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  • Writer's pictureRoger Chase

Contact Point

Judy Tarling investigates playing with a baroque bow on modern instruments.

Judy Tarling is leader of The Parley of Instruments and author of Baroque String Playing ‘for ingenious learners’ and The Weapons of Rhetoric, a guide for musicians and audiences (Corda Music Publications) This article originally appeared in The Strad magazine.

If the bow is a string player’s voice, the musical language needs to be pronounced with the right accent. During the second half of the eighteenth century, players first using the new incurved square-headed bow would have heard the new musical accent which matched the prevailing classical style. One can imagine rehearsals, with the old guard clinging to their favourite bows and old-fashioned wigs, while the young progressives showed off their longer bows and new Napoleonic hair-cuts.

To Change or Not to Change

A similar process of change is happening to today’s players. But the issue now is not simply whether to get the latest model and stick with it until you get the hang of it, but whether to risk trying to play with several different types of bow in the same week, or even the same day. The demands of the historical movement cannot now be avoided. Conservatoires and university performance practice departments have an all-embracing attitude to style, and the historically-informed expectations of today’s audiences are here to stay. It seems that more and more ‘mainstream’ players are risking their one-bow security by taking the plunge into the pool of historical performance, recently emerging, it has to be said, with some major successes.

A Virtuoso Versatility

Last summer, one brave world-renowned cellist with a reputation to lose, demonstrated how possible and musically valuable this exercise can be by changing bows several times within one evening performance. The success of the achievement astounded the audience, who were affected and impressed by how all the music in the programme gained in power and stature, not just the earlier pieces. A robust Britten suite and an emotionally harrowing performance of Dallapiccola’s Ciaconna Intermezzo e Adagio were sandwiched between two glorious Bach suites. The intrepid cellist, Raphael Wallfisch, had earlier talked openly about his growing love and use of the ‘old’ bow to his audience of string teachers, explaining how he had spent many years playing in near-empty churches, feeling his way into his new voice for Bach. Bringing the experience into the glare of a critical audience, his gamble certainly paid off, and produced an ecstatic reaction from the listeners.


So, choices have to be made. If a soloist wants to enter into the historical performance spirit, how far can he or she go? Can it be done without changing equipment? Many eminent performers and directors have already demonstrated that awareness of historical style does not depend solely on using historical equipment. Steven Isserlis says ‘I really don’t think that playing on a modern instrument is a major impediment to playing Bach; the point is how one plays on whichever instrument. When I play with classical orchestras, I use a classical bow. I don’t think anyone has ever heard me playing with a Baroque bow! But I do think that one must have a strong sense of how it feels to play on a Baroque cello – of the possibilities Bach had in mind when he wrote the suites. I feel these possibilities can be quite easily transferred to a modern set-up.’

For some, changing and adapting to the new tools might feel like relinquishing too much. It is generally agreed that starting with a baroque bow on the familiar modern instrument is the best route in to the music. The first step can thus be taken without changing the instrument, pitch or strings. To plunge into a complete new set up at the same time as getting to grips with a new bow technique is a long-term commitment most non-specialists are unable or unwilling to make.

Initial Experiences

Many modern orchestras have been led down the path to historical style by experienced guest directors, either using period bows or their usual ones. Baroque and classical specialist violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch has directed several orchestras such as the Israeli Chamber Orchestra and Carmel Bach Festival. She described to me some of the problems players encounter when first using a baroque bow on their modern instruments. ‘There is a tendency to press too hard at the point to make up for the loss of power at that end of the bow’. Adjusting to the natural feel of the lighter bow by letting it do its own work can be difficult for some: ‘It’s like putting on ice-skates for the first time, trying to accomplish something without really knowing how it works. The position of the arm is crucial, letting it hang from the wrist, rather than having a flat plane from knuckles to elbow. If the arm is straight and high, it will be difficult to make the baroque bow work. Use the weight of the arm to assist sound production, not the light speedy tracking used with a longer more evenly-weighted bow’.

The next change in technique Elizabeth considers necessary for the good use of the baroque bow occurs at the start of the note, the initial contact: ‘You can’t start a note from the string, but just above it. If the arm is straight and high this is difficult’. She refers to Leopold Mozart and Tartini who both describe the initial contact with the string in great detail. It is a soft beginning, growing immediately to a full sound using pressure, but only after the bow comes in to land on the string, as on a runway, not before. She quotes Father Mozart who talks about the imperceptible beginning and gradual swell. It is easy to make this swell too late, giving an ugly bulge which was, quite correctly, much maligned in the early 1970s days of baroque violin playing. Coaxing the sound out, persuading it rather than using violence is a radical change in attitude for some players.

Angle of Bow

Another consideration is the angle of the bow, which shouldn’t be too flat. Elizabeth says ‘most players use too flat an angle for the hair. Tip the hair by raising the wrist a little, so that the thinner ribbon of hair will be brought into full contact when pressure is used’. If too flat a hair is used, the wrist will be positioned too low to exert the necessary varied pressure to express a variety of dynamics. Elizabeth also says ‘the hair should be kept at quite a high tension’. Many players new to the period bow are frightened to use tight hair. This is essential for getting a robust sound. Flimsy hair will result in a wispy feeble sound, something from which baroque string playing has suffered enough.

The ‘Speaking’ Style

Ms. Wallfisch also complains of another style disadvantage: ‘semiquavers are usually too equal. Use more variety of articulation.’ Most players have spent years learning to play evenly, but looking for a variety of strokes, according to the musical sense and phrase shape is a basic mental adjustment players new to the period game will need to adopt to bring out the ‘speaking’ qualities of the music, with all the subtle inflections of language. This can be achieved with the modern bow if the musical intellect is applied in a new way.

