Ideas That Make Me Sigh

“For men are good in one way, but bad in many.”
-Aristotle

From time to time I am confronted by an article written by a violin maker or luthier that is so absurd and deficient that I am forced to respond. At the end of this essay, I will post some links to earlier rebuttals and critiques that I have had to write. Here I will be analyzing the article by luthier James McKean from February 13, 2020 titled, “Trust Me, I’ve Heard it All Before: 4 Things That Make an Instrument Repair Person Sigh.”


Before I get into his four points, I need to say that as in any service oriented field, the world of the violin business is prone to the phenomenon of developing a disrespect for the very people they serve and make their living from. Its like a professional oppositional defiant disorder or alienation syndrome, where a dislike of clients due an inability to see or understand the world from the their perspective manifests itself in lack of cooperation, fear, dislike and even hostility. Yes, it normal to complain about troublesome clients, because of course they exist, but the violin field lacks any kind of training or awareness of the art of client-service relations, much to the detriment of shop owners and players alike.


Here McKean begins with an abridged quote from Tolstoy’s Anna Karinina and it sets up the tone of the article that follows. He is attempting to describe the world of violinists, but he is unconsciously describing the nature of the violin business. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is in unhappy in its own way.” The mask many luthiers wear is that of the all-knowing master while behind the mask is the mirror which shows our true faces, an image we professionally seek to avoid. So often what we say about others reflects what we truly and often unconsciously think about ourselves. Our field is filled with unaddressed insecurity, dogma, and myth which hinders our ability to help our clients and ourselves. The resulting attitude that is very often manifested by luthiers and violin dealers is one of superior arrogance at the expense of musicians.


Tolstoy’s quote is directly related to Aristotle – I have begun the essay with his version. His concept of Eudaimonia, a sense of well-being and flourishing where we live a life of virtue and happiness, defined as, “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue,” is directly applicable to the world of music makers and crafts people. We all operate in a system that so devalues these cultural, artistic pursuits. Aristotle in Nicolmachean Ethics asks us to seek the mean between deficiency and excess, to find self-respect by not running away from introspection. So many in our linked fields are striving through their highly specialized artforms, activities that are foreign the reigning economic and political models, to achieve something akin to eudaimonia. However, we so often stumble and make the grave error of either exaggerating or undervaluing our contributions and efforts. Many of us are fundamentally out of balance as we seek to express ourselves artistically in a world filled with professional and economic hierarchy and concepts of success that are blind to our efforts at achieving artistic expression and happiness.


1) “My violin needs adjustment”


“Because the truth is violins don’t need adjusting”


This dogmatic concept is further supported by the idea that, yes instruments are affected by weather, but that this is normal and if you just leave them alone and adjust accordingly, everything will be ok. However, soundposts do move around and violins do go out of adjustment for many reasons. To absolutely deny this is odd. Complex variables, such as string choice and condition, bridge placement and warpage, tailpiece measurements and after-length, tailgut issues, open seams, fingerboard wear and a host of others work together to create potential combinations of problems.


Next McKean says that oftentimes it’s the musician who is the problem variable. This rather paternalistic attitude is manifested by phrases such as, “You can be out of sorts” or “You need a break.” It would be foolish to deny the psychological component of music making, especially when it comes to the highly technical and challenging nature of classical string instrument playing, however why is this a problem? If a client feels an adjustment will help then before an important audition, is it wrong to help them? Isn’t ok to need a psychological boost, even if the instrument is basically ok? This rejection and condemnation of the emotional component of artistic endeavor is troubling and all too common in the field.


A kind of violin Christian Science approach, where the instrument doesn’t need to be healed or influenced is too simplistic. Yes, there are dishonest sound-adjustment gurus who sell new bassbars, soundposts, bridges and expensive adjustment sessions, but that doesn’t mean that their aren’t serious, experienced professionals who work honestly to help their clients who are faced with real problems that need to be addressed.


