Friday, October 7, 2011


For a bow maker, the selection of the Pernambuco stick is the most important element in matching a bow to a player. Some time ago, the violinist Jan Mark Sloman and I started a dialogue and at the end of each telephone call or email I went to my store of sticks held in racks. Promising sticks were examined and in the end half a dozen sticks had his name penciled on them. When the time came to start work on his bow the first task was to decide on the right one. Sloman wanted a rich and dark underpinning to his Vuillaume's sound and I decided to use a wood of a somewhat lower density than the wood I usually use. He also wanted a bow that could respond to his entire repertoire and so finding these qualities through increased flexibility was not a good option. This stick had to be very strong so it could be taken down to fine diameters but I also wanted some complexities in the grain especially down near the frog. I found a great stick and began planing it out, fitting the tip plate, and mounting the frog. I pictured the process on this same bow in an earlier post called "ebouchage' or roughing out.

Unfortunately, at this point I began to question my original choice. The stick's response was slower than I had hoped for and I also wondered if the sound was going to be right. So the stick was put back in the rack and I selected another. But this stick did not reach expectations either. So I found a third stick that filled the original requirements of lower density, excellent strength and a complex grain structure. It also had a nice little pin knot just beyond the winding and came from my first trip to Brazil in 1984. In one of our conversations Jan had mentioned that his friend, the late Sergio Lucca, believed that most great bows had a pin knot. So this seemed like a good omen and I also agree that a tiny knot adds a certain nobility to a stick. As the stick took shape it felt good but it was even lighter than I expected and to give it the right level of resistance I made it about one tenth of a millimeter larger than I expected in some areas. My experimentations with light frogs that have no under-slide appear to create conditions for brilliance in the sound. Since this was not the direction we wanted to go I made a normal weight frog with silver under-slide.

In making a bow there is a period of polishing and varnishing when one has to control their impatience to know what a bow will really be like, especially in terms of sound. When the bow was finally completed and the hair received it's first rosin I played it for the first time and compared it to another bow with unlined frog I had in my shop. I knew the first bow had a rich and focused sound so I hoped the new one would exceed it in these qualities. Instead the new bow's sound seemed very broad but with a razor sharp definition or zing and a tooth to the sound not unlike a reed instrument. With my violin it was not possible to hear its full potential at the lower end but I began to doubt my original intuition for the stick. But the stick's playing qualities felt good and I was very curious to find out what Jan would think. To give him the same frame of reference I had experienced, I sent him both bows without indicating which bow was the new one. On the first day he wrote back saying "the unlined frog bow is fabulous for me...'. So I had to resign myself to the fact that I had failed in my stick selection after all, although not for lack of effort. At the end of a week however, Sloman came to the conclusion that the bow I had made for him really did bring out what he was looking for, a full, dark lower end combined with a 'sizzle' that gave the sound definition. And so goes a lifelong process of discovery; making a bow in response to an individual player and their instrument.

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