Charles Ervin Violins, Inc.

The Tourte Model Bow

Francois Tourte (1747 -1835) has been called the father of the modern bow and the Stradivari of bow makers. He worked in Paris at a time when Italian violins were coming into vogue and being played before large public audiences for the first time. The virtuoso Viotti made a sensation playing his Stradivari violin and turned to Tourte to design a bow which could bring out all the violin's interpretive powers as well as its sheer projection in large halls. It has been said that Beethoven wrote his Kreutzer Sonata to be played on a Tourte bow by Rudolph Kreutzer, then a leading virtuoso in Paris. Without the newly improved bow of Tourte, the sonata with its fast passages could not have been played.

The important features of the Tourte bow are its gentle curvature behind the head coupled to a head capable of rotating forward when pressure is placed on the hair. The flexibility of the bow contributes to a warm tone with very easy spiccato. The flexibility also encourages the player to draw long bow strokes with minimal downward pressure in order to get the maximum warmth and freedom of sound. The bow is known to communicate the player's slightest intention to the violin and to draw a highly colored sound all the way to the tip. Another benefit of its flexibility is the absence of noise at the beginning of each bow stroke, the sound reaching the desired pitch almost instantly. The gentle camber also widens the zone where spiccato is possible. In modern bows like those of Sartory there is only about 1/4 inch where the bow will bounce. In the Tourte bow that zone widens to a full inch or even more, making spiccato a much simpler stroke to achieve. With a little practice and ingenuity, it is possible to make a spiccato stroke over a much greater distance on a Tourte than on any other modern bow. It is not designed to give hard accents in the middle of the bow, so the player should anticipate this by making accents near the tip or the frog.

The development of the bow after Tourte consisted of changing the shape of the curvature or camber behind the head. Voirin, Lamy and Sartory altered the original Tourte camber dramatically, making the curve very abrupt behind the head, then quite flat to the frog. This change stiffened the bow considerably, making accents easier to achieve in the middle of the bow, but freezing the head in the process. The relative lack of flexibility produced a strong accent at the cost of warmth and nuance. Such bows are suitable for aggressive players but can turn violins into percussion instruments rather than singing voices.

It is certainly time we reconsider the Tourte model bow and the musical advantages it affords. It requires a change in the way we hold and use the bow, as many modern schools of violin playing emphasize force over warmth. Let's look at the benefits and methods of achieving the Tourte advantages.

The first thing you may notice is that the bow feels light in the hand and much easier to control once you get used to the feeling of greater liveliness in the bow. At first it may seem too quick to speak and too generous in the sound it makes. You can and should tighten a Tourte style bow more than a Sartory style bow which seems happiest with only 5 mm of gap between the hair and the bottom of the bow in the middle. The Tourte can make a steadily better sound the tighter it is, with about 9 mm of gap being the most effective tension. At that tension, the bow makes its fullest sound and tracks very steadily.

The second thing you may notice is that the less pressure you exert, the bigger the sound it can make and the warmer. Try whole bows with no pressure from your index finger, just let it track as it will and feel its unwavering contact with the string. If you play whole notes for a minute or more, the violin will start to vibrate noticeably; the scroll will begin to make your left hand tingle if you rest it lightly around the scroll. The Tourte style bow activates everything on the violin and will cause your audience to experience music more viscerally as the bow pumps energy out of the violin.

Because the Tourte style bow holds the string so well and itself vibrates harmonically, it produces less noise and more tone than later bows. The beginning of a note is not accompanied by an initial scratch but rather by a felt pulse that initiates the tone. When you hear this pulse, you are in the zone of the best instruments and bows. Once that pulse occurs, you can then sculpt the note any way you wish.

Listen very closely to a Heifetz recording and you will hear him giving every note, no matter how fast, some shape and structure. He used a bow by Kittel, a Russian maker whose bows are very similar to Tourtes. The Tourte style bow is so fast and so ready to respond to your intentions that such tonal shaping is not only possible but beckons you to do it.