2) “My bridge is warped”


“The correct phrasing is, ‘I wasn’t paying attention and I let my bridge warp.’”


McKean’s attitude of “Musician heal Thyself,“ amounts to victim blaming, which is an aspect of the Authoritarian Personality – where an “intolerance of ambiguity” is often used to justify various forms of injustice. The fact is that musicians have been historically mistreated by violin dealers and luthiers for generations. Musicians themselves spend most of their education learning technique and repertoire – they are never taught about the mechanical aspects of their instruments – its just not part of the curriculum in most conservatories and music schools. They learn about the confusing world of violin value the hard way, by being taken advantage of by unscrupulous members of our field. Rather than telling musicians only to attend to their own defects, our role as luthiers should be to educate and assist.


3) “I’d like you to take a look at a violin I’m thinking about buying”

“You’re kidding right?”

McKean states that its crazy to ask for a second opinion on an item they are thinking of buying from another shop because of the legal dangers involved and conflict of interest. We as members of the violin business need to carefully consider our roles. For many of us, we become friends and confidants of long-term customers. Is it right to withhold our professional expertise out of fear of lawsuit? Without a doubt there have been legal actions taken against luthiers by colleagues and customers over such issues, but the way forward is a more comprehensive approach by the violin community. Eliminating second opinions is detrimental to the field. Just because some shop owners dishonestly talk down a colleague’s instrument for their own personal economic gain doesn’t mean that this status quo should be allowed to exist. A more coordinated effort by professional organizations should be undertaken to standardize the practice of second opinions because fear and lack of transparency only generates more fraud and dishonest practices – ultimately damaging the reputation of the violin business amongst its customers. McKean is correct in pointing out that musicians should always seek the best certificates of authenticity they can find and demand a thorough condition report before purchase.

4) “My instrument has a crack”

“This is a call you will never have to make if you exercise just the minimum of care.”

The violin is a unique device. Many times, it is very old, has great value due to provenance like fine paintings, and yet used to make music and help musicians make a living. It is a working tool – functional art. Violins have survived centuries plagued by every possible disaster, mishap, and condition from war and famine to decades of disuse, forgotten in a closet or attic. Cracks are not only the fault of a musician’s carelessness. They can happen due to defects in the wood, weather conditions, or poor craftsmanship. There is a certain inherent vice in violins – this is an unavoidable fact of life. In the end entropy wins, and a violin will ultimately become unusable, for nothing lasts forever. Yes, educate musicians on how to better care for these instruments, for they often love them dearly, but why waste time condemning them?

In conclusion, the violin business needs to lose the attitude and rethink its role. As individual makers, repair people, dealers and experts we need to look in the mirror and force ourselves to see the naked reflection. We need a happy family – to reform and regroup, not lash out and condemn. We and our clients must better understand the virtue of happiness. There is something called the Anna Karenina Principle that says, “a deficiency in any one of a number of factors dooms the endeavor to failure.” What are the factors that doom us?

LINKS:

Original Article (Facebook link – read comments):

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10159300119793294&id=90888253293?sfnsn=scwspmo&extid=yHIXhfWCT0joLRet

Older essays I’ve written:

Insecurity, Dogma and Myth

https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2016/11/04/state-of-the-craft/

This is not a Revolution

https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/recaction-to-latest-joesph-curtin-study-testing-musicians/

Vichy Auctions

For a number of years, I have been attending the string instrument auctions held in Vichy, France by Vichy Encheres. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about auctions – how they work, their benefits and dangers, and their role in the economy of the violin business. What I want to do in this post is point out something interesting and unique about the Vichy auctions.


Over the last three years, Vichy has held auctions dedicated to the sale of the collection of the late, great bow expert Bernard Millant. The auction of his personal collection is always sandwiched between two other auctions, one of lower priced instruments and one of “quality” instruments and bows. The result is a three-day auction extravaganza, filled with dealers from around the world crowding around long tables filled with bows and examining walls and walls of instruments. The experience can be exhausting. The sheer volume is overwhelming – the room filled with people with back to back days of auctions running four or more hours. One thing is clear: this has been a very successful enterprise. The popularity of the auction is extraordinary and must be extremely profitable.


