Explicit rules, Implicit Rules

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 and support 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?

The Challenges of Self Employment in the Trade


I’ve been meditating recently on the difficulties and challenges of self-employment and on the long road I’ve taken in my own professional life In the fiddle field. In a past article I talked about the feelings of vulnerability that can go along with doing repairs and service work and in a different piece I wrote about issues of isolation for luthiers and lack of understanding from others outside of the craft. Often times my postings are sharp critiques or rebukes of the business and the practices of its members, but I also have an affection and concern for those individuals who work hard day in and day out trying to ply their craft and make a living. Please realize that any effort I make at pointing out the flaws or problems in our field comes not only from a desire to help musicians, but to improve and move forward our trade and therefore help the plight of its practitioners.

As I approach my 50th birthday I think about others I know working in more conventional businesses. They’ve gotten promotions and raises, sometimes gone back to school and gotten supplemental qualifications or advanced degrees, been given new titles and responsibilities, gotten bigger offices and more benefits and vacation time, while I have sat at the bench, and worked and worked and worked, not always under the best of circumstances. Have I evolved too? Certainly, but it can be harder for a self-employed person, especially someone who works by themselves, to appreciate fully how much they’ve accomplished.  

If you visit an active shop or violin making school, the atmosphere is more like a monastery with silent monks painstakingly illuminating religious texts than your average corporate office. Even in groups, we work alone. This actual or virtual isolation, lasting for years at a time, makes it difficult for our colleagues, customers, or even family members to understand what we do and what we go through in order to make a living in this competitive and challenging trade. Who hasn’t had to explain to an in-law, parent or significant other what we do as they stare back blankly, barely comprehending? I remember going to a doctors appointment and during the examination he casually asked me what I did for a living. When I told him, he looked at me a moment, blinked twice, and asked, “Can you make any money doing that?” I’m sure many of you have had the experience of meeting someone at a party or on an airplane and having to try and explain what you do. I have a colleague who always tells people he’s an accountant if they ask his profession, because he so sick of talking to them about Stradivarius and explaining that violins are made of maple and spruce.  

The point is that our profession is such an anachronism in these modern times that people find it quite difficult to comprehend what it means to be a luthier, bow maker, violin shop owner, sales-person, or dealer. We are simply out of step. The auto correct function and dictation software on our electronic devices can’t even recognize the word, “luthier”. I’m going to say the word into my iPad right now and let’s see what happens: Lucifer. Uh ok, there you go. In our society we build hierarchies of status, mainly based on perceived income, power, educational level, and fame or celebrity. Where does our trade fit into this hierarchy? It’s vaguely associated with the arts and classical music, which certainly helps people understand some of what we do and appreciate it, but we’re still a mystery to most folks. Do we possess advanced degrees? Some do, some don’t, and a degree from a vocational school is hardly impressive in our status obsessed society. Do we make tons of money? You can do well, but it takes time and the highest paid members of our field could hardly be said to be in the “one percent”. Do we achieve renown or fame? Some are better known than others by their colleagues or players, but not especially among the public at large.  

If we run a small shop, others in the trade usually have a, “I’ll believe it when I see it” mentality regarding our worthiness as craftsmen and our success or failure as business people. This, “show me” culture within the field has a certain amount of logic to it, but it also can create a situation where we receive so little industry based affirmation that we can periodically question our own worthiness. Unfortunately there are many examples of shops that have managed to stay in business despite the poor work quality and ethics of their owners. So even knowing that a craftsman has managed to stay in business in a crowded urban market for many years serving professional clientele at the top of their fields is usually not enough evidence for our inherently skeptical colleagues to say “job well done”. They need to examine a rehair or look at a neck set first! In this atmosphere it is too easy to be neurotic and self-doubting and/or over-confident and egotistical. Conversely there are plenty of examples of people with a “big name”, that many assume must be completely on the ball due to their trade-based fame. We seem to make excuses for some, overly condemn others, and just ignore most completely.  

Being self-employed is a huge challenge both emotionally and practically. We can’t blame the boss when things don’t go well (complaining about customers is a different story), and those of us who work for ourselves can’t blame employees. You have to be comfortable with the sometimes uneven levels of income where there are periods of feast and famine. There are issues of overhead, consignments, bookkeeping, taxes, approvals, licenses, insurance and liability, etc. that you may find yourself distracted by or unprepared to deal with.  Business dealings can be fraught with painful difficulties, where colleagues and/or customers may try to take advantage of us.  For most, being self-employed is an evolutionary learning adventure, and many of us have to learn the hard way, where we try to grow and improve as a result of our mistakes more than our successes.  So how do we judge success for ourselves? Is it when we sell one of our bows or instruments to a well known musician or when we gross a certain amount of money in a year? Is it when we win an award or competition, publish something in an industry magazine or gain membership in a professional organization? It’s different for everybody, but it certainly not clear is it?

Chasing a culturally approved definition of success for people involved in the arts and crafts can be so difficult and unfulfilling that it can affect ones sense of well-being. Those of us in the trade are basically combining a hobby with a job, which can be very satisfying but also make us over-specialized, over-focused, with potentially less outside pursuits, interests, and influences. This can lead to a kind of pathology of social isolation where we may devalue ourselves and overly denigrate others. There really isn’t much support or recognition in the field over these potentially PTSD-like issues which can manifest themselves as anxiety, loneliness, guilt, loss of interest and pleasure in work and even paranoia.  

One should point out that there are organizations like the VSA and Fed which hold gatherings and competitions where like-minded individuals can meet and exchange ideas. There is also a collection of seminars and workshops available, such as the Oberlin Program that promote group learning and social activities. Facebook groups and online forums offer makers an opportunity to connect. All this is very helpful and healthy, but there are a few downsides. Sometimes groups can create atmospheres of assimilation and uniformity, where outsiders or those who don’t quite fit in are ostracized. In any gathering of people in the same field there is bound to be a certain amount of professional posturing and competition, where people may hide behind established rules to promote personal vendettas or prejudices. In addition to the manifestation of a kind of workplace envy, the creation of cliques and even cultish behavior are not uncommon. After all, a gang or cult can give you that which may feel is missing in your daily life, such as support, belonging, self-empowerment, etc. However there are usually rigid rules and a certain amount of corruption and abuse.

Despite the hardships, we should very thankful to be self employed in a field where we can work with our hands as well as our heads. Sometimes it’s so easy to lose track of how far we’ve come, but the friendship and thanks we receive from our customers puts the whole journey into perspective. We are not stuck in an office or scrambling to impress a superior – we challenge ourselves and strive to meet the needs of the musicians who come into our shops day after day. In an increasingly difficult economy we can actually do quite well if we keep the overhead reasonable, treat clients right, and always stand up for ourselves. If we make a point of consciously evolving and growing, it can pay off both financially and psychologically. Every year we need to learn more and more about our craft, the business, and ourselves. Do we feel overwhelmed sometimes? Yes. Do we periodically feel exhausted and burnt out? Hell yes. Are we shocked and dismayed by some of the business practices we are exposed to? Yup. Do we second guess our choice of career from time to time? Of course. Do we sometimes feel professionally isolated even in a field crammed with violin shops and luthiers? Certainly. However, the feeling of having a more direct hand in the creation of our own realities through the very grounding nature of craft-based labor and the freedom and independence afforded by self-employment can make it all worthwhile.

State of the Craft

Eric Swanson - BowmakerEric 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!  

 

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.