The Challenges of Self Employment in the Trade


I’ve been meditating recently on the difficulties and challenges of self-employment and on the long road I’ve taken in my own professional life In the fiddle field. In a past article I talked about the feelings of vulnerability that can go along with doing repairs and service work and in a different piece I wrote about issues of isolation for luthiers and lack of understanding from others outside of the craft. Often times my postings are sharp critiques or rebukes of the business and the practices of its members, but I also have an affection and concern for those individuals who work hard day in and day out trying to ply their craft and make a living. Please realize that any effort I make at pointing out the flaws or problems in our field comes not only from a desire to help musicians, but to improve and move forward our trade and therefore help the plight of its practitioners.

As I approach my 50th birthday I think about others I know working in more conventional businesses. They’ve gotten promotions and raises, sometimes gone back to school and gotten supplemental qualifications or advanced degrees, been given new titles and responsibilities, gotten bigger offices and more benefits and vacation time, while I have sat at the bench, and worked and worked and worked, not always under the best of circumstances. Have I evolved too? Certainly, but it can be harder for a self-employed person, especially someone who works by themselves, to appreciate fully how much they’ve accomplished.  

If you visit an active shop or violin making school, the atmosphere is more like a monastery with silent monks painstakingly illuminating religious texts than your average corporate office. Even in groups, we work alone. This actual or virtual isolation, lasting for years at a time, makes it difficult for our colleagues, customers, or even family members to understand what we do and what we go through in order to make a living in this competitive and challenging trade. Who hasn’t had to explain to an in-law, parent or significant other what we do as they stare back blankly, barely comprehending? I remember going to a doctors appointment and during the examination he casually asked me what I did for a living. When I told him, he looked at me a moment, blinked twice, and asked, “Can you make any money doing that?” I’m sure many of you have had the experience of meeting someone at a party or on an airplane and having to try and explain what you do. I have a colleague who always tells people he’s an accountant if they ask his profession, because he so sick of talking to them about Stradivarius and explaining that violins are made of maple and spruce.  

The point is that our profession is such an anachronism in these modern times that people find it quite difficult to comprehend what it means to be a luthier, bow maker, violin shop owner, sales-person, or dealer. We are simply out of step. The auto correct function and dictation software on our electronic devices can’t even recognize the word, “luthier”. I’m going to say the word into my iPad right now and let’s see what happens: Lucifer. Uh ok, there you go. In our society we build hierarchies of status, mainly based on perceived income, power, educational level, and fame or celebrity. Where does our trade fit into this hierarchy? It’s vaguely associated with the arts and classical music, which certainly helps people understand some of what we do and appreciate it, but we’re still a mystery to most folks. Do we possess advanced degrees? Some do, some don’t, and a degree from a vocational school is hardly impressive in our status obsessed society. Do we make tons of money? You can do well, but it takes time and the highest paid members of our field could hardly be said to be in the “one percent”. Do we achieve renown or fame? Some are better known than others by their colleagues or players, but not especially among the public at large.  

If we run a small shop, others in the trade usually have a, “I’ll believe it when I see it” mentality regarding our worthiness as craftsmen and our success or failure as business people. This, “show me” culture within the field has a certain amount of logic to it, but it also can create a situation where we receive so little industry based affirmation that we can periodically question our own worthiness. Unfortunately there are many examples of shops that have managed to stay in business despite the poor work quality and ethics of their owners. So even knowing that a craftsman has managed to stay in business in a crowded urban market for many years serving professional clientele at the top of their fields is usually not enough evidence for our inherently skeptical colleagues to say “job well done”. They need to examine a rehair or look at a neck set first! In this atmosphere it is too easy to be neurotic and self-doubting and/or over-confident and egotistical. Conversely there are plenty of examples of people with a “big name”, that many assume must be completely on the ball due to their trade-based fame. We seem to make excuses for some, overly condemn others, and just ignore most completely.  

