The 2nd movement of Beethoven 5 has claimed many a victim at symphonic auditions. It seems to be custom made to sound great in a section, but like utter chaos when played alone. Same with Don Juan, as magnificently put by Blake Oliver in this blog entry.

For years and years, I have chipped away at this thing. I have changed fingerings, hand shape, bow style. Practiced it dotted, reversed, slurred, single, odd groupings, metronome, freeform…you get the picture. I even went through a period of going to sleep with Ron Leonard’s excerpt CD on, hoping for some sort of middle of the night osmosis.

My efforts reached their zenith last week, and in abject frustration, I called Matt Cooker, a friend, colleague, and generally amazing cello guy, to listen to my rep for an upcoming meeting I have with the principal cellist of an orchestra I hope to play with. It was good. Really good. First off, he laid some Galamian and Starker techniques on me. Worked on unusual joint flexibility. Sorted out fingerings. It was sounding better. But then…

….I used this bow. And it sounded like a different cello.

I am the first to say that good gear gets you far. But I am also in favor of students amassing years of solid technique before going the quick and dirty route of an instrument or bow upgrade to further their sound. I have been on this instrument/bow combo since 1997. Back then, I was a freshly-minted professional who did not trust all of her instincts implicitly. So when I tried out bows in the $3000-$5000 range, (a fortune at the time, and still nothing to sneeze at) I hesitated when a bow felt different in my hand. So I ended up with a nice bow, but not necessarily one that helps with the idiosyncrasies of my instrument (an A that pops out like jazz hands and ambiguous intonation on the C string). I have been getting around the issues with the strings I use (Larsen A, D, G and Evah Pirazzi C), a custom bridge, and what Matt refers to as Byzantine fingerings and techniques.

And now that I am in the market for a new bow, I am glad I had all these years of leanings and adjustments. I can truly appreciate the help that a more suitable bow offers, which is something I might have not been the position to evaluate when my technique was still finding its place.

Of course, this bow is NOT for sale. But there are lots of bows that are. And once I am settled in with a new bow, Eric and I are hatching plans to make me a custom cello. When this gets rolling, you can be sure that I will chronicle each step. I have never been through the process before, and I am downright giddy at the thought of it.

But, as usual, I digress. What makes me so sure that this bow has qualities of the Silver Bullet is that after I have worked for years, in good conscience and proper technique, it ameliorates numerous foibles of pieces that I routinely struggle with. So when you’re trying a bow, an instrument, even new rosin or strings, you have to have some sort of “control” group of pieces as your crucible. For cellos, (I refuse to say celli. Might as well be cellum or cella. Call me Byzantine) I use the 3rd page of Dvorak concerto and Brahms E minor sonata’s opening theme. Always. The Dvorak requires exceptional sound very high up on the G and D, so that’s what I look for. The Brahms opens up low and strong, and I am well accustomed to the thing fighting me for every note, so when I try an instrument that speaks clearly in that range, I know I’m onto something. Don’t go nuts and let a one-trick pony woo you with its charms! There are so many instruments that sound great in 1st and 4th positions! Go for the gusto and play things that give you grief. When you’ve knocked your toughest excerpts out of the way, *then* you can go rhapsodic and do your Jackie/Janos/Slava/Jimi impression.

Want to see other people’s bow purchasing commentary? Start here.

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4 thoughts on “Excalibow”

  1. You piqued my curiosity when you mentioned you have a custom bridge. In all the discussions on the ICS forums that I’ve monitored over the past few years, I’ve only seen one (parenthetical) comment (by mamawelder) regarding customizing a bridge to improve some sound issue.

    Considering the impact of strings, weights on strings, tailpieces, ambient conditions, etc., it would seem logical that a cello’s sound would also be affected by opening out the kidneys and/or heart of the bridge; or, conversely, by cutting them smaller in the first place. Same with the little nibs on the sides, etc.

    Realizing that much of the design of our string instruments is passed down from centuries of experimentation and tradition, it is curious why so little is written about the bridge – all one normally finds is the need to “fit” the feet of the bridge to the cello’s face, and so on.

    So why/how is your bridge customized?

    BTW, how exciting to have your own custom-made cello! I look forward to reading about its progress.

    Reply
  2. Well, I might have to call the guy who made my bridge to find out more! Here’s what I know: I don’t have a hybrid bridge….my cello is too chubby across the middle for one, but the legs are skinny for a standard bridge, and the nibs are teeny. I suspect they are just stylish. My complaints were chiefly related to two areas: injury prevention, and flabby sound on the C string. I have a wisp of a fingerboard, so most bridges create action that is too high, inflaming my pins and needles nerve injury. So this one is very low, and is very round across the top when compared to other bridges. The “heart” is a little more filled in than others I’ve seen, but what you call the kidneys (I love our strange cello world) are much more open. The feet are also very skinny….he said that we could put shims underneath if it didn’t help the C sound. But it did. Now, I’m not sure of the physics, but it does seem like the energy exerted on the bow is more directly transported to (and then through) the instrument with the smallest bridge feet possible, right? So then maybe that’s why it “tightened” up the sound on the usually muddy C? It seems viscerally correct, but I am just making an educated guess. I have seen people with the arm holes lined in metal, and with rubber. I have seen the arm holes filled in! I have even seen a strip of metal widthways through a bridge. And I don’t know what that was all about.

    Good lord. There go 2 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back. I’ll call up Craig at Callier Scollard and see if he has more salient information.

    Reply
  3. Quick question from a novice: Why would you get the new bow then get a cello built, rather than get a bow to match your new cello?

    Reply
  4. Good question: after a certain level of bow (and cello), there should not be as much legwork required of either. Meaning, the cello I am having built will not need the kind of assistance my current (and still beloved) cello does.

    Also, I am still going to be playing on this cello for a good 18 months. A better suited bow can’t hurt!

    And also also, I can always get another bow, if the next one fails me somehow. But what I find after playing this bow with a few different instruments (I have tried it with 3 thus far) is that this bow seems to better every instrument it’s coupled with. Hence, Excalibow. 🙂

    Reply

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