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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Why a good violinist needs a good bow
but a good children's party shouldn't have a bouncy castle,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

As one of your most devoted readers, I have a question regarding a violin performance. I attended a symphony program last night, featuring a famous violinist. The program notes stated that he was using a 1683 Ex-Gingold Stradivari and Tourte bow on loan from the IVCL. Why would a bow make that much difference? The performance was very good and received a standing ovation. His encore was Paganini's 7th Caprice.

Frances (South Carolina)

Dear Frances,

Millions of concertgoers are not aware how crucial the bow is to the string player: and how the balance, the quality of wood, and the stick-to-it-of-ness of the stick are the betrayers of quality. However, the general rule of thumb is that the bow should cost roughly 25% of the instrument price. This (in the case of a 250,000 pound Stradivari violin) is clearly absurd: not even Tourte, the most famous bowmaker, made a bow worth more than 20,000 pounds (or $30,000). But for your average professional player, with an instrument worth between 5,000 and 40,000 pounds ($8,000-$60,000) the rule of thumb does make some kind of sense. A seriously good orchestral bow will set you back between 3,000 and 10,000 pounds. This is because great bow-makers were every bit as rare as great instrument-makers, though of course the raw materials were never as expensive. Yet the best sort of wood for bows (pernambuco) is now on the endangered list, causing headaches and traumas for modern bow-makers everywhere, and also leading to a great rush of attention being given to cheap, indestructable, fibre-glass alternatives, despite their inferior qualities where either springiness or steadiness is required.

Many great players have publicly stated that they would rather play on a duff instrument with a great bow than a great instrument with a bad bow. Though exaggerated, their point is still well-taken: nine tenths of the string-player's skill lies in the bow-arm, and it is easier to get the result you want with a superior bow on a bad cello than with a student bow on a fine instrument. That doesn't mean that, as a player, you are not constantly looking for that miracle combination: the bow that fits the cello like a glove, the bow that Was Meant To Be (or the cello, of course, if you're wedded to the bow). It's luck -- or judgement -- or a combination of the two. And whatever your advisors say, you always feel that the bow of bows is just around the corner ...

If, like me, you were lucky enough in your misspent youth to share bow re-hairers with Rostropovich, you might just at some point be lucky enough to actually try a Tourte bow. If you are offered such a chance, I urge you NOT to take it, as every other bow will always feel clumsy and misshapen in comparison ... like those Greeks who were reportedly kissed by goddesses in dreams ...


Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

My son is about to turn six. Please give me some advice on kiddie parties.

D S in North London

Dear D S,

The best advice, as so often, is don't even think about it, but I can understand if you ignore it. After all, it was only last week that I endured twenty two (count 'em) kids under the age of seven at my house.

And I thought it went pretty well, magician (as advertised), bouncy castle, sausage rolls, cakes, computer games. They all seemed to have a great time, even the boy who kept coming up to me complaining that he felt 'like being ill on the carpet.' (Still didn't want me to call his mum and get him taken home, did he.) Even when it rained, we had to prise them off of the bouncy thingie with grappling hooks, with most of the boys and half the girls determined on swooping down it even in steady drizzle.

So nobody was more surprised than yours, the undersigned, to receive a phone call from Megan's mum that eve. 'Just to let you know,' she said, 'that I'm not blaming you.'

Having spent several hundred pounds on the magician, castle, goodie-bags, tea, birthday cakes etc, I was mystified to hear this. My view, immodest as it may have been, is that I deserved nothing but praise for coping (almost singlehandedly) with the aforementioned.

However, my mood of outrage was soon dissipated by her next comment.

'Meggie broke her arm on the bouncy castle thingie,' she said.

Now I vaguely remember Megan's announcing that her arm felt 'funny' (somewhere between Kieran's first and second near-vomit experiences). I remembered asking if she could move it (she could) and whether she wanted a bandage (she didn't) and whether she still wanted to go on the bouncy castle (she did). At no time did it occur to me that Megan (who hadn't even been sniffling) had done anything so noteworthy as broken anything. And so remorseful did I feel at not fussing over her a bit more that (to the above bill) must now be added a cool new 'My Scene' Barbie for Megan at £19.99.

Fun at the Bouncy Castle Research Centre, Loch Ness, Scotland
Fun at the Bouncy Castle Research Centre, Loch Ness, Scotland

So this is my advice. Go to one of those boring jump-in-the-balls or bowling or dry-sledding places to do it for you. And sod the bouncy castles.

Yours, sadder but wiser,

Copyright © 1 October 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK



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