Pictured above: The Bela String Quartet‘s May 26th performance at Sea-Esta in Canning, NS. We were very proud of our performance, but it was nonetheless rivalled by the view!
Stringed instrument bows are expensive. Any cellist you encounter in concert has likely spent thousands of dollars on their bow, and bows from in-demand makers can even cost hundreds of thousands! Bows are important because they really make or break the experience of playing a stringed instrument, and finding just the right one is terribly personal. You may already know something about bows or learned about them at a concert (I certainly like to talk equipment at my performances) but in case you are hearing this for the first time, bows, made of horse hair and one of a few choice varieties of wood, are scientifically engineered to get sound from a string, and specifically, to allow a player to sustain sound from one end to the other. I once had a teacher who would ask, “did you pay for the whole bow?” The reply to which gave her the opportunity to answer, “then use all of it!”
Working with the bow is arguably the most difficult aspect of string playing and so it is no surprise that it comes up in cello lessons all of the time. String players need to be comfortable using all parts or the bow and also the entire length of it in one stroke, so early on, teachers aim to make sure students get comfortable with this. Using the entire bow seems like a simple concept, and it is, but such a lesson often goes like this:
Teacher: “This time, I want you to play that note using the whole bow, from the heel to the tip”
Student: “Will do.”
(Student plays the note, starting at the heel and ending it halfway across the horsehair)
Teacher: “Okay, but this time, I want you to use the entire bow”
Student: “Uh huh.”
(Student tries again, the bow travels the same distance as on the last attempt)
Teacher: (beginning to wonder if the student has mis-understood the instruction, or is slow to understand?)
“Okay but THIS time, play the note and use the ENTIRE bow”
Student: (starting to wonder why the teacher is not satisfied, even though by now they have demonstrated the task by playing the note several times, in quicker and quicker succession, doing so many things well but unaware they are still not succeeding at the task at hand)
Teacher: Okay, try again, but this time, take your eyes off the music and watch your bow to make sure you are using the whole thing on that one note”
Student: looks down at the bow and tries again… Eureka!
This could be an example of a perfectly intelligent student who fails, not necessarily because the task is difficult, but because they are distracted and naturally pulled by other challenges that seem more compelling. So it begs the question, when we struggle with achieving something in our lives, big or small, are we distracted from a simple solution? Rather than trying harder or longer, can the answer sometimes be as simple as bringing awareness to the situation? And if so, why don’t we?
To begin with, we are sometimes unsure of where the problem lies or what changes in our actions or approach needs to be made in order to make something work. The best medicine in this case is asking for the perspective of a trusted friend or mentor, or taking a moment to get quiet and ask ourselves- if we take some time and space, answers often appear! Other times we are afraid that if we go looking for roadblocks we might end up in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with something we don’t want to, or that time will be wasted on the search for these small obstacles. However, in my experience, these small difficulties are rarely, if ever, disturbing, but they are far more important then we give them credit for. In fact, I find it mind-bogglingly ironic but evidentially true that attention to the smallest details is what opens the biggest doors to fun and success. It seems to me that it is not what needs fixing that gets in the way- the fixing is the easy part- what is difficult is committing to revealing and acknowledging any obstacles in the first place. Metaphorically speaking, the whole bow belongs to you, so take notice what you do with it if you want to craft your best life and play your finest music!