The Bow, its History, Manufacture & Use

  
“In an earlier section of this work I alluded to the bow as being ‘tongue like’; it is something more, for is also the breath of the violin. As breathing is to a vocalist so is bowing to a violinist. It governs the phrasing, or, rather, is governed by it in the first instance and then controls its delivery to the listener.  Thus it will be seen that too much attention cannot be paid to the real Art of Bowing.  By which I do not mean the brilliant tactical feats of arpeggio, staccato, tremolo, etc., but the pure legato bowing of cantabile passages.  It is in such song-like movements that the true artist reveals himself by the nearness with which he approaches that highest of all musical instruments, the human voice. Pure liquid tone, the inflections suggested rather than insisted on, clear phrasing and avoidance of all extravagance are the hallmarks of an artist, and not the possession of brilliant technique alone. To those who are content with superficial glitter electro plate is as good as sterling metal. But critics of discernment (by which I do not mean all those who write concert notices for the daily papers) require something of more lasting value.”

-Last paragraph from The Bow, its History, Manufacture & Use by Henry Saint-George, 1896

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My “Lost” Violin Society of America Lecture on Bows and the Violin Business

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Please watch the video I made of my lecture on YouTube:                                       Note: this lecture was designed for members of the trade and is about an hour long!

YouTube Link: https://youtu.be/bThf0hJyuZ8


Next is an explanation of why this lecture was not presented at the 2015 Violin Society of America convention in Baltimore.  Following the article will be a full print version of the speech.

Every year, the Violin Society of America has a conference where luthiers, bowmakers and people active in the trade in various capacities attend and give lectures. Every other year the VSA puts on a competition for violin, viola, cello, and bass makers as well as bowmakers. This year’s conference is an off-year, where there will be no competition. It will be held in Baltimore November 13th and 14th, 2015.

Earlier this year, in response to an email to an email from the VSA I received on April 16th, I submitted a lecture proposal on selecting and judging bows. I met the submission deadline of May 1st and waited. The email stated that selected presenters would be notified by June 15th.

The deadline came and went without any response from the VSA, so I figured I hadn’t been selected. However, I was surprised when a VSA Board Member who happens to have a studio in my building stopped by sometime at the end of June to inform me that I should consider my proposal accepted. When I asked why I hadn’t heard anything official, he told me that the VSA was an all-volunteer organization and that the selection committee didn’t know who I was, so they were not sure how to proceed. He assured me that he had vouched for me and that all was well. The fact that my identity or trade-wide notoriety was apparently of more concern than the content of my lecture proposal, which spoke for itself, concerned me, but I decided to wait for an official response.

On July 6th, I emailed the VSA and asked for clarification – was I doing the lecture or not? Finally on July 21st, I received an email officially inviting me to give my lecture at the 2015 VSA conventions. I immediately began work on writing my lecture.

On August 5th, I got an email stating I would be giving my talk at 5:30pm, November 13th in Salon A. I was asked to send in a photograph and biography on August 21st. I continued to prepare my presentation.

In late October the VSA finally published the schedule for the upcoming conference. Looking over the list of speakers I noticed that my name was not listed. Furthermore, it was clear that the schedule was completely full from morning to early evening – there was no room for more lectures. My lecture was ready to go – I had spent months preparing it as well as the accompanying visuals. I had a flight and hotel reservation and had paid my convention registration fee.

On October 19th I emailed the top three current officers on the VSA board informing them that I was somehow not listed on the program. There were only three weeks before the conference started. I told them that I could see no logical solution to this problem given the posted schedule. I asked for a refund of my registration fee as I would not be attending the conference.

Of this year’s lecturers, a total of nine out fourteen speakers are current or former VSA board members, many of whom have given talks in the past. In 2013 eleven out of the twelve lectures were given by then-current or former VSA board members. To be fair, the list of lecturers in the competition years are far more diverse.

Concluding my email I wrote, “This has clearly been completely mishandled. I notice that the many of the speakers are current and ex-board members, presidents and members at large. A number of the scheduled speakers have spoken at VSA conventions numerous times in the past. In fact some of this year’s presenters are involved in multiple talks and forums. In order for the VSA to serve itself and its members better, don’t you think it might be a good idea to open up to new voices and ideas? “

I did get a response to my email as well as a follow-up conference call with the VSA President and Vice President. They offered their sincere apologies, however they really didn’t have an explanation of what had happened. The VSA fully refunded my conference registration fee.

The VSA is a 501 c (3) not-for-profit, operating primarily as an educational organization dedicated to promoting the science and art of making, repairing and preserving stringed musical instruments and their bows. Membership is open to all who wish to sign up and pay the membership fee. The board members chosen to give talks use their affiliation and official positions with the VSA in advertising, on their websites, in their official bios, and list the lectures they’ve given at numerous VSA conventions with the purpose of demonstrating to customers and colleagues that they have attained a certain elite level in their field. Does this scenario show any private benefit? If so, what could the VSA have done to prevent it?

Clearly many of the dedicated members of the trade who volunteer their time to the VSA need to be commended for their hard work. These members give freely of their time and knowledge, deserving both praise and admiration. I myself have benefited from attending many VSA conventions – lectures by board members are usually very informative and helpful.  However, the concern here is one of openness and fairness. Wherever there is a core group of insiders, there is always a potential for problems.


SELECTING BOW: TECHNICAL AND FUNCTIONAL CONSIDERATIONS                    Including comments on the state of the business and the craft of bowmaking

The idea behind this lecture is to go over techniques for evaluating bows for repair, as well as purchase and resale from a technical standpoint while better understanding some of the functional attributes a bow must have in order to satisfy the needs of musicians and customers. I will also offer my opinion on some of the larger issues facing bow makers, dealers and players in the 21st century.

The scope of this lecture will be, by necessity, broad in order to appeal to the wide range of professional experience and variation in knowledge of the VSA audience. We only have so much time available, so I will limit my remarks to a few important concepts, but please know that this is a complex topic – with more time we could go much deeper and into even greater detail.

My approach emphasizes soundness of construction along with the evaluation of playability by actually playing the bow. I hope that the ideas contained in this lecture will help you better select solid, great playing sticks for re-sale as well as provide you with tools to educate musicians and sell good bows. For makers, maybe some of these ideas will inspire you to work more closely with accomplished musicians to make even better playing sticks. My technique is not rocket science – rather it is a system based strictly on common sense and a desire to understand what a good bow actually is from a functional and technical standpoint. It is an entirely practical approach which I hope will help both musicians and VSA members.

After years in the trenches doing endless amounts of bow rehairs, all manner of repairs, and every type of restoration, having seen and held thousands upon thousands of bows as well as making a few, I decided at last to try and acquire some inventory in order to sell it in the shop. This was a big step for me as I had intentionally turned my back on the world of dealing and concentrated exclusively on improving my abilities as a craftsman and on building my clientele. As the local bow guy in such a large market, doing work for both professional musicians and many of the local shops, I had plenty of exposure to the wild world of violin dealing, and I didn’t particularly like what I saw. Customers would bring me bows they were considering for purchase or show me bows they had just bought. I wasn’t really selling or taking commissions, so I was in a good position to offer them a straight forward evaluation. This mainly manifested itself in doing condition reports. While some musicians had purchased perfectly sound bows for reasonable prices, many showed me bows that had serious issues that negatively affected playability and value. Sometimes the bow had undisclosed damage or hidden lead, for example. Some of these issues could be addressed with a repair, camber work, straightening or balance adjustment, but too often the bows were just not suitable for usage. The pricing was frequently problematic, although let me emphasize that there were numerous examples of very fairly priced bows. I usually declined to comment on attribution unless I came across a particularly egregious example. Let’s face it – many certificates aren’t worth the paper they are written on. It became clear to me that many shops just were not taking bows seriously enough – not taking their time in assessing and preparing their bows for sale as well as playing fast and loose with pricing.

