Slow and subtle change, when it reaches a saturation point, can all at once feel sudden and unexpected, but really it is a gradual process of transformation that is ignored until ignoring becomes impossible. This is how I awakened to the need for a new bow; slowly and then suddenly and urgently all at once. For ten years I tolerated the slightly wirey sound on the A string, the lack of connection through notes, the way the bow didn’t quite grab the string, and the brightness of the sound in general because I assumed these were my own technical faults to be improved. I assumed the aggressive quality of my accents were my own musical personality tendencies. I worked extremely hard and transcended these limitations day after day and hour after hour in my desire to improve. It never crossed my mind that these limitations were anything other than my own short comings as a musician. Instead I learned how to ask the most from the bow that it could give. The truth is it was both the bow and myself that were responsible for the results I was getting. And when I first chose the bow, these qualities were attractive to me.
The first clue came when a fellow cellist played on my cello and he got that same pressed sound in the upper register that I had struggled with. I had colleagues make subtle comments after concerts about my bow, and though many people commented on the warmth of my tone, I noticed in recordings a certain edge to the sound that bothered me.
A conductor related to me over drink how a cellist colleague of his had recently taken out a second mortgage on his house to purchase a fine old French bow costing in the tens of thousands. The conductor related to me how he was himself quite skeptical, but in listening without knowing which bow was the French one had been blown away by the difference in tone. At the time I scoffed at the notion of plunking down such a fortune for a mere piece of wood. It seemed completely narcissistic and reckless to throw so much money into a bow, all simply for a better sound. I also had the very valuable belief that it isn’t what we have, but what we do with what we have that makes the difference. Part of me wondered secretly if this man was making up for a lack of technique with a fancy bow. I prided myself in believing that the instrument didn’t matter. I could do anything with my modestly priced American bow.
In defense of my good old bow, it is very finely crafted and has been quite adequate for many years with much clarity and grit. While of course there are varying levels of quality of wood and craftsmanship in bows, and very expensive great old bows stand out, the key seems to be in picking the best bow to match both the personality of the cello and the cellist. Even the best of bows can sound crummy on certain cellos. And some bows in the high price range are more desirable as collectible items, antique objects of beauty with gold and tortoise shell and pernambuco.
As I began to experiment with bows and consider what I was looking for, I had the opportunity to reflect on how I had developed in ten years as a musician that had brought me to this place of needing a different bow, and how, only two years after that discussion with the conductor, I have now found myself on the other side of the fence doing my best to explain to family and friends the value of a fine bow and why my career and my musicianship deserve such an investment. While my budget for bows is not nearly at the level of the doubly mortgaged cellist, the price for moderately fine bows is enough to raise some eyebrows.
Since our values are so wrapped up in how we spend our money, this hunt for a bow has revealed some cultural expectations for a woman at my age and place in my career. Shouldn’t my ambition be diminishing and my focus be turning towards having a family? Why can’t I simply accept my place in a more subordinate role in my field? With some of these questions explicitly and implicitly stated, it occurred to me, with a certain sadness, that few would question the exorbitant cost associated with raising a child, if this was something I chose. I do not mean to discredit the value of parenting and the cost associated with raising children. However, I did wonder why I suddenly found myself being judged for wanting to invest in a much -less-expensive-than-a-child cello bow, a tool not only valuable for everyday use, but that can also be a good financial investment as they appreciate in value. I was puzzled.
Describing the profound and subtle changes that can happen as a musical voice transforms over time is no easy task, especially in having awareness and articulateness about this journey I am on. It is even more challenging to explain to a non musician why having the ability to grow and develop as an artist, (something a fine and well matched bow provides), above some more practical needs, deserves financial investment. As a creative artist, I find my development as a human being deeply tied to my art and as I transform, so does my music, while in turn my music transforms me. My artistry reflects but also shapes this new voice that is emerging, and this transformation is nothing less than a profound shift in my identity and my relationship to the world.
From a very young age and certainly during my Doctorate I operated from an unconscious notion that I needed to work hard to achieve my goals. While certainly this work ethic will always be a part of my being, something recently has shifted towards a place of mastery, integration, belonging and a desire to discover my deepest and most true voice and power beyond the decades of musical training, and some of the personality characteristics I have needed to take on in order to come as far as I have in my career. This change has necessarily translated into a quality of action that means moving towards my dreams in a more gentle, persistent and intelligent fashion. The hard work is still there, but there is more joy and awareness rather than brute force of will in the process of music making.
Five years ago I broke out of my Doctoral shell, and, in response to years of academic structures and discipline, needed to find my wild unfettered musical voice and to be left alone. I needed to feel free, to be bold and loud. The edginess of my bow suited me with the bright and forceful intensity of emergence. Now my voice has aged as I have, and grown richer and more gentle, though the wildness is still there. I crave the community of ideas, flexibility and clarity of intention.
It is an incredible notion to believe that I can be myself and at home in the midst of such a tremendous tradition as classical music is, and within the brutally competitive field of music. But I believe it is not only possible but absolutely necessary for long term joy and success. As a natural leader, and as a woman, finding my place and my voice has had some interesting challenges. There have been times of loneliness and pain when I have had to fight to achieve my goals because of my gender and the consequent notions about my abilities or value. In retrospect I realize now that I took on a certain quality of aggressiveness to push through those tough places, choosing force over resignation. It has taken some conscious effort to soften this hardness of spirit. Additionally, with few female role models, how to have the courage to be successful, powerful and a leader as a woman. With mostly male teachers, though wonderful teachers I might add, I have had to teach myself more than just the practical aspects of adjusting techniques to smaller hands, but also finding my own voice.
My search for a bow is intimately tied to my search for a voice. As many bows have been moving through my life in the past three weeks, I have “blind tested’ dozens, not wishing to be persuaded by name or price. I have always ended up with a French bow. There is a quality of dark warmth, but also clarity and precision that makes these stand out. My old bow is bright, stiff and edgy. It cuts through with a fierce directness. Some bows I have tried are too flexible and I can’t articulate well. Other bows ride on top of the string and it is challenging to create a flowing and connected sound. My favorite so far is a bow from late 19th century Mirecourt region of France. It has a richness of tone that caught my attention the moment I drew the first note. I spent a week exploring the nuances and characteristics of which the bow was capable, and determined by the end of the week that this bow would be my teacher. Everything that I asked of the bow it could offer, and even sometimes I felt it magnified moments when I was careless in my expression. With this bow my cello voice became powerful, but wise, nuanced and delicate, dark complex and warm.
Is this the perfect bow? Of course not. Could I find the perfect bow? Maybe if I had $100,000 to spend. But this Miracourt bow has much to offer and would be a big step up for me. With this or another equally fine bow I would still find limitations and have to work to transcend them. And it would take me time to adjust my playing to a very different tool. In the end, what matters most is whether or not this bow or any bow will allow my deepest and clearest voice to begin to emerge. As I approach the time to make a decision, I know one thing for sure, I will keep my old bow, as I will keep some of the fierce brightness of my earlier self. After all, they got me to where I am today.