Dangerous Times


Illustration by Otto Erdesz


I’m interested in the current culture of the violin craft, in the market as well as the plight of the individual craftsperson.  I’m curious to explore how larger social and economic systems interact with and effect the way we think about ourselves and our field.  If we are to accept that we are living in a kind of end stage of Neoliberal capitalism then we have to imagine that many of our structural, financial and cultural institutions as well as accepted realities are becoming obsolete as well.  So many fundamental societal systems, such as policing, justice, business, politics and education, rely too heavily on unexamined principles and often times ineffective or corrupt practices. These state, private and cultural institutions continue to persist despite the fact that the concepts and practices behind them are clearly often unfair, failing, and destructive. As citizens fighting an increasingly losing battle to live the American dream, it is all too easy to get lost in the daily details of survival. Underlying issues and concepts often go unexamined in the rush of daily life and in the world of truncated digital discourse. There is a feeling that the world is changing around us, exactly how is unclear, and the sense of uneasiness and fear is palpable.

If the very underpinnings of our economic system are betraying us, if they are truly creating a system where the benefits accrue to a terrifyingly small elite at the expense of the rest of us, if we are following all the rules yet still slipping backwards, where we work and work but cannot afford the cost of living, then surely it is time to look at the foundational meta issues rather than only focusing on fixing the end results.  We must see the changes for what they are: the consequences of a failing system and think rather than re-entrench – for we face real dangers.

There is a concept in American capitalism that this is a culture of competition of new ideas, but that rings false.  American institutions are more interested in business as usual.  Cultural and economic power, here meaning mainly fame and wealth, trump any ideas of true, equal competition. Capitalism, at least is how it’s practiced now, seeks mainly to narrow and control people’s choices. So the true purpose of the free market is to prevent people from making choices except for those that are presented to them. This kind of consumer conditioning, where there is the illusion of choice without much consideration of why and what we feel driven to consume, creates an environment of unconscious, often times self-destructive, behavior.  Noam Chomsky has said, “Markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices…The point is to create uniformed consumers who will make irrational choices. That’s what advertising is all about.”

“You don’t only have explicit rules. You always, in order to become part of a community, you need some implicit unwritten rules which are never publicly recognized but are absolutely crucial as the point of the identification of the group,” states Slavov Zizek.  The real problem is when members become overly identified with the implicit rituals of a group because that’s when they begin to lose a healthy distance.  It is when this unquestioning immersion takes place that actions can become hurtful and self-destructive.  These two sets of rules, implicit and explicit, can work alongside one another in a complementary way, each legitimizing and making space for the other, the net result being the perpetuation of potentially corrupt and hurtful systems.   Here many participants are able to articulate the seeming hypocrisy of such systems, but whether they are capable of truly challenging or questioning is not guaranteed.  It is easier to find simple justifications and rationalized explanations than to face uncomfortable realities.

Hannah Arendt wrote that in the absence of healthy beliefs and communities, where we find people feeling vulnerable, lonely and constantly put-upon by the society around them, totalitarian systems can arise.  Without positive outlets for organizing the meaning of our existence, the very real suffering of life becomes increasingly inexplicable and intolerable.  Arendt believed that where there is a loss of “the meaning of life” through family, traditions, and community, people are more likely to be attracted to movements which provide life purpose.  If we are so starved for meaning that we seek our identity through movements, we are more likely to find ways of ignoring or even seeking to destroy, evidence that may be contrary to our ingrained beliefs.  Her idea was that people prefer a world that may be filled with readymade lies which feed our deep need for belonging and give us readily comprehensible explanations for the very real problems and complex crises of life.  Because we need to feel safe, secure, and not alone in a dangerous world, systems of explanation can become deeply entwined with our identities, so much so that anything that threatens false narratives so neatly provided by power structures must, at the very least, be marginalized, or at the very worst, crushed absolutely.

Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Diaries, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”  There is a real sense now that the times are somehow changing, that a new order is coming into being. The signs are everywhere but they still defy coherent analysis and there is no consensus on where we are going.  If we truly are in the process of systemic change in our politics, economy and society, then we must imagine that the way we do everything, including how we run our businesses or practice our craft must evolve as well.  The quandary is, how do we change?

University of California, Berkley anthropology professor Alexei Yurchak published a book in 2006 about the final twenty years of the Soviet Union called, Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation in which he describes the psychological results of a political and economic system that was obviously failing, but where the majority of the citizens of the USSR held fast to the belief that everything was working as normal because they could not imagine an alternative.  He dismisses binary narratives of the end of the Soviet Union, such as East versus West, Good against Evil, or even Truth versus Propaganda.  Instead, he points to the post Stalinist USSR as a society increasingly interested in what he refers to as “performative” authoritarian social activities and forces as opposed to “constative” concepts of meaning.  Here, in the absence of a powerful leader like Stalin who stands above and apart from the official canon, as it were, editing and shaping the deeper meanings of the State’s actions and deeply held beliefs from an elevated, enlightened perspective, the USSR was transformed into a society where signs and symbols as exemplified by propaganda posters and art, official media, and public activities such as parades and participation in the Komsomol, became more important than the original ideals of Soviet socialism.  The result was a society not simply of explicit and implicit rules, where people kept their true opinions to their private selves while knowingly participating in what they consciously considered a totalitarian system out of fear, but one where the vacuum of real meaning provided a space for new ideas and ways of thinking for citizens, even while willingly participating in the official actions of the state.  Thus, when Soviet Union did finally collapse, many found themselves both taken by surprise and completely unsurprised at the same time.