Being self-employed is a huge challenge both emotionally and practically. We can’t blame the boss when things don’t go well (complaining about customers is a different story), and those of us who work for ourselves can’t blame employees. You have to be comfortable with the sometimes uneven levels of income where there are periods of feast and famine. There are issues of overhead, consignments, bookkeeping, taxes, approvals, licenses, insurance and liability, etc. that you may find yourself distracted by or unprepared to deal with.  Business dealings can be fraught with painful difficulties, where colleagues and/or customers may try to take advantage of us.  For most, being self-employed is an evolutionary learning adventure, and many of us have to learn the hard way, where we try to grow and improve as a result of our mistakes more than our successes.  So how do we judge success for ourselves? Is it when we sell one of our bows or instruments to a well known musician or when we gross a certain amount of money in a year? Is it when we win an award or competition, publish something in an industry magazine or gain membership in a professional organization? It’s different for everybody, but it certainly not clear is it?

Chasing a culturally approved definition of success for people involved in the arts and crafts can be so difficult and unfulfilling that it can affect ones sense of well-being. Those of us in the trade are basically combining a hobby with a job, which can be very satisfying but also make us over-specialized, over-focused, with potentially less outside pursuits, interests, and influences. This can lead to a kind of pathology of social isolation where we may devalue ourselves and overly denigrate others. There really isn’t mush support or recognition in the field over these potentially PTSD-like issues which can manifest themselves as anxiety, loneliness, guilt, loss of interest and pleasure in work and even paranoia.  

One should point out that there are organizations like the VSA and Fed which hold gatherings and competitions where like-minded individuals can meet and exchange ideas. There is also a collection of seminars and workshops available, such as the Oberlin Program that promote group learning and social activities. Facebook groups and online forums offer makers an opportunity to connect. All this is very helpful and healthy, but there are a few downsides. Sometimes groups can create atmospheres of assimilation and uniformity, where outsiders or those who don’t quite fit in are ostracized. In any gathering of people in the same field there is bound to be a certain amount of professional posturing and competition, where people may hide behind established rules to promote personal vendettas or prejudices. In addition to the manifestation of a kind of workplace envy, the creation of cliques and even cultish behavior are not uncommon. After all, a gang or cult can give you that which may feel is missing in your daily life, such as support, belonging, self-empowerment, etc. However there are usually rigid rules and a certain amount of corruption and abuse.

Despite the hardships, we should very thankful to be self employed in a field where we can work with our hands as well as our heads. Sometimes it’s so easy to lose track of how far we’ve come, but the friendship and thanks we receive from our customers puts the whole journey into perspective. We are not stuck in an office or scrambling to impress a superior – we challenge ourselves and strive to meet the needs of the musicians who come into our shops day after day. In an increasingly difficult economy we can actually do quite well if we keep the overhead reasonable, treat clients right, and always stand up for ourselves. If we make a point of consciously evolving and growing, it can pay off both financially and psychologically. Every year we need to learn more and more about our craft, the business, and ourselves. Do we feel overwhelmed sometimes? Yes. Do we periodically feel exhausted and burnt out? Hell yes. Are we shocked and dismayed by some of the business practices we are exposed to? Yup. Do we second guess our choice of career from time to time? Of course. Do we sometimes feel professionally isolated even in a field crammed with violin shops and luthiers? Certainly. However, the feeling of having a more direct hand in the creation of our own realities through the very grounding nature of craft-based labor and the freedom and independence afforded by self-employment can make it all worthwhile.

State of the Market (Preview)

Certificate Seal

 
 I’m working on a long-form article on the state of the violin market.  This is a small preview.

