Thursday, July 29, 2021

CodaBow and the Pedagogical Approach

 I vividly remember my first violin and bow. My parents purchased that little quarter size instrument in 1971 from a local luthier in Clymer PA. I believe it was $35. The bow wasn't much more than a long skinny stick of wood with hair attached. But, it was mine and, at age 6, I was now a violinist. I don't recall much more about the bow. But, I do know it was a very precious possession. My parents drove home the importance of taking care of my bow. I learned to loosen the hair after each practice, not to touch the hair, and to rosin it regularly. (Which, I am pretty sure I didn't do.) I'm not sure I understood the reasoning behind any of that but it certainly served me well during those early years. 

I remember my parents purchasing my first "quality" full-size violin when I was about 13 years old.  We bought it from Kschier Brothers in Pittsburgh and it, too, became my prized possession. I actually still play that violin to this day. The bow cost $375 and I recall that it was a Brazilwood stick. Again, I don't remember much about the performance of the bow. I didn't understand the importance of those issues at the time. But, I do know it became an important part of my violin package, and I made sure I took very good care of it. 

As a music education major in college, I purchased my first high-end bow around 1985.  It was purchased from the William Moennig & Son Company in Philadelphia and was made by Joseph Richter. Boy, could I feel the difference! I felt like I was driving a Ferrari when I played. Everything worked the way I needed it to work. I could achieve a beautiful, consistent tone from frog to stick. I had control of advanced techniques, and I could play with sonic nuance that I had never been able to achieve before. I could feel the difference. This was the right bow for me. I now had the right tool to develop my artistry.

Fast forward to my early teaching years. Almost all of my students we're coming to me with rental instruments and the old standard fiberglass bows. I would frequently pick up a student instrument to either tune it or demonstrate something and always be disappointed in the response of the bow. They never felt right to me.  They never sounded right to me. And, honestly, they just didn't work correctly for my students either. I never felt they produced a representative tone quality or allowed for appropriate beginning bow technique. They felt so clunky and really didn't appropriately meet the needs of my students. Honestly, I believe I grew to have low bowing expectations because of the limitations of those sticks. But, that was in the late 1980s.

In 2021, things have changed dramatically. There has been incredible advancement in the world of materials and construction when it comes to the bow. And, much of that advancement is a direct result of significant research done by my friends at Codabow International. In the old days, student bows were typically constructed from the throw-away wood that was unacceptable for "real" bow construction. If the piece of wood was faulty in some way, it would move to the student bow category. That simply isn't the case anymore. Through significant research, Codabow has ascertained there are really four primary variables that must be considered when creating a bow for any level of player from beginner to professional. And, with carbon-fiber construction, bows can be intentionally designed, and affordably manufactured and purchased, for students and players at every playing level. 

The four variables at play are balance, weight, action, and stiffness. Balance impacts dynamics and is defined as the inertial center the player experiences while playing. In other words, the bow's resistance to changes in momentum. Weight is defined as the mass the player feels or senses when playing. Action is the nature of the string connection the player experiences. We sometimes think of this as touch. Finally, stiffness is the force required to flex the bow. Through their extensive research, Codabow has realized each of these factors plays a role in how the player connects the bow to the instrument. And, with different skill sets and expectations, the needs are unique for all players and levels of experience.

Imagine a beginning player who is using a bow that is designed specifically for maximum success based on their skill set, and not from a throwaway piece of wood. For instance, a beginner needs the balance to be tip favored, a little bit lighter, firmer action, and stiffer than a more advanced player. This allows for maximum control. The student gives up a little bit in the area of nuance or action. But, this doesn't matter. Nuance and action are not typically qualities that are important to a "twinkler." I am referring here to students who would be in Suzuki Books 1 or 2, for instance, or first and second year students in a school orchestra program.

As the student moves into intermediate repertoire, the optimum bow is more center balanced, a little bit heavier, has a moderate action, and has a more moderate stiffness. This will allow for a more lively and articulate bow technique and experience. This bow would allow for a more relaxed bow hold, beginning double stops, some beginning off the string technique, and the beginning of a more expressive palette of tonal options. Think Suzuki Books 5 and 6, or standard high school orchestra repertoire.

