By James N. McKean
Ron Forrester came to bow making later than most. He was in his early thirties, an amateur cellist, when he brought a broken bow into the shop of Yung Chin in New York. That visit changed his life. “I’d always wanted to do something that had meaning, working with my hands. I’ve drawn as long as I can remember. In high school I carved duck decoys. It was sitting there, watching Yung work on my bow, and I suddenly thought, yeah, I could do this.”
And he did.
Ron left his job and spent the next seven years working by Yung’s side. “The first three and a half years were a true apprenticeship. Yung is a luminary in the world of bow making; he’s probably had more of an influence on modern bow makers than anyone. I started out learning the craft, the nuts and bolts. Right away he had me start making a bow. But he also wanted to teach me the restoration of old bows—he felt you couldn’t do one without the other. I got to watch him work with players, too.
“That first bow took me nine months to make,” Ron recalls somewhat ruefully. “By the time I left, I had made close to 100 bows.” He established a business in southern New Jersey, but even then spent perhaps 80 percent of his time making bows. Within a few years, though, he discovered that he missed the city. “I wanted to be near the players and the great bows. Interacting with musicians, even through rehairing and repair, is absolutely critical. The more you can have these great bows in your hands, the more you can talk to the players using them, the more you’re keeping that battery fully charged.”
Ron points out that this has been an essential part of bow making from the very beginning. “One Tourte bow is different from another. So is a Peccatte. You can infer from their making that they worked closely with players. We’re sure that Simon did also. Their bows have a commonality to their style, but they’re all different.”
Ron was invited by Bruno Price and Ziv Arazi to join their firm Rare Violins of New York as the shop bow maker. He divides his time equally between his home and the city, still devoting the great majority of his time at the bench to making. And while the craft is important, “that’s a given,” he says. “The final 5 percent that distinguishes a great bow is the playability.”
Playability is one of those wonderful words that sounds specific but can mean almost anything. So I thought I’d talk to some of the people who own Ron’s bows to find out what it means to them. As it turns out, there’s a basic conundrum that qualifies a bow as great: It has to disappear in your hand.
“You should not notice it,” says Soovin Kim, a member of the violin faculty at the New England Conservatory. “The ideal bow means not having to think too much about your technique.”
Ed Dusinberre, violinist of the Takács Quartet, who owns two of Ron’s bows, echoes him: “I don’t want to be too aware of the bow as a separate entity.”
“I want it to be a natural extension of my arm,” affirms Tatjana Mead Chamis, associate principal violist of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
“Playability means being comfortable onstage,” says Laurie Carney, violinist in the American Quartet. “It means that everything that I want to get out there and show in playing is able to come through with that one bow with the least amount of effort.”
“We need articulation in all parts of the bow, as well as evenness,” adds Dan Avshalomov, the American Quartet’s violist.
The focus is almost always on the instrument—unless you’re talking to a player about actually playing. “When I think about the bow and the instrument,” says Masao Kawasaki, violin faculty member at Juilliard and Brooklyn College, and an owner of three of Ron’s bows, “we have two hands. The left hand basically finds the notes, but the bow is perhaps 85 percent of the music making. The right hand does some help with the vibrato, but
the bow does most of the work. We use different bow speeds, different pressure, and placement of the bow to make different energy and color and focus. For this we need most of all elasticity, with as quick a response as possible.”
“We demand a lot from our bows,” Dusinberre admits. “We’re always looking for a balance between contrasting attributes: strong yet flexible; lively for shorter, more springy strokes, but also able to sink into the string for smoother playing, for example when spinning a long, slow phrase.”
It’s a pretty tall order for a slender stick of pernambuco. I ask Ron where you even begin.
“Right from the start, you have to envision exactly what it’s going to look like and feel like. You start working backward. Every plane stroke, every bit of carving with the knife, is all working toward that vision. These days it’s so much a feel thing—a lot less about the numbers.
“I used to measure density very carefully. At this point I can judge that just by holding and flexing the rough stick. I do still use a Lucci meter, which measures how fast the sound travels through the wood, although I don’t rely solely on that—it’s just another piece of information. But it can also be misleading; sometimes bows that reflect certain numbers end up being so different.
