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?


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.

Very Light Bows


Recently I have seen an influx of bows come through the shop that have heavy price tags and very light weights. Interestingly these have been predominantly cello bows purported to be by old French makers – although I’ve seen at least one 19th Century English bow.

These bows are being sold for multiple tens of thousands of dollars and the heaviest bow was 75 grams, the lightest, 72grams. Let us remember that the industry standard for cello bows is 78-82 grams, for viola bows, 68-72 grams. The bows were in the proper balance range, so adding more overall weight without seriously affecting playability would be nearly impossible without using extraordinary measures like the addition of lead plugs. 

So why is this a concern? In previous posts I have pointed out that many dealers are overly obsessed with reaching an “ideal” weight with bows (usually in the middle of the accepted range) over considerations of correct balance. I also stated my belief that bows that are above and below the accepted weight ranges can be great sticks if one keeps an open mind. So here we have very light bows that are correctly balanced, are very pricy and by famous makers. The concern from a functional standpoint with an exceedingly light bow is that it will feel unstable, want to fly away and won’t have adequate weight to want to stay on/in the string. On the positive side a light bow can be more agile, may have smoother bow changes, and be more resonant. So a light bow can be good or bad. Many fine musicians I know lean towards lighter more flexible sticks.

My main worry with these cello bows is the price tag based on advertised provenance combined with the unusually light weight. I mean, a 72 gram cello bow is basically a short, tall viola bow, even if it is stamped, “A. Lamy à Paris”. At some point unusually light (or heavy) weight must affect price. Sure, a dealer might tell you, “Look, this bow was made by a famous maker so therefore the price must be in this range even though it’s slightly light”. One worry is that the tune of dealers may change when one who has purchased such a light bow goes to sell it. This concern of mine is due to the obsession with provenance over function that exists in the violin business. Often times bows with elite provenance will be priced higher despite serious functional deficits, however when a dealer is purchasing or taking a bow in on consignment the story will change and the message to the the seller or owner will be “Look, this bow has a lot of problems,I can only charge so much,” making room for greater profit on behalf of the shop owner.

If you love light bows and want to buy one, by all means, go ahead and get one, just think twice about how much you are willing to spend. Resist “investing” in an expensive bow that has variables too far from the mainstream. The problem is when bows by “fancy” makers which have serious issues cross paths with dealers pushing the investment angle, creating high pricing. In the world of fine violins, there can be a tremendous difference in prices by a single maker. You can buy a two million dollar Strad or a 16 million dollar Strad, due to a whole host of reasons including condition and modeling. However, there seems to be a smaller price range available for those seeking to buy fine bows, the only exception being bows that have had their heads broken in half, been repaired, and had original frogs and buttons removed and replaced. Even with damaged, partially original bows such as these I have seen exorbitant pricing.

So if you are determined to buy a light bow by a historical maker that is a safe investment (as far as amateur investment can be considered safe), or at least hold its value over time, please consider the following guidelines:

1) Be as confident as you can about attribution – think about what kind of verification and history the bow comes with.

2) Check that the bow is as close to the industry accepted lower end of the weight range (78 grams for cello bows) as possible, is original in all its parts and free from serious defects.

3) Buy from a reputable shop that will stand behind the sale, will take the bow in on trade at its original price and will actually still be in business in future when you are ready to sell or trade.

4) Be sure the bow is offered at a fair price. Do your research.  Get a second opinion. 

5)  Make sure you really love the way the bow plays.  

6) Fully insure your new bow once purchased.

In a future post, I will delve more deeply into issues of commodification, speculation and concepts of investment with respect to the violin business. Overall I would caution players against speculation on instruments for profit and advise them to purchase bows based primarily on playability and value.

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.