Evan Orman, who has been crafting bows for stringed instruments since 1994, compares them to cars. A bow’s hair is like the tires, while the stick is like the suspension, and there’s a relationship between having the right type of tire and the right pressure and making sure the suspension isn’t too stiff and floppy.
“With bows, it's really kind of similar to that — the way it feels, the way it interacts with the strings on a bowed instrument,” Orman says. “What a good bow does is facilitates the player to be able to forget about as much of that as they can and just have everything work so that they can, you know, be an artist. A good bow has really good balance. It's the exact right weight. It’s even and responsive and quick — immediate from one end to the other.”
Orman, who started playing cello at the age of ten, discovered long before making bows: It’s hard to make good music on a cello, violin, viola or bass without a good bow — even when the instrument is first-rate.
“It's like the extension of yourself that makes the sound,” Orman says.
For more than two decades, Orman, who is now based in Denver, has been going to bow-making workshops at Oberlin College, where he met Vermont-based bow maker Eben Bodach-Turner. The two recently collaborated on making a bow that they’ve donated to a COVID-19 musicians' aid fund set up by the Vermont-based nonprofit Seven Stars Art Center. The bow will be raffled off along with a violin made by luthier Jacob Brillhart, who’s been live-streaming himself making the instrument, sometimes putting in sixteen hours a day.
Raffle tickets for the violin, valued at $10,000, and the bow, valued at $5,000, can be purchased online, and donations are 100 percent tax-deductible. Musicians who have lost the majority of their performance and teaching income because of the pandemic can apply for the fund by filling out a short Google form.
Seven Arts will distribute $250 aid packages on a first-come, first-served and vetted basis. So far, nearly $45,000 of the $50,000 goal has been raised, and there are about two weeks left in the fundraiser.
While many musicians have lost a main source of income because of the pandemic, Orman says his business has pretty much ground to a halt, save for a few restorations he’s been doing. Orman, who also does bow repairs and re-hairs, might spend twenty hours crafting a bow, making every single part, including doing the gold and silver work himself.
Like many bow makers, he uses Pernambuco wood from Brazil.
“It's the combination of properties, like the density of it and the specific gravity and the stiffness,” Orman says. “It's a really beautiful wood. And it was originally made in Europe, because it's got a very beautiful purple dye. They’d grind it up, and that was that sort of classy purple that showed up in Europe around probably 1500 or so. It’s just the right thing for the job. There are other woods that work, but it's really the best one.”
For his collaboration with Bodach-Turner, Orman made the bow’s stick from Pernambuco wood as well as the frog and buttons, which tightens and loosens the hair, while Bodach-Turner added the wrapping, which is that fancy grip on the bottom of the stick where a player’s fingers go.
Orman says Brillhart is about halfway through the varnishing process for the violin, which takes a long time.
“He's making a copy of an old Italian violin, so he's imitating some of the wear patterns on it and everything,” Orman notes. “It's a pretty big project.”