The auction is very friendly and well run while the town of Vichy is charming. I have mentioned before that the listing descriptions, especially for bows are the best I’ve seen in the business in their accuracy and technical descriptions. The auction is run by the competent and professional Vichy Encheres staff and by a group of the acknowledged foremost French experts on instruments and bows.


Most auction houses have in-house managers who run the auction. They do the hard work of taking in consignments, creating estimates and damage reports, and crafting lot descriptions. The interesting thing is that these fine people are usually NOT the world’s leading experts in the field, as knowledgeable as they may be. They are usually not craftsmen or makers. They do not write certificates of authenticity. This fact is one of the attractions for dealers – perhaps they see something that the auctioneer missed, maybe they can find a hidden gem or a great deal. This same reality presents one of the greatest dangers for uniformed buyers or players. Most auctions are a buyer beware environment. Read the fine print. The listings are never presented as concrete fact, but are presented as non-binding opinions.


Tarisio, with offices in London and New York, really pioneered the effort to bring auctions directly to musicians, doing an end-run around dealers and shops. They have done so with great success. Many instruments and bows in their auctions sell at high or low retail prices. Because most dealers and shops usually offer certificates (usually written by others) or at least stand behind the instruments they sell, Tarisio offered something unique in the auction field: if you bought an item that subsequently came into question as to its authenticity, Tarisio would have independent experts who write certificates look at the item. If these experts decide not to certify the bow or instrument, Tarisio would take it back. At least one of my clients went through this procedure with several bows. I have also written about this in other posts.


So, what is unique about Vichy? Although I can find no official mention of this policy on their website or other promotional literature, and I don’t have the “fine print” of the policy, they offer certificates on every bow they sell. The certificates come from none other than Raffin and his associates – who, after the passing of Millant, are now considered the world’s foremost experts on French bows. They also oversee the bow portion of the auctions. They are available to answer questions during the viewings and actually take part in the auctions themselves, reading the item descriptions as the auctioneer manages the bids. The last astounding fact is that the certificates are free of charge – included in the purchase price of the bow. Simply send them your receipt and they will send you the certificate.


In a market where questions of authenticity play a central role in pricing and where most shop owners and dealers are not necessarily experts at identification, there is heavy demand for and a reliance on certificates of authenticity. This is the brilliance of the Vichy Encheres economic model. They supply mountains of vintage French violins and bows of every quality and description to a global market that craves their industry certified product. It is unique and unprecedented.


So, why don’t more musicians take advantage of this opportunity? The prices at Vichy are wholesale and represent a great deal compared to shops and fancy dealers. There are excellent French instruments and bows available at every auction. There are several problems for musicians, however. First, you must travel to France. Secondly, as with every auction, you may not win the item you want – one must always be prepared for this fact at an auction and maintain bidding discipline. Thirdly, Vichy Encheres, while it treats musicians superbly, is not really set up as a player’s auction. Many of the instruments and bows are not set up to play and you only have a short time to test and play them if they are playable. The number of items on display can be too much to handle. The conditions for testing the bow or instrument you might be interested in are not ideal – in the middle of a cavernous rooms filled with middle aged men jostling for access.


So, there you have it. Vichy Encheres in Vichy France represents one of the most unique auctions in the world. I hope this article has given you some insight to the world of violin auctions and will help you, whether shop owner or musician.


NOTE:  Regarding instruments, the auction is overseen by Rampal, but I do not at the time of this writing, have confirmation that he supplies certificates free of charge as well, although I can only assume that this is the fact.

