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Ask the Experts: purchasing the right Baroque bow

Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to our experts

May 23, 2016

In the latest in our series, a trio of Baroque bow makers give their thoughts on what to look for when making the leap into historically informed playing.

Do you have a burning question about string playing, teaching or making that you need answering by people who really know? Email us at thestrad@thestrad.com.

The dilemma I’ve recently been getting into period performance (on a strictly amateur basis) and I’m considering purchasing a Baroque bow for use with my modern violin. Assuming money to be no object (although it is!), are there any tips I should bear in mind when it comes to buying a new bow? Is it better to buy something modern or old? And are there any peculiarities of design or materials I should look out for? I’m not too concerned about resale value. JAMIE GLETHEROW, FORT WORTH, TX, US

RÜDIGER PFAU Using a good Baroque bow will undoubtedly help you to play and understand music of the era better. It is made specifically for the interpretation of Baroque works and its special playing qualities make it easier to perform the music of Bach and his contemporaries. Whether you are buying a new or an old bow does not matter. Original bows are very often in poor condition and sometimes the stick will have lost some elasticity – but they do have charm and a sense of history. With a high-quality modern reproduction, you can be confident that the craftsmanship will be tip-top, and you will have the opportunity to discuss your needs with the bow maker, maybe even commissioning a bow yourself.

You should try out as many bows as you can, made from as many different types of wood as possible. Then you can assess which is the best fit for you and your instrument. In my opinion, tropical woods are the best, because they are very dense and powerful, and also give a wonderful sound.

Surviving bows from the 17th and 18th centuries are made from a variety of tropical woods; there was never a standard material for Baroque bows the way that pernambuco became for modern ones. For my Baroque bows I mainly use snakewood and ironwood. Both are very dense – they sink in water – and their brittleness works perfectly for playing Baroque music. Snakewood is soft and has a warm, round sound. Ironwood is stronger and more responsive, and produces a tone that is clear and bright.

When you first start practising with a Baroque bow, you should use one that is not too short (minimum 680mm) nor too light (minimum 50g). Ask all your fellow musician friends to lend you their Baroque bows to practise with, and you will get a better feeling for their differences very fast. You will trust a good bow immediately and never want to play Baroque music with a modern one again.

DAVID HAWTHORNE This is a great question. First of all, you will most likely be buying a modern reproduction of a Baroque bow, because original bows are scarce and the good ones will either be in museums or in the hands of players who will not let them go. However, the simpler form of Baroque bows makes them less expensive, and at their best they can be outstandingly good. Most professionals play using modern reproductions.

Avoid inexpensive Chinese bows if you want to experience the authentic playing character of a Baroque bow. Careful bow makers have researched their models, visited collections and talked to players, and they constantly try to improve their bows. Baroque bows play differently from modern bows; they can teach the musician new ways of articulation and reveal fresh possibilities in the music. But the average factory worker doesn’t know this and will never have seen or played an actual 18th-century bow, and neither will their bosses. This differs from their production of modern bows, which are readily available for sale in every shop in the world.

Most makers of Baroque bows sell on their own, not through dealers. There are around half a dozen makers in North America, and more in Europe, making high-quality pre-modern bows. Seek the advice of a teacher or player specialising in Baroque period playing. A modern player might not know what to look for in a Baroque bow; it might not make sense at first to either of you. Also try to contact your favourite Baroque player, or ask them for advice after a concert. The field of choice is much smaller than that available for a modern player, and musicians often like to discuss equipment.

PHILIP BROWN Most people in your position will buy a bow to fit all kinds of Baroque music – a kind of mid-18th-century model with an adjuster. Often these can be a compromised design aimed at players new to Baroque playing; they may be pretty, but sometimes this kind of heavier bow can feel sluggish. It may offer a feeling of familiarity for the modern player, but that’s just plain lazy and I think you must be challenged.

If money really is no object, may I suggest buying two bows instead of one? That way you will be covered for all eventualities – and more importantly, you can learn some exciting new bowing techniques.

First I would recommend a snakewood bow, up to 685mm in length, with a low head and a clip-in frog. This should feel amazingly liberating, like an extension of your hand – hopefully releasing your inner Biber! With a good teacher of early 17th-century music you will learn how to articulate each note as if it were a sung word.

Secondly, I’d choose a bow based on something from 1725–50, again in snakewood but fitted with an adjuster. The stick might be up to about 700mm and be fluted (which works better as the bows get longer), and have a higher head. There are numerous extant original examples, with English, Austrian and Italian models making up the majority. Talk to makers and players, and avoid anything too stiff. I feel that it should still have something of the liveliness of the earlier, sonata-type bow.

If you only buy one bow, go for the former, as it will undoubtedly transform your playing technique.

Rüdiger Pfau is a maker of Baroque and modern bows based in Plauen, Germany www.pfaubows.de

David Hawthorne runs a summer bow making workshop in Cambridge, MA, US www.violinbows.net

Philip Brown restores and sells fine violins, violas, cellos, and modern and Baroque bows at his workshop in Newbury, UK www.philipbrownviolins.co.uk

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