Three main questions arose in my mind due to these experiences as I prepared to head off to my first auction. One, why were bows like these being offered by dealers in the first place, two, why were musicians buying them and three, just what constitutes a good bow?

I didn’t really know what to expect at the auction house, but what I found in regards to bows was interesting. The tables where the bows were laid out were crowded with middle aged men sitting, staring intently at bow after bow. When they had finished looking at one group of bows, they would get up, shift over to the next chair and silently scrutinize the next batch. I soon joined this throng, as I understood that each stick required careful examination. However I noticed that few people double checked the weights and no one checked the balance point – I’ve seen only one exception to this. Also, most surprisingly, nobody was playing the bows. I’m a terrible violinist, but luckily my wife is an amazing musician who performs mainly with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As I found bows that passed my physical examination, I would hand them off to her to check for playability. What I learned was quite humbling – many of the sticks that I had selected out for technical correctness just played terribly! I mean I didn’t strike out completely, but my success rate at choosing great playing sticks based solely on technical characteristics was, let’s just say, a bit humbling. The other issue was that my wife, despite her extensive training and years of professional experience at the highest levels of her field, was unsure of how to test a bow. It was time to re-work our assessment methods. I needed to refine my methods of bow examination and my wife needed to develop a better method of systematic testing for playability.

Auction houses are increasingly reaching out to musicians, although they have traditionally been a resource for experts, dealers and collectors due to their buyer-beware nature. Now it’s more common to hear musicians playing instruments and bows at auction, especially at Tarisio. However, as we watched bows that we had rejected as being technically and functionally undesirable sell for large amounts of money, it became clear to us that either the dealers (and sometimes the musicians) buying these items had no idea what they were doing, or, more likely just were not concerned enough with issues of playability, preferring to bid on and buy bows based mainly on attribution.

In most professional fields, there are prominent beliefs and attitudes, some based in reality, others in tradition, which are generally created by elites and supported by rank and file members of the trade who are so thoroughly invested in the system they serve or work in, that they are unable to reflect upon or critique its most fundamental assumptions. Often times the dominant ideologies hide or obscure realities we may not wish to face or that we do not believe are important. While there may be a veneer of rational discourse, questioning fundamental beliefs or practices is socially taboo. In any field there is a hierarchy, sometimes clearly structured like the military or a corporation, other times less defined, but more historically or culturally understood. People in hierarchies or any business exhibit behavioral patterns: most of those lower on the totem pole, so to speak, follow the beliefs and morals of the elites, because they identify with and seek to emulate them. Yes, it may be acceptable to challenge or test certain technical ideas, but usually not underlying, larger concepts. These prevailing cultural norms or commonly held beliefs are in fact artificial constructs rather than some kind of natural law. By investigating what lies at the root of these accepted beliefs we may discover new approaches and a new vocabulary. It is essential, however, to fairly judge dominant concepts in an effort to separate out the solid, hard won wisdom of our predecessors from their prejudices – there is always so much to learn. By the same token, new ideas must be treated with healthy skepticism. Many times the future is built by capitalizing on the best work of the past while simultaneously rejecting or throwing off outdated and limiting constructs.
What are the dominant and most accepted beliefs in the violin field here in the United States regarding bows? With dealers, there is an obsession with attribution and identification. Bows are primarily valued for who made them, where they were made, and when they were made. French bows are the best, German bows, the worst, with English bows somewhere in between. This approach has a number of interesting effects. It has made us, in many aspects, obsessed with history and geography. At most VSA or Federation meetings, there will be a myriad of historical lectures pointing out what house Tourte lived in, which church Stradivari was married in, whose cousin married so-and-sos daughter, etc, etc. It has also turned us into object scrutinizers. The best, most expensive books on the subject of bows are predominantly compendiums of photographs and measurements along with some biographical information. We all have attended lectures speaking to the technical aspects of a certain makers work, with an eye on identification. We obsess over details like chamfer knife chatter marks, pin placement, button proportions, brand lettering, nipple and mortise length, etc, etc. You will notice that one crucial aspect of these bows is generally omitted in such publications, and that is their playing characteristics.

So, we sort bows into different piles, based on the commonly accepted industry standards. Old French bows made by makers who are perceived to be historically important are the most valuable. Gold mounted bows with ivory or tortoiseshell frogs and buttons are better than gold and ebony mounted sticks which in turn are superior to ebony and silver bows, which are far superior to nickel mounted examples. A bow that is in better condition, as close to mint as possible, is better than a well-played stick with handle and frog wear. Certain makers are more valuable than others, their ranking decided mainly by dealers and collectors, rather than musicians at this point.

There has been a tremendous amount of research and effort put into studying the historical and technical aspects of bows. The wealth of knowledge is immense and I for one am grateful for all the hard work by dedicated colleagues in the field. But it is important to point out that knowledge is not wisdom. Knowledge is simply information. It can be used to justify certain market approaches. It can be used to delude ourselves. It can be used to dominate and control our customers.

We over-emphasize authority. Remember that an Authority is essentially self-created in this field. It is not a matter of academic degrees or professional certification after all and most of the time if someone says they are knowledgeable about something in a convincing way, we tend to believe them. Don’t get me wrong, without a doubt there are some real authorities in our field, I’m just saying the violin business is largely unregulated and we place too much emphasis on issues related to sales, which can lead to problems, like an addiction to certificates. There is nothing like the Bar Association or American Medical Association that really governs professional behavior and ethics. Yes, one can become a certified appraiser (there are 8 listed in the US on the Appraisers Association of America website) or join the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, which is really more like a club than an active governing body.

Here I need to say that I make a distinction between expertise and authority. There is a tremendous amount of expertise in the bow business, and here I mean the experience of craftsmen and women who work on bows day in and day out. These dedicated experts have so much knowledge about bows, but how much do we really care about them? The true leaders of the field are those who create the culture and rules of our trade, who we imbue with unassailable knowledge, pay the most attention to, and who weigh in on identification and attribution. Here, musicians as much as members of the trade are to blame. Shops are judged not by the quality of the work and service they offer, but by the price and status of the items they sell. The more expensive a bow is, the better it is. This concept is the true philosophic root of the violin dealing business at present.

What is the dominant ideology on the craft side of the business? The emphasis is on cleanliness of construction and originality of modeling. The accepted wisdom is that a bow made following the right recipe by a competent craftsman will be a good bow. Bows are not tested by musicians at VSA competitions, only by experts and other makers. It is essentially a beauty contest. Yet, a bowmaker who has won many VSA awards is commonly regarded as a great maker. Now without a doubt these winners represent some of our most accomplished craftsmen. However, we are told that the bows are tested for playability, but they are just not played. Form trumps function is seems. The culture of American bow making is definitely influenced by the competition and its rules – makers eager to win analyze the styles and style predilections of the announced judges, frog and buttons fit so firmly and perfectly they are sometimes difficult to work, unique modeling becomes a way to stand out, etc. etc. Is the bow simply an accessory or is it the music making tool that defines and makes unique the family of bowed string instruments?

