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?

Bows and Hidden Lead

Lead in MortiseWeight and balance are crucial elements to the proper functioning of a bow for musicians, while for many dealers the most important factor in sales is the overall weight and the name stamped the stick.  It is not unusual for lead to be added to bows, sometimes secretly to help sell it, other times on purpose to help it play better.

If you are a player, you want a stick that is neither so light that you can’t pull a sound out of your instrument, nor a bow that is so heavy it fatigues the hand and crushes the stings.  In addition to good overall weight, you need a bow that is correctly balanced, so that bow isn’t too light or heavy at the tip (or overly light/heavy at the frog).  A bow that is too tip-light and frog heavy will feel like it wants to fly away and loose contact at the end of the stick, forcing you to take corrective measures technically in order to keep the bow functioning effectively.  A bow that is tip-heavy and frog-light may feel like it is easier to control, and in fact many younger players prefer a stick that is balanced toward the head, but it can cause pain in the hand and be reluctant to jump off the string.

The grip and wrap serve not only to protect the wood and provide a comfortable place to rest the thumb, but work as a counterweight to the tip.  Different lengths of various materials provide differing mounts of weight to keep the bow balanced.  However, some bows will never fall into the commonly accepted weight and balance ranges.  If a bow is already light and tip light, there is very little one can do, because it is difficult to add significant amounts of weight to the tip.  If a bow is very heavy and tip heavy, you can add more weight to the wrap, but the overall weight will end up too high to be practical.  However, remember that there are plenty of bows that defy the norm and just work wonderfully despite the numbers.

Many dealers seem to have an obsession with overall weight – not enough of them understand the relation of weight and balance.  If they have a violin bow, it must be 60 grams, for example. This attitude may lead some dealers to add hidden weight to bows in their inventory, like the lead in the bottom of the mortise in the picture above.  The other consequence may be that they try to sell bows that are simply not functional.

The addition of a lead plug or lead inside a mortise is acceptable if it is disclosed and the price is adjusted accordingly downwards.  The use of lead can also be a legitimate tool of a craftsman who works on bows.  I use lead to help players who may have bows that are improperly weighted and balanced.  The problem is when lead is hidden away inside the head or frog and the player doesn’t know.

I do many rehairs, and when I find hidden lead on a bow, I always inform the owner.  It’s unfortunate that so many had no idea the lead was there.

Players – Ask if there is any lead in the stick or ask your rehair person to look in the frog and tip mortises.  Always ask for the weight and balance point when considering a bow for purchase.  A bow that needs lead to achieve proper weight and balance may still be a great stick, but it must be cheaper.

Dealers and Shop Owners – Realize that weight and balance go hand in hand.  Don’t just buy a bow because of the name branded on it and add weight any way you can until it’s close to 60 grams.  Reject bows that are light and tip light or heavy and frog heavy.  If you want to sell a bow with lead in it, disclose it to the customer and price it lower.

Both – Some bows play fantastically “as is” despite the fact that they may be too light or heavy, or out of balance by traditional standards.  Keep an open mind and don’t fix what isn’t broken.