Filmmaker Adam Curtis uses Yurchak’s term as the title of his 2016 BBC documentary.  In “Hypernormalization”, he outlines a world that in the last half century has transitioned from a complex network of planning, policy and realpolitik to a system based almost entirely on pretense and profit. In this new “post political” world, financiers and corporations hold the reins and politicians are reduced to simple managers.  Speaking about the finals years of the Soviet system Curtis states, “The Soviet Union became a society where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling apart. But everyone had to play along and pretend that it was real because no one could imagine any alternative…you were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it.  The fakeness was hyper normal.”  As the society became more and more dedicated to maintaining the pretense of normalcy in the absence of corrective policies, the more the system unraveled, and the more the pretend “fake society” became reality.

The parallels to the current situation in the US are clear.  As the old ways of doing things fail or become increasingly dysfunctional, when real change is needed, this is precisely many decide to either just soldier on as if everything were normal, or rededicate themselves to tradition.  Even protest against the status quo is mired in outdated traditions and practices.  However, if we use Yurchak’s more sophisticated analysis of human behavior, we perhaps see that there is a growing conflict and distance between how Americans actually participate in society in their everyday activities, and the actual values and meanings behind them.  There is a sense that as we go through our performative duties, where we fully embrace the current way of being culturally (including economic norms), we are at the same time unsure of what we really stand for as a people and as a nation.  In this situation, some people do in fact retreat into simple, more traditionally approved explanations, while others fill this confusing, undefined space with new and progressive discourses, and still more simply struggle to live their everyday lives within the outdated confines of a crumbling system. Both major political parties have failed their constituencies. The liberals have sold themselves out while the conservative movement in America, having won most of its battles, and finding itself without any real enemies to rally against, has begun to show more clearly its true exploitative roots.  Both red state and blue state supporters are having trouble understanding that they have been taken advantage of and that white privilege is not enough protection as the capitalist system finally begins to consume them as well.


The way the violin business is managed is the result not of academic education and study, but of long and slowly evolving tradition. Students at vocational violin schools are taught only the rudiments of violin making, and almost nothing about how to market their instruments, survive in a competitive workplace, or run a violin shop. Because there is a lack of published economic theory or academic tradition, those new to the business learn informally from colleagues or employers. In many ways they are like police recruits who after graduating from the police academy learn the way policing really works on the streets, in fact being initiated into it like a gang, with its own set of rules and traditions, secrets and taboos. Much of our system may be corrupt, but not always by definition or by mere existence – it’s just that our current system tends towards corruption. In this gray space we call the violin business it’s more common that new members are corrupted or are taught to put up with certain irregularities, because, “That’s how it’s done”.  As I’ve written in previous essays, certain belief systems within the Violin Business become permanent, with members of the trade feeling the need to tow the party line as it were, rather than examine principles they take for granted.  So many in the field depend on unexplored myths and traditions for their very identity that they are incapable of critique or reform, much less revolution.  The same could be said of music students, teachers and professional players.  Those who are in fact aware of problems and have real critiques, mainly players and academics, often feel hesitant to voice their views publically or too forcefully for fear of retaliation that would threaten their professional standing and economic situation.  So we have a system of self-censorship precisely when we need more open questioning.

In our field one example of this is in the creation of certificates of authenticity.  As the supply of golden period Italian instruments and 19th century French bows dries up and disappears from the market, a new surge of enthusiasm for over-certification rises, feeding a market traditionally hungry for items that dealers have spent several generations glorifying and representing to musicians as the ne-plus-ultra of violin and bow making.  This is exactly the time when skepticism of identification and provenance should be on the rise, alongside newer more scientific methods of dating and identification.   However, the truth is that no amount of tests can replace true connoisseurship – science can never replace deep study and experience of the individual, it can only act as an assisting force – the true problem is human nature, commercialism and the manipulation of the market by its participants in an environment almost completely devoid of considered public critique.  In this volatile, desperate environment, the skeptical expert is increasingly under threat.

The view of the luthier from the outside as reflected in the numerous boring, repetitive, and overly reverential news articles and broadcasts show, is that makers are participating in a wondrous antique world of craft and tradition, carefully bringing to life beauteous culturally superior art tools for the creation of haut-culture through the medium of the most important of all styles of music: Western classical compositions.  Many new makers deeply feel this fantasy as well, picturing themselves in the sanctum sanctorum of their meticulously organized ateliers, filled with exotic tools and wood, channeling the ghosts of the Italian masters of the 17th and 18th centuries, as solitary craftsmen and women in the solemn, sacred act of creation though the grounding of working with one’s hands.   The world of advertising within the violin business reflects these fantasied projections as well – just page through any issue of Strings or Strad Magazines to see the fancy fonts and symbols, stylized depictions of violins and their constituent parts (f-holes, scrolls etc.), and the photos of well-dressed men contemplating magnificent Stradivari violins in rooms made to look like the well-appointed interiors of 18th century European mansions.