The Oberlin bow making program, celebrating its 20th year, introduced American makers to the historic French style of bow making, advancing a very young field that was mainly defined by what we may call the Salchow school, who was initially trained in France, but really worked in his own style. However, the paid participation of master French bowmakers working solidly in the Mirecourt tradition ceased over a decade ago and the program is currently a gathering of invite-only makers who work on their own and together, focusing mainly on technical construction techniques, as well as socializing with colleagues and the creation and enforcement of social hierarchies. There is so much to learn from colleagues at the Oberlin bow-making program, without a doubt, and American made bows are better made, better looking, with the exception of some rather personal modeling, than they ever have been. Unlike many of the older European workshop systems, where groups of makers made massive amounts of bows under a master, American makers are creating their own bows, by themselves, from scratch and are working at the highest levels of craftsmanship. However, there is not enough official conversation concerning issues of function. There is undoubtedly a tremendous wealth of functional knowledge out there – I’m not saying it doesn’t exist! I’m simply saying the emphasis is firmly on form, the belief being that fine form will equal fine function as reflected in and influenced by the VSA bow competition judging methods. Economically, makers suffer unless they have the ability to sell large quantities of bows directly to musicians, which is rare. When they consign their bows, some dealers will take as much as 50% of retail, and when shop owners do sell a bow it can sometimes be hard to get paid. The emphasis on appearances over questions of playability by bowmakers and the VSA competition as well as the lack of economic support by many dealers come together to define the dominant ideology of the bow making business.

The modern bow as we know it is the result of a close collaboration of musician and maker. Think of the Cramer model bow for example. Neither party, despite being masters of their art, could have invented such a thing on their own. If we accept the story of Viotti and the Tourte brothers, we must also accept the crucial interplay of form and function. Viotti, as well as other musicians and composers of the time, needed something new, a bow that better handled the music and developing technique of the time, the Tourtes were located in one of Europe’s most important musical centers and were highly skilled and successful craftsmen. A great bow is something that may be crafted by a maker, but it must satisfy the player. No less an expert than Bernard Millant has commented that the bow would have never evolved into its present state without the demands and needs of musicians and composers.

A bow is very different from a violin. With an existing instrument, there are more many variables that can come into play when trying to adjust or improve playability. Neck length and angle, bassbar, finger board, bridge, post, strings, after-length, etc., etc. Some people have attempted to regraduate older bows, but it is a less common occurrence. A bow is a simpler, more elegant, but in many ways more mysterious, music making device. There are few adjustments to make outside of straightening, cambering, rehairing, and changing balance. In many ways you are stuck with what you get, so it is important to be more cautious when evaluating a bow for purchase. A bow is also easier to fake than a violin for many of the same reasons.

The very first thing I do is weigh the bow. Here a good scale is needed. A smaller portable version is best for travel, like the Japanese made Tanita I generally use. At the shop, a larger digital scale or a nice triple beam will do the job. Most auction houses have the weights listed, but I always double check because I have found errors. Many of us know the accepted ranges of bow weights as being 58-62 grams for a violin bow, 68-72 for a viola bow, and 78-82 for cello bows. In my experience these weight ranges are a bit too narrow. The fact is that there are lighter bows and heavier bows that work amazingly well and there are professionals at the highest levels using these sticks. The concern over an overly light bow is that is won’t sit in the string, pull out enough sound, and will feel like it wants to fly away. A bow that is too heavy can dampen the sound, feel unwieldy, and can tire and eventually injure the player. The range of acceptable weights needs to be expanded several grams in both directions – so a violin bow for example can weigh 56-64, but always keep an eye out for lighter and heavier bows that may just break all the rules! It is important to note here that there is no single perfect type of bow – there is a wide range of preferences and musical applications. Some musicians may prefer a stick that has more downward motion, that sticks to the string and needs to be coerced into spicatto strokes, while others prefer a livelier bow with plenty of upward motion, but may be less willing to just sit in the string. A stick that works great for X, may not work well with Y.

Weight doesn’t exist in a bubble. It must always be considered in conjunction with balance. A bow that is above or below the commonly accepted weight levels, may still be balanced and play well. If a bow has good balance, there is a better chance it will feel natural in the hand. A bow that is significantly out of balance however, even if it is exactly, say 60 grams, may feel deceptively heavy or light depending on the weight distribution. If a bow is too light in the tip, it may feel like it won’t stay on the string where a bow that is more tip heavy may feel better for players, especially younger ones, but can feel ungainly in the hand and feel like it wants to flip forward when at the frog.

There are a number of ways to judge balance point – it doesn’t matter which method or measurements you use in my opinion. The main factor is that you take the concept of balance into consideration. I balance the bow on my finger and measure, in inches with a steel ruler, to the end of the wood, where the silver button meets the stick. In a violin and viola bow I look for a measurement of about 9 1/2 inches, in a cello bow about 9 inches. If a bow is rather light, I’d prefer it to be slightly tip heavy. Just remember that the closer your finger is to the end of the stick, the more frog heavy it is, the closer to the head, the more tip heavy. You may notice that I say “about” 9 1/2 inches or “around” 9 inches. This is because measuring balance in this way is less than scientific – I’ve done tests and feel there is about a 2.5mm plus or minus error here. However, I find his method more than suffices from a practical perspective. There are also bows that are technically out of balance, but musicians love. Ultimately the player will decide what works and we need to respect that, but always continue to educate our clients.

An important consideration of checking both weight and balance when evaluating bows is the issue of available adjustment. If I find a violin bow that is 54 grams and light in the tip, how are you going to correct for that? Traditionally you would remove weight from the handle, but this would make the entire bow even lighter. A heavy silver headplate will move the balance, but only a little. You could use a lead plug in the tip mortise or add weight inside, but these are desperate measures I might only do for a customer in need. I’d never buy or sell such a bow. The other type of problem bow is the heavy bow that is significantly tip heavy. In the case of a very tip heavy bow, the remedy would be to add a heavier grip and wrap, bringing the bow into balance – the problem here being that you may end up with a stick that is entirely too heavy. I’ve seen many of these types of bows at auction sell for decent amounts of money. It is my advice to avoid them entirely. There is a reason they have ended up at auction, and it’s not because they are amazing examples, no matter what they are branded.

After a consideration of weight and balance, I examine the health of the stick. Damage in the handle can usually be repaired responsibly and not effect overall value, so I tend not to worry much over a crack or enlarged holes in the butt end. However, it is important to examine the handle and handle mortise to look for previous repairs, alterations or grafts. A colleague bought a bow at auction only to find that the area directly forward of the mortise and pilot hole had been drilled out and packed with lead, and in another case I found a Pfretzchner with a graft in the handle!

Examine the head for any cheek cracks, splines, blown-out and repaired mortises, as well damaged or replaced tip wood. One must be careful, because pernambuco can sometimes have pronounced grain lines that may confuse you. Take a close look at the head chamfers for cracks as it is harder to disguise them on these surfaces. Has the head been altered in any way, perhaps to look like a certain maker? Look for recent suspicious tool marks, over polished or touched-up areas.

The length of the stick must be examined for any lifts, checks, cracks, grafts, as well as burn marks from bad straightening or camber work. You can use the naked eye, cheap reading glasses, or even a magnifying glass. Check the stick for straightness and camber. Most crooked bows can be straightened quite easily, unless they were made that way! Any kinks in the camber can usually be corrected as well. I also always check for twist. I’ve been told by some dealers at auctions that they always reject a bow with any twisting, but I have been largely successful in removing it, except in cases where the bow was just not made properly in the first place. There are two main ways of checking for twist. First you can put the bow on a relativity level surface, making sure the frog is securely fit to the stick with no wobbling, and hold the frog down flat on the table. Next look at the head of the bow and see if it too is sitting flat to the surface. The other method involves holding the stick in such a manner that you can look down directly above the frog, centering the stick on the metal of the ferrule. Keep both eyes open as you do this. Holding the bow steady, look up at the head. You will see whether the head is twisted to one side or the other. Keep in mind here that a small twist is not necessarily a problem and that a twist into the playing side of the bow is preferable to a twist in the opposite direction. Also, a twist doesn’t necessarily mean there is a playing issue. If the bow is slightly twisted, but it plays fine – leave it alone!

