Business Mentoring in Crafts

I 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 actually 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:

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-38931698/embed

Read the article from the BBC:

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-38928869

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

http://www.thewalpole.co.uk/crafted-mentees-2015

American Crafts Council List:

https://craftcouncil.org/resources/National-and-Regional-Craft-Organizations

 

 

The Great Ferrule Debate

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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

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“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:

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

Strings Magazine Article on Study:

http://stringsmagazine.com/luthier-joseph-curtin-leads-the-violin-worlds-politest-revolution/

 

The Challenges of Self Employment in the Trade


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of the Market (Preview)

Certificate Seal

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

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

Warped, Bent, and Twisted

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Violin bow bent away from the string.   Potential problem.

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

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Checking for twist, step one.

 

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

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A bow with no twist.

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

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

 

State of the Craft

Eric Swanson - BowmakerEric Swanson – Bowmaker

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

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

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

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

 

The Craft of The Connoisseur

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THE WRITING OF ROGER HARGRAVE

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

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

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

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

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

 

The ‘Sainton’ Controversy – Genuine or Fake?

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

 

The ‘Messiah’ Stradivari Controversy

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

 

Undercover agents

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

 

Pry Before You Buy -Buying an Instrument

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

 

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

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

 

 

Insecurity, Dogma and Myth

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

New Ivory Rules

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

“What is the de minimis exemption?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

D) The ivory is not raw.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Read the full revised rules here (144 pages):

 

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