One current problem with the violin business is the proliferation of dealers and a kind of atomization of the trade, which when combined with an increase in the higher end of the market and in sales costs overall, creates a situation where the desire to “cash-in” trumps the need to carefully vet provenance and authenticity. Where there is a rise in prices, there will always be a rise in fakes. As high-end violins and bows are further commodified, priced out of the range of most musicians and pushed as financial investment products to wealthy collectors, institutions and oligarchs, serious experts are increasingly coming under threat due to the potentially high profits at stake. The irony is that this is precisely the time when we need real expertise to check the irrational exuberance of a market where everyone or anyone is an “expert” because more people want to get in on the action, despite their lack of knowledge. Add to this desperate “rush to profit” the problem that real expertise cannot be empirically proven in most cases, such as in a court of law. Science can be used as a tool, but it can never replace true connoisseurship. The nature of true expertise is subtle and based on years and years of study and experience, but the current market demands certificates now, and it is all too easy for some to fall into line and give the trade what it wants. There are those who have benefited financially and professionally, but at what cost? If we are not careful the market will eventually destroy itself, taking along with it our hard-won reputations and income.

Warped, Bent, and Twisted

bent-bow

Recently a spate of customers have been tightening up my bows, holding the frog end up to their eyes and squinting skeptically down their lengths.  A couple bow shoppers have even told me they really liked the bows they were trying, but were “concerned about warping”.  Is it a mini-epidemic, the vector being a teacher, an old wives tale or maybe some other shop filling their heads with semi-truths in order to get them to buy something else?  It’s hard to say, but the truth is that questions of straightness and twist are serious and can sometimes cause performance problems in bows.  However, not all issues of warping need to be addressed, because the bow plays just fine as is.  So how does one tell if they have a real concern or not?

Bows begin life as square tapered sticks that are planed by hand so that the shaft is as straight as possible.  Next, the corners of the square are knocked down and an octagon is formed.  The bowmaker can sight down each facet of the octagon to check if the bow is bent or twisted.  The bow is still oversized, so that after it is heated over an open flame or other heat source and bent into its proper camber, the maker can plane out any deformities created in the process.  If the stick is still too heavy or too stiff, the octagon is then rounded from the handle on.  The end goal is a strong yet flexible bow that is sprung into a powerful curve, yet is straight and not twisted.

However, I see bows that never started out life perfectly straight, where the facets of the octagon undulate like waves down the length of the stick while others have distinct kinks in them and many that are simply gently curved to one side or the other.  If the bow was made crooked, meaning the defect is actually carved into the wood, it will be impossible to ever straighten it completely.  However, it still may play beautifully!

Wood reacts to repeated usage as well as its surrounding climate.  Over time many bows end up with a gentle curve into the string due to the way they are used.  Violin and viola bows are generally pushed away from the player as and can develop a mild right hand bend, whereas cello bows are pulled towards the player and move to the left.  Many rehairers also put more hair and slightly greater hair tension on the playing side of bows for better performance.   Some bows are therefor completely straight with no hair tension, but have tips that move towards their playing sides when tightened.   Humidity and dryness play an important role as well.  With greater dampness in the air the bow tends to droop and the hair gets loose.  In drier climates, the bow curves upwards and the hair can get too tight.  Bows can also lose straightness or become twisted in such situations.

 

fullsizerender15

Violin bow bent into the string.   Not necessarily a problem.

fullsizerender12

Violin bow bent away from the string.   Potential problem.

Twist is when the bow is out of alignment with itself.  The bottom of the frog and the bottom facet of the stick need to be on the same plane as the bottom surface of the tip.  If you put a bow on a flat surface, so that the bottom of the frog is touching, take a look at how the tip is touching.  Is is flat, in full contact with the surface or is only a corner touching?   Bows can twist into or away from the string.  Over time it is more natural for the head to twist slightly into the playing side.  Another way to check for twist is to hold the handle of the bow so you can look down at the top of the stick above the frog.  Center the wood of the stick on the black ebony of the frog then look up at the tip without moving your hands.  You will see if the head is twisted on way or the other.

fullsizerender16

Checking for twist, step one.

 

fullsizerender13

Looking up at the tip, checking for twist part two. Tip twisted to the right or into the string.

fullsizerender14

A bow with no twist.

