The Violin Making School of America; Peter Prier; Paul Hart
In the fall of 1974 I enrolled at the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. I was a student of Paul Hart, and Peter Prier. There was no bow making school in Salt Lake at that time and we learned little about them, but the tool skills as well as the hand and eye development that I acquired at school were an important foundation of skills that I have relied on as a bow maker.
The other significant influence on my career from the Salt Lake experience involves the people I worked with there. Many at the school at that time have gone on to distinguish themselves in different aspects of the violin world. Some of the best violin makers working today, as well as restorers and shop owners were at the Salt Lake School in the mid seventies. Going to violin making school enriched me with some of my most significant lifelong friendships, as well as deep connections in the violin business.
Frank Passa; David Gusset; Reid Kowallis
My interest in bows developed while at school. I was curious about this related field that was also separate from violin making. It seemed somewhat mysterious as there few opportunities to learn bow making at that time in the United States. This interest is what influenced my choice of job after I finished school. In Dec. of 1977 when I completed school, there were open positions in the best shops on New York and Philadelphia, but Frank Passa in San Francisco was interested in training people to make bows.
Three of us from the Salt Lake school ended up at Passa’s shop within a few months of each other. David Gusset was first. I started in Jan. 1978 followed shortly by Reid Kowallis. The three of us rented a flat, and were room mates as well.
Passa had worked for many years in New York at the Wurlitzer shop with Simone Sacconi. Sacconi is widely recognized as the greatest violin restorer of the 20th century. He and his pupils have been the keepers of much of the knowledge of Italian violins that was known at that time. What is less known, which was related to me by Frank, was that Sacconi was also very interested in bows. He and Frank studied them together, particularly those by Tourte. Frank did bow restoration as well as bow making under Sacconi’s guidance. The great French bow maker Emil Ouchard lived in the New York area for many of those same years. He and Frank became friends, providing Frank with another major source of knowledge about bows.
By the late 1970’s, Passa had been running his own shop in San Francisco for twenty years and was interested in developing a line of bows under his own name. In our time there, David’s focus was in the restoration shop; Reid was developing tools for bow production, and making bows. My time was split between bow making and the restoration shop. Reid stayed two or three years after I left, and the large majority of the Frank Passa bows were made by him.The knowledgeable feedback from Frank as well as working with David and Reid were other important blocks in my professional foundation.
David Gusset has gone on to become one of the best known and highly decorated violin makers working today. He is an artist with an incredible eye for detail and proportion who’s talents are the result of hard work, careful study and natural ability. I include the last comment because at school, with the same level of training as everyone else, David always seemed a step ahead of the rest.
I consider David and Reid in their very different ways, to be two of the most brilliant people I have ever met. Reid’s ability to develop solutions to problems related to production methods was impressive and working around him was the first time I had been exposed to that type of creativity. He left bow making to pursue other interests which led him into designing equipment for scientific research. The highly technical disciplines he went on to teach himself are remarkable and diverse. Eventually he developed hardware that played a role in increasing the efficiency of work done on the Human Genome Project.
While it is difficult to be specific about what I learned from these two, I do know that as a young and inexperienced bow maker, being around David and Reid opened my eyes to possibilities in thinking creatively, being self critical in a constructive way, gave me tools for problem solving and clued me in to levels of quality to strive for in my own work.
The influence of Jay Ifshin is discussed in greater detail in another writing on this page (Answers to Questions Posed in Interviews No. 5). It needs to be mentioned here again in this list. The founding of his shop, the development of his own interest in bows during the same years I was learning, the building of his bow collection, him providing access to other collections and space for me to work on my trips to the Bay Area in the eighties and nineties, his informed and insightful knowledge of bows and the business, his long term encouragement and appreciation of my work as well as the fact that he has sold a significant percentage of my work through his shop have all played a major role in the development of my career.
The Violin Society of America and the Oberlin Bow Workshop
The events of the Violin Society of America have been another major factor in how I see and think about bows. The same is true for many makers working today. The VSA biannual exhibitions and competitions that began in 1976 have provided a way to learn about and see bows, as well as a venue for violin and bow makers to congregate. First as a competitor and later as a judge these competitions have helped me develop my professional opinions, improve my work and meeting people who have influenced it.
In 1993 I stayed with Charles Espey for a couple of weeks. One of the subjects that kept coming up in our discussions was how open the bow makers that came to VSA events were to sharing information. At those events however we were never in a workshop environment, but in a convention center. Together we came up with the idea of setting up a workshop at the next VSA exhibition, so that bow makers could demonstrate some of their methods for each other. The idea went through different stages of development, but what actually happened in Nov. 1994 in Oakland was a series of demonstrations that contrasted the differences in methods used by makers trained in traditional German bow making with those trained in French bow making. Participating were Stephane Thomachot, Eric Grandchamp, Klaus Grunke, and Josef Gabriel. This event was very unique at the time, and much appreciated. It prompted Hans Tausig, then the president of the VSA, to approach Charles and myself at the end of the conference to say that perhaps what we had done pointed a direction that the VSA should pursue at Oberlin College. Various proposals were subsequently discussed.
The VSA already had a month long restoration program at Oberlin during the summer which was run Vahakn Nigogosian. This program had a bow restoration section that was being taught by Yung Chin. As the bow maker already on the ground at Oberlin, the new bow making program was put under his direction. Yung was aware that what Charles and I had done in Oakland played a role in the genesis of the idea, and pulled me in from the beginning on issues related to its development.
In 1996 we had the first Oberlin Bow Workshop. The years 2000, ‘01 and ‘02 I was co-director with Yung before we turned it over to the capable hands of David Forbes under whose direction I feel the program as come close to its ideal form. This program has become an important and highly recognized place for bow makers from North America and Europe to work together and exchange methods and ideas.
I first worked with Yung on the OBW and later on matters related to IPCI the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative. He possesses a high level of expertise with regard to historical bows, and is a fine bow maker as well. Yung has more knowledge of violin technique than most bow makers, which he has been able to incorporate in how he works with his clients. Through this process, I believe he has developed knowledge and an intuitive sense about bow playability that is as complete as any maker. His ideas on bow set up and camber have impressed me and been an influence on my work in recent years.
Players and Other Makers
Through out this piece I have talked about some of the people and events that have influenced my work. There are many others. Players I have worked with have shaped my concepts. There are numerous other makers with whom I have interacted at VSA events and at Oberlin. Many of us share a sense of community enjoying an openness that results in the exchange of knowledge and in some cases collaboration. I am proud to be a part of this movement toward openness in our craft which has been developing since the 1980’s. I believe it to be unique in the history of bow making, and is one of the reasons that numerous makers in North America and Europe are producing bows as sophisticated as at any other time. This community has greatly enriched my life and work.