If you want more information on auctions, please read some of my older posts on the auctions, expertise and certificates:


https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/on-auctions/


https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/on-experts-and-expertise/


https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/on-certificates/


https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/j-a-beare-starting-online-auction/


https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2016/09/22/the-craft-of-the-connoisseur/


https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2016/11/04/state-of-the-market-preview/


https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2018/01/29/vichy-auction-report-2017/

Buying an Expensive Violin that Needs Work and the Challenges of the Violin Market

 

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Please listen to this warning.  If you are exhausted from playing an instrument that doesn’t suit you or that you feel is holding you back, don’t buy something that will only cause you more problems.   The potentially long-lasting consequences will impact your music making and finances, not to mention your self-esteem and ability to trust others.

Sometimes musicians, after a long and exhausting search, find an instrument that somehow just fits and feels right.  Oftentimes, players deal exclusively with a shop, expert or teacher they have known and trusted for years.  Finding something that speaks to the artist within you is an amazing experience and working closely with someone that you trust is extraordinarily smart.  However, this doesn’t mean there won’t be problems.   In this article I will describe the general roots of some of these problems and then focus in on one specific issue, that of expensive instruments that need repair.

Please understand that there is a difference between being a craftsman or teacher and a businessman.   There is a distinction between technical ability and market knowledge.  One can be knowledgeable at their craft, but not so steady when it comes to the tricky business of buying and selling instruments.

For self-employed luthiers working on their own, especially in major cities, the amount of income a single worker can generate from repairs, adjustments and restorations is limited to the number of hours in the day.   A lone shop owner can only get so much work done.  When a luthier becomes so successful that he or she can’t take on any more work, they have reached a kind of glass ceiling of income production.  Their only options are to hire employees and expand the business or raise prices to keep up with the cost of living.

Sales of instruments and bows is where most of the money is to be made in this field.  Some luthiers manage to keep a low overhead even in expensive urban areas and get by on high-volume work like rehairs or do upper end restorations and adjustments for big prices.  These are the rare exceptions unfortunately. Nothing is more profitable than sales.  Many shop owners have made the transition from craftsman to salesman, for better or for worse.

The financial pressure for small businesses, especially those in big American cities has continued to increase wildly.  Where there is financial pressure, there are sure to be those who succumb and cut corners when they could easily be more careful.  This includes trusted luthiers, especially those who were never great at the business side of our field.

All this can also be said of professors and players who get involved in finding instruments for students.  Its one thing to be an amazing violinist with a leading orchestra or a leading pedagogue at a major music school and another being an expert on violins and bows.  The violin market is complex and difficult to comprehend, and technical issues related to these music making tools are often unknown to even the most accomplished musicians.  Professional musicians and teachers are subject to the same financial pressures as the rest of us and are open to the same temptations.  Many have not adequately considered their important role in helping students find instruments. On the two extreme sides of the spectrum are those who use their power to corruptly make money from commissions, pushing students to buy expensive items, and those who regard the entire thing as dirty and just refuse to participate, leaving students and families in a very vulnerable position.  Both do a serious disservice to their students.  A teacher’s guidance in finding the right violin or bow is indispensable and valuable.

This brings to me the main practical point of this article.  Sometimes you find the perfect thing in a shop, either on your own or with the help of a teacher, but it costs more than you initially wanted to pay AND it needs a repair done to it.  How to best handle this situation?  First, assure yourself as much as possible as to the correctness of attribution (see my other essays) and do serious research into pricing.  Yes, take advice from those you trust and get second opinions, but be independent and rely on your own judgement in the end.  Once you’ve decided that the price is in a reasonable range and that the instrument has a good certificate, you must assess the condition.  When you buy a house, an inspection is made.  After seeing the results of the inspection one can lower their offer or ask that certain repairs be made prior to a re-inspection and a sale.  Many violins cost the equivalent of a home, so why not follow the same procedure?

