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Q&A

(How) does bow shape affect playing the bowed psaltery?

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Years ago I acquired a bowed psaltery, with a bow shaped something like this:

curved bow

Every psaltery bow I've seen "in person" has this arched shape. Bows for other instruments (like violins) have a flatter shape, like this:

flat, not curved, bow

I need to replace my bow, and I'm seeing both shapes in search results, though more the former. I don't know if this is just bow manufacturers trying to broaden their sales a little, or if there's actually a reason to prefer a flat bow over a curved one.

When playing a bowed psaltery you move (disjointly) from string to string, unlike on a violin where you can slide across to the next string. (This is what I've seen, anyway; I don't play violin.) On a psaltery you're playing on a bit of string, between its peg and the next one up, so there's not a lot of room. You (or at least I) play strokes in both directions, depending on context. There are no frets and thus no fingering control (like for vibrato).

For the bowed psaltery, what are the practical differences between these two bow shapes, assuming comparable length?

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Tradition!

That bow you've got for your psaltery is an attempt at making a bow in the ancient style. Very early bows were highly arched and sometimes had handles. A psaltery bow kind of looks something like the first one in the image.

Image of early bows.

And the shape of the bow has kept on changing.

Image of violin bow evolution.

The shape itself doesn't have quite as much effect -- on a bowed psaltery! -- as the amount of horsehair that contacts the string and how well you rosin the bow. And of course how well you regulate stroke and pressure.

A psaltery bowstring is generally narrow. Maybe 0.25 to 0.3 cm in width. This tends to make a string sound thin and nasally. A violin bow has hair that's almost a centimetre in width. The extra hairs will smooth out the sound little. (Though from practical experience with my own psaltery, no bow in the world will really make the instrument sound very nice at all!). Whichever bow you choose, make sure you rosin it well! Too little or too spotty and the string won't sound.

The choice is up to you, but I'd probably go with a nice psaltery bow. They are pretty and relatively inexpensive and, as you note, there's not a lot of wiggle room between the pegs!

If you do choose a violin bow, look for the smallest one you can find, like a 1/16 size. It's about the same length as a psaltery bow and won't be so unweildy.

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