Next I take a close look at the frog and button. The first thing to consider is whether the frog fits the stick properly. Do the facets match and do the sides stick out from of the handle? Is the button too large, small, or out of character with the overall style of the bow? Are they original to the stick? Check the frog for signs of repair like a cheval or wood fill. Is the thumb projection exceedingly worn? Make sure the ferrule is healthy, although ferrules can be repaired or replaced without any damage to the value or function of the bow. Worn out pearl eyes or slides are not an issue except for the extra work that you’ll have to do in order to get the bow ready for sale.

Some dealers and players are turned off by signs of wear caused by years and years of playing. Oftentimes you will see a bow with dents in the top of the handle, where the thumb projection meets the stick, or on top of the stick in the wrap area. Some of the bigger areas of wear can be filled if necessary and a handle can be covered in leather or tape to protect from further damage. It’s important to consider why a bow would have so much wear. Yes, different people have different body chemistry or may have sweaty hands, but what such wear usually means is that the bow has good playing characteristics. Otherwise, why would it have such damage? I really like these “players” sticks and have found that the majority of them play very well. Bows with heavy wear may be devalued financially, but can be responsibly repaired and represent a great value for players who just need a bow that works well as a music making tool.

Let’s now go over some of the tools I use when evaluating bows in the shop and out.

I’ve created an area of my shop that I call my Bow Lab in order to better examine and study bows that come through the shop. It consists of:

Zeiss surgical microscope – for examining bows in great detail. This is the same type of microscope that John Becker uses in his shop for filling and touching up cracks, etc, although not the identical year and model. Nice features of this tool are the ranges of magnification from 5X to 40X and that it is illuminated through the actual objective. This is great for seeing cracks, lifts, grafts etc. I bought mine used on Craigslist for around $500.

USB microscope – This $30 illuminated mini-microscope attaches to your computer. The magnified image appears your monitor where you can capture images and save them. I use this tool to better show customers damage that they would otherwise have difficulty seeing clearly with the naked eye. I can also email the photos to colleagues or customers.

Black light box – I had the idea of constructing a box that was completely black inside, with a view port and a cloth covered opening so I could check bows over with black light without shutting off all the lights in the shop or going into another room. Customers could also easily take a look. I found this box on eBay – it’s apparently designed for checking gemstones and has two black light bulbs, each with a different wavelength. The glass viewing window is made of protective glass to protect the eyes.

Good digital scale – Ohaus with large display for customers to see easily if need be.

Good triple beam – Dial-O-Gram for double checking and heavier objects

Hand held LED/UV light – This is a Streamlight Night Com UV LED combo light that is useful for auctions or for supplemental lighting in the shop. It has two levels of ultraviolet as well as two levels of regular LED light.

Clip-on UV light magnifier for phone camera – This is a silly little $5 plastic clip-on magnifier with both regular LED and UV lighting. Its not the highest quality item, but it actually works well for travel.

Luxo magnifier lamp – I really like the Luxo Wave Magnifier with dual fluorescent lights. This one has 3.5X magnification and a big wide magnifier.

Better lenses for IPhone camera – If you don’t have a fancy camera set-up, but have a phone with a decent camera in it, these clip-on lenses, specifically the macro lens, can be quite useful. You can take a picture for quick reference or use it like a digital magnifying lens.

Surgical lamp/Machinists Lamp – in addition to normal bench lamps, have one high powered lamp with superior color rendition
So far, I have spoken about the violin business and technical considerations concerning selecting a bow. Now it is time to turn to the musicians.

In my introduction I asked two questions which pertain to musicians and bows. The first was why are musicians oftentimes buying bows which clearly don’t work and what exactly IS a good bow?

Why are musicians buying bows that are too heavy, out of balance, over-priced, too stiff, crooked and just hard to use? Three answers: the state of education – technical and practical, marketing, and tone. String musicians spend years mastering their instruments. The predominant pedagogical theories promote endless practicing and repetition alongside constant learning of new repertoire. The string instrument is so difficult to play at a high level, that players who didn’t start when they were little kids are considered to be at a serious disadvantage. Players are so focused on learning technique and on practicing that they don’t learn very much about the instruments and bows they use every day. This lack of learning is why many students and players depend so heavily on their teachers and colleagues to help them select a bow or violin – even into adulthood. The fact is that there is very little discussion in the average conservatory about what constitutes a good violin or a good bow, much less about the ins and outs of the violin business.

Because there is a serious lack of education for musicians on the equipment front, they fall prey to marketing and the dominant ideology of the fiddle-selling business – old French bows are best, the more expensive the bow, the better it is. Some names have a higher cachet than others and are therefore more desirable. So some musicians fall into the status trap, where they are judged or feel they are judged by the pedigree of their bow and instrument.

In the absence of the consideration of the attributes a good bow must have and in the face of a heavy cultural emphasis on attribution in violin shops, musicians often fall back on something they do know about – tone. They may ignore that a bow has functional flaws, costs a fortune and doesn’t come with respectable papers if they feel it sounds good on their instrument. I have seen many musicians select bows that had horrible draws and weak spiccato, were way out of balance, and had questionable attributions and prices all in the name of tone.

What are the attributes of a good bow? The first thing to think about is the quality of the draw. By putting the bow on the string at the frog, and here I mean right where the hair comes out of the ferrule, and pulling it over the string all the way to the tip and back, one can tell so much about the quality of the stick. Here I usually recommend using the A or D string on a violin because the G is a little larger and more resistant, while the E string is so narrow and bright sounding. Also it is best to play the bow halfway between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard, because this is a common contact point and shows the bows abilities best. One can play the open string or a scale for testing purposes.

How does the bow track across the string? Is there a jiggle in the stick? Most bows have some kind of vibration, but is this jiggle strong enough effect the tracking or does it cause the player to feel a momentary loss of control so that she overcompensates and potentially crushes the sound? A jiggle can be distracting or annoying, which is certainly something you don’t want when you are playing difficult repertoire. If the bow visibly moves during the draw, but the musician can’t feel the jiggle, it’s just fine.

Next, does the bow collapse at any point along its length? This is when the bow seems to lose resistance and slumps downward, trapping the hair between the string and stick. Some bows may touch the hair from time to time, but remain resilient in the hand and cause no control or tone problems. But a bow that just gives out can be disconcerting for the player.

Does the bow want to slide away and go off track? A great stick, played with proper technique, will feel like a train solidly connected to the rails as it moves down the track. The bow only shifts position back and forward between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard when the musician moves it to attain certain tonal effects.

Think about balance as well. Does the bow feel connected to the string along its entire length? Does it get “into the string” properly or does it feel like it want to lose contact, causing you to feel the need to press harder? Some bows feel extraordinarily uncomfortable at the tip or frog, especially in the hand. As the player executes a complete and full up bow, the wrist bends, the elbow rises, the arm lifts from the shoulder, and the hand moves towards the musicians face. Can you feel the hand cramping as this complex movement is executed? Amazing bows feel like approaching the frog is like drawing something comfortably in, as in a hug. As the bow moves down, drawing towards the tip, away from the frog, the hand and arm drops away from the instrument, moving from the shoulder, before the forearm begins to drop back from the elbow. At this point the player releases the hand slightly. The nature of some bows is such that as the player draws down past the midpoint, the bow creates a sensation of stress and tension in the bow hand which increases as the bow reaches the tip.

