Answers to Questions Posed During Interviews

The first four questions are from an interview with Sarah Mnatzaganian for an article on the sound qualities of bows. She posed the same questions to a number of bow makers and used short quotes from each in her piece. What is published here are the complete answers provided. The fifth question is from an interview with Clyde Curley for an article for Strings Magazine.

1. “What makes bows sound different?”

Just about everything. Wood choice; how the wood is shaped; camber; hair tension; how comfortable the player is with a bow etc…

It’s a big question and a hard one to answer with a brief definitive statement.
I think an analogy to wine comes close to explaining why something that seems so simple produces such a wide variety of results. What makes red wines taste different? It’s a very simple process of pressing the juice out of grapes, letting it ferment, and aging it. The process is similar the world over, and yet the variations of the finished product are almost endless.

Anyone with the least interest in the subject of wine knows that different areas use different varieties of grapes. Even with the same variety in a particular area changes in soil, drainage and slope can produce differences in flavor and quality. Each wine maker, while repeating the age old process, has their own sense of when it is optimal to pick the fruit, how long to leave the juice on the leas, when to bottle the fermented juice, how long to age, etc…

Pernambuco varies as much as grapes do. And bow makers, while basically repeating the age old process, have their own sense of what they are looking for in a piece of wood and make a multitude of subtle individual choice in crafting that piece of wood. Making methods vary, the opinions and decisions of each maker are influenced by their teachers, the players they have worked with, the old bows they have studied. Their talents are then honed with the materials that are available to them. All these factors account for the uniqueness of a particular makers work.

You can also carry the analogy of wine through to include the consumer. Some people just want a glass of wine with their dinner and are happy buying the same local product forever. It works for their taste and budget and that is the extent of their interest in the subject. Others become fascinated with the subtle differences in wine, and for them it becomes a life long journey of exploration and taste experience. Some string players have a bow that works for them and their interest stops there. Others become fascinated with the differences and are always trying new things exploring the subtle variations that bows produce.

2. “How much control does the maker have over the sound of the bow?”

If a maker has a good selection of high quality pernambuco of different types and is familiar with their characteristics, he or she can influence the sound a great deal. The word “influence” is probably a more accurate representation than “control”. One of the biggest effects a maker has on the sound is at the very beginning in choosing the wood.

Once the wood is chosen, the maker’s training and experience comes into play as to the decisions they make in shaping that particular piece of wood to maximize the sound it is capable of producing within the limits imposed by other factors such as weight, balance and handling qualities.

With most good pernambuco the sound keeps opening up the more you take off. But there is a point at which taking more off makes the bow too soft to play or starts to erode other qualities that need to be present in a good bow such as response time and stability. Where this “edge” is varies from piece of wood to piece of wood and requires individual attention. A bow stick can have harder and softer spots in it which require changes in graduation designed for that particular piece. This is one of the reasons that producing bows of a consistently high quality using factory production methods does not work very well.

One also needs to keep in mind that there is no one ideal bow that will suit all players and instruments. There are some bow makers who have done their best to obtain a wood supply that is consistently of one type, and try to make one kind of bow. There are others that try to produce a variety of bows to suit players of different types.

Adjustments to the bend or camber of a finished bow can sometimes change its sound and performance as dramatically as the changes made to a violin by adjusting the sound post.

3. “If a player asks for a bright sounding bow how much confidence would you have in fulfilling their request?”

If I set out to make two bows, one brighter and one darker sounding, I have complete confidence of being able to do so. This is something different than having complete confidence in fulfilling the request of the client.

Is the client’s idea of the brightness required to pull the sparkling higher over tones out of their particular violin exactly the same as the sound of the brighter of the two bows I have just made? One never knows if you are using terms in the same way or even hearing sounds the same as someone else.

If I have not yet shown bows to someone and we are talking about sound, I may get an idea that becomes a theme or guiding principle I refer to when making them a bow, but it is very subjective. Back to the wine analogy for a moment: If someone tells me they like a wine with a lot of blackberry fruit overtones and a stony dry Italian finish, I get an impression of what that means to me, but will our taste buds agree?

