Getting To Know Your Board
Dr. George Barry Hembree, Luthier
Many of you met Barry Hembree during the Festival's social intermissions last summer. He was the man behind the wine table, cheerfully drafted to be the Festival's in-house sommelier. What you didn't know is that he is a very talented luthier—a maker of fine violins and bows. With such a talent on the board, we asked Barry to provide the article below since bows and bow-making are an often overlooked ingredient when talk turns to the finer points of violins, violas and other bowed instruments. With the most sought after bows costing as much as $100,000, NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman said, "One reason that good bows are so prized is that they are so versatile. They have to be strong. They have to be flexible. They have to be balanced just right. They have to–most important, they have to make beautiful sound. When thinking of the bow, a perfect analogy is that the bow is for the string player what breath is for the singer."
After a long career as a mathematician and computer scientist, Barry decided to marry his two passions (music and woodwork) and take up luthery. He spent four years studying bow making with Lynn Armour Hannings and violin making with Charles Ervin. In 2000, he quit his day job and embarked on a career as a full time luthier. G.B. Hembree bows and instruments (www.gbhembree.com) can be found in orchestras around the world and even on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
Barry and his wife, Michelle Judson, both avid kayakers and hikers, moved to Lummi Island from London, England in 2013 and he joined the Bellingham Festival of Music Board in 2014. Barry has been a board advisor for one of the Festival's sponsored outreach programs, the Bellingham School District's Fifth Grade Stings Program, providing expertise on the district's selection and purchase of new sting instruments.
It has been said that the fingers play the notes but the bow makes the music. Ask any professional musician if they would be willing to perform on a bow other than their own and you will most likely be met with a resounding no! The relationship between the player, the instrument, and the bow is a complex and special one. In this article I will attempt to explain some of the factors that go into that special relationship.
First, I will start with a little history. There are generally two types of bows, Modern and Baroque. Francois Tourte (1747-1835) is considered the father of the modern bow. From about 1785 – 1790, Tourte made several important and lasting innovations to the bow.
First, he discovered Pernambuco as the wood to use for bows. Pernambuco is grown primarily in the state of Pernambuco, Brazil. It was readily available in France as it was imported to make red dye and was also used to build shipping crates for other goods imported from Brazil. Its high lignin content and its short twisted fiber structure made it perfect for Tourte's innovative stick design.
Modern and Baroque Bow
The most obvious difference between the two sticks in the image above is the shape. The Baroque bow has a convex shape that was carved from the wood whereas the Modern bow has a concave shape that is formed by heating and bending the stick. This innovation lowers the center of gravity and provides for a consistent even strength throughout the length of the stick (Baroque bows are notoriously weaker near the head). Detaché, martelé, spiccato, and ricochet are all bowing techniques that are possible because of this innovation.
French & German Bows
The second innovation is the increase in mass of the head (which holds the hair at one end) and an increase in the mass for the frog (which holds the hair near the hand). This allows for much greater control over the balance point which dictates how the bow feels in the player's hand. I've had players tell me this bow feels heavy or this bow feels light. If you weigh them they are usually within a gram of the appropriate weight. What they are feeling is the balance point.
Finally if you look at the frog of the Modern bow where the hair exits, you will see a semi-circular metal ring. This is called the ferrule and allows for the hair to form a nice wide flat ribbon as it exits the frog. This flat ribbon continues all the way to the head and allows the player to meet the demands of modern music. It is starkly contrasted to the narrow bunched-up hair of the Baroque bow.
All modern bows today are based on this French model with the exception of bass bows. Bass bows are either French or German. They differ in the style of frog and how the player holds them-overhand or underhand.
There are four main parts of the bow. The stick, which as I said, is almost exclusively made from Pernambuco. In the late 90's Pernambuco was declared an endangered species and its export from Brazil was banned. Since that time, other materials have been sought with usually inferior results. Lately, however, great progress has been made in the quality of carbon fiber bows.
The stick is cut as a single piece, shaped with little planes and knives, heated in an alcohol flame and bent into shape. Hair is put on and a very complicated graduation in thicknesses is formed from the head to the butt end. Theoretically, as Vuillaume (celebrated 19th century French luthier) discovered, this forms a geometric series. In reality, the wood dictates what it wants to be. This is the essence of the bow maker's skill. This must be done so that the bow draws up evenly as the hair is tightened. This also dictates the stiffness of the bow. All players have their preferences.
The second part is the frog. It is made from a combination of wood, metal and decorative shell. The wooden part is usually made from ebony but other materials are sometimes used including snakewood and mountain mahogany. Historically tortoise shell and ivory have been used. Lately mammoth tusk has become popular. Abalone is the standard for the decorative shell and the most common metal is silver but gold adds that extra special elegance (and an extra special price).
The button is used to hold the frog to the stick and move it back and forth to increase or release the tension of the hair. The button is made from the same materials as the frog and is really a nice little piece of jewelry making.
Finally there is the hair. The hair is exclusively Mongolian stallion. The hair is harvested from the horses, washed and then sorted (yes every single hair). 99.99% of the hair goes to make brushes. Only a small percentage is suitable for bow hair. This hair is bought by dressers. Dressers are people who buy this hair in bulk and sort it according to length, color and uniformity in diameter. They then sell it to makers and repair shops. Every maker has a favorite dresser. The one I use sorts this hair 3 additional times. A very labor intensive process which makes the hair quite expensive but my customers always love my re-hairs.
The French are to bow making what the Italians are to violin making. Think of Tourte as the Stradivari of bow making. After him, came makers such as Simon, Pecatte, Pajoet, Henry, Voirin, Lamy and Sartory, all of whom produced beautiful bows that are the most sought after and copied to this day. I use Sartory models almost exclusively for the bows I make. The British had a few notable makers such as Dodd and Tubbs. The Hill brothers had a shop that produced a large number of quite respectable bows. I doubt you can find an orchestra that doesn't have a few Hill bows amongst the string players. The Germans also produced large numbers of very respectable bows.
Because of the special relationship between the player, the bow and the instrument, bow making is still very much alive and well. It is very difficult for a professional player to just buy a bow off-the-shelf and expect it to meet all of their needs. When I do a bow commission, I will actually make two or sometimes even three bows and let the client choose.
People often ask me if there are very many people still doing this. I'm happy to say that there are many fine modern makers in the U.S. and Europe who are quite busy. There are a couple of shops in Brazil that are "mass" producing excellent bows and of course China has taken over the student market with some very respectable and reasonably priced products.
I hope this little treatise has opened your eyes to this important but often ignored aspect of stringed instruments. When you talk to players, just ask them what bow they are playing. They will happily talk your ear off about every little detail of that special relationship.
If you want to see every gory detail of bow making, follow my blog as I make a cello bow for New York City cellist Maria Fisher (it comes up in reverse order so scroll to the bottom and move upward or use the links on the right to pick each individual post).
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