Buying a high-priced instrument from someone you have come to trust over the years with a promise to fix whatever pre-existing technical problem sounds reasonable.  In fact, this can work out just fine.  However, what if it doesn’t?  Let me say here that its ok to sell instruments that haven’t been fully restored if they are structurally solid, the condition issues fully revealed, AND the price adjusted downwards. This approach can work with less expensive examples and can represent a great deal for cash strapped players.  Later as they earn more money, they can fix whatever outstanding issues that may exist.  But what if the problem is not exactly one of condition but of technical correctness?  What if the neck is too long or too low for example?  These issues seriously affect playability and tone.   When a neck is too long or short it can be difficult to find the notes.  With a seriously incorrect neck angle the instrument and be sluggish or too nervous.  The problem here is that a neck-set is very expensive, costing multiple thousands of dollars.

I suggest that you do not buy an expensive instrument that needs something as important as a neck set.  There is a difference between cosmetic work or small repairs and major structural issues related to proper set up and playability.  If you are indeed paying top dollar, stipulate that you will buy the instrument on the condition that a competent repair is performed BEFORE you pay.  If you must have the instrument in your hands before the repair can be done, get the promised repair outlined in writing.  Make sure the exact nature of the repair is described, the fact that it will be done free of charge clearly stated, and that a definite timeline for the repair to be completed is included.

Trust is important, but so is your hard-earned money.  I know so many musicians that have had trust betrayed by shops, teachers, and colleagues.  This is life – sometimes the worst betrayals come from those we hold closest.  Don’t forget that buying the tools which you use to make your art is a spiritual, but also practical, journey.  Always protect yourself but keep an open heart.  Good luck out there.

 

PLAYERS: Don’t overpay for damaged goods and realize your money has power.  Use this power to protect your interests by making reasonable demands BEFORE you pay.  Resist the pressure to buy.  In order to properly judge an instrument, technical issues such as neck and stop length, projection, and proper set-up need to be within an acceptable range.  If you must have the instrument, get agreements in writing and do your research.   Don’t spend tons of your money on faulty goods, you will regret it and it will hurt in more ways than one.

DEALERS/LUTHIERS:  Consider NOT selling items that have not been fully restored or haven’t been properly set up and have don’t have good measurements.  This will protect you and your clients.  In cases where you are selling a compromised item be clear and adjust the price accordingly.  Don’t let financial need cloud your morals or judgment.   When you screw your clients, even unintentionally, you screw yourself too.

TEACHERS: You don’t know everything that a luthier or dealer might know, but you do know music and music making.  Your time is valuable because of your expertise.  Consider your role in instrument buying and how you want to interact with this service, financially and emotionally.  Whether you do it for free, charge students for your time or take a commission, just be involved honestly and earnestly – don’t let greed or disgust get in the way of the very sacred duty a teacher has to his or her student.  Don’t abuse that trust through indifference or exploitation.

When a Certificate of Authenticity is not Enough

Please see a previous article on the dangers of bow handle grafts at:

http://www.swansonbows.com/danger-grafts-on-bows/

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An interesting case presented itself recently that holds some important lessons for musicians and shop owners. I’m sharing this information with you so it will help you when shopping for or selling a bow.

A violin bow was purchased by a player from a shop. This bow was purported to made by a famous French maker of the Nineteenth Century and came with a certificate of authenticity from a well-known bow expert. The cert stated that the bow was made by the maker and was completely original. The bow was purchased for a sizable sum.

At some point the bow is offered for sale again. Someone does the intelligent thing and removes the grip and wrap in order to fully inspect the health and authenticity of the stick. This is important because underneath the grip and wrap something called a graft might be hiding. Unfortunately, in this case a graft was revealed to exist. The authenticity and value as represented in the certificate was now in question – a worst-case scenario.

What exactly is a graft and why is it such a serious problem? Technically known as a handle graft, it is when the butt end of the bow is cut off and glued along a lap joint to the stick of another bow. This graft, which appears as a diagonal joint across the stick about 3 inches long, is concealed beneath the grip and wrap. The result is a newly created bow made from the old parts of two different sticks. It is important point out that this is rarely a legitimate repair. Think about it. It is highly unusual to find a bow with a handle so worn that it is absolutely unusable or not repairable. It’s not impossible, but you must understand that even if this were a legitimately needed repair, it would destroy the value of the bow and very possibly change its playing/tone characteristics. There are other types of grafts on bows as well, however they are in places that are visible to the naked eye.

