Oberlin Bow Workshop Improvement Ideas


This summer I attended the Oberlin Bow Making Workshop for the first time in 11 years.  This and the other programs offered each summer by the VSA represent some of the best of their kind.  I have been meditating on my experience there and have come up with five suggestions that would improve an already fantastic workshop.

Oberlin Bow Workshop Improvement Ideas

1) Make it easier to sign up. Currently there is no clear method of applying to join the bow making workshop – only a generic form on the VSA website that seems to apply to all the workshops. It’s also not clear what the criteria are for participation. There is no real description of what the workshop offers on the website – literally no “more details” link. Anna Hoffman of the Oberlin Program Office is the only actual human contact listed. The violin making workshop actually has its own website at violinmakersworkshop.org.

2) More inclusivity. There is a little too much of a clique feeling to the workshop, with a large core of very long-term participants and a smattering of more recent attendants. More diversity and new blood is always needed. It would be wonderful to attract bow makers from all over the world to Oberlin. Look at the range of cultures, genders and ages represented in the violin making workshop. New faces and personalities mean new energy and strengthen the workshop through different ideas, professional experience, and perspectives.

3) More curriculum. Currently the workshop represents a wonderful collection of talented makers working on bows in a collective setting. How one uses his or her time is not defined, except for the enforced participation in making a group bow or meeting other group obligations like kitchen duties. The workshop presents an amazing opportunity to observe others at work, ask questions, and to exchange techniques. However, wouldn’t it be great to build on this by adding more formal demonstrations and organized group discussions on specific topics germane to our field?

4) A consideration of function as well as form. Currently a major focus of American bow making is on quality of craftsmanship, modeling, and technique more than issues pertaining to playability and function. Never before has there been such a high standard of construction, a fact that the Oberlin Workshop has much to do with, so why not turn more of our collective focus to the technical needs of professional musicians? Our bows need to be well made and aesthetically beautiful, but they also need to work. I’m afraid that the culture of our craft has turned too much to the standard of the VSA competition bow, where musicians are not even involved in judging.  If we strive to improve and understand playability as well as construction, we advance our craft and grow as makers.

5) Talk business. Without a sense of how to sell your bows or run a successful repair or sales business, none of us would make a living doing what we love. Business is not a dirty word, nor is it something to be taken for granted – the collective knowledge and years of experience represented by the participants in the workshop in this regard are a very valuable resource. Talking about how to run a better business, how to sell bows and meet the needs of customers, and how to do so in a manner that is not only ethical but personally satisfying, would be extraordinarily beneficial.

OBERLIN WORKSHOPS: Read about them at: www.vsa.to/oberlin-workshops

Support Symphony Musicians

ATLFolks may have heard the news of the recent lockout of the Atlanta Symphony musicians.  If not, please take a look at the following links:

From The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians:


From The American Federation of Musicians:


My wife just got back from playing with the Minnesota Orchestra’s Gala featuring Renee Fleming.  This incredible group of musicians stuck together though an extended lockout and won an important and I believe historic battle for all musicians who work in some of our nation’s best cultural institutions.

Recently we saw that the Met narrowly avoided a lockout.  As long as the funding for classical music in this country comes predominately from corporate support and not from the government and the people, I feel that these entities will remain at risk.  The corporate management culture that has risen under our neo-liberal economic system is bloated, greedy, and fundamentally corrupt.  One need only read the economic news to find evidence.  We all know what the laborers do in an opera or symphony:  they show up for each and every rehearsal and all performances.  They and the stagehands are hard at work for all to see.  These consummate professionals represent some of the finest in their fields.  They have worked long and hard from very early ages, and have paid huge amounts of money on education and instruments in order to reach their goals.  Few professions require such dedication and years of training.  By the time a, say 25-year-old musician wins her first major audition, she may have had  up to 22 years of musical education under her belt, the equivalent of a couple of PhDs. This is not always true of management.  What exactly are they doing and what are their qualifications?  Who is auditing their activities and expenditures?  Please let me add here that I personally know many dedicated behind the scenes management workers who are amazing at what they do and are indispensable to the functioning of an organization as large as say, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.   However, as long as certain types are allowed to run these institutions and sit on their boards, oftentimes earning huge salaries,  these labor issues will continue.  What will happen when new generations of corporate executives lose interest in our symphonies and operas?  People need to be ready to step up and support the institutions they love.