For the string student who is diving deeper into all of the possibilities of repertoire and technique, a bow with a more expressive and responsive feel becomes a true asset. The balance of the bow must be more frog favored, the weight will be heavier, the action should be more supple, and the student will desire a softer stiffness. These variables will be appreciated as the student works for more speed and agility in their bowing and a wider dynamic range. They will experience more power and beauty of tone when they're playing powerfully. This is the student who is learning the concerti and more advanced repertoire, playing in chamber ensembles, and participating in regional and all-state orchestra events. It also is ideal for the pre-music major or even an undergraduate music education or performance major. 

For professionals, one can acquire a stick that caters to specific styles.  If you are a rock or jazz player and want power and resonance from the lower strings and stunning projection from the top end, a specific set of variables will help you achieve this.  For the professional orchestral player, chamber musician or soloist, exquisite handling and expressive sound once reserved only for the finest (and most expensive) master bows can be affordably achieved with intentional design.

Bow technology has come a long way in the past 30 years. I am so grateful for the many opportunities my parents provided me as a young music student and developing violinist. With that said, I am certain these technological advances would have significantly changed my performance experience at every level. Intentional design and the application of science to the art of bowed string performance is an incredible advancement. 

One word of caution. Not all carbon fiber bows are created equal. The time and effort taken to define these variables and implement them into bow construction changes everything. In other words, the material itself is not anything magical. It's how the material is used to build the bow and manipulate these four important variables. Trust the science. You will experience it in the feel and artistry of your playing and that of your students at every level.

My Codabow experience now spans over 25 years and I can truly say that my playing has benefitted immeasurably from playing these bows.  I play them exclusively on both my electric and acoustic violins and violas, and use them for every aspect of my musical life; playing contemporary styles, playing classical, indoor and outdoor gigs, teaching, demonstrating, and recording.  I recommend them for students and seasoned professionals.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

My Violin String Journey

I feel like today is a good day to just give a little bit of history of my experience with violin strings over the years. I began playing the violin in 1971. Strings for bowed instruments have changed quite a bit in the last 50 years. (It's hard to believe that it's been 50 years! I should probably celebrate the anniversary in some way.)

My first recollection of strings as an important component of my violin set-up and playing really goes back to the mid-1970s. As a young violin student, I am sure that I broke a string here or there and needed to learn how to change them. Learning to change strings was something that happened about the same time I learned to tune strings. It's hard to even remember the process of learning. I do remember that in the 70s, we used (Pirastro) gut strings. I remember that new A, D, and G strings took forever to stabilize once they were on the instrument. And, I remember that after a few months of wear and tear, I could see and feel the string beginning to degrade under my fingers. I was fascinated by the notion that there was some kind of organic gut material in the middle of the string. I also remember that the E string stabilized much quicker then the others.  I learned how to wind a perfect spiral up the peg and was pretty proficient at changing strings by the time I was 10 years old or so. 

I got my first full size violin when I was about 12 years old. That would have been around 1977. I remember learning about synthetic strings at about the same time. My teacher told me about the new material which was an important innovation and encouraged me to try Dominant strings right around that time. My first impression was that they stabilized so much faster. It didn't take three or four days for my strings to settle down. They would stay in tune within a couple hours of solid practice. I, like many other violinists of my generation, grew to trust Dominant strings and the innovation that they represented. I, like many other violinists, also learned that the Dominant E string probably wasn't going to do the job. I struggled with the E string whistle for several years and eventually switched back to the Gold Label E string as a compliment to the A, D, and G Dominant strings. This became my setup of choice for many years. Like most everyone else, I did this at my teacher's encouraging, and really never questioned the strings I was using.

Fast forward to the late 1990"s. I was doing extensive work with Zeta Music Systems, the electric violin company. As part of that work, I found myself frequently in the company of Sandy Neal, who worked as the Brand Manager of D'Addario Bowed Strings. I was familiar with D'addario as a guitar string company but didn't realize prior to that time that they were now designing and manufacturing strings for bowed instruments. Sandy encouraged me to try D'Addario Strings and sent me a couple sets to try. If I am being honest, I was very hesitant to try them. (How good could they possibly be? After all, D'addario is a guitar string company!) I remember putting the Helicore strings on my violin and immediately feeling good about their tone, stability, and reaction to my playing. 

