human voice, and it is also rigid, so that it can ricochet and jump off the strings. The ideal bow is completely self-effacing, a passive conduit that relays the violinst’s thought from hand to string, and it also has a unique, charming personality that brings new character to the violin. Since every violin is different, the bow that works for my violin won’t be the ideal bow for Duva’s violin. And since we are who we are, the ideal bow has a price tag less than $3,000.

There are two motives behind our quest for a new bow. One motive is a new violin, a fiddle that Duva purchased “in the white”, rethicknessed, varnished, and set up. The other motive is that, during the summer violin-building workshop, we both got to play something very close to the ideal bow. It was a Tourte. Tourte (who lived around the turn of the 18th century) was the Stradivari of bowmaking. This bow was everything: light and strong, supple and rigid, neutral and charming. It made every violin sound so much better and gave even the worst of players (specifically, me) confidence in their ability to produce beautiful singing sound. When I closed my eyes, I felt as if the bow vanished, and there was a direct communication between my hand and the violin.

There is only one way in which a Tourte falls short of the ideal. They are available at auction only rarely, and could set you back $100,000.

So, the quest. It involves the hour-and-a-half schlep out to El Cerrito, home of Ifshin’s violins, a wonderland for string players. Once there, and once a price range has been established, we are presented with a bunch of bows and escorted to an acoustically-sealed practice room. Then, to the best of our meager abilities, we push the bows, one by one, in extremis. Find the balance point. See if it bounces off the string and lands on the string evenly over the length of the bow. Check for nimbleness off the strings with Kreutzer’s Etude number X. Try for long singing tones with the “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thais. Listen to yourself play, and if possible, stand across the room while the other plays. Then comes the impossible part—remember how the bow performs, and mentally compare it with the next bow, and the next bow, and the next bow…and after ten bows, try to narrow your choices down to three. The fine folks at Ifshin’s allow you to take these three bows home for further trials.

The next stage is to run the bows by our violin teacher. She has vastly more experience than we do, so we value her judgment on these matters. So, she does the same test that we do. With one, she makes a face like she bit down on a moldy strawberry. With another, she plays a bit, then plays some more, clearly liking the sound, plays some more, and shakes her head when trying the Kreutzer, and plays some more. She produces her report: this one is lively, that one is lyrical, this other one is…well, she knows the perfect word in Estonian, her native tongue. But talking about bows is like talking about wine, prone to poetry and utterly unreachable by accurately descriptive communication.

With her evaluations, it’s on to round two. The process repeats—a drive to Ifshin’s, an attempt to translate our teacher’s feelings into precise adjectives to tell the sales clerk, an hour of etudes until everything sounds the same to fatigued ears, sifting and winnowing, and a new trio of bows to choose from.

We’re at a stage where the bows we’ve selected meet with our teacher’s approval, though not her enthusiasm. No one bow stands out. Of the three bows, I like the mid-century German one for its Steinway-like neutrality. Our teacher likes the modern American one for its responsiveness and power. Duva likes the mid-century French bow for its lyricism. I have a feeling we’ll be going through at least another round of this process, and of course, we will never find the ideal—unless we somehow get a Tourte.

Violinists talk about the intimate relationship they have with their instruments in terms reminiscent of the terms most people talk about their life partners. However, most of the violinists I’ve met—that means, musicians who don’t have a Tourte at their disposal—play a bow that they are merely reconciled to playing. They have actively wandering eyes, and few of them would hesitate to abandon their current bow for something better.

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