By Matt Wehling

When the Violin Society of America (VSA) called and asked if I would be a bow workmanship judge for its 2014 competition, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experience. While I had entered the competition six times, I really didn’t have much idea of what it would be like to be on the other side—the side that judges. I thought it would be difficult, but I didn’t realize it would be one of the hardest work weeks I’d experience as a bow maker.

How hard can it be? Can it really be worse than a week cutting up pernambuco sticks (nasty, dusty work), spending a week splitting pieces of ebony to make frog blanks (nasty, dusty work), or grinding down awabi or ormeaux shells to make pearl slides and decorative dots (which is, if you can believe it, even nastier, dustier work)?

The thing is, I think all those things are fun. Judging wasn’t fun. But it was important, and if asked I’d do it again in a minute.

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The Points Challenge

Each bow has the potential to earn 100 points from a judge. But the sad truth is—and I say this as a former competitor and not a persnickety judge—while there are 100 possible points to gain, there are really 1,000 possible points to lose. While a bow looks simple, there are so many tiny details on which a competitor can lose a point. For example, the metal work on a frog. You have the two corners where the vertical heel plate may or may not perfectly match the metal underslide, as well as the two corners where the vertical heel plate may or may not perfectly intersect the small heel plate. And to complicate matters, imperfection here may not actually be a negative, depending on the overall style of the bow, and depending on the judge.

And then the corners of the small heel plate may or may not perfectly line up with the pearl slide, or the pearl slide may not make a perfect 90-degree fit with the small heel plate, or may not perfectly align with the ferrule. This doesn’t include polish, perfection of pin placement, or pinning technique. To give you some perspective: The category “Frog and Button” is worth 15 total points, and I’ve just described a tiny subsection of only the frog (I haven’t even touched on the button yet) and found 11 possible places to lose a point. It’s a wonder anyone gets more than 38 total points!

There is one category where points are truly won, rather than deducted, and luckily it’s the most important category, worth 40 percent of the score. This is called “Overall Impression,” and according to the rules of the competition, this “includes originality, choice of materials, elegance, overall consistency of style from frog to head, and artistry.”

A great bow, from an aesthetic standpoint, seems to be alive. Everything comes together—it’s cohesive—and, as I once heard someone say, it looks like a freshly caught fish—the eye is fully open, looking about, and you can feel it breathing in your hand. You don’t really deduct points in this category; what you are doing is rewarding a bow that has this vivacity.

Sticking to the Schedule

The VSA convention runs for five days, and there will be about 120 bows to judge over the course of the first three days. That doesn’t sound so hard, but if you consider what you can fit into an eight-hour day, that comes out to about 12 minutes per bow.

And with so many details to examine, it doesn’t end up being an eight-hour day. The first day I worked from 9 in the morning until 11:30 at night, with an hour for lunch. I then went to a party in a hotel room—where everyone else was already drunker than I wanted to be. Worse yet, there were some bows being passed around the room, and some potential competitors there as well.

Not only did I not want to talk with a potential entrant, I didn’t want to see a single bow outside the competition room for fear I might see someone’s work that I would then recognize while judging. The competition is set up to ensure the anonymity of all bows and instruments that are being judged. After a couple minutes at the party, I excused myself, got a glass of wine from the hotel bar, and went up to my room.

This would be a constant theme for the week: isolation.

Other than makers who have been classified as “Hors Concours,” meaning they have won medals in three separate competitions and are now ineligible to compete, you can’t know for sure who has or hasn’t entered. So you can’t know whom you can talk to. The VSA is nothing if not a schmooze-a-thon, but as a judge I didn’t feel like I could talk with anyone until after the judging was done.

Even after the glass of wine, I couldn’t sleep, so I took a shower and returned to judging at 2AM, working until 4:30AM. I got breakfast at an all-night diner around the corner (pancakes and a milk shake—you can’t beat it!), caught three hours of sleep, and was back to work by 9AM Tuesday morning. Whew.

Tuesday and Wednesday were similar: breakfast and lunch with other judges, staring at bows, working until 11PM, avoiding friends, colleagues, musicians, vendors. This was turning out to be a lot of work—primarily gratis.

Awarding Medals

By Thursday morning we were nearly done with the preliminary round. Organizer Jerry Pasewicz was both patient and insistent the work get done. He could tell we were trying to be diligent, but he also needed results in time to send the medals out to be engraved for that night’s awards ceremony. And so midmorning we started deciding who would get medals.