Helicore violin strings are crafted with a multi-stranded steel core, resulting in optimal playability while producing a clear, warm tone. These strings are known for their quick bow response and excellent pitch stability, making them a go-to choice for players of all musical styles.

I also spent a good deal of time with D'addario Zyex strings on my violin.
Zyex violin strings are made from a a new generation of synthetic materials, which produce strings that are incredibly stable under drastic climatic conditions. Within a matter of hours, Zyex violin strings settle in on the instrument with a sound that is warmer than other synthetic core strings.

The Zyex strings were a little bit harsh on my violin and somewhat loud to my ear. Helicore, on the other hand, we're warmer and more subtle. They matched my style of playing and sounded great on my instrument. At some point, I settled on Helicore strings for my playing but I wasn't entirely happy with the E string. It had that same whistle as the Dominants and it didn't quite work for me. Within a few short years, D'Addario's non-whistling Kaplan E was introduced to the marketplace and it really did the job for me. I played Helicore strings with a Kaplan E for many years and really never looked back... until the introduction of D'addario's Kaplan Vivo strings. 

I liked D'addario Helicore's so much that I eventually (~2003) entered into an Artist/Educator agreement with D'addario and galvanized the relationship which has been so pivotal in my teaching career to this day.  Around 2015, I got a call from my friends at D'addario, encouraging me to give their new Kaplan Amo and Vivo strings a try and provide some feedback. 

Kaplan violin strings offer professional-level players an unprecedented combination of beauty and power in two options, Kaplan Amo and Kaplan Vivo. Kaplan Vivo delivers brilliance, clarity, and a robust feel for darker instruments. Kaplan Amo violin strings, on the other hand, provide warmth, richness, and flexibility for brighter instruments. These strings settle quickly, exhibiting a rich tonal color palette and superb bow response. 

My old German violin is certainly a darker instrument and the Kaplan Vivos really bring out it's wonderful character. It took me a while to get used to them, but I have grown to really love everything they offer me.

An important step in this process was gaining perspective of others in playing situations. I remember one day in particular that had a very strong impact on my decision. I play in my church very frequently. I have a dear friend, Leslie, who runs sound at the church. She has heard my violin for many years and knows the sound and character of the instrument. On the first day that I had the Kaplan Vivo strings on my violin, Leslie asked me if I had changed something on my violin. She told me that the instrument was cutting through the rest of the ensemble in a new and different way. She told me the sound was sweet and appealing, but different. That was a really encouraging comment and probably gave me the confidence to make the switch. She, a non-violinist, had noticed the upgrade. I felt really good about it.

After using Helicore's for nearly 20 years, this was a big change for me. But, the rich pallet of colors the Kaplan's offer, was a no-brainer change. I have fallen in love with these strings. 

I still recommend Helicore's for all of my students. And, in fact, I use Helicore's on all of my electric violins. But, for my acoustic instrument, the Kaplan Vivo is my string of choice. 

Choosing strings is a tricky process. It definitely takes time, patience, and a great deal of listening.  I had the sound of Dominant's under my left ear for nearly 20 years. Then, I had the sound of D'addario Helicore's under my left ear for another 20 years. Making a switch feels odd. My instrument truly does sound different (better) with Kaplans. I have been using the Kaplans now for about 2 years and absolutely love them. But, it wasn't instant. It took some time of playing with the strings and listening for their detail and characteristics.

Let me encourage you to spend some time with a variety of strings. I love D'Addario strings in every way. Helicore, Zyex, Kaplan Amo, and Kaplan Vivo provide an amazing array of tonal choices and variables. In the end, I always know that D'addario is doing everything in their power to provide an amazing string experience for players of every level. I have so much confidence in their products and recommend them without hesitation.

By the way, I have grown to trust D'Addario strings for all of my instruments. I used them exclusively on my electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitars, mandolins, viola, electric violins, and violins.