When trying a bow for sale, the first and most important thing to do is check is the bow’s playability and tone-compatibility with you and your instrument.  I’ve outlined in previous essays how to test for a bow’s ability to perform a smooth draw from tip to frog as well as its ability to jump up off the string and return.  Also a consideration of weight, balance and condition (hidden damage, cracks etc) must be undertaken –  covered in other essays on this blog as well.   If you note a playing issue and you’ve eliminated other considerations, then take a look down the stick to check for warping.   If you detect no performance issues in the bow and really like it, don’t fixate on whether the shaft is perfectly straight.  Don’t fix what isn’t broken.  If you do detect a playing issue you suspect is due to a bend or kink, realize that a competent bow person can straighten your bow for you with relative ease – ask to have the issue fixed and try it again before you reject the bow completely.  Pernambuco was chosen as the best wood for making bows not only due to its tonal quality and strength, but because it is easy to heat the wood, bend it and have it remain quite stable over time.

My bottom line:  A crooked bow is not always a problem and is certainly not the end of the world!

 

State of the Craft

Eric Swanson - BowmakerEric Swanson – Bowmaker

The latest issue of Strings Magazine (Dec 2016) has an article called, “State of the Craft – Contemporary makers on the trade today, how it relates to the past, and the way forward“, with Jonathan Cooper, Yung Chin, Peg Baumgartel, Joesph Curtain and others answering the same series of questions.  I found their answers to be interesting and valid, but just a little bit too much on the positive, boosterism side of the equation, so I decided to answer the same questions more weighted on the realist, cynical side!  Enjoy.


Why is this an exciting time to be a bow maker?

First of all I reject the premise of your question. If you are asking what it’s like to be a bow maker and violin shop owner in 21st century America, I can only say that it’s challenging more than exciting. I’ve been self-employed for a little over 15 years now and went to violin making school over 20 years ago. I’ve seen a lot of attitudes in this trade stay the same rather than evolve. Oftentimes the changes pointed out by my colleagues are nothing more than the consolidation and codification of a kind of groupthink which has narrowed our field rather than expanded it. In terms of facts on the ground, there has been an atomization in the violin business. There are more shops and makers than ever, but they are all reaching for a slice of a shrinking pie. I believe it’s harder than ever for new entrants into the field to gain quality education and experience due to a number of factors including the demise of the large shop based workshops and an absence of any kind of business training. There is almost zero analysis of the current national and global economy much less our trade’s micro economy, but we’ve all felt the pressure created by increasing overhead at our shops and homes, and there’s no doubt that our customers are feeling the same squeeze. For new members of the trade, there aren’t a lot of shop based jobs where one can earn a living wage, much less learn anything of worth. I’m not so optimistic about the condition of the American violin making schools either, as their original founders have passed away or retired. Into this breach has stepped the Oberlin workshops which have been a tremendous resource for practical technical information, but at the expense of a deeper, more complete education. I believe that Oberlin has served makers and restores well, but it has also created an almost cult like sameness amongst its attendants and its organizing and leadership are opaque at best. Makers especially need to do more to show their differences from one another. It’s also harder than ever to sell new instruments, and I’ve seen a distinct rise in new maker prices that I believe is not due to supply and demand but the fact that when new makers do, in fact, sell a violin or bow they need to get as much money from the sale as possible due to financial necessity. The business seems to be continuously obsessed with its own self importance at the expense of looking at meta-issues of market practices, pricing, and industry self-regulation. I’m sure plenty of your respondents will extol the wonderful new era of communication and cooperation, but this is usually related to issues such as which plane to use, or a preferred drillbit or repair technique, not practical, moral and ethical questions related to actually making a living in this trade.

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of bow making?

The reality of bow making is that we are mainly trying to reproduce what we perceive to be the finest examples of historical bow making, namely 19th-century French work. We may have modern machinery and other materials available to us, but we’re really not doing anything groundbreaking. This is a craft based in tradition, but it does reflect our modern culture insofar that we are obsessed with mechanics and perfection over other issues.

