Chinese Proverb

"Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand." - Chinese Proverb.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A trip to my favorite violin shop - Part 1: Bow Maintenance & Rosin Maintenance

I took a trip to my favorite violin shop a couple of days ago. I LOVE going to this shop - like a kid in a candy store! :).

This is my third visit and I always end up spending more time than I should! Although David has been really nice about not charging me the full amount for the time spent there because I ask waaay too many questions, but I think he likes explaining things to someone who's really interested. I think a violinmaker's job is totally fascinating! I always learn so much visiting this shop and its really interesting when he shows me different aspects of the cello or shows me the processes of putting his violins together. SO MUCH FUN!! I know, I'm weird... :).

During my last visit, he explained how they cut the wood to create the front and back plates of the cellos and his trip to Europe to pick out the wood he was going to use to create his violins. I would totally love to sit and watch him put together an instrument!

I had brought the two cellos I had on trial to the shop and David went into some great detail with the measurements and what those measurements meant. Although I'll try and not go into too much detail because I kind of think that violinmakers want to keep all this information a trade secret or something. Maybe not, but just in case... I don't want to offend him or anything.

Anyway, I think I'll make this post a two-parter (maybe three) to go over bow maintenance and what to look for in a cello, and maybe cello maintenance. 

Some great information on cello bows from Finckel's Cello Talks:

Talk 8: What the Bow Does:

Talk 12: Bow & String:

Cello bow hair information:
  • The violinmaker explained to me how a cello bow's hair works, which is hair from a horse's tail. I hope I'm stating all of this correctly - he provided a lot of information and I didn't take notes. I didn't want to bust out with a pen and paper and ask him to repeat everything! ...such a dork.. :).
  • When talking about bows, most people will explain it as barbs sticking up, which is what the rosin attaches to.  However, hair shafts are more like shingles on a roof, see magnification of horsehair below from a microscope:
  • Okay, I have to admit that kind of looks gross to me (it reminds me of insect legs or something!) and I have a weird compulsion to scratch at it.... LOL! :). Anyway, rosin gets trapped between the grooves which allows the bow to grip the cello to create sound. And if you've ever had a brand new bow that has never been rosined, than you know the bow will just skate atop the strings and doesn't make much sound
  • So what happens when I don't clean my bow? ...which I've NEVER cleaned my bow before! Oops!
    • 1) The rosin accumulates and also starts to harden. Hair is made of several layers, and eventually the build up will cause the outer layers of the hair to thicken and harden 

    • 2) The horse hair starts out to be circular, but due to bowing and rosining, over time it starts to flatten and become more oval in shape. Therefore, the rosin has less surface area (crevices) to attach to:
    • 3) This causes most cellists like me to add more rosin to try to get the bow to grab the hair like it once did - which only compounds the effect, i.e. the build-up of rosin gets thicker from application of more rosin and the hair's walls become denser and thicker which also makes the hair less flexible and more prone to break! ...ahhh... that's why I've been getting some breakage!

Bow Maintenance
So how do I keep my bow hair as healthy as possible?

  • Normal maintenance: wipe off the excess rosin from the bow, loosen the bow and then put it away 
    • Keep a cloth just for the bow hair and to wipe off the strings; and another cloth to wipe off the body of the cello paying attention to the area around the bridge
  • Once a month clean the bow hair using a toothbrush!
    • What? Yeah, I never heard of this before either! Why didn't someone explain this bow maintenance to me when I first started playing?
      • 1) Take a clean toothbrush and gently run it through the horse hair at an angle
        • A puff of rosin may come from the bow, which is normal. This will help with the responsiveness of the bow
      • 2) Blow on the hair to get the extra rosin dust off
      • 3) Then wipe off the extra rosin from the bow
  • Look at the bow under a light and the hair should be fairly shiny from its reflective surface which will tell you if the bow hair is "healthy"
  • I'll add some pictures later when I clean it next time

Rosin maintenance:
Rosin is equally important in producing the sound. I asked him if he had any recommendations for rosins and he just asked what I currently have, so I handed him my Andrea rosin, which apparently is a fairly good, expensive brand. It came with  my first rental cello outfit so I didn't have to purchase it.
  • He looked at it to make sure that it was still good, which it was, but I forgot to ask how he knew that was the case. I'll have to ask him next time I visit the shop
  • I was starting to wear small grooves into the rosin, which I didn't know was a "no-no"

    • Why? Apparently grooves in the rosin create more surface area which allows for more oxidation of the rosin. Since terpene is a major component of resin, it can be modified chemically through oxidation, which is why its important to always seal up (or wrap) rosin when its not being used and why rosin generally doesn't last very long. Rosin is generally recommended to be used within a year
      • The rosin I'm using has a screw on cap which should allow the rosin to be preserved longer. I think David said up to three years
    • David recommended when I rosin my bow I to go across different areas of the rosin to keep it relatively flat to prevent grooves from occurring
    • Also, most cellist use two rosins - one for the warmer seasons and another for the colder seasons
      • The darker rosins are generally for cold and dry climates or seasons while lighter colored rosins are generally for hot, humid climates or seasons. Living in Colorado with its dry, and mostly brisk weather, I should be able to get by using dark rosin only. I'll have to post more info on that later

Bow parts:
Always a good idea to know the different parts of the cello bow

Part 2 should be in about a week or two...scratch that - I'll post it under a blog called Cello Review & Purchase.

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