The third thing you may notice is the quieter bow changes it allows. Instead of the little crunch that a Sartory makes, the Tourte is silent except for the pulse which is not noise but a felt push.

Because the Tourte style bow feels lighter and more flexible, and because its wood has such a regular inherent vibration, it produces more "color" than other bows. Color suggests the rainbow, and that may be accurate, for the best violins are capable of creating a halo of beautiful overtones around each note, and the Tourte bow activates them to do so. Once the harmonic overtones begin to be noticed, you will find the violin adding extra spice to your performance. You are no longer alone with passive tools but become a partner in a mutual act of creation. This sounds perhaps a little weird, but once you experience it, you will learn to trust the bow and the violin to enhance your performance in delightful and unexpected ways.

The fourth thing you may notice is that you are playing precisely in tune with little effort to find the notes. They find you. This is because the bow helps any violin make pure tones. Acousticians speak of overtones and harmonics. The two differ in their effects. A bad violin produces dissonant overtones where a lot of energy goes into the noisy high overtones. A good violin produces consonant overtones, or harmonics which are the first few octaves above the note you are playing. They create an upper storey of sound you can hear floating over the pitch, and they help define its exact position in the scale. Your ears will hear better and your fingers will very quickly find the exact placement for each note. This is virtually automatic when the sound is pure. Double stops become much easier to play cleanly and with less effort.

The fifth thing you may notice, and your audience will feel, are the subharmonics that create an understorey of sound and power below the note you are playing. This understorey is often felt rather than heard, and travels out into the room with considerable power so that your audience feels it strongly. There is an explanation for this effect that helps us understand how to hold and move the bow in order to express this effect more fully. Scientists have been aware for a long time that the bow hair alternately grabbed and then released the string, pulling it back and forth in a "sawtooth" motion. Recently they realized that when the hair was holding the string, it was rolling the string around its axis as well as moving it sideways. That rolling or twisting motion contributes another low harmonic which warms the sound. If you press too hard with the bow, the string reverts to the sawtooth motion which produces a harsh rather than round tone. Because the Tourte style bow is flexible at the head, and the head rotates when the hair is under pressure, it can continue to hold and roll the string longer than the Sartory style bow can do before it releases the string. That gives the Tourte the ability to sustain a warm tone longer and at louder dynamics than other types of bow.

You can give this rolling harmonic its full range of expression if you bow with little pressure but a faster and longer bow stroke to compensate for the lack of downward pressure. So the Tourte works best when you work least. You will find yourself less fatigued and less prone to repetitive motion injury (like carpal tunnel injury) with such a bow.

People who have had the pleasure of playing on great violins say they will teach you how to play them. A great bow will do the same. When great bows and violins are coupled, you can learn much about tone production in a very short time if you follow their promptings.

Charles Ervin, Ph.D.
See Tourte Model bows made by Charles Ervin here.

See Ervin Bow video demonstrating these points here.

Charles Ervin Violins, Inc.

6508 Shoal Creek
Austin TX 78757
(512) 467-2277
(575) 613-5677

Website: http://www.ervinviolins.com/
E-mail: crervin@ervinviolins.com

What a marvellous thing a fine Tourte is! What a revelation the first time a player handles one! When I have an opportunity of playing on a Strad with a Tourte I can never decide which causes me the most delight. There is an indefinable something about a Tourte that seems to increase the player's dexterity of manipulation to an extraordinary extent. No matter how used one may be to a certain bow; no matter how expert one may be in the execution of staccato and arpeggio passages, the first time a Tourte is tried, one realizes that hitherto there has been an effort necessary for the adequate production of such effects, whereas now the bow seems endowed with a consciousness quite en rapport with that of the player, and difficulties vanish magically. It seems voluntarily to carry into effect the player's wishes without any physical interposition whatever.

Henry St. George

"The Bow, Its History, Manufacture and Use"
London:The Strad, 1909, p. 39

Ervin's Tourte model bows