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How To Rosin a New Bow
By Joel Kennedy
I'm often asked by customers or students about how to rosin a bow. In particular, how often rosin should be reapplied to the bow? As with most aspects of the violin, there is no easy answer to this question and the solution is somewhat subjective. How much rosin you apply is primarily a matter of personal preference and after you’ve played a while, you will not only develop a “feel” for if the bow needs rosin or not, but you’ll develop a preference for if you like the bow to be more responsive (more rosin) or less responsive but easier to produce a warm sound (less rosin). The preferences that you develop as a player, will determine the kind of rosin that you like and will direct your purchasing decisions in that regard for years to come.
When a bow is new, the bow hair does not have any rosin on it. A bow without rosin will not produce a sound and the bow will aimlessly glide around on the strings while you attempt to play. It’s generally considered a laborious to apply rosin to a brand new bow and it’s even worse if you’re trying to apply new rosin to a new bow. If you purchase a violin from Kennedy Violins, your bow will be pre-rosined! However, your rosin cake will be new, so although you won’t have to worry about the difficulty of applying rosin to new hair, you’ll still have to deal with the aspect of rosining with a new cake of rosin.
A new cake of rosin is smooth like glass on the surface and if you go back and forth enough times on the hairs of the bow, it will eventually turn the shiny sheen of the rosin to a dull finish. The duller it is, the more likely that the rosin will apply quicker. However there is an old trick that you can use that will speed up this process quite a bit. Simply take any sharp instrument, like a knife or a fork and gently scratch the surface of the rosin cake. You don’t have to push very hard, and you should carefully scratch the entire surface of the rosin cake, so that there are very few shiny areas left. Once you have done this, the rosin will apply to your bow significantly faster than it would’ve otherwise because you’ve created tiny raised ridges on the surface of the rosin cake.
Bow hair that has been previously rosined, will already be “sticky” and therefore the rosin that is already on the hair, will tend to attract the rosin on the rosin cake that you are applying. This makes applying rosin to an already rosined bow quite easy. However, hair that does not have rosin on it, will resist your initial attempts at applying rosin and you’ll have to go back and forth with the rosin cake many times in order to get the bow to accept it’s first amounts of rosin. A bow that already has rosin on it, may only need 3 or 4 passes of the rosin cake to get the correct amount of rosin applied to the hair, but a bow without any rosin on it, may take 30-50 passes, depending on how sticky the rosin is and the kind of hair that is on the bow. In general, the whiter the hair, the easier it accepts rosin and the more yellow the hair, the more difficult it will be for it to accept the rosin. Often times, lower quality bows will tend to have hair that has a yellow tinge to it. Any hair that is dirty will not easily accept rosin as well and this is why it is important, to never touch the hairs of the bow with your fingers, because the oils from your hand, will prevent rosin from adhering efficiently.
After you’ve applied rosin to the bow for the first time, a lot of rosin dust will probably go all over your violin when you first start to play. Don’t be alarmed by this. You can simply wipe it off with a soft cotton cloth after you’re done with the initial rosining of your new bow. The next step, is to play the violin for a little while to work the rosin into the new bow hair. Once you’ve done this, reapply a little bit of rosin to the bow (perhaps 3-6 passes) and play the violin some more. If you do it right, you’ll have a new bow that plays without creating excessive rosin dust (that goes all over your violin) but the bow will still function very well. As mentioned before, there will be rosin dust all over the violin and bow. Take a soft cotton cloth and wipe down the violin top and fingerboard, as well as the stick of the bow. If you are consistent about wiping down your bow and violin every time you play, your violin will stay looking new for a very long time.
When your bow gets to the point where you have to put more force on it than you like to create the amount of sound you want, it is time to apply more rosin. You’ll probably only have to go up and down the bow 3 or 4 times to get the correct amount of rosin on the bow. In most situations, you’ll only have to rosin the bow per 3-5 hours of play time. People with stringed instruments that have thicker gauge strings like basses, cellos and even violas, will probably end up rosining their bows a little more frequently than violinists. It is not uncommon for a violinist to apply rosin every 6 hours or so of playing, but it really depends on personal preference. If you apply too much rosin, your sound will tend to be to “gritty” and “scratchy” but the caveat is, it will be easier for you to create a big sound, so the decision you make regarding the amount of rosin applied, will always involve a certain amount of compromise. How much rosin you apply also has a lot to do with the amount of notes you play in a particular piece. Violinists do not need as much rosin on their bows because of their thinner gauge strings, but they typically play more notes than the other stringed instruments in the orchestra as well.
A couple points of caution. If you move the rosin up and down the bow too fast, the increased friction will heat the rosin up and harden it. If you do this, the rosin will not want to adhere to the bow at all. You have to maintain a speed of about one length of the bow every 1.5 seconds. Any faster and you risk heating the rosin up. This is why so many people have such a difficult time getting rosin to stick to the tip and frog of their bow. Often you will see players moving the bow quite vigorously at the ends of the bow (because the ends need more rosin). However, this habit is self defeating. The more they speed up the rosin, the more difficult it becomes to apply. The more the rosin refuses to apply, the faster and more vigorously they try to apply the rosin. It’s a vicious cycle. When your bow is new, just rosin the entire bow with equal amounts of rosin and speed and you will never run into any problems for the life of the bow.