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.