Explicit rules, Implicit Rules

“Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.”

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgement

In many professional systems there are always those who are so dependent on what they perceive to be the status quo that any questioning or criticism is seen as a threat to their livelihood and very survival. These true believers are often the fiercest guardians and perpetuators of the entrenched dominant culture. The institutions they are a part of validate certain interpretations of what is right and what is wrong. When faced with a potentially negative analysis, the reaction is not one of the deep reflection or reconsideration, but rather an instant circling of the wagons, of coming up with and promulgating what at its best could be called knee-jerk defensive bromides. “They hate us for our freedom”, would be a prime example. This unexamined slogan has all the cultural power and seeming validity of an incessantly pervasive advertising campaign. Both speaker and listener immediately understand the context of the dismissal message. The status quo is protected, not through any kind of tortured detailed defense, but through the simplest of statements. The persuasive power of these catchy deflections is in fact almost always greater than the strength of actual, often times hard won truth. It is always expedient to believe the easy thing, while it is much more arduous to do the hard work of actual study and contemplation to come to ones own conclusions, even if, and especially because, they can call into question long held beliefs. This is why public relations and advertising has such a tremendous hold over most populations. Lies and innuendo are easier than detailed fact. Simpler and more obvious ideas are more likely to take hold in the cultural commons. If one tends to feel a certain way or believe he or she has a certain allegiance, a counterpoint or differing narrative can be threatening, or at least be perceived as threatening, especially to one’s usually fragile sense of self or economic situation. Yes, gossip and griping behind closed doors are tolerated and even encouraged as a way to blow off steam, but a public statement would be regarded a betrayal – thus the all too common code of silence and the visceral hatred of whistleblowers. While it is always important to question the motivations of the critic, it is also equally essential to consider their ideas. However, even this concept is too complex for most believers, because why should they take time to actually defend against a critique point by point if it isn’t necessary? A lazy reference to the most base, prurient possible motivation is usually more than sufficient. If one is so enmeshed in a system, one tends to idolize those they perceive as their superiors, and in such a situation it would be only natural to seek to one day attain such highly admired positions. If one is so invested in such a hierarchy, it is considered not beneficial to question it, if such a thing is even possible. In this way, great ideas and critiques are casually brushed aside with basic phrases, and systems continue, even in the face of imminent failure and disaster, especially for the true believers themselves.

MUSICIANS: Think about the system you currently find yourself in. Be it an educational institution, a professional symphony, or some kind of freelance gig, what are the underlying presumptions and systems that are simply taken for granted? Does it make sense that university string professors be required to recruit their own studios? What are the possible effects of such a system, positive or negative? What role does hierarchy play in professional symphonies? What are the official, explicit rules, and what are the implicit, unwritten rules? What are the consequences?

LUTHIERS: What are the public rules, if any, of the violin business? Why is critique or criticism oftentimes quickly dismissed with crude gossip or inaccurate comparisons to infamous, discredited predecessors? What are the other rules, never publicly recognized, which are so crucial to the identity of our trade? What the things that we quietly accept which should be questioned and challenged?


An Argument for Silver Tips


With all the problems surrounding the use of ivory or mammoth for headplates, one obvious solution is installing a silver tip.  A metal tip is obviously not ivory and has historical precedent – Hill bows come to mind as well as the work of a number of French makers.

An article entitled “What’s the Alternative” from the October Strad Magazine Accessories 2014 Supplement does a good job reviewing all the alternative tip materials, but it also it shows the wide range of opinion and concerns of makers and restorers.  Of course, getting people in my field to agree on anything is like herding cats. (Btw I’m mentioned briefly in the article. The fame is going to my head).

There are numerous alternative materials available to modern makers and repairmen that will work just fine – meaning that they will protect the tip of the bow, help reenforce the head around the mortise, provide proper balance, and make it across borders safely.  It makes sense that people on my end of the violin business tend to think more of numbers and technicalities than the more common sense issues of function that players must consider.

It is true that it is much more difficult to get silver to adhere well to wood, but the fact is that it is not impossible.  Yes, Hill bows traditionally used pins to keep silver headplates secure, but that is a practice that no self-respecting bow maker or restorer would do today because of the danger of cracks.  I simply use super glue and use what I call “faux pins”.  These pins go through the silver and into the ebony layer underneath, but don’t touch the wood of the head.  I find that this really helps the silver tip to stay securely fastened to the head of the bow.   There are also a wide range of glue types and epoxies available to the makers and restorers of today.

The next objection is the of weight change and the effect of a silver tip on the balance of the bow.  It is absolutely true that silver is heavier than ivory, but has anyone actually measured the weight and balance point differences?  Well, I have.  For example, a silver tip, 0.6 mm thick, 23mm long and 10mm at its widest, with the mortise cut out, weighed 0.7grams, while an ivory tip of the same dimensions weighed 0.4 grams.  How much did 0.3 grams move the balance point?  It moved 1.5 millimeters or about 1/16 of an inch.

As an experiment I took a bow that weighed 60 grams and had a balance point of 9.5 inches as measured to the end of the wood at the button and had several highly accomplished professional violinists play it.  Next, I stuck a 0.3 gram piece of lead tape to the head of the bow and had them play it again.  The universal comment was that the 1.5mm movement of the balance point had a nearly unnoticeable effect on the playability of the bow.

The truth is that is you really wanted to be a perfectionist or you have a super-sensitive player when adding a silver headplate, you could easily add 0.3 grams to the grip and wrap to balance out the stick (Elizabeth points out in her comment that this is not quite right.  MORE weight needs to be added at the end of the stick to properly balance out the bow – ES).  I have also found that very thin silver eliminated any measurable differences in weight with the ivory tips.  However, a silver tip may not be the best choice for a bow that is significantly balanced towards the head and already quite heavy.

Another argument I ran into when discussing this issue with colleagues at the last VSA convention was that installing a thinner headplate would reduce the overall height of the head and therefore have noticeable (and possible negative) effects on the bow’s playability.  It is important to understand that most older bows do not have their original tips and therefore it is very difficult to determine how thick an original tip would have been on any given stick.  Replacement ivory headplates appear in many different thicknesses – some paper-thin, others oddly thick.   However, we’re talking about a height difference of a fraction of a millimeter.

Does overall head height have a role in the playing characteristics of a bow?  Without a doubt.  How does the difference of less than a millimeter in height effect those characteristics?  I don’t have any evidence yet, but my educated guess is that it is negligible.

So go ahead musicians – get a silver headplate. Bow makers and back-room bow folks, have no fear, it’ll be just fine.