“It’s no special talent,” he adds immediately. “Anyone who spends six days a week for 20 years holding great bows in his hand and flexing them and bouncing them—your sensibilities just pick up on it. You don’t emulate that necessarily but you know what you’re capable of doing with a particular stick.”
“The irreplaceable ingredient, in the long run, is enthusiasm. Ron lights up when he talks about bows.”
Ron quickly runs me through the basic steps. “I go through the wood, grab a few sticks. I’ll pick a few pieces and then start to rough plane them, continuing to feel and flex them, bouncing them on my hand. The stick starts out straight, but in the first hour you heat it and bend in the curve—the camber. I’ll start eliminating them until I get down to that one final stick that I just know is going to work.”
Roughing everything out is what Ron calls “the carpentry end of the process. Then comes the craft phase, where you’re putting parts on parts, fitting everything, mating all the surfaces. That has to be 100 percent spot on. Everything has to fit seamlessly: the movement of the frog on the stick, the turning of the button.”
Next, it’s time to graduate the stick. He starts out using some rough numbers as a guide, but “you reach a point where you let go of the numbers,” he says. “You put the calipers away, you put the scale away. Then it’s all right brain: making minute adjustments along the way without even realizing it, planing, shaping, recambering. I spend as much as two days on this part of it. It’s the absolute heart and soul of the bow.”
Then it’s time to head to Rare Violins for the finishing touches. “Bruno is a wonderful cellist and Ziv is a wonderful violinist,” he tells me. “Before I meet with the customer who ordered the bow, they sit down with me and we play the bow, going back and forth, listening together for the sound and playability.”
At this point the bow is almost done, and yet I point out that Ron hasn’t even talked about the final shaping of the head or the frog—ironically enough, the parts that makers and dealers look at first.
“A beautiful head and beautiful chamfers are all really important,” he says, “but they don’t affect the sound or playability. You develop your own style over time without realizing it. A lot of it has to do with how you hold it, the way you work a knife, and the repetitive nature. When it comes to a consistent style, you can’t get out of your own way. It just happens.”
Almost all of Ron’s bows are made on commission. While he’s usually asked to make a bow to meet a player’s style and needs, that often entails copying a favorite bow, or synthesizing aspects of different bows a player uses. But what he’s copying is the feel of the bow, not the way it looks.
“They should be able to close their eyes, pick it up, and not be able to tell a difference. That’s the ultimate test. I try to disabuse them right away that I’m going to make them a bow that looks exactly like the original, because it’s completely irrelevant. Rarely does somebody want it to physically look like the bow, anyway. What matters is how it feels in their hand.
“First it’s the contact point, where they’re actually touching it. Then basic dimensions, like the height and width of the frog, the width of the hair, the height of the head and the way the stick comes into the back of the head. After that it’s certainly weight and balance, how tip or frog heavy. There’s no right or wrong there—every player has his or her own recipe of what works.”
Skill, experience, and even talent only take you so far. The irreplaceable ingredient, in the long run, is enthusiasm. Ron lights up when he talks about bows. “I love the great French bows,” he says, “but the ones that really interest me are the old bows that come in, many times English, and you look at it and say, this is never going to work—and it works.
“And you can tell the maker knew what he was doing on a certain level. He took this piece of wood that should not work, probably because he didn’t have anything better, and he made it work. I love those bows. You know the guy put everything into it through feel and intuition.
“One time there was this old [Jean Pierre Marie] Persoit cello bow that just missed all the numbers—the tapering and cross section were off, the camber was wacky, and still this thing played like crazy and sounded great. You could tell that he just went by feel. It wasn’t stamped with his name, so he didn’t do it for himself. There was no ego involved. He just made this gorgeous bow. It looked gorgeous, too.
“And he didn’t have to do that. He didn’t have to make it beautiful but he also made it beautiful.”
He stops, looking aside, and I wait for him to continue. But he’s gone, back into bow world.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Strings magazine.