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

Depends on what kind of player you’re dealing with and at what level they are performing. One of the main issues with younger players is that they are not quite sure what a good bow actually is. There’s a lot of myth and unexplored concepts around how people actually shop for a bow. Due to economic circumstances, I think a lot of modern players are more open to new bow makers, however they still buy strongly into the concept that the older and more expensive a bow is, the better it must be. I think also the heavily promoted idea of bow or violin ownership as a means of investment has also made players more nervous about buying new bows, because they understand that that resale value just isn’t there for the most part. I think players want modern bows that makers have made with an eye on function over details like modeling. If a bow performs well as a music making tool, they will buy it, regardless of whether it would win a medal at the VSA competition.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years?

I think the main issue for bow makers specifically, is materials. Pernambuco and ebony are, without a doubt going to become harder and harder to use legally, much less sell or transport. Other materials such as mother of pearl, abalone and ivory will also be affected more and more. If I’m going to be completely realistic about this, there’s a good chance that we are seeing the last few generations of makers who will be able to legally ply this craft and have access to these materials in any kind of meaningful way. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a demand for bows, it just means that it’s going to be a lot more difficult to make, buy and sell traditional wooden bows. New materials are already becoming more and more acceptable amongst professional musicians. The second issue is our culture and our economies. Professional symphony orchestras are under greater threat from management than ever and schools and conservatories are minting more and more new performance majors with greater and greater levels of student debt. As a trade we need to confront these realities in a forthright and logical manner.

What concerns do you have for the future of the craft?

I’m concerned that makers spend more time talking amongst themselves rather than with musicians. With bows especially I feel there is an over-emphasis on technical excellence. It is true that American bows are better made, by individual craftsman, from scratch, than ever in history. However these bows are not tested for playability in one of our largest making competitions, sponsored by the VSA. In order for a violin to win a gold medal it must get the highest marks from maker judges as well as accomplished player judges.  The bows are never touched by musicians in the judging process and are simply graded on their craftsmanship. I believe this is a major hurdle that must be overcome for the betterment of our craft. My other big concern is the issue of fraud and criminality, mainly in the dealing side of the business. I’m convinced that many players (and makers) have lost confidence in their local shops and dealers and are less willing or able to discern the good actors from the bad. There is very little being done within the trade to address these issues. We ignore these challenges at our peril.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

That there is no quick way to success in this craft and trade. When I first started out with my own business I was given the advice that it would take a good ten years before I could be financially comfortable and confident that I’d have enough work coming through the door day after day. Also that you create your own reputation and reality by meeting the needs of your customers and standing behind your work. If you take your time, always striving to improve, and build a customer base that trusts you, it doesn’t matter what your colleagues or competition might say of you. There are those in this trade that have a certain amount of celebrity – amongst their peers mainly. Celebrity is really nothing more than being known for being well-known. Don’t try to be famous within the field, do your job well and earn a good reputation amongst your customer base.

If you could keep any one instrument or bow that you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?

I don’t know that I would want to keep anything, but my musician wife and I love going to auctions or checking over collections for amazing bows that just have unique and beautiful playing qualities. One such item we have in the shop is a 7/8th violin bow, nickel mounted with a swan head, made by Prosper Colas circa 1900 according to its Millant certificate. It’s a cleaner example of the makers work, but it wouldn’t win a VSA beauty competition. However it is such a live, agile and lyrical bow. It drives with the sure footedness of a classic European sports car, leaps like a panther, and runs through the obstacle course of performance like a ninja!  

 

The Craft of The Connoisseur

tile4

THE WRITING OF ROGER HARGRAVE

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/Seiten/english/Index/EN_Index.htm

Recently I ran across the website (above) of maker, restorer and expert Roger Hargrave while doing some online research.  If one clicks the “library” tab on his home page, you will find a series of incredible articles that he has written over the years for publications such as the Strad magazine.  Here you will find great essays on technical and historical issues relating to string instruments, but it is the series of pieces on the nature of connoisseurship and the violin market that I find most helpful.

His is a rare critical public voice in the current wilderness of over-commodification and increasingly unhinged pricing of violins and bows – a world where profit frequently trumps common sense and leaves musicians holding the bag.   I encourage you to look at some of the following articles he has graciously made available.

