The life of a travelling cellist isn’t easy. Since 9/11, it’s really been impossible to check your instrument with luggage in the hold of an aircraft, because you can have virtually no control over its safety, so you have to buy a second seat for the cello, usually at colossal expense. Even then, this is no guarantee that either you or your cello will be allowed on board, since the rules about where the cello may sit vary by airline, aircraft model, and the capricious whims of the staff.
Even new rules for taking instruments on planes don’t entitle your cello to a safe passage on its own ticket. Two years ago, Alban Gerhardt had a valuable bow broken by careless TSA employees at Washington Dulles Airport. This month, Southwest Airline baggage handlers broke Nicholas Gold’s cello and his virtually ironclad Stevenson case by using an alarming level of force, as demonstrated in this video.
You really can’t win with these transportation people. Their latest act of blatant philistinism has been the confiscation of any instruments or bows that have material from endangered species on them, including elephant ivory. Mere days after announcing that bows and instruments containing small amounts of ivory that had been purchased before February 25, 2014 would be allowed through U.S. Customs, the TSA confiscated bows from seven violinists of the Budapest Festival Orchestra at JFK Airport, even though the players all possessed documentation for the bows.
Now, even if I think the above incidents are sheer madness on the part of the TSA, I’m all for discouraging the ivory trade. But here’s my problem. I have a beautiful and valuable nineteenth-century English bow that has ivory on it. Ivory, and pernambuco, and mother-of-pearl. It is my pride and joy, and has carried me through many successful auditions and competition wins. It also has no papers. There is no maker’s stamp on the frog. No expert I’ve shown it to has been able to identify its maker. I can’t document anything about this bow.
Can I have the endangered materials removed from my bow? With the exception of the pernambuco stick, yes, and I plan to do so soon. But this whole business has me sufficiently spooked that I haven’t taken it out of the country for two years, relying instead on a less satisfactory bow made without controversial materials. Which is, by the way, dismal. I took this second bow on a recent tour to the French Riviera and Catalonia, and I was very dissatisfied with its capacity for attacks, articulations, and note shapes. I couldn’t make the phrases I wanted, and this put me into a frustrated rage.
These feelings, combined with the fact that I’d just bought a Luis & Clark carbon fiber cello, led me to look into getting a carbon fiber bow too. There are several makers, and I looked into all of them, trying out their different models and pestering the manufacturers with all my questions. The one I settled on was from Coda’s Diamond Collection.
The GX model, Coda’s website explains, doesn’t have any endangered materials on it; in fact, the only parts of it that came from an animal are the Moroccan goat skin tip plate (are Moroccan goats superior to goats of other nations?) and the “Gold Medal Stallion Hair.” (And to think I’d thought all these years that bow hair came from the tails of unicorns! Life has so many disappointments.)
At first, I wasn’t sure what differentiated the GX model from the much-cheaper SX, even when I was trying them, but when I called Coda, a very helpful cellist employee spent half an hour on the phone with me, discussing her own experiences with both models. Now, of course she was going to say that she liked the GX better, since she works for the company, but after more playing around, I concluded she was right to prefer the GX.
When I’m trying out a bow, I want the following things: a sensitive attack that doesn’t require me to have to work too hard to produce tone on the lower strings; the ability to sustain a long, singing phrase; and the “bounce” that will enable me to play short bowstrokes such as the uncontrolled spiccato, chains of upbow staccatos, and so on. Strong and sensitive…it sounds like the hero of a romance novel.
To find out all the things I want to know, I try the bow out on excerpts from the following pieces, which tell me a lot about what a bow can do.
- Schubert, “Arpeggione” Sonata, first movement: what’s its legato like? Can I get around the difficult bow distribution issues on the A string without making ungainly “lumps” and “holes” in my sound?
- Prokofiev Sonata, first movement, first theme: can I make a big sound (Prokofiev instructs us to be piena voce, or “full voice”) on the C strings?
- Same piece, second theme: can I make a dolce tone on the A and D strings to contrast with the majestic opening?
- Beethoven, Sonata in A major op. 69, first movement: can I get a sensitive, stylistically appropriate tone for the opening solo on the G string?
- Elgar, Cello Concerto, second movement: can I get the bow to “bounce” with relative ease?
- …and as always, many movements from the Bach suites, to get an idea of whether it can sing and dance the way this music, the cellist’s lifelong challenge, requires.
In all respects, the Coda Diamond GX bow performed almost as well as my cherished wood bow, and definitely better than any wood bow of a comparable price. (After extensive shopping around, the best deal I could find the week I bought the Coda Diamond GX was from Shar Music for $913.50 plus free shipping.) Is it going to replace my wood bow in my concerts and my affections? No. It doesn’t have the same capacity for sweetness. It also lacks it swan-like beauty, even if the carbon fiber weave has its own charms. But it’s going to accompany me on all my international travels from now on, and hopefully make it safely home too.