A broken bow

Masumi RostadMon 14th December 2009
Masumi Rostad's broken bowMasumi Rostad's broken bow

I broke my bow. In a rehearsal, on Independence Day, my bow snapped near the tip. It happened during the coda of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet. I was really cranking it. Just before, I remember thinking how impressed I was with the tensile strength of pernambuco wood. ‘Wow,’ I thought to myself, ‘this wood is extraordinarily strong and flexible!’ And then it gave out. The hair went flaccid and the bow stopped responding. Without even having to look at it, I recognized the all too early demise of my trusty E. A. Ouchard. Confirmed with a quick glance, I sputtered out some quiet profanity and laid my bow to rest. I continued the rehearsal with Sibbi’s spare violin bow.

It was an odd break - perpendicular to the grain. Wood will naturally fracture in the direction of the grain. It is very strange that it separated, rather cleanly, against the grain. Who knows, I may have initiated the failure by pulling it out of the case incorrectly, or perhaps it happened when I hit it against the ceiling of my office during a particularly vigorous up bow the week before... It is rather hard to define the act that caused it to happen. I live with my equipment day in and day out. It may have started to break long before the final split.

My musical life was miserable after that. I had been playing and learning how to play on that bow for ten years. We were due to play at Caramoor, near NYC, the day after the break. On the train home after the rehearsal I frantically called friends in the city to borrow a bow for the concert. Aaron Boyd, violinist, responded with, ‘Meet me at the 2nd avenue F train stop at 8:30 tomorrow morning...’ He passed me a handful of bows in the middle of the street and told me to keep what I wanted for as long as I needed it. He is a good friend!

It turns out that the one I chose was a violin bow. I only discovered this when I brought it in for a rehair. The revelation was more than a little bit embarrassing! In my defense, in some cases it can be rather difficult to discern the difference between a violin and viola bow. With a viola bow, the stick is sometimes just nominally shorter and the frog maybe only a smidge taller. I have never been one to care about weight. When it comes down to a few little grams, I could care less. I am interested in elasticity and how it responds from the frog through to the tip.

Instruments and bows are traded as art. In pricing, the playing aspect of these things often comes second to importance of the maker, condition, and provenance. Granted, there usually is a natural relationship with performance and price but this is not always the case. You can find great sounding instruments on the cheap and vice versa. For the performing musician, this pricing system can be both frustrating and liberating.

The next months involved a lot of FedEx activity as I had bows shipped to me on tour to try. I played the Caramoor concert and most others for the next months on Aaron’s violin bow, occasionally borrowing real viola bows from fellow viola players at festivals. As a player, I felt crippled. It was as if I was dealing with an injury! My sound was difficult to find and simple strokes became a chore. Most non-musicians don’t realize how much of a difference a good bow makes in the production of sound. As a performer, I might even be more concerned with the bow than the viola.

Players often talk about instruments having good days and bad days depending on the weather. I think it might actually be the hair that is affected more noticeably than the wood. You might have noticed from the photo that I use black horsehair. Noticing that I shred a lot of hair very quickly, Mitsugu-san, my bow guy who runs the Col Legno shop in Evanston, Il suggested that I try salt and pepper first to see if I can handle the black hair idiom. The black hair is coarser and, in addition to grabbing the string better, it lasts longer. Living in Champaign, I am three hours’ drive from Mitsugu. Eventually I moved all the way over to completely black hair. I went from needing rehairs every three weeks to every two months! The black hair feels much more stable to me than white hair in climate change. Call me a control freak.

I am still looking for a bow. My accountant tells me that I have 12 months to buy another one to avoid capital gains tax from the insurance claim. In the interim, I bought a Coda, carbon fiber viola bow, for $477. It handles decently well but sounds a bit dead. I am looking forward to being able to play flying col legno battuto strokes with this thing in new music pieces with furious abandon.

Wish me luck…

Masumi Rostad

Masumi Rostad is the Pacifica Quartet’s viola player

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