The Connoisseurs’ Craft and its Role in
Instrument Identification and Valuation
The Importance of Background Knowledge

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Book/01_Identification_Backround_PRN.pdf

 

The ‘Sainton’ Controversy – Genuine or Fake?

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/03_Sainton.pdf

 

The ‘Messiah’ Stradivari Controversy

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/02_Messiah.pdf

 

Undercover agents

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/Strad/Artikel_2000_10_Strad_nota_Strad_PDF.pdf

 

Pry Before You Buy -Buying an Instrument

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/Strad/Artikel_2011_12_Pry_Before_You_Buy.pdf

 

The craft of the connoisseur – What makes a violin connoisseur?

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/PDF/Artikel/Strad/Artikel_2011_05_Craft_of_Connoisseur.pdf

 

 

Insecurity, Dogma and Myth

When talking to violin and bow makers about instruments and bows one has to realize that you are bound to encounter a lot of dogma. These people spend long hours doing meticulous work alone, oftentimes without recognition or any sort of support or approval from their peers and/or customers. I believe this fact combined with the surprising lack of meaningful understanding the lutherie field has of actual working musicians and their needs leads to the creation of certain beliefs which are accepted as gospel. The truth is that luthiers can be somewhat insecure individuals who have jobs that most people in society don’t understand or have trouble placing in a greater professional and economic hierarchy. I think these insecurities can lead to the exaggeration of one’s own importance. Consequently many luthiers over emphasize certain aspects of what they do. They tend to exaggerate their role in music and tone production, therefore creating many untested myths and technical principles. In fact it’s quite astounding how narrowly dedicated some members of this profession are to a certain technical ideology or belief system. There are some very good explanations for a worship of tradition such as the fact that most of us are busy either trying to re-create the artistic and technical accomplishments of the distant past or trying to maintain, restore and preserve antique instruments and bows. However, it is clear that both the violin and the bow would never have evolved if it weren’t for composers, musicians, and makers creating new and innovative music, techniques, and tools. This is why it can be so frustrating when one runs into such a pervasive atmosphere of myth, where professionals are so focused on the details that they become obsessed with them at the expense of seeing the bigger collaborative picture. Don’t get me wrong, understanding the relevant details and fundamentals of the craft is essential to doing good work, but it’s quite astounding how few of those in field work that way – from the bottom up so to speak. This is perhaps explained, at least in part, by the ad hoc professional education many possess, where they may never have been given a firm foundation to build on, unlike the many of the musicians they serve. There can be a thin line between a rational understanding of functional details and a kind of improvised voodoo designed to impress, redirect attention, and create mythology.

New Ivory Rules

4fa4e7c95f6478.43582274

Revisions to the Ivory Law were just published.  While I haven’t read through everything just yet, here is some interesting information from the government.

From “Revisions to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) Special Rule for the African Elephant – Questions and Answers” PDF published by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

(https://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/questions-and-answers-african-elephant-4d-final-rule.pdf)

 

“I have a violin bow that contains a small amount of ivory. Under the final rule, will I be able to sell the bow in the United States, export it for sale, or take it overseas for a concert?

 

If the bow meets the requirements for the de minimis exception, including that the ivory was removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976, and that the total weight of the ivory is less than 200 grams you will be able to sell it in the United States. If the bow qualifies as an ESA antique you will be able to export it for sale. If the bow meets the requirements for import/export of a musical instrument, including that the ivory was removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976, it is accompanied by a CITES musical instrument certificate or equivalent CITES document, the bow is securely marked or uniquely identified, and it will not be sold or otherwise transferred while outside the United States (seeparagraph (e)(4) in the proposed rule text for details) you can travel with it internationally for personal use, including to perform in concerts.”

 

 

“What is the de minimis exemption?

The final rule provides an exemption from prohibitions on selling or offering for sale in interstate and foreign commerce for certain manufactured items that contain a small (de minimis) amount of ivory that meet the following conditions:

 

A) If the item is located in the United States, the ivory must have been imported prior to January18, 1990, or imported under a CITES pre-Convention certificate with no limitation on its commercial use.

