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.