The reality, of course is more mundane and more difficult.  New makers have very little idea of how to sell their instruments. They find themselves confronted with a system dependent on dealers who most often take their instruments on consignment, at up to a 50% commission, maybe rarely purchasing them wholesale, not to mention a field filled with fraud and outright thievery. Nobody knows who they are, they have no reputation yet, and they quickly realize that it’s almost impossible to sell instruments directly to musicians. Instead of questioning the status quo or banding together to demand a better deal, they depend mainly on their personality and individual fortitude to somehow make their way forward. They also often find ways to shorten the time it takes to make their violins and bows in an effort to increase production.  Those who succeed do so not because their instruments are necessarily superior to others, but because they push harder, are better salesman, or just get a lucky break. This is not the kind of market where the cream rises to the top, not a cooperative meritocracy, but an expression of a kind of voracious individualism. Just because a maker makes a lot of noise online and/or creates a “big splash” with the musical community by putting immense effort into marketing doesn’t mean their instruments are the best.  Fame does not always mean merit, because it is manly created through marketing, and those who become the best known makers are not necessarily the most worthy. It’s important to point out that just because certain makers have a big name, industry defined “success” doesn’t mean they are doing well financially.

This culture definitely affects attitudes within the business and how its internal hierarchies are created and maintained within the trade organizations such as The Violin Society of America and the Federation of Violin and Bow Makers here in the US as well as at independent, workshop based programs such as those held at Oberlin College every summer for the past twenty years.  While there is a lot of cooperation and assistance and mentoring available, especially on technical craftsmanship issues, the truth is that it’s really up to you and your own devices whether you make a living or not.  The culture of the business provides a clear, well-travelled path to what is widely considered success for modern makers: massive self-promotion and seeking to sell one’s instrument for as much as possible, for the culture believes that higher the price a maker commands, the better their instruments or bows.  Maker’s prices have risen over the years, not usually due to demand as very few makers have anything like a waiting list, but due to increasing costs of living, the need to make some money after dealers take their large commissions, and the overall low rate of sales.  As more and more makers appear and the more and more shops & dealers enter the crowded marketplace, competition becomes the medium through which makers succeed or fail.  Instead of prices falling due to greater numbers of new instruments and bows on the market, prices have risen because many makers are struggling financially and need all the money they can get in the increasingly rare event of a sale.

Maker’s organizations, like the VSA and the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers in the US, have done very little historically to address these deeper issues.  In fact all-volunteer groups like these are responsible in many ways for the official culture of the violin business and all its constituent beliefs and practices.  It is amongst the mainly male leaders, officials, speakers and elite members of these organizations that the culture of the trade is interpreted, institutionalized, passed down to the members and further perpetuated.  While it may be acceptable to argue over proper rehairing techniques, a public debate over ethical issues of the violin market and member behavior is nearly nonexistent.  It’s also interesting to think of these organizations as primarily fame producing institutions, which exist in many ways to validate and codify artificially created homosocial hierarchies of industry approved success.  While there is certainly an educational component to these associations, mainly focused on technical issues, they manly serve as platforms for ambitious individuals dedicated to the status quo.  The irony of this generation of reverential self-importance by the leading organizations of the violin business is that the very people the field theoretically exists to serve, namely musicians, remain in large measure completely unaware of their very existence.

With regard to sales, the culture is completely unregulated and prone to corruption.  Most collectible items of value have resources available to help judge value.  If you like vintage watches for example, there is a blue book where you can identify the model and year of your old Rolex and then determine its price range depending on condition.  The closest thing the violin business has to blue books are auction results which are challenging to analyze for the inexperienced.  With an increase in more retail style auctions like Tarisio and Beare, which are designed to appeal to musicians rather than dealers, auction results are less likely to be an expression of current wholesale values.  If uninformed salesmen simply take a Tarsio auction result and double it, the result is obscenely high retail pricing.  The problem with pricing is that the price of something like a violin is whatever a dealer convinces a musician to buy it for.  Legally, issues of false identity are more important than price gouging but even misattribution is difficult and expensive to prove legally.  There is also not enough connection between use value and exchange value.  If you were to ask a dealer how a rare, perfectly preserved early 19th century French bow played, they are very likely to say, “Who cares?”  The overemphasis on the antique and historical nature of instruments and bows skews and distorts questions of actual function.  Some will say that the work of certain makers is better regarded and therefor more expensive because the majority of musicians who have played these bows and violins prefer them to all others.  There are certainly examples of this, and musician’s preferences definitely have an effect on the market, but it is important to accept that valuation in the violin business is mainly a top down affair, where dealers have an outsized role.  I have known many, many players who have been taken advantage of by violin shops, often times with devastating financial and emotional results.   How long are willing to put up with such a pernicious culture?


