Post #3218: Of Bridges and Bows


Besides work and writing, this week has been almost entirely consumed by instrument-related issues.

I have two violins – a “Stainer” copy (factory-made likely in Germany around 100 years ago), and a 5-string acoustic-electric Realist that I bought seven years ago new. It’s the second instrument I’ve played most since I acquired it. It has a nice big sound when played acoustically, as well as built-in electronics that make it easy to plug in and amplify. Neither of my instruments is professional-grade, but they are not bottom-barrel either – and both are enjoyable to play for different reasons.

As mentioned in my last post, I’ve returned to playing recently and been fooling around with amplification and effects pedals. Last Saturday Brian loaned me a practically-new Peavy amp, one with a bunch of built-in settings and effects (too complicated, he says). He hauled it up to my studio and I got down to figuring out what each of the knobs did to my sound and started having some real fun with it. Amplified and using the low octave setting, I was getting some growly cello-like sounds, which inspired me to get a little bit heavy with my playing style. I didn’t think I was going all *that* hard until suddenly my bridge broke into two pieces, pinging out into the room and causing my strings to collapse.

Fortunately, I was recording when it happened so you can listen to that moment (and my reaction) here:

The sound of a bridge breaking mid-action.

In my whole lifetime of playing, including some serious rocking out on stage with the Flying Folk Army back in the day, I have never had a bridge do that!

I got right down to figuring out where I could get a new bridge by putting the feelers out on one of the Gabriola Facebook boards, and was pointed in the direction of Michael Vann, a world-renowned bow maker who also does all-manner of classical string repairs. Someone had mentioned him to me previously because I was in need of getting my very neglected bow redone, but it was news to me that he handled other small jobs also. I sent him an email on Saturday afternoon and by that evening we had made an arrangement to meet the following day.

When I met Michael at his studio, he quickly assessed my violin as “not a collector’s item” (no it certainly is not) and also told me he’d never seen a 5-string and he would work out a sturdier bridge for it. The bridge the Realist shipped with never did sit on the instrument properly (it wasn’t fitted) – so I was glad to have an actual violin technician fit it up. Entering Michael’s workspace was more than just dropping off an instrument for repair, it was also a step back into my youth where instrument shops and repairs were a regular feature of my life. I left feeling a bit of nostalgia for my old teachers, the halls of the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and the other young people with whom I trained before quitting classical music altogether at the age of 16.

After I left my violin, I decided that on my return I would bring my bow to have it re-haired. People who are playing regularly have this job done once every year or two. I haven’t had mine done for at least ten, partly because I haven’t been playing much, but also because I just never get around to it. Over time bows lose hairs, but they also get really dirty from rosin buildup and skin oils. Even if you never touch the hairs (which is drilled in from a young age), there is still enough close contact that things get pretty shabby over time.

On Wednesday I returned to Michael’s shop and tried out my newly-bridged violin (which also had new strings and was polished to a high-shine). He pointed out to me the greater thickness compared to the one that had broken, and I also noticed he reinforced the slot where the e-string sits (so thin, it can cut into even a hard wood like maple with time and tension).

Better than new!

When it came time for me to leave my only bow with Michael for his attention, he offered me a loan of one of his bows to try out. I had joked with him on the previous visit about how it would take me the rest of my life to pay off the cost of one of his bows which retail for about $8000 Cdn. But I was curious – not to try a bow I could *never* afford, but whether or not he carried something more in my price range (under $1000). Of course he does – and he sent me home with two Chas. Dubois bows to try while he is re-hairing mine.

That was on Wednesday night, and since then I have been playing with each of them on both of my violins whenever I have the chance. I have played almost every song I know from a variety of musical traditions and have been stumped as to how to choose between them. Both are vastly superior to the bow I have had all my life – my playing is immediately improved 1000% by selecting either of these. I made Brian come and take a listen and he was as impressed as I on the quality of sound after only hearing one. After I trialed both for him, he was pretty definite in his preference as listener, and I agreed with his ear on that, but as a player I am more torn. One of them is heavier, takes more effort to bow but stays really true on the string and produces a full-throated sound. The other one is lighter, it skips a little, and is a pleasure to play with though the tone is a bit brighter/sharper. The heavier one plays Eastern European/Klezmer tunes with the right tonal range, the lighter one bounces through Celtic-style jigs and reels. And finally, one of them makes the Realist sound better, and the other picks up the bright tones in the Stainer.

When I agreed to take two, I thought that choosing would be much simpler. With most things I am decisive, I can feel my way to a choice right away. Not so this time, because they have such different attributes, which is something I have never given much consideration to. Frankly, up until now, I couldn’t really afford to pay attention to the differences. I had an instrument and not a lot of money to purchase anything else. Since moving and dispensing with our massive mortgage a few years ago, I am finally in a place where if I want to upgrade my equipment, I can. The irony is not lost on me that as a young performing musician, I couldn’t afford nearly the instrument I can afford in my settled, non-performing life now.

I am in a privileged position in that if I want both, I can afford it with a little bit of saving around the edges for the next couple of months. That would give me a bow at the low-end of the professional level for each of my instruments, and also give me options when recording or playing specific types of music live (if that ever happens again, right now I just want to play for me). My old bow could serve as a back-up or whenever I don’t feel like taking something pricey out for the ride. The question for me is if this is just indecision, a refusal to make a choice when faced with two really compelling options. Will I use two bows? How much playing do I anticipate over the next years of my life? These are questions that will only be borne out over time. Right now, I’m playing again and there is no doubt that these bows make that much more pleasurable.

I’ve got a decision to make and in the meantime I am playing through my repertoire with each bow which means lots of extra practice this week!

If you really want to nerd out about this stuff with me – take a look at the Youtube video at the end of this post in which professional violinist Timothy Chooi compares a Dubois bow, a Vann bow, and a cheap bow from Amazon. Fun fact – Timothy Chooi and I share two teachers – Esther Tsang (Ngai) and Sydney Humphreys (now deceased), though clearly Chooi got a lot more out of their instruction than I did. He’s a phenomenal player!

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