Handle grafts are almost always done to deceive – to put an original handle from a damaged bow stamped by a famous maker with a stick that has a head that looks like the original maker’s work. It is always possible, however highly unlikely, that the head and stick are by the original maker, just from two different bows.

Once a dealer sent me four bows they were thinking of buying to check over for condition issues. All the bows were supposedly made by classic French makers and were stamped accordingly. I told the dealer that I needed to remove all the grips and wraps. After being given permission, I did so and found three of the four had been grafted. Please understand that these types of bows are in the market and in circulation.

Once the bow was revealed to have a graft, it looks like someone contacted the expert who originally certified it. I don’t know the details of this interaction, but eventually an insurance appraisal was issued saying the bow “has been repaired”, but still insuring it for a large sum. Does one say a Guadagnini viola with a soundpost crack on the back has simply had a repair? The precise nature of the repair needs to be spelled out and the damage to the overall value defined.

The appraisal implies that the original attribution of the certificate is still correct, the only caveat being that the bow has now been relieved to have a repair. We can’t assume to know why the certificate was issued in the first place. The best we can say is that they might not have done their due diligence. The same can be said for the shop who originally sold the bow with aforementioned cert. They probably didn’t look under wrap either. The result, especially with the wording of the insurance appraisal, is that this certified Frankenstein’s monster might remain in circulation and another musician could be victimized.

Buyers: When considering the purchase of a very expensive bow, always ask for a good certificate while insisting that the grip and wrap be removed, and the bow be inspected as a condition of sale.

Sellers and Cert Writers: Fully inspect the bow in detail. ALWAYS look under the grip and wrap – it will protect you and your client, saving potential liability and erosion of reputation. If there turns out to be a problem with the bow’s identification and/or condition later, own up to it and try to make it right.

Note: Bows have value based mainly on who made them and condition. As long as provenance trumps playablity and tone, bows like this will continue to circulate through the market.

Consuming Ourselves

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What love, in stark opposition to a mere desire of satisfaction, needs however to be compared to, Kilma suggests,  “Is the creation of a work of art… That too requires imagination, total concentration, the combining of all aspects of human personality, self-sacrifice on the part of the artist, and absolute freedom. But most of all, as with artistic creation, love requires action, that is, non-routine activity and behavior, as well as constant attention to one’s partner’s intrinsic nature, an effort to comprehend his or her individuality, and respect. And last but not least it needs tolerance, the awareness that one must not impose one’s outlook or ideals on one’s companion or stand in the way of the other’s happiness.”

Zygmunt Bauman in Consuming Life quoting Ivan Klima

This post is about the difficulties musicians face when buying an instrument or bow. I’m not writing about technical considerations, but about the deeper social and economic factors that highlight our dual roles as artists and consumers, and which often lead us astray, causing many to make choices we may come to regret.

PART ONE – Consumer and Consumed

An important consideration here is the reality of the consumerist culture we live in and the effects that the shift from a society of producers to a society of consumers has had on our cognitive ability to conceive of our relationships with ourselves, others and the artistic tools we use to create music.

In a system that has shifted many of our private and personal lives into a public confessional social media culture, where the public exposure of our private world is so highly prized and the healthy boundary between our inner lives and our public lives are increasingly blurred, we are becoming both the consumer and the consumed. The drive for personal betterment through social media self-promotion, where we desperately try to enhance our perceived human value through post likes, has in many ways led us to a place where we have become the marketers of ourselves. This attitude influences many of our life decisions and relationships. Increasingly human interactions, and here think of dating apps like Tinder, have taken on the sense of commercial transactions rather than emotional interactions. In a society of consumers where our very identities are becoming commodified, capitalism as we know it has begun to reduce our every experience into a transaction, or at least that seems to be the ultimate goal. There is always less personal risk and discomfort in the online transaction versus the interpersonal one as actual social interaction is always fraught with potential danger. We have to wonder if as a society we are shifting into a mode of behavior where exposing one’s self to the unknown in the real world is becoming less attractive than simply pointing and clicking through an endless online menu in the cozy confines of our homes.