Maxim Vengerov can be seen demonstrating this variety in his masterclass on Bach’s G minor prelude and fugue (DVD available from In contrast to the correct but rather bland performance of the student, he shows her how to shape phrases with a bow brimming with vitality. He clearly demonstrates how different bow-speeds and varied articulation give direction to phrases and introduce nuances of light and shade to bring the music alive.

Matching Equipment to Technique

Many compositional devices common to all baroque string music such as bariolage, double-stopped counterpoint and chords are easier with the lower, less curved bridge and lighter bow, and Bach’s thoughts may be better understood having put oneself closer to the instrument which he had in mind.

Violist Roger Chase says ‘a uniformity of approach and way of handling the instrument seems important to me. It makes much shorter work of ensemble problems if all the players are dealing with the same sort of equipment. All the players will then have the same tendencies regarding articulation and sustaining power’. He finds the baroque bow a valuable teaching tool to introduce ideas of nuance and emphasis. ‘When a type of nuance is hard to attain by demonstration alone with a modern bow, very often putting an older bow in the hand of the student immediately creates a change of emphasis, nuance and articulation simply by the default effect of the equipment. Many things are immediately easier. One stops “trying” so hard to “do” something. Many aspects of phrasing are suggested by the way the bow naturally works. The point and purpose of a down bow compared to an up bow becomes immediately apparent. The natural decay of a group for slurred notes is obvious.’

Finding what you are unable do is a good route into discovering what positives the early bow has to offer, and thereby showing what needs to be modified in the Tourte-style technique. The student can then try to reproduce the feel of the bow when he returns to the modern one. Roger says ‘attempting to sustain with power is rather pointless and counter-intuitive. On the other hand, accents and nuance can be wonderfully physical, even “visceral” because it’s hard to crush the instrument with a lighter bow which only responds to heavy weight application when close to the frog when the hand is immediately over the strings. Rapid passages are infinitely easier, arguably less loud, but does that matter if the musical energy is greater? Fast string crossing is much freer because of the bow being lighter.’

Roger continues: ‘variety of sound from modern strings is easier to find with a modern bow. On the other hand, nuance is often limited with a modern bow, and leads to a sort of utilitarian sostenuto, though this is surely as much to do with education as anything else’.

Bowing Rules

Choice of bow direction to accommodate the music with the old bow usually depends on more lifting in order to bring the focus of the sound nearer the heel where it is strongest. The ‘rules’ for this way of playing were written down in the 17th century for playing dance music. Although condemned by many, mention of the ‘wretched rule of down bow’ persisted through the 18th century and references to it are found even in nineteenth-century treatises. Steven Isserlis says ‘the first time I used a classical bow in public in a performance of the Haydn C major concerto with John Eliot Gardiner, Elizabeth Wilcocks (then leading) was very helpful and I changed a lot of bowings. I do remember that that was when I became mildly addicted to retaking the bow, flying back to the heel at every possible opportunity! I still have a strong bias towards retakes, as opposed to hooked bowing’.

Bow Hold

Some players with one foot firmly in period instrument performance still command principal positions in modern orchestras, but keep the two worlds separate. Cellist Sebastian Comberti prefers not to mix and match, but to keep a consistency of equipment: all gut with baroque bow, or totally modern. When using the modern bow to play baroque music, he says he ‘lightens the modern bow by holding it further from the frog’. Violist Chase says he also adapts the way he holds the bow according to the repertoire and the desired sound.


Steven Isserlis: ‘I always play Bach on gut strings rather than steel, but that’s my personal preference, not a rule that I would necessarily inflict on anyone else! When I play with classical orchestras I change my customary covered gut A string to pure gut’.

Roger Chase calls himself ‘a covered gut player: notes can have a softness to their beginnings which is still “alive” (the father Mozart notion?). On modern strings the same approach to articulation seems dull to me, rather than energetic and beautiful. On plain gut strings the clarity and energy of attack is there regardless of the more gentle nature of the baroque bow. When using a baroque bow on modern strings, clarity is lost, whereas on plain gut the wonderful crystal articulation makes faster passage work a sparkling joy, not dependent on mere volume and powerful projection. The palette of colours available from modern strings is woefully limited, and with a lighter baroque bow even more so. Variety of sound from modern strings is easier to find with a heavier modern bow. On modern strings a baroque bow tends to lose contact completely as you move towards the tip, because of the lightness of the bow and the resistance of modern strings’.

Elizabeth Wallfisch: ‘You have to coax the sound out of gut. Contact is more immediate on modern strings because there is not so much friction as gut. You need a slightly faster bow speed to get the same effect. Sebastian Comberti: ‘On modern strings I use a very different rosin from my Baroque bow, or I don’t get the right contact with metal strings. I use more pressure when using metal strings.’

The Way Forward

The consensus seems to be that the benefits of a working knowledge of the baroque bow can pay off when using a modern bow, and the baroque bow used on a modern instrument can be a good stylish compromise for the non-specialist if used in the right spirit. This spirit should lead the way to overcoming differences in equipment, knowledge of which can be gained by experimenting with old style bows. Thinking differently will obviously result in more stylish playing whatever equipment is chosen, but using a baroque bow will add life, sparkle and more variety of articulation and nuance. After all, music does not speak from the page, it is only the player and his musical imagination who has the power to translate the music into sound with the right musical accent.


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