 

B) If the item is located outside of the United States, the ivory must have been removed from the wild prior to February 26, 1976.

 

C) The ivory is a fixed or integral component or components of a larger manufactured item and is not the primary source of the value of the item, that is, the ivory does not account for more than 50 percent of the value of the item.

 

D) The ivory is not raw.

 

E) The manufactured item is not made wholly or primarily of ivory , that is, the ivory component or components do not account for more than 50 percent of the item by volume.

 

F) The total weight of the ivory component or components is less than 200 grams.

 

G) The item must have been manufactured before the effective date of the final rule.”

 

Read the full revised rules here (144 pages):

 

https://www.fws.gov/international/pdf/final-rule-african-elephant-4d.pdf

UPDATE: Alternative Headplate Materials

FullSizeRender(1)

During the Summer of 2014, I wrote a number of blog posts on the issue of ivory and potential alternative materials for use as headplates/tips.  Strad Magazine covered some of these issues in an article called, “What’s the Alternative,” in its Accessories Supplement published later that same year.   Although I wasn’t interviewed for the article I was named along with my colleague John Aniano and others as part of a group of bowmakers testing different tip materials.

On June 4th, 2014 I had posted an entry on a promising fiberglass/epoxy material called G10, which I had installed on a Hudson Reed bass bow belonging to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra member.  You can see it here:  https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/ivory-alternative/

At the Oberlin Bowmaking Workshop that year, I gave bowmaker Rodney Mohr a piece of G10 to try.  A picture of a bow he tried it on appears in the Strad Supplement.

My blog posting made its way to the Facebook site of The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, of which I am not a member.  Soon after that I got a call from Matt Wehling, who had seen the article and found the material promising due to its strength and strong, obvious non-ivory grid pattern noticeable upon closer inspection.  Matt was interested if I wouldn’t mind him contacting David Warther, who had long supplied the field with ivory and mammoth tip blanks, to see if he might want to use G10 instead.  I had no plans to commodify the use of G10 so I gave Matt my permission to pass it on the David.

The result was Tip Armor which is now offered at Warther’s site here:  http://www.guitarpartsandmore.com/?nav=products&cat=27

It’s important to note that Warther’s headplate blanks are listed as being made of something called “AMW-814, a polymer composite” and that the term “Tip Armor” is a registered trademark of David Warther & Co.  I use it all the time and love the product.

The photo above is a picture of the the original G10 headplate as it looks today.  The owner dropped the bow and the only part that broke off was the very tip of the tip – the decorative part which stands unsupported above the wood of the bow.  You can see the line where I glued the original piece back on.  Not bad!

 

 

Refelections on Rehairing and Craftsmanship

FullSizeRender(7)

Last week I went off on one off my periodic rehair trips, this time to Cincinnati.   I do these working visits as a service to musicians who feel they may have difficulty accessing decent bow-work and as a kind of professional outreach which advertises the shop and what it represents.  I usually bring along some bows and instruments for sale as well.  These trips also give me the opportunity to have a beer or two with old colleagues, reconnect and compare notes.

There I was in a friend’s workshop with my little portable rehair “kit” doing about 15 rehairs a day, with no time to even stop for a bite of lunch, feeling somewhat overwhelmed and vulnerable.   I got to thinking about the fundamentals of rehairing, craftsmanship and the tenets of good business practice.  Those thoughts during those two insanely busy days are what have inspired this essay.

The main concept I want to emphasize is that rehairing is a service job.  It is not a fine art, although it certainly is a difficult craft.  There are certainly many ways of rehairing, but I for one don’t care which method is used, only that the result is good.  One must also realize that there is no single perfect rehair – customers have different expectations and preferences.  Because of this, it may take several rehairs before you and the customer can find the best result. Getting to know customers is important when doing rehairs.  Relationships take time as does building a successful bow business.  This is why doing a quick rehair trip in an area where you don’t know people can be perilous.

