instrument overview: temple bowl

Temple bowl, rin gong, standing bell, resting bell, singing bowl…this instrument has a lot of names, several purposes, and an interesting history, dating back to at least the Shang dynasty in China (1600 BC). Originally meant to be only struck, rubbing the instrument in a circular motion creates a “singing” sound, has become popular. Since the 1970’s, these bowls have been imported into the west and found a home in many modern classical pieces and yoga classes.

on striking

Bowls can be struck with just about anything; most come with a cylindrical wooden beater that is also the most effective method of making the bowl sing. However, beaters more associated with western classical music are often employed for different timbres. Because they most be struck at a horizontal angle, striking temple bowls is less idiomatic than most percussion instruments, which of course are struck from above.

on singing

Rubbing the side, or making the bowl sing, has a pretty low dynamic ceiling. The below example is something that I’ve seen numerous times, that doesn’t work for a couple of reasons.

First, I’m not sure if the highest volume of singing bowl would be called forte in any context, much less triple forte. Second, decrescendo on a singing bowl is an odd thing to do. Rubbing it more won’t create a decrescendo in the same way that rolling softer on a cymbal isn’t going to make the sound go away much faster. The only way to do that is to let it ring out naturally and/or dampen.

on pitch

While bowls will have a fundamental pitch, requesting specific pitches is a risk. Institutions with huge backlines and productions with large rental budgets shouldn’t have a problem procuring specific pitches, but a self-funded musician or small ensemble might not have the ability to acquire these. If you have a strong desire for a specific pitch and some money to spare, consider visiting a local Tibetan store (Land of Buddha in NYC has an excellent supply) and testing out their options, or purchasing some pitched bowls from Steve Weiss.

on bowing