The Right Viola Bow Can Make All the Difference
Aside from the instrument itself, one of the most important things a violist possesses is the bow. The right bow should feel almost like a part of the violist’s body. Thus, choosing the right bow or bows is, for the viola player, a critical process.
Viola Bow Sizes: Optimum Length and Weight
Almost all fullsize viola bows are about 29". Viola players requiring smaller bows such as children or smaller adults will generally use a violin bow.
Determining the proper viola bow length and weight can be tricky. Since violas are larger than violins, they are consequently heavier. This means in general the bows are heavier as well.
A bow that is too heavy can cause fatigue. Conversely, too light a bow will not have the power that a properly weighted bow possesses. Viola players may have to try several bows before they find one with the proper balance.
“It’s very individual,” says bowmaker Jon Crumrine. “You can take the same instrument and bow and give them to different players, and they’ll all get their own version of sound, because of what their skill is and what their concept of sound is.”
Types of Viola Bows
As they have been for centuries, wooden viola bows are still the standard.
“Early on, European woods, and then in the Baroque era, woods that came from Africa or South America [were used],” Crumrine expands. “What’s most commonly used is a wood from Brazil called pernambuco, or Pau Brasil.”
On the low end are fiberglass bows, “which are great for schools and small children, because bows are fragile,” he says. “But [fiberglass bows are] really limited as far as what you can do, and they’re rather clumsy. They’re more about durability than about making a really great sound.” Also appearing in this category are composite bows, which can be composed of various synthetic materials.
In between are the more recently developed carbon fiber bows, which while not in the same league as fine wood bows, can be quite serviceable even at a professional level.
“For professional musicians who play in places that are potentially more harmful to their gear such as a musical theater pit, or some venue where the bow might likely be bumped against a wall or stand carbon fiber could be a good option.”