We received a computer printout ranking the bows in order in each category. Our final job was to decide which bows would get a gold medal, which would get a certificate of merit, and which bows would get nada. While we all worked as a team, judge Francois Malo of Montreal took the lead as the moderator. For a bow to get a medal there must be consensus among all three judges (the third judge was Eric Grandchamp of France). If any one of us refused, then the bow would not get a medal.

An interesting part of the rules is that the top-rated bow doesn’t have to get a medal—some years judges have ruled that no bows in a category are up to the standard of winning a gold medal. Remember I was talking about looking for the vivacity, the charisma that a bow can have, even if it isn’t as technically perfect as another bow? The rules now state that judges can give a lower-rated bow a gold medal without giving a medal to bows that rated higher technically. I think this is a very good rule, as a technically “perfect” bow can end up looking sterile. In our case, this rule didn’t come into effect, but I can imagine in some competitions it might.

Another nice thing about the rules at a VSA competition is that there can be more than one medal given out in a category. Some years judges have given out four medals in a category, which is great because some years there are that many bows that are deserving of the recognition. Over the years, the level of workmanship has gotten so high that I’m sure many bows that now “only” receive certificates of merit would have won gold medals 25 years ago. That is a testament to how the VSA competitions have inspired makers to keep improving their work.

We came to unanimous conclusions for almost every bow fairly quickly. However, there was one bow on which we deliberated for over two hours. I stress this because this is how seriously we all took the work. We know that the awards will be a big deal, potentially a very big deal for the people who have entered the competition, particularly among the more accomplished makers. I entered the VSA competition six times, eventually winning five gold medals and ten certificates of merit. It’s good to get a certificate of merit. But it’s better to get a gold. And after you get a gold, “only” getting a certificate of merit is a real let-down.

And so, before making our final, final decision on that bow, we took a little break and I introduced my foreign colleagues to TJ Maxx. There’s nothing like a little shopping to clear the mind.

The Award Ceremony and Beyond

On Thursday evening the awards were given out at an Academy Awards–style ceremony, after an overpriced hotel banquet that didn’t serve enough alcohol. (Since the judging was done I could finally have a drink and let my hair down.)

I have always hated the way the awards are given out. I feel that the incredible tension in the room fosters a negative sense of competition—an atmosphere of defining winners and losers—when we should be entering with the goal of competing against ourselves in order to do our best work. In retrospect I wish that when I was actively competing I would have sought out better friendships and working relationships with people against whom I was competing. But, hey, I was competing against them! (I am pleased that I am now good friends with the main people I was competing against during those years.)

You might think that after the awards are given out, the work is done, but in fact two days of very important, perhaps the most important, work remains. On Friday and Saturday, the judges are made available for any competitors who want to have their worked critiqued.

In many cases, these are humble people who want to know how they could do better. In some cases, it’s very serious competitors who are offended that they didn’t win and want you to justify your rankings. Occasionally, I was warned by past judges, you can have people who are nearly violent, angered by the injustice of the results (and, typically, the idiocy of the judges to not recognize their brilliance).

Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with anyone in the last category. But having benefitted from many critiques during my own less-than-100-percent-successful competitions, I wanted to be prepared to give makers really good, honest opinions on the technical aspects of their work. During the judging I took very detailed (possibly too detailed) notes on every bow. I hope it made my critiques worthwhile for people.

My most rewarding moment of the week was just after the dreaded awards ceremony. I ran into a violin maker who had won a certificate of merit. While many makers would be very excited about this, it was a disappointment for him because in previous years he had won gold medals. I thought back to a time ten years previous when I was in the same situation, and he seemed to be one of the few people who understood my disappointment.

I told him that the best thing judging did for me was that after seeing so many great bows that didn’t even get a certificate, it gave me a new appreciation for the certificates I had won—and not just for the gold medals.

Passing by was a normally taciturn judging colleague—a fierce competitor in his time—who overheard our conversation and came over to say, “I feel the exact same way.” The disappointed luthier later wrote a Facebook post saying the conversation meant a lot to him, and it made me feel like all the work of the week had been worth the effort.

I hope to see you at the next VSA convention. Please come up and say hello! 

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