If on the other hand, I have shown someone two of my bows and they describe their reaction to them, this type of information gives me an impression to work with which is better gauged to their personal technique and their instrument. If neither bow is quite right and they say something like, “this one has the sound I’m looking for but I’m having trouble handling it near the frog. The other bow feels great in my hand but is a little too bright for my violin.” Sometimes all that is required to achieve the desired result is an adjustment to the camber, and other times I will show them another bow. While I can’t guarantee the next bow I show them will be exactly what they are looking for, with the information I now have I can be pretty confident that next bow will be closer to what they are looking for.

4. “What makes the tone of some bows more interesting/complex than other bows?”

Part of the answer to this question is covered under the first and second questions. Another part of the answer to this question is that this question can never be completely answered and there in lies the reason that bows are interesting and somewhat mysterious. This is a craft that defies simple explanations. As soon as you think you have discovered the few basic principles that define great bows, you will see exceptions to your new rules. Makers who have the most confidence that they have all the answers tend to be those with little experience, lesser powers of observation, those who have not had the opportunity to study many great old bows, or are simply taking that position for marketing purposes.

If someone forced me to provide a more specific answer to this question, I would refer back to two things I have already discussed: wood quality and the “edge” mention in my answer to question two. While there are many types of pernambuco from which good bows can be made, there is such a thing as bad wood. Most pernambuco is not suited to making good bows and bad wood will never produce a bow with complex tonal color.

Sometimes I will put hair in a bow and can play it while still in the process of removing wood. Most often I find the sound becomes more interesting and complex the closer I take it to that “edge”… the trick is to stop before you fall over it.

5. “What makes your work unique, or what makes them Morgan Andersen bows?”

I finished violin making school in Dec. of 1977, and a month later started working for Frank Passa in San Francisco learning how to make bows. By the beginning of 1980 I was back in the Pacific Northwest, self employed and beginning to craft bows on my own pattern based on ideas that I had gleaned in my time at Passa’s.

During the early eighties, I was fortunate to be getting some feedback on the playing qualities of my bows from some very good musicians. Because of their honest appraisals, and my efforts to incorporate their advice into my work, some of the bows from that early period do play well, but stylistically they were still very immature. Because I had done a two year apprenticeship with someone that knew a lot about bows, I had more confidence in my abilities than I should have at the time. I was using all kinds of stylistic ideas that had impressed me from the work of many historical makers, and expected the world to recognize how cleverly and originally I was putting them back together in my own pattern. The truth was that even though I had made bows for two years at Passa’s, and got insightful feed back from Frank, I was still a long way from having a solid enough foundation in the classics to come up with my own visual model that at the same time would be unique, yet recognizable as having been conceived from a place of knowledge of the tradition. It took me a few years to fully realize and admit that fact to myself, and a couple more to come up with and take action on a plan to do something about it.

I realized that I had to find a way to “put myself back to school” and gain access to good bows to study. I focused my efforts back in the Bay Area, because this was where I still had the most contacts in the violin business, and where I knew I could get access to a number of bow collections. I had already had many experiences of going to a collector’s home and looking at bows for a couple of hours. The amount of information that one can glean from these types of experiences is very useful, but I knew I needed something more intensive, where I could really work with great bows for a period of time on my own terms. Someone that played an important role in facilitating my plan was my old violin making school friend Jay Ifshin.

Jay had already opened his own shop in Berkeley. He had work bench space where I could work. He had a safe and a security system that made collectors more comfortable loaning me bows, but he wasn’t just an old friend with a shop that was willing to share his facilities. On his own, he had developed a passion for bows, and had started his own impressive bow collection, as well as significant knowledge of the field.

In the spring of 1985 I started going back to the Bay Area for work trips of six to eight weeks in length. I would contact the bow collectors I already knew, and Jay introduced me to several more. Most trips involved borrowing a number of bows by the same maker: four or five Dominique Peccattes, nine Kittels, etc. I would then study, measure, draw, and play these bows, and have them there as a constant reference while I made a couple of bows in that style. I would be able to play my bows in comparison the originals. I would then get feedback on my copies from the collectors and others in the area including my old boss Frank Passa.

I did these work trips every spring for seven years. After the third one in 1987, Frank was impressed enough in the strides I had made in my work to ask me to do a special project for him. I came back that fall to make two Tourte copies for him. The lure he provided was access to three fine original examples.

