Perception and perfection of a bow

Perception and perfection of a bow

Fonclause, ca. 1840


Bowmaking today is very clean and of an amazing perfection. Even the cheap Chinese bows have that look, at least at the first sight. Something bothers me though and it is not easy to explain what it is. If you compare any new bow with any old bow, the old bow has more personality and character.

This has to do with the fact that the old bow has been played for many years and the wood has aged. Of course, old wood is darker and gives a different reflection. Old wood looks a little dull in normal light, but if you hold it under a light bulb, the wood comes to life and gives a glowing reflection. That is more interesting than new wood with a transparent surface.

The shellac finish on an old bow is a mix of dirt, rosin, oils and who knows what else. The shellac itself is full of minuscule hair cracks, filled and polished a hundred times. That makes it only half transparent, but with the light bulb we get to see the wood underneath and that is very appealing. A new bow doesn’t change as much with the amount of light you put on, it stays more the same and that is a little boring.

At this point I have to say a couple of words about perception in general. I believe our instincts are still the same as for the caveman in the Pleistocene. Some more than others, but our brains still work in the same way. Everything that moves gets more attention than things which keep still. If it moves it could be food (which is good) or it could be danger (which is bad).

Our eyes see everything around us, but our brain selects the things which could be interesting in some way. We see selective, we hear selective and we feel selective. Things that move have our priority. This is true and very important. Our senses take in a flood of information and the brain just picks up a few details.

When we sit in the woods and look at a tree, our eyes see the light reflections which the tree has not absorbed.  Our eyes see light, we do not see the tree itself, we see the light which reflects from the tree. This picture gets processed in our brain. The brain has an enormous stock of pictures which we have identified. It continuously compares the incoming information with the experience we have.

Unconsciously we decide this is a tree, because it looks like other trees we have seen in the past.  We do not need to feel the tree to know it is a tree, we have done that in the past and we know more or less how it would feel. Our brains continuously build up a replica of the outside world. This replica is personal, because it is built with the stock of experience we have. But we do our best to be as objective as possible, to get as close as possible to the truth.

It is important for our safety to know what a thing is before we do anything with it. If it was an apple tree we saw before, we already have an expectation on how an apple would taste. We have a look at it and if it looks as an apple should look, we take a bite. And if it tastes like an apple should taste we are quite satisfied.

Perception and perfection of a bow-2

Chinese bow, new

The same thing happens when we look at a bow. The client comes in with a case, he is a musician and we can expect that the thing he takes out of the case is a bow. If the case is small we do expect a violin bow. It has happened to me many times that I look at a bow with the expectation it was a violin bow and it took very long until I realised that it is a viola bow.

My brain tried to hold on to the initial expectation as long as possible. And sometimes it holds on far too long and I feel ashamed of how stupid I was not to realise that it is a viola bow. Afterwards it seems so obvious I could kick my ass.

We are not aware of it, but our unconscious expectations have an enormous influence on what we see. The longer I look at the bow the more information is coming in my brain. Our eyes see only two dimensions; the third dimension has to be built up in our brain. That is why we move the bow constantly in our hands. Our brain compares the bow to other bows we have seen and slowly an idea pops up who the maker could be.

In this process of making a replica of the bow in our head, we redesign the bow. Our inner picture gets close to the thing we have in hands, but it is not completely the same. Even after looking at it for years it happens that we discover a new detail that we had not noticed before.

That means that the picture we had before was not complete and we risk that the new picture is not complete either. Especially the imperfections in a line we tend to neglect, if we understand the idea behind it, the detail is less important.

We want to understand the outside world, if we do understand it we can react the right way.

This is quite vital in the modern world when we cross a street, but it was just as vital for the caveman. Understanding the world and each other is one of the most satisfying things in this life. I would say the priority list is: eat, drink, sex and understand. For some people understanding scores even higher but with bowmakers I guess we keep it on the forth place.

A new bow which is perfectly made is less interesting, because the process of understanding it is much shorter. It doesn’t keep our brain busy, because there is not much to discover.

With old bows made by experienced makers you can slowly understand the idea behind, even though there are imperfections and signs of use.  All those imperfections do not disturb us; on the contrary they fill us with tenderness. It is like a black mark in a beautiful face, it is the imperfection which is sexy, not the cleanliness.

As a bowmaker it is very difficult to find the good moment to stop the finishing process.

Often we go too far with cleaning and take off the character and personality of a bow.

A bow which is done with a clear concept, a fast and secure hand is still better and more beautiful, than a perfect bow which can win a price in a competition.

I personally don’t believe in competitions, probably because I would never win, but I truly think that they are good for sports, but competitions can not judge music and beauty. Perfection can be judged, but beauty is a personal experience which can’t be measured objectively.


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