As we move forward into uncharted waters, as citizens, business owners and crafts workers, there is an urgent need to reconsider past practices and beliefs.  Are we really comfortable with a business that mirrors some of capitalism’s worst excesses?  Do we want to continue to operate in a climate of greed, competition and self-importance?  As we and our customers struggle with an increasing sense of precarity on so many levels, it is more important than ever to find different and creative ways of running our businesses and meeting the needs of our clients.  It is necessary to resist the increasing emphasis on dealing and all the potential ethical and legal problems it entails, and refocus on our craftsmanship, expertise and the level of service we offer.  New forms of education and cooperation must be considered, with an emphasis on fair pricing, ethical practices and openness.  It is necessary to resist the selfishness of our current system and break down internal hierarchies and barriers, all of which make us increasingly limited and obsolete.  We require a more courageous critical view and far less soft-focus flummery.  There is also a need to find ways to resist the total commodification of stringed musical instruments, for these are indispensable cultural tools designed for the creation of artistic expression, rather than financial products of investment.   The project of fabricating consumerism, manipulating markets, and maximizing profit despite the consequences for others is a dead end game.   Profit almost always wins over social responsibility in Capitalist systems.  There is a real sense that things have gotten out of control, that our economy and politics no longer serve the human race, and that survival is becoming more important than living with dignity.  Now is the time for unconventional thinking, to even be subversive, because without the imagination of resistance it will be impossible to create new ways of being, to thrive rather than simply survive.


Explicit rules, Implicit Rules

“Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.”

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgement

In many professional systems there are always those who are so dependent on what they perceive to be the status quo that any questioning or criticism is seen as a threat to their livelihood and very survival. These true believers are often the fiercest guardians and perpetuators of the entrenched dominant culture. The institutions they are a part of and support validate certain interpretations of what is right and what is wrong. When faced with a potentially negative analysis, the reaction is not one of the deep reflection or reconsideration, but rather an instant circling of the wagons, of coming up with and promulgating what at its best could be called knee-jerk defensive bromides. “They hate us for our freedom”, would be a prime example. This unexamined slogan has all the cultural power and seeming validity of an incessantly pervasive advertising campaign. Both speaker and listener immediately understand the context of the dismissal message. The status quo is protected, not through any kind of tortured detailed defense, but through the simplest of statements. The persuasive power of these catchy deflections is in fact almost always greater than the strength of actual, often times hard won truth. It is always expedient to believe the easy thing, while it is much more arduous to do the hard work of actual study and contemplation to come to ones own conclusions, even if, and especially because, they can call into question long held beliefs. This is why public relations and advertising has such a tremendous hold over most populations. Lies and innuendo are easier than detailed fact. Simpler and more obvious ideas are more likely to take hold in the cultural commons. If one tends to feel a certain way or believe he or she has a certain allegiance, a counterpoint or differing narrative can be threatening, or at least be perceived as threatening, especially to one’s usually fragile sense of self or economic situation. Yes, gossip and griping behind closed doors are tolerated and even encouraged as a way to blow off steam, but a public statement would be regarded a betrayal – thus the all too common code of silence and the visceral hatred of whistleblowers. While it is always important to question the motivations of the critic, it is also equally essential to consider their ideas. However, even this concept is too complex for most believers, because why should they take time to actually defend against a critique point by point if it isn’t necessary? A lazy reference to the most base, prurient possible motivation is usually more than sufficient. If one is so enmeshed in a system, one tends to idolize those they perceive as their superiors, and in such a situation it would be only natural to seek to one day attain such highly admired positions. If one is so invested in such a hierarchy, it is considered not beneficial to question it, if such a thing is even possible. In this way, great ideas and critiques are casually brushed aside with basic phrases, and systems continue, even in the face of imminent failure and disaster, especially for the true believers themselves.

MUSICIANS: Think about the system you currently find yourself in. Be it an educational institution, a professional symphony, or some kind of freelance gig, what are the underlying presumptions and systems that are simply taken for granted? Does it make sense that university string professors be required to recruit their own studios? What are the possible effects of such a system, positive or negative? What role does hierarchy play in professional symphonies? What are the official, explicit rules, and what are the implicit, unwritten rules? What are the consequences?

LUTHIERS: What are the public rules, if any, of the violin business? Why is critique or criticism oftentimes quickly dismissed with crude gossip or inaccurate comparisons to infamous, discredited predecessors? What are the other rules, never publicly recognized, which are so crucial to the identity of our trade? What the things that we quietly accept which should be questioned and challenged?

The Evolution of the Bow



In Fall of 2015 I flew to London to learn more about the evolution of the bow by attending a week-long series of lectures, performances and masterclasses sponsored by Tarisio called, “L’Archet Revolutionnaire”.  Following the series an exhibition of baroque and transitional bows of all kinds by some of the world’s most famous makers was hosted at the Tarisio offices.  At the time I did post some videos on my shop’s Facebook page, but I never did get around to writing anything coherent on the matter.  The fact is that is was a unique event because it combined issues of playability and function with historical information as well as concepts of construction.  This union of form and function, informed by political, artistic, as well as economic history is sorely lacking in our field, especially in the US.  So this is my optimistic take on the program.  My cynical take?  A way to boost the value of baroque and transitional bows, which currently are underappreciated and underpriced, timed to coincide with the Fall violin auction season in London…


An exhibition highlight catalog was published and a two-volume book set was sold including pictures of all the bows as well as some very interesting essays.  Some of these essays were later published on the Tarisio site.  I will include links to these at the end of this post.

