The Turn of the Screw

Sometimes as I’m playing I become frustrated with my tone – the moments I’m talking about here aren’t due to not being warmed up or anything I can put my finger on – I just find I’m producing a scratchiness or an airiness, versus a rich ringing.  Sometimes I’m inclined to blame the bow – in addition to the way I move it, there are two factors that I can change – rosin, and the degree to which the bow hairs are taut – too taut or not taut enough? I loosen the hairs daily for storage in the case, having observed the luthier take virtually all the tension out of the bow when he has worked on it for me.  Storing it fully loosened prolongs the life of the hairs.

But it also means I have to tighten it daily before playing, and therefore I work in a range of bow hair tightness – obviously I don’t get it the same every day.  Unlike the strings’ tightness, which I check with a tuner, I wind the hairs up to tension and stop when I feel like it.  But of course every detail about the bow greatly impacts tone production.  I’ve asked teacher about the right taut, and she says that as long as the bow is still presenting a curve of an arc in the right direction that it’s in the range of acceptable.

I’ve observed many greats playing their instruments, and I’ve noticed that Anne Sophie Mutter messes with her bow tightness in the middle of pieces quite often.  She quickly turns the screw mid-movement while playing Vivaldi, or any piece really.  I have to think she gets something tonal out of such machinations – it’s difficult to imagine a performer of her caliber having a nervous obsession requiring her to fidget with the thing!  But at the same time, I don’t see anyone else doing that.

What I do see is that most pros keep their bows somewhat less taut while playing than I do.  I seem to need a bit more tension to produce a fuller tone.  But now that I’m playing some double stops and chords, trying to hit two strings at once or in rapid succession, I’m finding some usefulness in less tension.  The tighter the hairs the more weight I need to apply to get them to lay flat on multiple strings strings at once.

Nuance, the stuff of plot and dialogue in brilliant thrillers like Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” is nowhere in fuller bloom than on this instrument.

Thanks for reading.


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