The next major thing a bow must do is bounce. Some bows feel like they want to move down, into the string, which can be a great attribute, but may be reluctant to jump, while other sticks are more lively, having a tendency toward a more upward motion – here the potential problem being a sense that the bow is out of control. There is no right or wrong. Great sticks and player’s preferences fall across the spectrum. However, a bow must be capable of performing certain strokes. Jumping strokes where the bow leaves the string and returns, especially the different types of spiccato, are amongst the most difficult techniques a musician must master. This isn’t a case where great musicians can make any bow work – some sticks just don’t do the job and players won’t even try to make them work – they will simply put them aside. Students saddled with bows that are not capable of good movement will struggle and perhaps fail to develop a sophisticated spiccato.

Though there is much to be said about properly developed bowing technique, when we are testing bows to be added to our inventory, they MUST pass muster with the Mendelssohn or Schumann Scherzo, Beethoven’s Eroica, or Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony? In testing, most bows do not pass these tests. Bows, in their failings, can be weak, without bounce, or lack more complex tone. Many customers come in struggling with themselves, only to find that a profoundly functional bow can eliminate difficult technical issues.

Many of these pieces consist of difficult string crossings and spicatto strokes. While it may be easy to do spicatto on the E string, getting a good spicatto on the G string is much more challenging. Regarding crossings, can the bow manage the shifting between different sized strings, where the different notes need to speak immediately? Adding to this, many musicians are not really sure of the motion of spiccato or how it’s generated physiologically. So, very basically, spicatto is a motion or stroke where the bow hair makes contact with the string and then comes off the string, becoming airborne, but remains extremely close to the string. There is certainly a range of spicatto strokes, but one of the most difficult is what we can call “the orchestral spiccato”. We have found that if a bow can comfortably manage this stroke, it will excel at most other forms of leaping or jumping strikes where the hair leaves the string. Here we are talking about a very small, tight movement of the hair off and on to the string, at piano or mezzo piano levels. Despite it being a small, fast, tiny stroke, when the hair is in contact with the string, the contact is surprisingly concrete. It is not a brush stroke.

By way of concluding this talk, I’d like to make several suggestions that I believe would vastly improve the lot of bow-makers, musicians and dealers.

First of all to makers and shop owners, consider issues of playability more when evaluating new bows or bows you will stock in inventory. Educate your customers and clients and in turn, learn from them. Many musicians could use some guidance and many makers and dealers have much to benefit from by listening to the players they serve. Never cease to educate yourself.

In connection to this, the VSA needs to add musicians into the mix when judging bows. I’ve been told this has been tried before and failed. I can find no logical reason which explains why judging a bow is any harder than judging a violin. Qualitative judging is always fraught with difficulty, and competitions are by definition, compromises – there are just so many variables involved. If we believe that the modern bow is the result of not only the musical and social changes in late 18th century Europe, but also of the essential collaboration between players and makers, then it only makes sense to find a sensible way of involving musicians in the VSA bow judging process. What would your reaction be to the concept of removing musicians from the judging of the instruments at VSA competitions? It would seem odd, right? No bowmaker can receive the equivalent of a Tone Award, which is ridiculous because I see expensive, classic bows every day which would never have won a VSA medal even when new, that just play beautifully and sound wonderful. You can’t have something like, say, a Playability Award without the participation of musicians! When the player-judges play and talk about the winning instruments – and the audience asks questions, the winning bows there sit rather anonymously without recognition or comment. Is this what we want for bows and bow makers, a kind of second-class citizenship? Of course not. I freely offer my assistance if the VSA would like to explore how to effectively incorporate musicians into the bow judging process.

The Oberlin Workshops, although “sponsored” by the VSA and run by many VSA board members, in fact has nothing to do with the VSA. It is actually run through Oberlin College. Because of this it is unclear how it is organized or structured. There seems to be no formal way of making suggestions, submitting workshop proposals or concerns. It is unclear who is getting paid to participate, and if so, how much. The program clearly generates plenty of money through its tuition – perhaps as much as $200,000 a summer if the listed online tuition and attendance rates are correct. I’m afraid that these valuable workshops are simply run by a core group of insiders with very little oversight or outside participation. While this system has clearly worked for some of the programs, others could use an injection of new ideas and energy

Regarding the Oberlin Bow programs, I would like to commend the repair and restoration workshop. This amazing workshop is open to those who are interested, easy to sign up for and extremely helpful and flexible. I would recommend it to anyone without hesitation. (And I have!)

The Bow Making program is a historic workshop which has had an incredibly positive effect on our craft, but it needs to continue to evolve and expand to stay relevant. First off it’s not clear how to sign up or what the requirements are for inclusion. There are no details about the program on the website and no information on who to contact. By making it clear what the program actually represents and giving interested makers a clear idea of who is eligible and how to sign up, there will be more inclusivity rather than the sense of exclusivity the workshop currently has. This shouldn’t be some kind of small secret society or fraternity open only to a select core of longtime attendees and their vetted guests. If you look at the violin making workshop by comparison, you will find an incredible variety of ages, genders, and cultures as well as greater numbers. New faces and personalities mean new energy and strengthen the workshop through different ideas, personal experiences and perspectives. The workshop currently is an amazing repository of technical knowledge and is comprised of some extraordinarily talented and experienced bow makers. Let’s add to that. It would be nice to have more curriculum as well. Wouldn’t it be great to build on the program’s strengths by adding more formal demonstrations and organized group discussions on topics germane to our field? Why not talk more about the business aspects of making too. It’s one thing to make a great bow, quite another to sell it. So I say open up the workshop, democratize it and build upon its already impressive foundations.

This leads me to my final points. Perhaps it’s time to add a new bow workshop at Oberlin. I purpose a kind of sister workshop to the violin acoustics program, one where makers, experts and players can work together on practical issues of bow function. This could be a place where we could consider issues of playability, working on the deeper issue of understanding what makes a good bow. Here I emphasize the inclusion of working musicians in order to foster a better connection between maker and player – creating a dialogue of mutual education, drawing together our often disparate experience, training and knowledge in order to move forward and better ourselves and our inextricably linked professions.

For me, the way forward for makers, players and shop owners is a renewed consideration of and appreciation for concepts of fine function in conjunction with historical research and issues of craftsmanship. We need to move away from the emphasis on and addiction to certification and all the potential problems and abuses inherent in a system which places pedigree and price over playability. I’ve even considered creating a Certificate of Playability for the bows I sell in the shop, for example. This new paper would include a full condition report listing weight balance repairs, materials, etc. as well as a description of the bow’s functional attributes. A musician shopping for a bow could use such a certificate as a guide to help them best select a suitable stick.

Yes, a consideration of origin and provenance is important and helpful, but we need a more holistic and self-conscious approach to evaluating bows. Sometimes I find that issues of provenance and pricing get in the way of me doing my job. Instead of being able to focus on the bow itself, I have to first consider whether the bow is authentic or not and what it should sell for. Musicians often bring me bows that they bought for large sums of money without any kind of documentation which they’d like to consign. Often times these are not bows I would have ever personally selected for sale. Here the prevailing ideology becomes a machine which is hard to override and ignore. The system forces me to become a history detective first, a bow maker second. Considerations of music making and playability can easily be eclipsed.

Musicians are as vital as bow makers in the creation of music, and the knowledge base of both needs to be better integrated and shared, for we are part of a whole rather than separate forces. The bow is a vital music making tool, one which defines the unique nature of the family of stringed instruments – an item which is complex in its simplicity, a highly personal extension of the musician herself, without which the violin would be practically mute. Give this voice the respect it deserves.

Thank you very much.

Reaction to Latest Joseph Curtin study testing Musicians

                                                                     Grancino Violin

I have read the latest complete study by Curtin, Fritz, etc, titled “Soloist evaluations of six Old Italian and six new violins “, as well as all related documentation and letters.  The complete study is available here: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1323367111

I encourage readers to take a look at the study in detail.