The speed and intensity of online stimuli can be overwhelming. As consumers there is a sense of a constant seeking of gratification that never comes. There is a short term focus on the process of consumption rather than a wiser longer view involving an actual, desirable goal. We have an obsession with change, of getting rid of the old for the new. We seek to get rid of what we perceive as not working in a highly superficial effort to use the next purchased object to hopefully better meet our needs. Even when change is needed, we have difficulty making choices, many times because of the fear of the unknown. The problem is that seeking something significant like a life partner and /or friend (like a great violin or bow) resists the buying and shopping model. This is a relationship that is not easy, does not provide instant gratification, and requires us to be in touch with the deeper parts of ourselves.

PART TWO – Enslaving Ourselves for What?

In a 2014 blog posting on Elbow Music, Ariane Todes writes about the advice that Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri String Quartet gives on the purchase of new violins. He simply states that when a student is in the market for a new violin or bow, they need to realize that they are putting their parents in debt and that there are bigger considerations than price alone. He states,

“You have to work your way round an instrument and it’s a process. Every instrument is hard to play at the beginning because it’s as if you don’t know Portuguese: it’s hard to know what people are saying until you learn the language. Every instrument is another language that you don’t know at the beginning. Of course not completely – you can pick up a violin and play it, but each violin does have a different language to learn.”

In another piece called “Me and My Violin” Steinhardt writes that the relationship of a musician to her instrument is most comparable to that of a friend or partner. It’s a relationship that demands intimacy, one which involves the highs and lows of any relationship. The musician, he points out, is mute with the instrument and bow and the bow and instrument are mute without the musician. The connection is not a simple one and demands sacrifice, struggle and hard work. Choosing a bow or instrument is not the mere act of finding the next best thing, it requires the musician to be profoundly connected to herself as an artist, as a human being.

I have had many clients express regret at having sold or traded in an instrument that they now realize was something special. I also regularly see musicians desperately shopping for a new music making tool, buying one thing, selling it, then trading it in for a more expensive option, repeating the cycle over and over again. They seek the new magical object that they believe will meet their needs and gain the approval of colleagues and teachers, or help them pass an audition, for example. I want to emphasize here that many times change is good and necessary. The idea here is not to resist changing bows or instruments, but to do it wisely.  Also, if one has the money and the means to purchase a fine vintage bow or instrument, power to them.  Yes, a great violin or bow will help you grow and technical considerations, often unknown to even the most seasoned musicians, are indeed important, but the point I want make is that the musician makes the music, the musician is the artist and if one is not in touch with herself and her real goals, it will be nearly impossible to find the right partner. This is a decision that demands logic, self-knowledge and instinct.

Lastly let me return to the real world of economics. The fetishization and commodification of the instrument or bow is an unhealthy phenomenon financially in most cases. The concept that older or newer is better, that the more expensive an item is, the better its inherent quality, must be discarded. Players in music competitions are told that they played well but need a more “important“ instrument to succeed, dealers push old Italian violins as great investments, and modern makers publish studies that show their premium priced new instruments are superior to vintage examples – the field is filled with such examples. The questions are more fundamental ones: What are the qualities of a good violin or bow? Who am I as an artist and what do I need?

Being a musician in this world is hard enough, but the drive for artistic self-expression and all the power and connection with the sublime it can bring is too important for us to enslave ourselves financially to these music making tools. Student debt compounded by instrument purchase debt stand in the way of artistic and personal well-being. Often times the thing we seek is not to be found in the next violin shop or in the next swipe of the finger: like so much in life it is often already in your hands, right there in front of you, yours for the taking if could only see it.