Here I wonder why there hasn’t been more support from the luthier community.  Without the business generated by the amazingly talented string musicians who make up the majority of these groups, we would be in trouble ourselves.  Why hasn’t the Violin Society of America or the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers issued statements of support or donated money?  Where are the comments from makers and shop owners on symphony musician’s Facebook pages?  If the violin business community would awake from its self-obsessed slumber and actually reach out to these musicians, who are often customers and friends after all, I know it would be deeply appreciated.  It’s important that we be on right side of history.

Not-for-profit cultural institutions like operas, symphonies, and museums serve vital functions in a society such as ours.  They exist not to turn a buck, but to enrich our lives, to educate us, and to excite our imaginations.  They also create a valid form of economy by generating a huge number of jobs and supporting a host of connected businesses such as this shop.  We need to stand with them.  Go picket with them, blog about them, write letters to the board, and donate to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra players.


There are two amazing bloggers that had been following the Minnesota lockout and have now turned their attentions to the Atlanta lockout.  Please take a look at their work:

Song of the Lark – intelligent, feisty commentary and research


Mask of the Flower Prince – well written, deeply intellectual posts


Please go to the Facebook page of the Atlanta Symphony Musicians and voice your opinions:


Atlanta Symphony Musicians website:



“Good Repairers are like Gold”

       One of my Bridges

“Good repairers are like gold, often scarce, always wanted, and much abused.  They are often abused, forsooth, because they cannot perform miracles, and transform wretched old fiddles with broken voices into seraphic Cremonas.

Repairing, I need hardly tell my readers, is a special art, requiring much skill, great patience, and a double portion of the spirit of self-effacement and of reverence of the old work.

The bane of the fiddle world is the quack repairer, with his ‘patent’ nostrums for this, that, and the other violin ailment.  If you value your old instrument, avoid him as you would a pestilence.”

W. Meredith Morris, B.A.,  British Violin Makers, 1920

Replacement Frog & Button for Ivory Mounted Dodd Cello Bow



This is a replacement frog and button for a customer’s Dodd cello bow that was mounted in ivory. Earlier in the year I did the same job on a viola bow by the same maker.

Making a new frog and button for a bow like this has several purposes. First, it makes the bow safe for travel due to the new ivory laws and second it preserves the original frog and button. Ivory is definitely more fragile and more difficult to repair, so it can be a good option for some musicians to commission an ebony substitute.

The challenge is to make a replacement that meets weight and balance requirements as well as preserves the original feel and style of the maker. I don’t believe an exact replica is necessary in these circumstances – especially with early bows of this type that frequently have very long, thin tongues. However, I do like to copy as closely as possible the wear pattern on the thumb projection because players will notice if it isn’t right.

Here I chose a solid black ebony frog with a matching solid button. The height of the frog is identical to the original, which is necessary for playability, but because ivory is denser than ebony, the frog is a bit longer and definitely thicker in cross-section.  I also moderated the length of the tongue.  There is no backplate, only a long pearl slide.

Inside, behind the frog mortise, I drilled a hole and filled it with lead to aid proper balance.  I could’ve changed to a heavier grip and wrap but I wanted the owner to be able to swap the ebony frog and button with the ivory frog and button without having to change anything else about the bow.  Another option to add weight would’ve been a solid silver button, but I wanted to try an ebony one.

One interesting thing about making a replacement frog is that the procedure is the opposite of making a new bow.  When you make a new bow, you make the frog and fit the stick to the facets of the silver underside.  With a replacement frog, you have to fit the new frog to the existing stick.

I like the results – so did my customer!

Dodd viola bow with replacement frog and button in progress

Dodd viola bow with replacement frog and button in progress