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February 2013

Bow shopping--and buying

February 12, 2013 15:28

After my Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Rehearsal, I needed a new bow. Fortunately there is a good shop about a half hour drive from where I live. I got my viola there a few years ago, and a Codabow for it that I like.

I've been often enough now that I know how the shopping experience goes: the representative puts a few collections out in the price range that I requested, and I pick my favorite in each class. Then I take a few home on trial to evaluate.

I had hoped it wouldn't take that long to pick my top 3, but I was there for at least an hour. At first I wasn't sure what to play, even left alone in the room with all the bows and violins, I was feeling self-conscious. So I started with some of the more difficult bowing challenges: the "Lone Ranger" ricochet section of the William Tell Overture, the bariolage section of the Bach E-major Partita in E, spiccato from the Fugue section of Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" that we are playing for our next concert. Those were so challenging that, while I managed to play them all with many of the bows, I had to work hard enough at it that I wasn't sure by the end when it was good whether it was the bow or just my getting warmed up. After a while they all started to feel the same.

Except for one bow, in the most expensive, pernambuco class, stamped "D. Silveira". It was lighter, bouncier, more responsive. When I played the Preludio I felt like I was back in high school, first learning that piece, but better. But again, I'd played the same section about 4 times now on 4 different bows. Was it the bow, or was it me?

Of the Carbon Fiber bows, the Codabow Luma seemed to be the best. In any case, I had to admit (grudgingly) that all of them were better than my old one.

The rep came back after about half an hour and I told her that the only one that seemed to stand out above the others was this one stamped D. Silveira, but it was on the high end of what I wanted to spend. She said that she had some others from the same company, Horst John, that had nickel instead of silver trim, were factory made but still pernambuco, and cost about half as much. She brought one of those. I tried it. It was a lot like the others: better than my old one but not better than the Luma. I left the shop with the 3 bows to try (the Silveira, the Luma, and the Horst John factory bow) feeling unsatisfied, the way I had a few years ago when I was getting a new violin, tried a few bows too, couldn't figure it out, and gave up.

At home I dutifully practiced my orchestra music with the Luma and the Silveira in turn. Given the price of the Silveira, I had subconsciously decided to try to talk myself into the Luma. It was better than my old one, after all, and I really just needed a bow, quickly. Then I had a violin lesson, and I brought the two of them along.

It's really different when it's not just you in the room. I played the usual things for my teacher (Bach bariolage, William Tell) and, like me, she thought they both sounded pretty good but not that different from each other. Then, though, I played a very high section of the Bloch Simchas Torah and the Silveira was clearly better--brighter, sparklier, more silvery--a tone that often eludes me on the E string.

But what really sealed it was the Fugue from the Britten Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. I was like, "okay, I'm just going to play this orchestra music that I've been working on." It's a little off the string and fast. And there the Silveira "won" hands down. It was easier to control, the string crossings were clearer. I tried to replicate the same thing with the Luma and I couldn't. I had been seeing the difference between them as incremental, but this wasn't.

Then my teacher admitted that she had always thought my old bow was really too heavy, and she thought this was a good opportunity to upgrade, and I should take it if there was any way I could. She said she was surprised this bow was under $1000 (although only just) and thought it was a very good value for the price, and I'd "lucked out" finding it. She doesn't have any stake in my buying that bow--other than my sounding better when I take lessons--so I trust what she's saying there.

I took the others back today and bought the Silveira. I had the bows longer than I planned, because snowstorm Nemo prevented me from getting back to the shop within 7-10 days. During that time it was again interesting how, now that I had pretty much decided on the Silveira, I saw signs that it was clearly better, even just practicing at home. It really could be like getting my new violin a few years ago, finding out all kinds of new things I can do with better equipment.

The bow search has turned out to be okay, it's the conductor search that I'm really dreading!

10 replies

The Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Rehearsal

February 3, 2013 10:25

I already knew that this week's was not going to be an ordinary orchestra rehearsal. As a member of the Board of Directors, representing the orchestra, I had received a preview of our conductor's letter announcing his decision to retire at the end of the season and his intent to inform the orchestra at large at this rehearsal. Now, in theory, this is not a terrible, or even surprising, decision. He has conducted the orchestra for the past 33 years, and has already retired from one of his other jobs in education. He is at a time in his career when many people look to move on to the next step. While the fame, prestige, and financial rewards of conducting an all-volunteer community orchestra are of course nice ;-), it's a job that a conductor could really only do for love.

