If you want to learn about violins and the bows that make them sing, you’ll want to catch up with Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak.
Shaak is shop owner and bow maker at Mount Airy Violins & Bows on Germantown Avenue. She gets asked a lot of questions, like the one I asked about whether the magic wands from the Harry Potter movies are at all similar to the bows she creates.
The bow itself doesn’t actually make much of a sound, so waving it around willy-nilly a la Potter won’t do a thing. What the bow actually does is work in concert with the instrument to produce something for aural consumption. A particular bow can draw out and emphasize different ranges of tone within an instrument’s sound spectrum.
“People who don’t know anything about violins, what they don’t know and are often most surprised about, is that the same player, the same violin, the same day, you can hand them two different bows and they’re going to get two different sounds,” Shaak explained. “It’s the bow’s interaction with the violin, and it will either enhance those musical partials or it will compress them in different ways.”
Shaak ought to know. She’s been in the bow-making business since the early 1980s when she trained in New York City with William Salchow, who is “known as the father of American bow making.”
She also studied in France and Belgium, but describes her own style of bow making as closer to the more “intuitive” French method, which retains techniques dating back to the 1700s.
Shaak opened Mount Airy Violins & Bows in 2003, when she partnered with violin maker Samuel Payton in what was her response to 9/11.
“It felt like what I wanted to do was make a positive impact on the community,” she explained.
Prior to 2003, she had a shop in downtown Philadelphia, but the Mount Airy location felt like the right place to reach out to families, students and musicians of all ages to effect a positive change in the community.
Today, the maker constantly uses her senses to inform the way she fashions a bow. For Shaak, using hand tools and antique machines as opposed to faster, more modern technology, is a means of maintaining a more direct connection with the wood.
The wood is where bow making begins. Pernambuco, which is the premier variety, is a strong, flexible, orange-red wood from a particular region in Brazil. It’s desirable because of its capacity to conduct sound — with minimal resistance as compared to other woods.
Pernambuco’s popularity, however, has resulted in it becoming a protected species. Prior to environmental protections, Shaak was able to secure a supply of pernambuco, which she has registered with the appropriate authorities. It will last her entire career as a bow maker.
This isn’t the first time that materials used for bows have run afoul of conservationists. Bow tips were traditionally made of ivory until usage was outlawed. Instead, Shaak uses prehistoric mastodon tusk unearthed by glacier movement in Alaska. That’s right, I said mastodon.
The cost of quality
Shaak’s handcrafted workmanship – combined with the use of rare materials – is, of course, pricey. Custom bows start at around $3,000, which she realizes that not everyone can afford. The first step to helping any customer who walks into her shop is to determine their price range.
“Then, you show them the best you can get in that price range,” Shaak said. “I feel like that’s my job. Not everyone can spend $4,000 on a bow.”
Early fall in particular is a time when her business shifts away from custom bows. With students only a few weeks into the new school year, the focus turns to instrument rentals, repairs and helping students new to the violin, viola or cello, select from the range of bows, instruments and cases in her shop.
“You can buy bows from the internet … and get the price down,” she said, “but you really need a translator, someone to help you through the process.”
With every customer who walks into the store, Shaak listens to them play if they can. She asks them what kind of sound they’re looking to produce, what kind of tonal quality.
Sometimes it’s a question of timbre or musical color. Are they looking for color that is darker or brighter? What feeling do they hope to convey through sound? She listens and watches and brings her translation skills to bear, selecting bows that will match their instruments.
“At a certain point,” she said, “the bow finds the player.”