The trips described above, and other efforts to see great bows have encompassed my “continuing education”, and that process is never done. Those first few years after my apprenticeship are the only ones where I thought I knew a lot about bows. It’s one of those things where the more you learn, the more you realize there is to know. I have a much firmer foundation of knowledge, and much more developed opinions after doing this for thirty years, but would never dream of claiming to be some kind of authority. I am still open to trying different things, and listening to the opinions of others that I respect to attempt furthering my understanding of bows.

By the late eighties I was making my violin and viola bows on a Peccatte model. I had a Lamy model for cello that I had beefed up from the original to suit the demands of most players at that time. It would be another eight or nine years before I again began to develop my own model. While more sophisticated than my early attempts, it still took me a couple more years to work it into a shape that I felt had the forcefulness of something original while looking like it grew out the tradition. I didn’t start feeling like my own model was successful until I was able to use my study of old bows to acquire knowledge and develop my eye, then let the intellectual part of that process go, and let the forms partly develop from my working methods and tool shapes.

The inspiration for my model derives from the generation of French bow makers between Tourte and Peccatte. The most influential makers of the period for me are Eury, Pajeot, Persoit, and Maire, and yet I don’t want to make copies of any of them. There are certain characteristics of bows of that period that I like to incorporate to suggest the era, rather than one historical maker. One thing that inspires and fascinates me about Pajeot in particular is the variety of shapes. In contrast to this, many if not most Peccattes have heads of a very similar shape. There are only one or two head shapes for a Dominique Peccatte. Almost every Pajeot I see has a different head profile, and yet you can tell it’s a Pajeot. It’s more about having a consistent sense of design rather than coming up with a single head pattern that you like and sticking with it. While I still love and admire Peccatte, for my own current work I find the approach of using a variety of shapes while still trying to create an identifiable look much more interesting.

Even with all the detail above, directly answering the original question still proves to be difficult. In one true sense, the answer to the question is the same for all bow makers. What makes a maker’s bows his own is the sum of his education of the craft and the tradition, combined with their own personal sense of taste, talents and materials.

Individual traits develop naturally, some of them unconsciously. Different teachers might put varying degrees of emphasis on different points. Many of my opinions developed from my own observations of the particular bows I studied. Another maker, equally observant, who studied a different group of great bows might come to slightly different conclusions that influence his or her work. The works of the old masters, while similar in many respects are not all the same. Our own personal taste influences what we take away from a learning experience. It effects the conclusions we draw and therefore our vision of what we are aiming for in our work. Even a maker that has had an identical education and experience to another will make somewhat different bows if the wood he has to work with is not exactly the same, and requires a different approach to achieve optimum results.

While much of what I have talked about has been addressing the visual aspects of the bow, much of the same also applies to the playing qualities. The same old bows I was studying for style, I was playing, and playing against my own work. I was flexing the sticks to get a feel for what I want to feel as I plane a stick down. There is another big factor in developing playing qualities, and that is feed back from clients and other players. And of course every maker works with a different group of players, and gets somewhat different feed back. This can’t help but inform your sense of what good players are looking for in a bow over a period of years.

Not always, but often times I have hair in a bow and am able to play it before I am finished taking wood off the stick. Many times you can take the smallest amounts of wood off, like a couple of tenths of a gram, and noticeably hear a difference in the sound of the bow. You become aware of how sensitive this thing is and how much the quality and personality of your work has to do with these minute changes that you make. These decisions are based on ones experience and feel for the material you are working with, informed by the degree to which your ideal has been developed.

My final stab at answering the question of what makes my bows uniquely my work will be to take a contrary view, and say that, in some respects I am the last person that can answer that question. To truly know what is unique about them implies knowledge of all the other bows one is comparing them to. In the end, what will define all contemporary violin and bow makers is left to a combination of personal history, players that choose our work, market forces, appraisers, researchers and collectors in the future.

I enjoy an open and collaborative spirit of sharing information with many other contemporary bow makers. This sharing developed though participation in the Oberlin Bow Making Workshop, as well as VSA competitions, first as a competitor, then later as a judge. Because of this, I do have a fair sense of what some other contemporary bows are like and know some of the ideas that other makers bring to their work. But I still wouldn’t try to define how my bows are unique in relation to others. At this time there are a significant number of very fine makers working in this field. We all have the individual educations and talents we have come by, as well as our individual stocks of wood to define our work. And we all sit in our shops each day trying our best to turn those qualities and materials into bows that people will value and want to play for generations to come.