When I first started down the bow-work road, a more experienced professional in the field who worked only on violins expressed his fear of doing rehairs.  He said that one bad rehair or one failed plug could sink your reputation and ruin your career.   He regarded the whole thing as a high-wire act with little reward for the danger.   Often rehairs are done at shops by an anonymous, underpaid and often only partly trained employee, so the shop owner can blame any problems with a customer’s bow on someone else.  However, if you are a one man shop specializing in bow work, there is nowhere to hide and no one else to blame.

This is why changing bow hair is a service job, like a car mechanic.  The nature of the bow is that something will go wrong eventually.  It’s not a matter of if but when.  A person doing rehairs will see a customer and their bow three, maybe even four times a year.   The frequency of rehairs statistically increases the possibility that a wedge will fail, a knot will slip, a plug will pull out, the hair gets too tight/loose, or that some other small, yet important detail will just not meet the needs of the player.  It’s true that once the bow leaves the shop we have no control over how well the hair is rosined, whether the player over tightens or forgets to loosen the stick, if they play aggressively and break hairs, or if they keep their instrument and bow in overly dry or humid conditions.  However, it’s much smarter to take responsibility for one’s work than to place the blame on the player.

Some people take a long time to do rehairs, which is fine, but I do them quickly and have a high volume, which is necessary if one is to make any money at all doing this for a living.  When I first saw how Yung Chin was working when I visited him in the late 90’s, I knew I had found a way of rehairing and of doing business that suited me.  I offer clients same day rehairs at a price that is lower than most of the rest of the country.   I always tell new customers that a free lengthening or tightening of the hair is included (I build this into every rehair), that if they don’t like the hair I always have at least one alternative for them to try (at no additional charge), and that if they have any issues or concerns at all that they must feel free to contact me.  I’d rather have a customer return for a quick easy fix than feel stuck with something they don’t like.  In fact, most of my oldest customers are folks for whom I had to adjust or redo something.  Standing behind my work is very important to me and I’d rather spend 15 minutes redoing a rehair for free than lose a customer forever.  It’s amazing how many shops don’t get this.

One needs to develop a thick skin to specialize in bow work and rehairs.  It can be too easy to get carried away with your own importance or go the opposite route and take each and every issue that will inevitably come up personally.  Finding a good balance between self-worth and humility can be difficult when you work with your hands.  Some customers will come down on your for no apparent reason, or blow small issues out of proportion.  A musician’s bow is a highly personal item of so much importance, that some seemingly over-the-top reactions can be forgiven or at least better understood.   Many issues are the result of misunderstanding and/or lack of knowledge – here I work hard to educate and empower my clients.  I also want to say here that I have been on the receiving end of much thankfulness and generosity on behalf of my customers.  I have learned so much from them.  If you run your own business and work to build good relationships, you will weed out those who just will never get what you are doing, meet amazing people and advance your knowledge and happiness profoundly.

And please know that whatever you do, if your work in a service industry, you will run into problems. The trick is not to let problems take over by developing a way of running your business that quickly handles objections and complaints and realize that no matter how serious you are about doing the best work you can do, not everyone is going to like it.

 

 

 

Market Logic

 
From the documentary film on the art market and forgery:

Beltracchi: Die Kunst der Fälschung

“There’s and inherent market logic that penalizes depreciation, criticism and doubt, and rewards appreciation, euphoria, and calling something a masterpiece. If someone has a paining and asks, ‘Could it be a Derain?’, the expert will say, ‘It’s a Derain.’ The auctioneer’s excited. He can earn millions from the masterpiece at auction. The expert pockets a large commission. The vendor makes money, and the buyer is excited to see a Derain reappear on the market. None of the people involved in the system want it to be a fake.”

Niklas Maak

Art Critic

“Sadly in the art world there are more people who know how to make money then there are works of art. There’s a surplus of financial interests. And enormous sums of money whirling around. The record prices for art are broken every year.”

Sofia Komarova

Gallery Manager

Interesting parallels to the violin, and more specifically, the bow market, don’t you think?