Eric Swanson – Bowmaker
The latest issue of Strings Magazine (Dec 2016) has an article called, “State of the Craft – Contemporary makers on the trade today, how it relates to the past, and the way forward“, with Jonathan Cooper, Yung Chin, Peg Baumgartel, Joesph Curtain and others answering the same series of questions. I found their answers to be interesting and valid, but just a little bit too much on the positive, boosterism side of the equation, so I decided to answer the same questions more weighted on the realist, cynical side! Enjoy.
Why is this an exciting time to be a bow maker?
First of all I reject the premise of your question. If you are asking what it’s like to be a bow maker and violin shop owner in 21st century America, I can only say that it’s challenging more than exciting. I’ve been self-employed for a little over 15 years now and went to violin making school over 20 years ago. I’ve seen a lot of attitudes in this trade stay the same rather than evolve. Oftentimes the changes pointed out by my colleagues are nothing more than the consolidation and codification of a kind of groupthink which has narrowed our field rather than expanded it. In terms of facts on the ground, there has been an atomization in the violin business. There are more shops and makers than ever, but they are all reaching for a slice of a shrinking pie. I believe it’s harder than ever for new entrants into the field to gain quality education and experience due to a number of factors including the demise of the large shop based workshops and an absence of any kind of business training. There is almost zero analysis of the current national and global economy much less our trade’s micro economy, but we’ve all felt the pressure created by increasing overhead at our shops and homes, and there’s no doubt that our customers are feeling the same squeeze. For new members of the trade, there aren’t a lot of shop based jobs where one can earn a living wage, much less learn anything of worth. I’m not so optimistic about the condition of the American violin making schools either, as their original founders have passed away or retired. Into this breach has stepped the Oberlin workshops which have been a tremendous resource for practical technical information, but at the expense of a deeper, more complete education. I believe that Oberlin has served makers and restores well, but it has also created an almost cult like sameness amongst its attendants and its organizing and leadership are opaque at best. Makers especially need to do more to show their differences from one another. It’s also harder than ever to sell new instruments, and I’ve seen a distinct rise in new maker prices that I believe is not due to supply and demand but the fact that when new makers do, in fact, sell a violin or bow they need to get as much money from the sale as possible due to financial necessity. The business seems to be continuously obsessed with its own self importance at the expense of looking at meta-issues of market practices, pricing, and industry self-regulation. I’m sure plenty of your respondents will extol the wonderful new era of communication and cooperation, but this is usually related to issues such as which plane to use, or a preferred drillbit or repair technique, not practical, moral and ethical questions related to actually making a living in this trade.
Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of bow making?
The reality of bow making is that we are mainly trying to reproduce what we perceive to be the finest examples of historical bow making, namely 19th-century French work. We may have modern machinery and other materials available to us, but we’re really not doing anything groundbreaking. This is a craft based in tradition, but it does reflect our modern culture insofar that we are obsessed with mechanics and perfection over other issues.
What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?
Depends on what kind of player you’re dealing with and at what level they are performing. One of the main issues with younger players is that they are not quite sure what a good bow actually is. There’s a lot of myth and unexplored concepts around how people actually shop for a bow. Due to economic circumstances, I think a lot of modern players are more open to new bow makers, however they still buy strongly into the concept that the older and more expensive a bow is, the better it must be. I think also the heavily promoted idea of bow or violin ownership as a means of investment has also made players more nervous about buying new bows, because they understand that that resale value just isn’t there for the most part. I think players want modern bows that makers have made with an eye on function over details like modeling. If a bow performs well as a music making tool, they will buy it, regardless of whether it would win a medal at the VSA competition.
How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years?
I think the main issue for bow makers specifically, is materials. Pernambuco and ebony are, without a doubt going to become harder and harder to use legally, much less sell or transport. Other materials such as mother of pearl, abalone and ivory will also be affected more and more. If I’m going to be completely realistic about this, there’s a good chance that we are seeing the last few generations of makers who will be able to legally ply this craft and have access to these materials in any kind of meaningful way. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be a demand for bows, it just means that it’s going to be a lot more difficult to make, buy and sell traditional wooden bows. New materials are already becoming more and more acceptable amongst professional musicians. The second issue is our culture and our economies. Professional symphony orchestras are under greater threat from management than ever and schools and conservatories are minting more and more new performance majors with greater and greater levels of student debt. As a trade we need to confront these realities in a forthright and logical manner.
What concerns do you have for the future of the craft?
I’m concerned that makers spend more time talking amongst themselves rather than with musicians. With bows especially I feel there is an over-emphasis on technical excellence. It is true that American bows are better made, by individual craftsman, from scratch, than ever in history. However these bows are not tested for playability in one of our largest making competitions, sponsored by the VSA. In order for a violin to win a gold medal it must get the highest marks from maker judges as well as accomplished player judges. The bows are never touched by musicians in the judging process and are simply graded on their craftsmanship. I believe this is a major hurdle that must be overcome for the betterment of our craft. My other big concern is the issue of fraud and criminality, mainly in the dealing side of the business. I’m convinced that many players (and makers) have lost confidence in their local shops and dealers and are less willing or able to discern the good actors from the bad. There is very little being done within the trade to address these issues. We ignore these challenges at our peril.
What’s the best career advice you ever got?
That there is no quick way to success in this craft and trade. When I first started out with my own business I was given the advice that it would take a good ten years before I could be financially comfortable and confident that I’d have enough work coming through the door day after day. Also that you create your own reputation and reality by meeting the needs of your customers and standing behind your work. If you take your time, always striving to improve, and build a customer base that trusts you, it doesn’t matter what your colleagues or competition might say of you. There are those in this trade that have a certain amount of celebrity – amongst their peers mainly. Celebrity is really nothing more than being known for being well-known. Don’t try to be famous within the field, do your job well and earn a good reputation amongst your customer base.
If you could keep any one instrument or bow that you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?
I don’t know that I would want to keep anything, but my musician wife and I love going to auctions or checking over collections for amazing bows that just have unique and beautiful playing qualities. One such item we have in the shop is a 7/8th violin bow, nickel mounted with a swan head, made by Prosper Colas circa 1900 according to its Millant certificate. It’s a cleaner example of the makers work, but it wouldn’t win a VSA beauty competition. However it is such a live, agile and lyrical bow. It drives with the sure footedness of a classic European sports car, leaps like a panther, and runs through the obstacle course of performance like a ninja!