A Case for the Baroque Bow: A Specialist’s Perspective

Photo of Arnie Tanimoto

Gold medalist of the 7th International Bach-Abel Competition, Arnie Tanimoto is equally at home on the viola da gamba and baroque cello. Described by The New York Times as a “fine instrumental soloist” he performs in venues across the United States, Europe, and Japan. The recipient of a 2017 Frank Huntington Beebe Fund Fellowship he has also performed and recorded with Barthold Kuijken, the Boston Early Music Festival Ensemble, and the Smithsonian Consort of Viols. Arnie is an advocate for the viola da gamba, and can be found giving lecture demonstrations and premieres of new works for the instrument around the country. As a teacher, he serves on faculty at the Mountainside Baroque Summer Academy, as well as maintaining a private studio. He holds degrees and certificates from Oberlin Conservatory, the Eastman School of Music, The Juilliard School, and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. We welcome Arnie here sharing his thoughts on the baroque bow. You can learn more about Arnie and his upcoming performances on his website at www.arnietanimoto.com.

It is fair to say that period instruments and historical performance practice have entered into the sphere of mainstream classical music. Artists like Jordi Savall, Richard Egarr, and Rachel Podger regularly grace the stages of Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, and even the Chamber Music Society of Detroit. Household names like Yo-Yo Ma, Matt Haimovitz, and Johnny Gandelsman can be found dabbling on gut strings and other period accoutrement. Make of this what you will, but it is clear that this movement is no fad, nor is it any longer the domain of dogmatic musicologists and mediocre players. So how is a musician supposed to adapt to all of this change? Surely there is a better alternative to denial or applying for a degree in early music. I believe the answer lies in the baroque bow.

I am not proselytizing the gospel of authenticity. Rather, I am hoping to coax some curiosity and reconsideration out of my fellow musicians who wish to further examine and revitalize this old repertoire. Dance, rhetoric, and counterpoint lie at the heart of baroque music. A great deal of transparency, dramatic gesture, and groove are paramount in expressing these foundations, and baroque bows beautifully lend themselves to addressing these demands. Their short and springy sticks allow for graceful leaps across strings, as well as extraordinary agility when navigating passages of quick and detached notes. Their convex shape allows for subtle articulations, tapered down bows, and fragile up bows. Yes, these bows have obvious strengths and weaknesses, but it is worth noting that in the 17th and 18th centuries inequality was ubiquitous – even in music. Playing to these inherent aspects in a baroque bow can open up a new world of articulations, shaping, and tempo possibilities that can aid in unlocking more of the mysteries surrounding Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli, and others.

Another reason for the baroque bow is because of its practicality. Obtaining an entirely new instrument or converting an antique for baroque music can obviously be a costly endeavor. Buying a set of gut strings may seem like an easy point of departure, however their thick gauging will inevitably require drastic changes to your nut/bridge, and could possibly even require a new tailpiece. Bows do not require any modifications and can be used on both modern and period set ups. Because of the lack of metalwork involved in their construction they tend to be relatively inexpensive in comparison to modern bows. High-quality bows can be obtained for no more than a few thousand dollars. In addition these bows are aesthetic beauties. They are often made from unconventional woods like snakewood or ironwood, which pleasantly contrast with modern pernambuco sticks. 

I am not advocating for musicians to abandon their modern bows every time that they touch music before 1800, but simply that they try to gain an understanding of how musical equipment was engineered to serve and exploit the music of its time. There is no reason why a Dodd or Sartory should not be used when playing Bach, but perhaps some exposure to a baroque bow can inspire one to explore new possibilities when approaching this repertoire with a modern bow. Classical music is not the monolith that it once was a few generations ago. One of the merits of living in the 21st century is that there is now a plurality of perspectives that musicians can draw upon when playing works of the 17th and 18th centuries. One only has more to gain in exploring this repertoire with a baroque bow. This is not a matter of right or wrong, but why not?

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