I took some videos as I mentioned, but I also jotted down a series of very interesting notes over the week that I just re-discovered, which I will post below.  They are raw, but worth reading!  I hope you enjoy them:

Lully – regimented bowing. Heavily drilled and uniform

Corelli – looser bowing technique, less focus on actual bowing, but on sound. Long sustained sounds, difficult on bows of the time.

Bach – bowing is speech. Making words, not bowings.

Tourte family bows hug the string. Stay on the string and wrap around it. This era of bow is less articulate than preceding styles, but louder and broader musical vocabulary.

Idea that one could recognize text purely from the bowing(!). The text, then, creates the feeling of the music. The music duplicates speech.

Early symphonies – a more driving sound but with parts of baroque-like articulation. (Richter, Stamitz)

More strokes for the top third of the bow

Cramer bow would have been played with the stick totally straight. Lots of tension.

Larger sound – Salomon & Haydn – the bow more as a sound producing machine. More
volume. The drama is more inside the sound.

Beethoven – emphasizes rather “violent” strokes/accents on the bow. Invention of the ferrule, without which the hair near the frog is much more unstable and doesn’t speak as quickly.

Music developing from imitating the spoken word to more of a singing voice.

Leopold Mozart refers to the art of rhetoric when he writes about learning to play violin. He doesn’t explain this, but refers to the world of academia at the time. The rules of giving a speech (apparently quite specific and regimented), were clearly set down and he expected that these were widely known.

Cramer style bows, circa 1760s

Leonard Tourte Cramer style bow, Paris ca. 1775

Mannheim Orchestra would have used these types of bows. Mozart knew this orchestra and composed for them.

Need for heavier, higher tip. Italian style had these qualities. More power, semi quavers. Cramer was first evolution from earlier style baroque bows with small, low heads.

Cramer became obsolete in France, but continued to be popular for decades in Germany, with variations.

When bows got longer, teachers began to speak more about the fingers. Leopold Mozart, with shorter bows, writes only about the wrist.

The longer stick speaks more to the “authority of the individual”, especially in post revolution France.

In discussing the four main types of bow holds in use during the 18th century, there is a concept of trying to develop a more universal set of rules in this era, where the different styles of playing and holding the bow come together into some kind of more modern “school” which takes from the best attributes of its predecessors but creates something new. The desire was to improve performance more so than creating uniformity. Leopold Mozart complains about the quality of violins in his era and encourages mathematicians or other experts to find better principles with which to construct superior instruments.

There is no real focus on the art of public speech in the modern era. Things are heard in short clips etc., but very few modern examples of “rhetorical moments”. The idea of listening to classic speeches as way of improving ones playing. In order to move an audience, you must move yourself.

Metallic strings require more hair in order to play

Idea that Tourte bows were not meant to be used with springing strokes and have been recambered later accommodate modern playing styles. The stick was meant to be straight. Springing strokes were associated with outdated Cramer bows and that style was out of fashion by the time of FX Tourte.

Idea: since violin and bow makers seek to always test musicians or use them for testing, musicians should test bow makers & experts. Have a table of bows that have been rated by a group of professional musicians and see if the “experts” can choose the best bows, using any method other than playing.




List of interesting articles associated with the Exhibition:




The shop’s Facebook page:


A Critical Voice: Laurie Niles of Violinist.com on Testing of Old v. New Violins


Ye Olde Fiddles

The latest study by Joeseph Curtin, Fan Tao, Claudia Fritz, et al, tests older Italian violins against modern examples from the prospective of the listeners.  Which fiddles project better?  Which sound best?  Of course the study concludes that modern instruments are superior.  Those who read my postings know that I have many issues with this series of studies and I will soon respond in detail to this latest installment.  In the meantime, I have run across another critial voice, almost lost in a sea of uncritical media frenzy – namely the artcles on the subject written by Laurie Niles of Violinist.com.  In series of three postings going back a few years, she confronts the realities of what these studies mean from the prospective of musicians like herself.   Please take a look:


-Study Looks at Modern Violins vs. Strads and Media Goes Crazy



-Violinists can’t tell a Strad from a new violin — in a 30-second guessing game



-What Really Happened in that Double-Blind Violin Sound Test




Sour Grapes


“The moral to this story, in my opinion, is that when you leave things unregulated, you allow the wolves to come in and game the system…”

Brad Goldstein, Investigator as quoted from the documentary Sour Grapes

Currently available on Netflix, the documentary film Sour Grapes by Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas, tells the tale of the rise and fall of wine collector and convicted wine-faker Rudy Kurniawan and exposes a market beset by speculation, rapid price growth and inevitable fraud.

