For those of you who have attended my workshops, you know that I spend much of the time on bowings. If you are new to the fiddle itself, or are learning a different style, you know how difficult incorporating certain bowing patterns can be. It’s all about coordination – when you learn a new melody and try to incorporate the bowings of a specific style that you are not used to, it can be really tricky at first to work in new bowings and keep the melody together. Recently at one of my workshops, one student, while I was going through the bowings of a tune asked, ‘why does this matter?’
In my experience teaching Cape Breton music, most students tend to be concerned with grace notes to make their playing sound more within the style. While there are grace notes specific to certain fiddle styles, it is really the bowings that set the styles apart. Bowings create a way of phrasing a melody. I can play a specific passage of a tune bowing single stroke (one note per bow), bowing two notes per bow, etc. I can use my bow to articulate a passage in a certain way; I can slur two or more notes making it sound smooth, or I can still put two notes in the same bow and yet make them sound separate and choppy. Common bowing patterns can be identified in any style that are specific to that style.
So it is these specific bowing patterns that make a tune sound Cape Breton, Irish, or Oldtime. In Cape Breton fiddling for example, a lot of the time the bow is on a down bow for the pulse of a tune, especially in a strathspey. If you are constantly on an upstroke on the pulse, you will feel like you are bowing ‘upstream’ and you will not sound much within the style. However, it’s not just the bow direction that matters. How much emphasis you place on a note or a group of notes also creates a certain phrasing along with the bowing pattern. All of this is style specific. And that is why bowing matters.
This post is inspired from a student’s question.
How do I pick a bow?
I’m not a bow expert but can offer these basic tips. At the end of the post you will find some links to resources that offer good information about bows and what to look for.
The one thing to remember is that a high price does not necessarily mean a better bow. One of the main things that determines price is the quality of the stick. The quality of the stick can be determined by some of the following:
Balance – A good bow will be fairly balanced, meaning that the frog won’t feel too heavy compared to the tip. Imbalances like this can make the bow more difficult to control.
Camber and Strength – The bow has a natural curve in the middle of the stick. This curve is called the camber. The bow should not have to lose much of this curve in order to make the horse hair taught and playable. If the hair becomes taught only when the stick becomes straight, the stick is too weak.
The sticks tend to come from the following sources:
Pernambuco wood – tends to make for better sticks
Carbon Fiber– seen as a good substitution for Pernambuco
Brazilwood – used a lot by students
Fiber glass – used mostly by beginners.
Should I find a bow with real horse hair? Do I need to rehair my bow?
There is synthetic material available instead of real horse hair, but white horse hair is said to be the best. As to how often you should rehair your bow, it depends on the amount that you play. A good sign is when you see that the hair is thinning, meaning that you have broken a few! Since the hair is organic, it shrinks and stretches with changes of temperature and humidity. When it is getting worn out, you may notice that it takes a lot more rosin to get a good ‘bite’. If you do not play that much, getting your bow rehaired once a year should be sufficient. For those who play more, twice or more times a year is normal.
Always remember to loosen your bow hair when you put your instrument away. Constant tension when not in use will weaken the stick and may cause it to warp.
Again, I am not an expert on bows, but these are some important things to consider. I have listed some other resources that give more detailed advice and other considerations.
But the bottom line – you do not need to spend a fortune to get a decent bow. Every player likes different things in a bow and ultimately a good bow is one that makes you feel good playing it. But playing experience is necessary to understand what you as a player want and need. It will be difficult to understand what good balance feels like if you have not developed good bowing skills. So for students I recommend trying to find a decent quality stick that helps facilitate good skills.