The regard was mutual. I was not alone in considering him one of the best conductors I had ever worked with. At the Board meeting we had agreed that after he made his announcement, I would get up and address the orchestra to say that we would start the process of forming a selection committee, that everyone in the orchestra would have a say in choosing a successor, and that we would keep them posted. Short and sweet, which is good, because I've never been much of one for public speaking.

With this in mind, I got there early and snagged what I thought was a good parking spot right across from the church where we rehearse. Pulling into the spot I seem to have misjudged the distance from the curb, or the curb was excessively sharp. Or something was there at the side of the curb. Or something. There was a loud bang and I got out of the car to find that my tire was completely flat. It was dark, and raining, and the last time I'd changed a tire was sometime around 1982, in Driver Ed in high school. Quickly I dashed into the church and let a fellow board member know that I had a flat tire to deal with. Okay, I admit, I secretly hoped she would take over speaking to the group about the news. I kind of just wanted to leave, take care of the car, and pretend the whole thing wasn't happening. No such luck. I got into my car and waited for AAA, who said they were coming "sometime in the next 90 minutes."

It took 45 of those 90 minutes for the truck to come and put on the spare. I spent the time listening on my iPod to the music I was supposed to be rehearsing. For the upcoming concert we are playing Britten's "A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" and Weinberger's "Schwanda the Bagpiper." Both of these end with challenging fugue sections. Often listening to music relaxes me, but this time it didn't. I felt the time slipping away and I didn't really calm down until I saw the AAA truck lights. The technician put on the spare quickly but not without some struggle and pushing (making me think that there was no way I could have done it myself, even if I had remembered how from that long-ago class), and I went back to rehearsal.

When I walk in the orchestra is in the middle of the Britten Fugue section. I recognize it right away and want to jump in too. Playing this frenetic counterpoint seems like it will be cathartic, a release from the earlier evening's tension. So, I pull my bow out of the case quickly and start to rosin it up, quickly. As I rosin the tip, the bow snaps. Slack strands of horse hair seem to explode out of nowhere and rain down on my hands. The snapping sound cuts through the brass blaring and the strings wailing away. I hear it echo through the church sanctuary. The harpist's mother, there to pick up her high-school age daughter at intermission, turns her head to look at me quizzically.

I've never seen the unvarnished interior wood of a bow stick before. It's brownish-red, like the outside, but not as dark and not as shiny. I just sort of stand there, trying to fit the two pieces back together, like a puzzle. But of course they don't stick. "I can't believe this is happening!" I announce to no one in particular. I fear the harpist's mother thinks I'm a nutcase.

The music doesn't stop, but I run up to my stand partner and ask her if I can talk to her for a minute. She says "of course," and comes out into the church entryway, where the refreshments are waiting for the upcoming break, and offers me some apple juice. We drink and munch on cookies as the Fugue rushes on in the background, without us. She knows about the flat tire already, now she knows about the bow. I ask her if I can borrow her spare bow, since my daughter has my spare bow, at school. I'm almost afraid to touch it, though, let alone play with it. It's one thing to break your own bow, it's another to break someone else's. I decide that it has enough rosin.

Between sips of apple juice I realize with relief that I'm not going to cry. Another friend had her bow break in an accident at rehearsal about a year ago, and I thought, at that time, "what if it were me?" I had said, back then, that I probably would cry. My bow is around 33 years old. My parents bought it for me and I don't remember anymore how much it cost, if I ever knew. It's not anything special in terms of provenance or materials. I'd wishfully thought it was made of pernambuco for a while, but it's just Brazilwood. It's a little heavier than the average bow. But it has sentimental value, and most importantly, I'm used to it. I'm so used to it that I wasn't ready to part with it 3 years ago when I got my new violin. I tried a few bows at that time and just didn't find anything that I thought was clearly better. My bow ricochets, it bariolages, it does what I need it to. It didn't seem urgent back then, so I put that decision off and stuck with my faithful "buddy," my first real, good full-size bow.

Now, with the decision forced on me, I'm not as upset as I feared I'd be. During the rest of the rehearsal, as I try a couple of spares offered to me by sympathetic friends, it occurs to me that bow shopping might be fun.

Rehearsal ends too quickly, since I'm only there for the second half. And then it's time for the conductor's announcement, which is greeted with shock and disappointment. I try to lighten the mood by opening my little speech with "just when I thought this day couldn't get any worse . . . " I mention that we will be starting the search with the Board members and opening it up to anyone in the orchestra who wants to participate. People are subdued, thoughtful, accepting. Some of them have been through conductor searches before, with other organizations. Not me, this will be my first.

So here I am, looking for a new bow, and looking for a new conductor. Things change, and change can be good.


12 replies

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