See a trailer for the film here:


So, why do I recommend a film on the wine auction market and fake wine on a violin business/craft blog?  Because it mirrors some of the worst excesses in the violin business.  The only difference is that in Sour Grapes, it is mainly a handful of incredibly rich wine-lovers who get screwed, while in the world of violin dealing it is string students and their families along with working musicians who are victimized by overpricing and misattributions.

This is a cautionary tale of what can happen to unregulated markets when an object such as a bottle of wine or an antique cello becomes more that just a delicious beverage or a beautiful music-making tool, but an investment to be objectified, traded, and speculated on.  In the violin world the rapid rise at the top of the market has an inflationary effect on higher priced instruments and bows, pulling them up and out of the hands of most musicians, while inexpensive Chinese made instruments of varying quaility, subject to oftentimes ridiculous profit margins by shop owners, flood the lower end of the market, pushing up prices on old trade instruments from below.  Where there is a strong profit incentive on an item that requires years of experience to understand and properly appraise, where value is judged mainly by answering complicated questions of who, when and where, there will always be bad actors whose questionable actions will infect the entire system.

Please watch this interesting film and be careful out there!

Wikipedia page on Rudy Kurniawan:


Good Article on the movie from The New Yorker:




Business Mentoring in Crafts


it-page-001I came across this report from the BBC on the difficulties that crafts workers have when it comes to actually running their businesses and selling their work.  Some larger luxury industry companies have been participating in a mentoring/apprenticeship scheme where crafts workers get advice on how to make a living while practicing the craft they love.

This is an issue little addressed in our own field.  Young entrants into the craft are basically on their own to find mentorships or learn about the business side by working in shops.  The lack of any real education on the financial/marketing side of our craft has serious consequences on the culture of the business.  Bad habits are created and bad practices go unexamined.  New makers and new shop workers can become discouraged and drop out of the craft altogether.

Here I must say that I have noticed an increase in lectures, specifically at the last few VSA conferences, on certain practical business issues such as the writing of insurance appraisals and on legal challenges for violin shops.  This is an encouraging trend that must continue.  I will also note that a few years ago the VSA announced a mentorship program, but as far as I know it has not actually come into being yet.

I also have noticed that other crafts related organizations here in the States do have better resources available to crafts workers than we seem to have in the violin making world.  A simple google search shows a wide variety of programs for everything from metal and brick work, to furniture making and woodturning.  The American Crafts Council, for example, has an amazing list of national and regional crafts organizations on it website.  It’s a big world out there – maybe we should reach out to our fellow crafts workers in different fields more often?

Watch the video from the BBC here:


Read the article from the BBC:


The Walpole Crafted Initiative is the name of the program featured in the BBC report.   You can read about them here:


American Crafts Council List:




The Great Ferrule Debate


Note: This is an older article that exists only on my website.

As a self-employed bowmaker with years of experience, having rehaired untold thousands of bows and dealt with scores of demanding string musicians, I certainly could be referred to as a seasoned pro who has seen it all, but there is one topic which, when it rears its ugly head, still manages to make me grit my teeth in angst – the “Poofed Ferrule Controversy”. I’ve been confronted on numerous occasions by players and even dealers who insist that any freshly rehaired bow with the flat side of the ferrule anything less than perfectly flat has somehow been damaged and/or is the result of the efforts of a woefully inept craftsman. While I would be a fool to say that I haven’t seen horribly executed rehairs, where ferrules are entirely overstuffed with tangled masses of crossed hairs as well as an entire host of other atrocities, I must take a stand for my fellow dedicated craftsmen when I declare the concept of “puffed-up” ferrules to be mainly the result of the combination of a paucity of decent rehairs with an almost complete lack of knowledge on the part of musicians of how a bow is constructed and rehaired.

The ferrule is the metal piece, shaped as a half circle, that sits at the tip of the frog and serves to both strengthen the somewhat fragile wood in the tongue and keep the hair spread evenly in a fine ribbon. The baroque bow and many transitional bows had neither ferrule nor pearl slide – the hair emerged from the frog unprotected and ran down an open channel in a narrow bundle before emerging from the frog’s tongue on its journey to the tip of the bow. The hair was held in a rather narrow ribbon only by the walls of the channel in the frog. Modern music and the techniques needed to play it demanded a new bow with a concave camber and a frog with a ferrule and pearl slide behind it to better keep the hair in place when performing the new bow strokes.

The ferrule is made by soldering a half round sheet of silver to a flat sheet of silver, so that there are two invisible seams on either side. In a new bow, after the ferrule has been trimmed and cleaned up, the tongue of the frog, which is made of ebony, is then shaped to fit the ferrule. With a replacement frog for an older bow, the difficulty is increased because the ferrule must be made to fit the existing tongue. Silver comes in several different purities as well as many different thicknesses. Due to different factors, such as metal content and heating, the silver may be softer or harder. When making a modern bow, I can make sure to pick a stronger, thicker piece of silver for the flat portion of the ferrule because that part will not be backed up by the ebony of the tongue and is therefore more prone to bending when subjected to pressure. Older bows are a mixed bag and we can’t control how thin or thick or soft or hard their ferrules may be. Dominique Peccatte violin bows have ferrules seemingly as thin as paper.