While I congratulate Curtin et al on their very interesting study, I have some questions concerning their methods and conclusions. I am no scientist, but a member of the luthier community where I make, repair and sell violins and bows in one of the violin business’ most vibrant centers, Chicago.

The qualitative study basically says that elite soloists and players cannot distinguish the tonal and playing characteristics between classic Italian violins and new instruments made by prominent modern luthiers in blind tests.

First off I wonder how the authors can premise their entire study on seemingly unproved and untested beliefs, mainly attributed to musicians, for example the idea that old Italian violins are superior. Over and over we are given facts which are presented as being representative of the feelings of untold thousands of classical string musicians world-wide. Are there any studies or statistics to confirm these broad statements? If these stated mass-beliefs were found to be predominant in any given population of players, why aren’t the roles of luthiers and, more importantly dealers in perpetuating such myths explored? Why does the purported fault lie solely at the feet of the players?

Secondly, the authors mention that there are many reasons a musician may choose an instrument by way of explaining their methods, stating, “And, in the end, it is violinists who choose their instruments and whose judgements are therefore most consequential.” However, there seems to have been no effort made on the part of the authors to actually inquire of working, professional musicians how they go about choosing an instrument or, more importantly what they consider to be the attributes of a good violin. Curtain et al simply impose a system of their own creation upon the subjects, asking them to rate the instruments based on a system of unexplained origin. The ill-defined six rating categories or criteria as well as the musical pieces participants had to choose from when playing with a pianist are several other examples of this top down testing process.

Thirdly, there seem to be entirely too many variables involved. The players use their own bows, which any expert in bows understands immediately creates a huge amount of variables as a bow imparts or detracts from an instrument’s tone, clarity and projection. The violins are set up by many different luthiers and use different types of strings. From a logical perspective it is not enough to assume that owners of fine old Italian instruments would have them set up and adjusted so that they would sound their best. Any working luthier understands that violins have many, many variables that can be adjusted when it comes to sound production and performance. The authors do acknowledge some of these variables as well as the existence of many other factors, but plow right ahead anyway.

I personally have never bought into the idea that the older and instrument or bow is, the better and more expensive it must be. It seems to me that this is mainly the result, not solely of musician’s beliefs, but mainly of the decades upon decades of marketing and selling by dealers and collectors. Musicians are often the victims here rather than perpetrators of this “Cremonese Mythology”. Let us not forget that many of these “new” makers sell their violins for upwards of $50,000 and these prices continue to rise. Do they seek to replace the existing hierarchy rather than abolish it? Would Joseph Curtain be willing to compare the instruments of these elite new makers to say, a group of mass produced, inexpensive Chinese Jay Haide violins? By logical extension of the conclusions reached by this study, musicians won’t be able to tell the difference.

Luthiers seem to have a penchant for wanting to test musicians rather than speak to and learn from them. The concept of “blind” testing of players has been repeated again and again, but to what end? This study comes off like one of those corporate-sponsored studies designed to reach a predetermined, industry-affirming conclusion. The Milk and Dairy Association says a study proves calcium in milk products produces stronger bones! The real issue here is a greater one. What are the characteristics that define a good violin for modern professional players? This question, with its social, cultural, economic, educational as well as more obvious technical variables is a far more complex, rich and potentially illuminating one than what the authors of this study have asked.

Advice for New Violin Professionals

Posing in my first shop...

Posing in my first shop…

There are many types of people and personalities and in the fiddle business there are two main camps on either end of the broad spectrum. Most folks new to the business find themselves somewhere along this continuum, usually closer to one extreme or the other. The first extreme is the ego-inflated hot-shot who thinks he or she knows it all, despite just having started in the business. Even if this type happens to be filled with real natural talent to back up such an attitude, it will be difficult for such a person to expand and grow as a craftsman. He or she is often prone to sloppy, rushed work and is nearly impossible to train effectively. However, if you can get through to such a person, get them to slow down and listen, they can go on to have a good career because one needs a decent self-image and a fair share of ambition to make it in the fiddle biz. The second, more common type is the person who too timid, overly careful and fearful. These folks tend to have the ability to be really good craftsmen, but often get in their own way by holding themselves to unreasonable standards, many times unexamined. This “violin school mentality” can seriously set you back if you let it. After being made to take two weeks making and fitting a bass bar, for example, it can be difficult to understand what is acceptable time-wise and craft-wise. The ability to find your style and preference of work, to understand what level of work is required and in what amount of time, and how to best achieve that goal, is one of the harder things to master in the world of lutherie. You must find a way of gaining confidence evenhandedly, realizing that you are not out to impress others in the field, but yourself and, most importantly, your customers.

If someone stepped on my Strad, I would probably send it to John Becker in Chicago because I know from personal experience that the level of work coming out of his shop is some of the best in the world. A Stradivari is a rare and valuable item, an object of great musical and historical significance, therefore I would be willing to pay the hefty repair bill. Hopefully this hypothetical violin would have been heavily insured, so the work would be the responsibility of my insurance company – but you get the point!
Folks who work at the highest levels of restoration have years and years of experience and only through continuous hard work, practice and holding themselves to the highest standards, have they reached the level of craftsmanship they represent. It’s ok if you want to be like this one day, but it’s going to take a shitload of work. Not everyone will have the chops to work at such a level or the constitution, but the example is there if you choose to follow that path. And realize that such a journey will involve its fair share of fuck-ups, setbacks, and hard lessons.

Every craftsman (or woman) must always endeavor to work at the best of their abilities, without a doubt. However, there are complications to this simple concept. Those new to the field, luthiers who may be fresh out of violin making school and working at their first job for example, face the prospect of having to learn while they earn. Being allowed to work at the best of your ability, to actually complete repairs and get them out the door is difficult when ones abilities are still developing. The advantage to a shop with a decent boss is that this is fundamentally understood and you will be given work commensurate to your abilities. A good shop foreman, more experienced colleague, or owner will guide you and train you, keeping you on track and working at the best of your current powers. Without tackling new challenges and completing work you may be uncomfortable with, you will never improve. All the while, customer work must be completed well, within the deadlines and shop-owned or consigned inventory must be set-up and restored for sale – this is how a shop makes its money, after all.

A good craftsman gets the job done right in the right amount of time for the job. The old Bein & Fushi workshop, when it was still in-house, used a “unit” system. A neck-set, for example, should take six “units” to complete correctly. A “unit” represented an hour. The repair needed to be done correctly, in a timely manner. This is the goal, but it takes years of practice. At B&F at the time, if you couldn’t hack it, you were out. You must remember that if you are working for someone, your goal is not to be a “Grande Artiste”, but to make the shop money by doing timely, solid work. This concept is at the heart of what it means to be a craftsman.

One problem is that not everyone gets to work for a rational, talented shop-owner. In some shops, the employees are given very little guidance and rely on one another and the more senior members. Some shop-owners put all the emphasis on irrational, unnecessary things – they are obsessed with seemingly bizarre pet-peeves. The way you learn something in the back room of a violin shop may not reflect current repair practices or industry standards. Some shops have such an insular, unhealthy atmosphere that it may be difficult to learn anything at all.

However, the goal must be to grow at every opportunity. You may have to learn mainly negative lessons, but there is usually something to practice at and improve on, if you are allowed to do so, like rehairing or cutting and fitting bridges. It is important to realize that you are really responsible for your own education – it’s not a perfect world or business and you have to make your own opportunities. You can always supplement your on-the-job learning with visits to workshops as well as conferences and by reading articles or publications. You are not owed anything just because you graduated from or attended a violin making school.

