Tips from the top: how a soloist tries bows

Barbican concert Hall londonA couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune to present some of our bows to one of the pre-eminent violinists of our time. We met in the main hall of the Barbican, where he was performing that night. His approach to trying bows was not only quite different to most people, but also entirely logical and methodical. I thought sharing this method might be of interest, so here it is!

Having adjusted the tension and rosin on each bow to optimum for his playing and violin, he went through the following stages:

1. Playing to a friend who sat about 25 meters away, he played the same excerpt on all of the bows without telling the friend which was which. After feedback ("number two sounds really classy", "number four has lots of different colours"), a different excerpt was chosen and the process repeated. This helped certain bows be discounted and others emerge as favourites.

2. They then swapped over and the shortlist was played by his friend. After some tutelage ("faster bow!"), the thoughts on each bow were corroborated.

3. Only at this stage, once it was decided which bow had the most enticing sound, did he decide what to take away. The trial period is therefore to test if he can live with how the bow handles.

This whole method seems to be at odds with normal method of trying bows: fireworks first and tonal judgements later. Of course, unless one makes their living playing Paganini caprices (a thought which terrifies me), the tonal characteristics of a bow are of paramount importance, and if it sounds truly stunning, technique can normally be adjusted to accommodate quirks.