How is that ribbon of hair actually held in place inside the ferrule? It stays in place thanks to a fitted a wooden wedge, so that the hair is spread wide into a ribbon which sits between the flat portion of the silver ferrule and the wedge. This wooden wedge is in turn held in place by the ebony of the tongue above it as well as the curved silver of the ferrule on top. This wedge is usually made of a slightly softer wood like willow so that the hair can press into it and stay in place as the musician uses the bow. This wedge must fit into the ferrule very precisely, because if it is too loose the ribbon of hair will bunch up in the center and the bow will not function correctly. Because of this concern, most bow makers use a single drop of glue to hold the wedge in place. However even this can fail if the wedge is subjected to very dry humidity and it shrinks.

We have the following factors: metal of various thickness and strength, a narrow slot for the hair to be held in an even ribbon necessitating a well-fit wooden wedge and finally the mass of hair itself. What happens when the hair is sandwiched between the wedge and the silver in such a manner that the hair remains in its proper position and doesn’t bunch up or push in even with steady strong pressure? Some of the hair gets pushed into the softer wood and is locked in place while some of the hair, backed by the wedge, pushes out, exerting pressure on the flat sheet of silver. The result is well executed rehair and a potentially “poofed” ferrule – depending on the thickness and hardness of the metal.

Would you rather have a flat ferrule and potentially failing rehair or a slightly pushed out ferrule and an excellent, reliable rehair? Add to that the fact that no bow loses or gains value due to an “original” or “replacement” ferrule and I believe my point is well made. The shape of the replacement ferrule as well as the thickness of the metal is determined by how the frog was made – it must conform to the ebony to fit properly. So a well-made replacement ferrule must by definition look like the original. This is why value is not affected – the same goes for replaced pearl eyes or slides. Can ferrules be damaged? Certainly – but the damage occurs slowly over time as the result of routine usage and maintenance. Sometimes the seams can come open, but these can usually be resoldered. Bows and violins are functional tools that have working parts which wear out and must be replaced or repaired as responsibly as possible until they are no longer functional – that’s just how it is.  Everything wears out with usage over time, moving from a condition of order to disorder.

PS – If any player believes that a bow with a less than flat ferrule plays poorly because of it, I’d love to hear from them!

This is not a Revolution


“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

I am concerned about the culture of the violin business.

This article is not about luthier and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Joseph Curtin’s character or personality.  I don’t know Joseph Curtin.  I’ve never spoken with him.  He seems like a nice guy.  I don’t begrudge him his success or fame.  I am always interested in experimentation and the work of modern makers.  Power to him, I say.  He has never said he is a revolutionary or genius, these descriptions were bestowed upon him by others, after all. What I’m exploring here are the problems with the nature and popularity of his recent paper on comparing musician’s reactions to old and new violins.  This is mainly a critique of the culture of the field itself.  It is also an examination of the how Curtin’s study and the uncritical publicity surrounding it serves to blind us to new possibilities and keep us enslaved to the status quo ante. 

 The Strings Magazine article titled, “Luthier Joseph Curtin Leads the Violin World’s Politest Revolution,” published in its October 2016 edition is the real genesis for my revisiting this topic.  It is only one of the many admiring, uncritical pieces published on the study. The problem is that I don’t see anything revolutionary in this latest paper or in any of Curtain’s work for that matter.  I’m not saying it’s bad, because it most certainly isn’t.  Luthiers have a long history of subjecting musicians and themselves to blind playing/listening tests.  In fact it seems to be an obsession.  This paper is simply the most organized form that this old idea may have taken.  The question of old versus new violins is hardly wild and new-fangled, as any crusty old timer in the business can tell you.  I even remember seeing a vintage ad from the end of the 19th century by a violin maker going so far as to claim that old violins were dirty and caused disease (!) – living makers contending with players preferring antique instruments is not a recent development.  Acoustic testing of instruments has been around for a long time as well.  The scientific studies of Coleen Hutchins, Norman Pickering, and Joe Regh are just a few examples. Experimentation in making and set up is as old as the field itself; long pattern Strads, the conversion from baroque to modern violins, patented bass bars, odd bridges, “tuned” tail-pieces, self-rehairing bows, Vuillaume style frogs, carbon fiber, metal bows, violins without corners, high arching/flat arching, different string materials and tensions, just to name a few examples.  As interesting as Joseph Curtin’s work is, and it IS interesting, it is not revolutionary.  If anything it is reactionary – in that it recycles the tropes of the past and seeks to preserve and practice traditions rather than to truly challenge or change them.

In a past blog posting I wrote as the result of a careful reading of his scientific paper and its  attending documents as published in PNAS, I commented that it feels that Curtin and by extension his colleagues (whose expensive instruments were used in the study) seem eager to join the pantheon of “great violin makers” rather than demolish it.  He and his colleagues charge multiple tens of thousands of dollars for their instruments, which are oftentimes beautiful replicas of classic Italian models.  While their violins may be less expensive than a Grancino, they are still the highest priced living modern makers of today.  This is hardly revolutionary – it’s a desire as old as the field itself.  Of course modern makers in every age wish to make a living at their craft in what can be a competitive and challenging field.   This is why we also have a long history of self-promotion and advertising.  Certainly this paper comes with a fair amount of positive publicity.  Asserting or seeking to prove that modern violins have merit, even when compared to the classic Italians, isn’t an effort to subvert the old order, it’s simply the latest repetition of a familiar pattern.