When I spoke about people who are working at a very high level I mentioned the concept of constitution. You see, it’s not enough to have the ability to do something, you have to have the follow-through to get it done. In order to succeed in this business, you have to not only strive to be the best you can be as a worker, you have to realize that this is a service industry and you have to deliver. Time equals money and if you get caught up spending hours and hours on something that should take 45 minutes, you might go broke. That’s why the real test of the fiddle biz is working for yourself. The final destination for most who do well is self-employment. Gone are the days of the large shops and a prospect of lifetime employment. Having your own repair business, for example, whether you are contracting work for shops or dealing directly with musicians is a challenging and potentially amazing way to live, but look out for perfectionism. The challenge of working at your best, but knowing you could do better, while still finishing the work and therefor getting paid can be difficult to manage. You need to be able to continue to grow and evolve as a craftsman, but you also need to pay the rent! Do the best you can, stand behind your work, and always strive to improve.

You see, there is a spectrum of repairmen. There is no one right way or single perfect example. You have to be the type of worker that best fits your abilities and personality. On one end of the spectrum are those who are working at the highest levels of repair and restoration, who are working on extraordinarily valuable instruments. These workers strive for a level of perfection that is hard to believe. They use surgical microscopes to fill and touch up cracks and may reject a bridge for having the minutest amount of knife chatter in one of the kidneys. Something a fraction of a millimeter off may as well be off by a mile. They usually contract work from those who own or sell the worlds most expensive instruments. If this is how you want to work, power to you, but it is only one way.

Other people in the business are mainly in the “educational” category. They may have a large rental pool and sell less expensive imported instruments. These instruments and bows all need to maintained and set-up properly – a monumental task. Helping new players and youngsters learn to play a stringed-instrument is a vital and important task. Plenty of successful people in the field started out working on rental violins and bows – don’t look down on it. This is a great way to just become more comfortable working with instruments and bows and to practice basic set-up and repairs.

Another category of craftsman sits in the shop day after day seeing to the real needs of her clients – usually working professional musicians and students. Oftentimes found in large urban centers, these are often “one-person” shops that usually specialize in something like bows or cello-work. Such a worker is capable of doing restorations, set-up, simple repairs as well as adjustments. Many of them supplement their income with sales. They can become very knowledgeable of their specialty due to extensive experience day in and day out as well as constant contact with amazing musicians.

At the end of the day, you define yourself in this field – not your colleagues or bosses. There are many ways to make a living. If you decide to work for yourself, you have the opportunity to make more money, but remember that you are nothing without your customers. Once you build a solid customer base by giving high quality service over and over again, which takes years and years, you will be secure from professional slings and arrows, but you must always strive to evolve. Don’t take yourself too seriously, but always seek to be the best you can be at that moment. Do not allow fear to slow you down, but never let ego allow you to push bad work out the door or talk down to those who are seeking your help.

Oh, and please try to be honest! Good luck out there.

Ivory Law Update

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Info from the American Federation of Musicians:

“Dear Member:

Changes to help protect endangered elephants were recently proposed by the Obama Administration that would further restrict the import, export, or sale of ivory in the U.S. Our union has been working with the administration to ensure that revised ivory regulations make it easier for musicians that have instruments containing ivory.

The proposed regulations would allow musicians to travel with legally crafted instruments containing 200 grams or less of worked ivory if you possess a CITES permit and the ivory was legally acquired before 1976. The regulations would also remove restrictions on traveling with musical instruments purchased after February 25, 2014 as long as your instrument meets the other travel requirements. If you need a CITES permit, please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more information.

Please note the proposed guidelines would impact instrument sales so review the proposed guidelines if you are planning on buying or selling an instrument.

We applaud the administration for listening to us, but we do have concerns that the proposed language concerning provenance of ivory in instruments is unclear for musicians. These rules do not go into effect until the public has commented on them.

Please take a moment right now and request the administration clarify the proposed regulations. You may write you own comments or just paste the comments below.

I’m a professional musician and am troubled that the proposed regulations are unclear regarding what documentation I need to prove provenance of instruments containing ivory. Aside from information included in the antiques section of the proposed rule, please provide clarification on exactly what documentation the USFWS will accept as positive proof of provenance of ivory in instruments. 

Musicians standing together have the power.

In Unity,
Ray Hair
AFM International President

PS: Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter to keep informed about our union.”

Reconsidering Musical Training and the Violin Business in the Modern Era

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This is a very interesting video from The Chronicle of Higher Education, produced by Lisa Philip about The Peabody Conservatory,  the changes in the classical music performance field and the challenges training a new generation of musicians who need new skill-sets in order to succeed in a rapidly changing employment marketplace.

The truth is that there are far fewer well-paid positions for classical musicians in orchestra and symphony settings and that this change needs to be not only reflected in our major conservatories and other institutions of higher musical education, but in the violin business as well.

In this video, Peabody is actually acknowledging the shifts in the cultural and economic  landscape that present new challenges for musical professionals and the institutions that train them.   These changes should be reflected in the violin business as well insofar that the current concepts surrounding the purchase of string instruments and bows need to evolve.  Ideas of valuation vs function must be confronted and discussed.  The era may be rapidly approaching where students and young professional musicians may not be able to afford the exorbitant and constantly increasing prices charged for older (Italian) instruments and (French) bows due to the high cost of education and the new realities of employment.

The violin business is increasingly out of step with any real economy of supply and demand, and even with wholesale auction prices.  It is becoming a landscape where dealers, experts, and shop owners arbitrarily create prices and values – conflicting with the real-life needs and economic realities of the musicians which the field claims to serve.

A re-focusing on actual function over market value needs to occur.  The truth is that there are many, many over-priced poorly functioning instruments and bows out there – that have high prices due of provenance, geographical origin, and age.  While it is true that real items which function well, made by the acknowledged masters of the past, must have values commensurate with their beauty and rarity, the fact is that increasing numbers of students and professionals cannot afford these items. The future of the violin business, I believe, lies in finding, restoring, and selling bows and instruments that first and foremost work as musical tools as well as in a re-appreciation of the work of new makers.  By re-focusing on function, we can better provide quality inventory in every price range and meet the needs of an increasing cash-strapped, underpaid new generation of musicians.

See the video: http://chronicle.com/article/Video-A-Music-Conservatory/230005/

Winter Care and Storage of String Instruments.

Humidity

This article was written by bass player and Chicago bass luthier Mark Sonksen.  Mark asked me to post this in hopes that string players everywhere will read it and understand how important a factor humidity plays in the health of their instruments.  Check out Mark at: http://www.sonksenstrings.com/home.html

Winter Care and Storage of String Instruments.

If you have lived in any northern climate with seasonal changes in weather, temperature and humidity, this article is for you. As a double-bassist for the past 30 years and a luthier for the past 21 years, I have traveled with my instruments in many different climates, with varying humidity levels and temperatures and have seen the effects of this on both older and newer instruments. During the past two winters (2013-14, 2014-15) the North American continent has experienced extremes in heat and cold, accompanied with extremes in humidity levels. These changes in humidity are only exacerbated indoors through the various methods of heating a house, apartment, or university practice room. As a luthier, I have seen the results of these extreme fluctuations. If you are the owner of a violin, viola, cello or double-bass, it is very important that your knowledge about the effects of humidity on wood be more than internet forum hearsay, or other such misinformation. The health of your instrument depends on you!

