Begin With a Small Selection
A shop will set out several bows for you and share some information, perhaps about who made them, their nationality, age, etc. At first, this information may not seem useful but it is worth getting a general knowledge on the bows you are trying. During your first appointment, focus only on overall tone and judge solely on sound. Perimeters such as weight and balance across bows can vary just as little but be enough to make a bow initially feel awkward and unfamiliar, kind of like a new pair of shoes. You will get used to them as you try several more and take a few home on trial. Do not be quick to judge, but take time to get to know the bow. Just experience the bows and get a feel of what their playing characteristics really are like. No matter if you have done this process before in a different price range, this initial visit is much like wine tasting. First, experience everything to get your aural palette in tune with the nuances and then make a general assessment of each bows overall performance.
Start With a Scale and Listen
Tighten up the bows and start slowly with scales and just experience the bows for what they are. Take your time to warm up your ears and your hands and be sensitive to what makes a bow really work. At least budget 5 to 10 minutes for every bow you try. Go through each bow with a scale, full long bows on each note, just experiencing them. Then go through them again and listen for the differences in character not which is better or worse. From here you will get an impression of how the bows sound and play.
Play Short Passages
Since we do not perform scales, you will then want to play some music. Do not use sheet music at first. Play something that utilizes the range of the instrument so you can hear the balance of character across the ranges. I like a lot of J.S. Bach compositions for this, as most of them utilize the range of an instrument, and you can get a real sense of the balance with all the string crossings. You or with the help of a teacher, should prepare the music of very short passages ahead of time. This will make the process more systematic and considerably easier. The goal now is to quickly switch from bow to bow with each phrase as to not have your ear become too accustomed to the sound.
Try a Few More
Select your top 2 or 3 bows from the initial batch and add several more. Eliminate a few bows for now solely based on tone, you can always revisit them later, but to properly assess bow, you need to experience a good selection first. Even if you have done this process before, bows in higher price ranges offer more subtleties that take time to fully understand and hear. Think of this as a process of elimination and rather than selection. Eliminate those that just does not speak to you; the one that does not allow you to make music; the one that fights with you when you are trying to phrase passages.
Don’t Look at Too Many
I do not recommend trying more than a dozen bows at one time, and depending on your price range, there may only be a couple of bows to try anyway. After a while your ears get tired and everything starts to sound the same. You will have a chance to try more and even revisit a few at your next appointment.
Take home a couple of bows that you selected, use them in the practice room and run through your practice routine. Your impressions of the bows will change over the week as well as your ability to discern the finer details and really develop your aural palate. If you have a teacher, it would be good to take it to them for assessment and direction. They understand where you are at in your playing and where you are going and what would fit you best. A good teacher should guide you to the right bow for you, not just what they like the best, not all teachers are great at this. Keep in mind, at the end of the process you are the one who will be playing your instrument and bow not your teacher.
No Such Thing as a Perfect Bow
There is no such thing as a perfect bow or instrument, no matter how much money you spend. There are things that a bow is going to do great, and other things that it just does okay. For example in the $500 – $1,500 range, some of the bows may not respond easily to off the string bow techniques. If you do not utilize those right now and will not for a while, then this deficiency should not matter to you. You will likely upgrade by the time you are ready. You would want to make sure that the tone and tonal palate is there. Once again something a good shop and teacher can help you sort through and prioritize. Even with famous bows, if you look hard enough have very subtle deficiencies. Your goal right now is to develop the ability to discern the differences of the bow and develop a preference for tonal color and playability.
Things to pay attention to:
Type of character
You can’t judge an bow on its own, it is all about how it compares to other bows that you are trying. One bow can seem darker or brighter than the other. One can be more raw or boisterous while another can be sweet and refined. Your goal would to be to listen for these differences and then after trying several determining what personality you like. Do not let only one or two of the following be the determining factor, but how the many qualities are combined to create the character of the bow as a whole.
Evenness of character
As you switch strings and positions, how consistent is the character? Yes it will have a different timbre, but how much does it still sound like the same instrument. Some people prefer instruments that sound really even, others a little less balanced for a more unique color to the possibilities of phrasing. One can test this by playing scales in different positions, noting the difference over the string crossing. The other test would be to play scales on each string up the fingerboard noting the difference as you progress up the fingerboard. Finally a passage that you know well that utilizes different strings and/or positions. Does the melody sound consistent or does it sound like at times you are playing a whole other instrument?
Do not play with pressure when testing this! Focus on bow placement and speed. Too much pressure and you choke some instruments and never hear the full possibilities of it. A number of players unknowingly do this because they have developed habits with their current equipment. Try to test the bows with very little input to let the bow do all the work. A great bow for you will make you sound better while doing very little.
This is very important, it deals with how the bow responds to your input. Some bows enhance the response of an instrument and affects how much work you need to exert in order for the instrument to do certain things. There are two main parts to the sound coming from a stringed instrument, the attack, the initial sound of the bow catching the strings, and the sustain, the sound as the bow continues to move along the string. Quick passages with slurs are a good way to test this, listen to see how clean every note sounds, not with the attack but with the tone produced on each note. Does it sound like “wha, wha, wha, wha” slow attack, or “cha, cha, cha” all attack, or “ta, ta, ta, ta”, clean subtle attack with a nice tone?
Some players like the double stops to blend real nicely and hear a very balanced interval, while others at time want to hear one note clearly stick out over the other as the melody. Now much of this has to do with technique, but a bow still have a natural tendency to do one over the other. Listen for these and determine what you like.
Differing Bow Strokes
Play through repertoire and etudes that utilize differing bow strokes like détaché, martelé, spicatto, sautillé, ricochet, etc. The more advanced bowing techniques take time to figure out with a new bow, so don’t be quick to dismiss a bow right away. Rather, experiment with hair tension, contact point, and angle of the bow, as these can affect how a bow functions. Any good bow should perform these techniques, your goal should be to figure out how to make the bow do them.
It is common to go through a second round of bow trials. Over the week you will have developed your aural palate and probably some preferences as well. It may even be worth revisiting some of the bows you have previously tried. This time you will go into the trial room with more of a purpose. If you have a teacher, they surely will have given you some more direction after showing them the instruments.
No matter how much you spent on your instrument and bow, it is recommend to get instrument insurance. There are a number of companies that specialize in stringed instrument insurance.
Rehair the bow anywhere from 4 to 8 months. Regular maintenance and checkups of your instrument and bow will ensure that they sound and play their best and can preempt costly repairs.
I hope that this helped you organize and give you some understanding of the overall process. While it may seem like a complex process, remember to have fun. After all, we get to make music!