Links:

https://www.elbowmusic.org/single-post/2014/06/26/Arnold-Steinhardt-Dont-put-your-parents-in-hock-to-buy-a-violin

http://blog.sharmusic.com/blog/bid/103581/Me-and-My-Violin-by-Arnold-Steinhardt

Vichy Auction Report 2017

The hammer fell and the crowd in the auction house erupted into applause and cheers. A bow by FX Tourte had just broken all world records and sold for €465,000, or €576,600 including auction fees – or $685,995 US dollars. The previous record for another Tourte bow, at an auction at Beares in London in 2015, was $288,960 USD. However, a sense of unease came over me and I couldn’t help feeling that the professional dealers from all over the world that day at Vichy Enchères were busy celebrating their own imminent demise, clapping their way to obsolescence.

I had traveled from Chicago to Vichy France to attend three days of auctions in an attempt to buy some bows and violins to sell at my shop. I’d attended many different auctions here in the States and in other countries, but this was my first time to the largest auction of stringed instruments in France. Of course in previous years I had looked at the lots made available online and checked the published results, but one can learn so much more with an in-person visit.

The auction was professionally run and the people who work there were very helpful and friendly. I also have to say that the bows and instruments offered were of incredible quality compared to other auctions I’ve attended. I found the listings, especially for the bows, to be extremely detailed and the descriptions of damage or alterations incredibly accurate. The actual proceeding at the auctions was smooth and efficient.

Over the three days of auctions, the highlight being the sale of the Bernard Millant collection where a gold and tortoiseshell Sartory Exposition violin bow sold for a world record price of $223,000, I was continually taken aback by what could be called the irrational enthusiasm of the buyers. It is unclear how exactly the very high wholesale prices realized at Vichy will affect the market except to say that we will definitely be seeing a surge in the cost of French bows of every level in retail violin shops around the world. Along with greater valuation there will be undoubtedly an increase in price gouging, over attribution as well as outright fraud.

An interesting trend was the pricing on nickel mounted maker branded, shop branded and unbranded French bows. It it important to reemphasize here that auctions are buyer beware environments, where the official auction descriptions are not to be taken as gospel, but simply as potential guides to authenticity. Here dealers seemed to buy with abandon, with an over reliance on the auction descriptions. This is not to say that Raffin and the others he works with at Vichy are not world renown experts on French violin bows, it is simply to point out that there is a profit motive at work and as with anything as valuable and esoteric as bows for stringed instruments, it always pays to err on the side of caution. There was a time when nickel mounted French bows were amazing deals as they were completely overlooked by experts and dealers alike. This is now officially over. Many examples sold at wholesale prices which eclipsed the retail prices of similar bows currently offered at my shop.

After I returned I checked in with an acquaintance who works at the top of her field in the world of fine art insurance and appraisal. Her take was that there is currently so much money and demand in the primary art markets that collectors are now looking at secondary and tertiary markets for investment. With increasingly large pools of money in the possession of decreasing numbers of humans, this excess of capitol seeks outlets for speculation. What this trend of commodification means for pricing and the culture of the violin business is hard to predict with precision, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the overall effect on working musicians, students and ultimately violin shop owners themselves won’t be wonderful.

Dangerous Times

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Illustration by Otto Erdesz

PART ONE

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.

PART TWO

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 haute-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 in a court of law.  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?

CONCLUSION

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, even subversive thought, because without the imagination of resistance it will be impossible to create new ways of being, to try and 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 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

 

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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…

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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.

 

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List of interesting articles associated with the Exhibition:

https://tarisio.com/archet-revolutionnaire/historical-introduction/

https://tarisio.com/archet-revolutionnaire/kai-koepp-french-or-german-bows-for-beethoven/

https://tarisio.com/archet-revolutionnaire/parisian-bow-makers-bernard-gaudfroy/

The shop’s Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/Workshop-of-Eric-Swanson-695438740547547/

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

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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

http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20175/21158/

 

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

http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20144/15712/

 

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

http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20121/13039/