The Glue

Instruments of the violin family—violin, viola, ‘cello, and double-bass—are traditionally made of air-dried wood and glued together using animal hide glue. Through a bonding process of cohesion and adhesion, hide glue creates a very strong, yet flexible and reversible glue joint. For this reason, wooden musical instruments are able to expand and contract with the humidity changes, ideally without a seam opening. The tension due to this expansion and contraction at times may result in the opening of a seam. Ultimately, an open seam is the best possible outcome for your instrument, rather than a crack opening on the top or back. Hide glue is unique in that is water soluble and an old glue-joint can be re-opened, cleaned out, and re-glued over and over again, creating a bond as strong as the original. This is due to the hydrogen bonding property of water-based glues. Hide glue has great capillarity and wetting properties, with the hot glue mixture being carried into the pores of the wood. In contrast, PVA glue (polyvinyl acetate)—commonly known as “wood working glue” or “white glue”—behaves differently. PVA glues are water-based emulsions which when cured, form a water-resistant bond through the process of evaporation and polymerization. There are many of these popular wood-working glues on the market and they do serve a specific purpose in woodworking. While it saves time in assembling a commercially made wooden musical instrument, it can cause future repair-related problems. White glue is a “surface adhesive” glue and after the clamping action has pushed white glue into the wood pores, a very thin layer of glue remains between the two wood surfaces. The glue in the pores of the wood then hardens and is nearly impossible to completely clean. Once dried, white glues are no longer water-soluble. The use of PVA glue becomes an issue when an instrument initially glued with white glue is then repaired using hide glue. The “new” glue joint will always be a point of weakness, due to the clogged wood pores. While the various PVA glues and epoxy resins have certain advantages over hide glue in very specific instances of bow and instrument repair and restoration, only hide glue should be used in the making of a new instrument and the repair of an older instrument.

The Wood

The wood used in making of the instruments is ideally cut at the proper time of year, air-dried to the proper humidity level, and stored in the proper manner. Unfortunately, the world is not ideal. It is simply not possible to have knowledge of this unless you personally know the maker of your instrument and have knowledge of his or her wood dealers and their harvesting and drying processes.
Wood is hygroscopic. This means that any given piece of wood adjusts to the environment’s humidity level by taking in moisture or releasing moisture. Freshly cut logs have “free” and “bound” water. “Free water” is water in liquid form that travels through the cell lumens of the wood. “Bound water” is water which is attached by hydrogen bonds to the woods cell walls. Although this is an oversimplification, during the drying process the free water is what leaves the wood and the bound water is that which remains. When completely dried and stable to that point the wood is stable enough to use, the woods cell walls are fully saturated and expanded because water has bonded at all possible connections. This is “fiber saturation point” or FSP. In a nut shell, this is why wood shrinks and swells according the humidity in which it is kept.
If this humidity change is too sudden, the wood will not have time to adjust without either a seam opening on your instrument or worse, a crack opening on your instrument. As the temperature in a house or apartment rises, the humidity moves lower, regardless of heat source. While cold can affect the playing of a musical instrument, within a certain range of temperatures it is generally not harmful, just uncomfortable. Lack of humidity is more of a concern. Even if you run a fireplace for winter heat, the humidity will still drop as the temperature rises. Some things to look for on your instrument that might be signs of wood movement:
-buzzing or rattling sounds due to open seams
-nasal or muted sound
-a wolf-tone where previously there was none, or a more obvious wolf-tone (this could even be as subtle as a bow skating across the strings, when it normally would not.

If you note any of these things, it is imperative that you seek the services of a trusted, professional luthier as soon as possible to repair your instrument, to prevent any further damage to your musical instrument!

Your Musical Instrument

Seasonal changes in humidity present unique problems to wooden musical instruments. Seams opening up are not uncommon and part of the routine maintenance involved in ownership of a string instrument. When the weather changes and you find the need to run the heat in your house or apartment, it is also time to run your humidifier. What?? You DON’T have a humidifier??!? The sponged filled hoses commercially available by the name “Dampit” are good start towards proper humidification but are they are not enough for most instruments. This will only humidify your instrument while in the case or gig bag, but is not sufficient. It is your responsibility to make sure your instrument is kept in a properly humidified environment. The amount of money spent on an instrument or the variety of wood used in the construction of your instrument does not absolve the owner from responsibility and proper care and maintenance. As a luthier, I guarantee all of my work under normal use and circumstances, and my clientele can rest assured that I will take appropriate measures during the repair and restoration process to make sure that things will not “blow apart” or new cracks develop after the work is finished. However, I cannot and do not extend any warranty in cases of obvious neglect, poor care and maintenance, and mishandling of an instrument. It is extremely rare that a crack is the result of a previous repair or restoration, and the removal and subsequent re-gluing of an instrument’s top is not why a crack opens up on an instrument.
Every string player who owns a wooden string instrument should purchase two very important items: a hygrometer and a humidifier. Both can be purchased at most local hardware stores and home stores. The hygrometer will allow you to be aware of regular room temperature and air humidity, thus letting you know when you should turn on your humidifier. As of February, 2015, a good digital hygrometer can be bought for $12 to $25. A decent sized humidifier can be bought for $120 – $200, a minor investment in comparison to the cost of your musical instrument. In my Chicago workshop at any given day, I have 35-40 double-basses strung up and at tension, thus a large investment. While most of these instruments are older double-basses, there are usually 8 – 10 that are newer instruments. For humidification of my workshop environment (approximately 1,200 square feet, with forced-air heat), I use a “whole house” humidifier with a total 5 gallon capacity, and a wicking type of filter. I have two of them: one for the front “showroom area” and one for the back work area of the shop. I strive to keep the humidity level at about 40%. At times it might go as low as 35%. A humidity level below 30% is cause for concern; below 25% is cause for alarm. Humidity control involves constant monitoring day and night, but this is the price to be paid for living in Chicago and enjoying our lovely winter season.
Cracks and open seams are a constant concern with a wooden musical instrument, but if proper measures are taken to keep consistent humidity levels, they can be a rare occurrence. This is especially the case with instruments such as the cello or the double-bass. I will stress again that, in the unlikely event that a seam opens or worse yet, a crack opens, you should not delay in getting a proper repair done. Proper humidification and consistent good maintenance will allow you to be at ease and concentrate on making beautiful music!

Bow Insurance Info

photo(6)A client of mine recently had his bow’s head beak off, and it got me thinking about insurance and insurance claims for instruments and bows.  First off, when you buy an item from a dealer, make sure to get an insurance appraisal as soon as possible and get it to your insurance company right away.  All sales should include a free, dated appraisal from the shop, which includes your name and address, a description of the item,  and an estimate of the cost to replace it should it become damaged.  Also, its best to deal with companies that specialize in musical instrument insurance, because they will have a better understanding of the costs, damage-types, and costs of repairs.

Please make sure ahead of time that you understand precisely which “methods” of damage are covered on your policy, not just the coverage limits.  Most insurance companies will make a distinction, for example, between a bow damaged while playing and a bow damaged in an accident, such as a fall or in shipping.

What happens if you are fully insured and the head of your stick breaks in half?  Contact your insurance company right away and tell them what happened.  Next, you will probably need one or several competing estimates from restorers for the repair, if it is repairable.  You will also need a document from an expert (bow-maker, dealer, etc) which describes the bow, the damage done and how much the overall value of the bow has been devalued.

If the bow head snaps, it can usually be splined (see picture above), which, when done properly, is a solid repair that will not affect the playability of the bow.  However, bows that need this repair loose 70%-75% of their original value.  The repaired stick constitutes 5%-10%, while the original frog and button make up 20%-25% of the remaining value, depending on the condition and maker. Some insurance companies will will simply total a bow, while others will pay for the repair and compensate you for the lost value.

Be careful out there!

 

 

(Re)Balancing a Bow, or How to Save Elephants.

johnny_automatic_violin_bowPhysicist and amateur violinist Elizabeth D. Freeland has written the magnum opus of bow-balancing math inspired by her interest in bows and conversations here in the shop.

Please follow this link:

http://magentaphysics.com/BalancedBow.php

The simplified version can be found in one of my previous posts at:

https://swansonbows.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/calculating-balance-point-shift/

Enjoy!!!!