Listening can be difficult. I’m fortunate that several of my hobbies – musical instruments, hifi stereo systems, and concert attendance – overlap when it comes to critical listening. Most people step into comparing instruments, bows, strings, rosin, etc with preconceptions about whether or not they will be able to hear a difference. When I’m working with a professional musician, there is often the assumption on the player’s part that the differences between two instruments or bows will be easily and readily discerned. When the parent of a middle-school student participating in orchestra walks into the shop, I often hear them say that they won’t be able to hear any differences between instruments or bows. Both the professional musician and the parent often leave surprised!
The reality is that most people enter into comparisons expecting the outcome to be a clear ranking – one is better, one is worse. With musical instruments, bows, strings, and rosin, it is often difficult to clearly rank the items being compared. Strings are a great example. If you look at violin strings from Thomastik based solely on price, the easy assumption would be that Vision strings are better than Dominant strings, and that Peter Infeld strings are better than Vision strings. While there are professional violinists who would wholeheartedly agree with the ranking in the previous sentence, there are other professional violinists who find Dominant strings to work best for their instrument and playing. I routinely find myself in the position of explaining that, once you reach a certain quality level, the options are more different than they are better/worse. We are so used to ranking things in our lives that I run into regular resistance to this concept.
When comparing instruments and bows, I always suggest players in the shop focus on the experience of playing. Spend less time trying to rank options and more time allowing your ear to become more finely tuned to your own preferences. Once we reach a certain level of material quality and workmanship, words like “good” and “bad” aren’t particularly helpful. When I experience a player trying a bow for 2-3 minutes and declaring that they like their bow better, I become concerned that they are missing an opportunity. Trying different instruments and bows is an education in preferences. Relax and enjoy it!