The vast majority of cello beginners will buy an outfit (a cello, bow and case or bag). Bows that come with outfits vary in quality, but assuming you’ve bought something that isn’t of the bargain basement variety the bow will probably be reliable if not brilliant. If this is the case you won’t need to look for a bow for at least your first six months of lessons. Second-hand outfits don’t always come with a bow, or may come with something that is not worth trying to salvage. Bows that are badly treated simply don’t last well, especially when they are made of less durable and flexible wood.
If you need to purchase a bow, it is worth spending a little more on something that will last you beyond your first cello assuming it is a full size instrument and a fairly basic student model. The price of bows varies just as much as that of instruments. Professional bows by famous makers carry price tags into tens of thousands of pounds, but it goes without saying that these are not the variety you’ll be considering. £100 – £250 will buy you a well-made, reliable bow.
Within this price range, carbon fibre bows are worth considering. The first non-wood bows appeared on the market in the eighties in the form of fibreglass, epoxy composite and carbon fibre. They looked, sounded and felt inferior to wooden bows. It was not until around the mid-nineties that the technology behind carbon fibre bows improved enough for certain makers of these bows to start turning heads. Although there are still players and high-end retailers who dismiss carbon fibre bows out of hand, there is a growing consensus now that carbon fibre bows by reputable makers offer more for your money, particularly in the above-mentioned price range. Carbon fibre is also practically indestructible, warp resistant and as light and flexible as good quality pernambuco wood, which is now an endangered species.
If you’re brand new to playing, you won’t be in a position to assess bows yourself, and you should get your teacher to help you find something suitable. The following is a list of good quality bows ranging from £100 – £250.
Type: Brazilwood cello bow, round stick
Price: £100 – £110
Type: Carbon fibre cello bow (black), round stick
Price: £115 – £125
Type: Carbon fibre cello bow, round stick
Price: £110 – £140
Type: Brazilwood bow, octagonal stick
Price: £130 – £145
Type: Carbon fibre bow, round stick
Price: £130 – £160
Type: Carbon fibre cello bow, round stick
Price: £230 – £250
Whether you upgrade your bow or stick with what you have, it needs to be properly cared for, especially if it is wooden. These are the most important aspects of bow care which will prolong the life of your bow and prevent costly repairs or replacements.
- Never over-tighten your bow. If the stick loses its camber (curve) and looks straight you will need to loosen the hairs so that there is still enough tension in the hair, but the stick retains its camber.
- Always slacken your bow off when you have finished playing. Leaving the bow at playing tension will warp the stick (particularly wooden bows) and will reduce the elasticity of the hair (especially if it is natural horse hair, which all but the very cheapest bows have).
- Never leave your bow lying around. If you’re taking a break from practising, rest it on the rib of your cello or hang it on your cello stand assuming it has a bow attachment. Never leave it lying on your chair or on the ground – it’s very easy to forget about and accidentally stand or sit on!
- If you have a soft cello bag, always take your bow out first and pack it away last. Unpacking your cello while the bow is still in the bag puts the bow at risk of snapping. The same applies when putting the cello back in its bag if the bow is already in its pouch.
- Never deliberately touch the bow hair. For many players it is inevitable that their fingers will touch the hair while playing. After a while the hair closest to the frog becomes slippery and discoloured, and doesn’t hold any rosin. This can’t be avoided, but touching the bow hair while unpacking or picking up the bow can and should. No matter how clean your hands are, there is oil on your skin that will create oily spots on the bow hair and literally causes holes in the sound as the bow is drawn across the string.
- When you finish playing and slacken the bow off, tap the tip of the bow (VERY gently) against your hand over a bin to get rid of excess or caked rosin. This will prevent a build-up of dried rosin in the hair and on the stick.
- You will notice that the hairs break occasionally – while you’re playing or when they get caught on something like your music stand. This is normal, and only cause for concern if the bow is losing a lot of hair on a regular basis, which can happen when the hair is of inferior quality and/ or has not been properly fitted. In this case, see below. If the odd hair snaps, always use a small pair of scissors to cut the hair off at the frog and tip. Never pull it out as this can also lead to excess bow hair loss.
- Eventually your bow will need to be re-haired and cleaned. Both of these tasks are jobs for a professional luthier or bow maker. Your teacher will be able to direct you to a reputable person or business where this can be carried out.
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© D C Cello Studio 2011