Here I want to make it clear that I disagree the methods and concept behind the paper Curtin worked on, Soloist evaluations of six old Italian and six new violins.  Supposedly the results upset some people, but not me.  I’m a big supporter of modern makers and a critic of the over fetishization and over-pricing of old instruments.  But yes, I feel the study was flawed, specifically due to a list of potentially critical variables.  For example, instruments were set up and adjusted by many different luthiers and different bows were used.  I have issues with the top-down testing style and its results, but not because I believe older instruments are inherently superior.  However, my main issue is with the operating idea behind the study.  The tests (there are several) have been billed as, “provocative experiments pitting new violins against old Italian instruments,” by Strings Magazine.  To my mind this isn’t true.  The study is not about testing instruments, it is about testing musicians.  For me, this is the main issue and one that has been lost in the flurry of superficial articles generated by the media.

Why is the idea of testing soloist’s ability to discern the differences between a new violin and an old Italian flawed?  Because it asks the wrong questions.  It puts the cart before the horse.  If there is anything I have learned from years of striving to meet the needs of my clients, it is that the musician comes first.  The bow and instrument are tools which remain silent without their input.  We must acknowledge that each musician comes with their own unique sound regardless of what violin or bow they may play.  I’ve learned so much about my craft by listening to players.  The instrument would never have evolved without musicians seeking the help of luthiers as they struggled to meet the demands of new composition, performance and playing styles.  What do we learn from blind tests?  We find out that musicians sometimes have trouble telling old from new, so what?  This simply recycles the status quo.  We do not learn what musicians look for in an instrument.  We often don’t comprehend their tonal and technical needs.  We don’t explore the basic attributes a good violin must have for a given application. We put our expertise first. We put the instrument first.  We’ve been here before.  Why don’t we ask soloists, orchestral performers, and quartet members what they need from their tools to better make music?  The salient question of just what constitutes a good violin and all it’s attending cultural, economic, technical and historical constituents is so potentially rewarding and illuminating that it should not be ignored.

I have a proposition which is also a challenge.  I mentioned it in my original blog post and I’ll repeat it here.  If we accept that the results of the paper prove that soloists cannot tell new instruments from old, then there is an interesting and logical corollary.  By extension it follows that soloists will not be able to tell the difference between modern makers and new mass produced examples.   If the authors of the study say that here is no way one can compare beautiful handmade modern instruments to mass produced models, are they not simply recreating the same prejudice that said modern instruments could never compete with Cremonese violins?  Let’s put it to the test, but improve on the methods of Curtain et al.   An equal selection of violins by the most sought after modern makers and those by Chinese firms will be fully set up by a single luthier (including adjusting fingerboards, etc.) and will use the same strings.  We will then follow the published paper’s methods, except that players will share a single bow.   If Curtin is right, musicians won’t be able to say which violin is which.  Soloists, quartets and symphony musicians around the world playing on $2500 factory violins would indeed be revolutionary!

I believe Curtin is sincere and honest in his efforts.  At least he is actually trying to explore some fundamental technical concepts, which is hard to argue against.  While I wouldn’t call his work revolutionary, I believe that he is actually one of the latest practitioners of an old and honorable tradition within the craft:  the tinkerer and experimenter.  One’s work need not be revolutionary or even unprecedented to be worthwhile, after all. It is also important to remember, that while he may be one of the better publicized members of our craft, his work still deserves critical attention and that there are plenty of less celebrated figures doing interesting and important work that need to be heard from as well.

I understand and sympathize with the plight of new makers, I myself being one, but the most effective way forward is not through testing musicians abilities to tell the difference between instruments, acoustical research or hero worship, it is in creating more inclusive makers organizations, instituting new forms of cooperation and education, challenging dealer-defined economic and business models, and actually communicating directly with musicians.  We must evolve.

Tradition plays an important role in our craft.  It represents the hard won knowledge of those who came before us.  We can’t operate without it.  As a culture we love the words “genius” and “revolution,” but we dilute and distort their definitions mainly to sell products and promote personalities.  Our field needs more wisdom, less genius – more outreach into other fields and ideas, less navel gazing.  At the same time we need less cult of personality, and greater appreciation and promotion of the unglamorous side of our craft, namely the discipline it demands. Tradition wouldn’t exist without its indispensable partner, evolution.  Evolution can be a slow and steady change, almost imperceptible to outsiders, but it can also come in unexpected eruptions or floods of change (which some may call revolution).  Our craft has effectively evolved from within in so many ways, predominantly in specialized matters like restoration or making techniques. Some changes have come from outside forces, such as mass Chinese production or the legal considerations of insurance and appraisal.  What our craft and field really needs is a consideration of deeper questions that address our very relationships with the world we live in.  After all, evolution and revolution are not always positive forces.

My First Blog Entry on Curtin’s Study:


Strings Magazine Article on Study:



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 much 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.