the tale of the bow

Once upon a time, Mama had an absolute beast of a violin bow.

A French one. An Ouchard, a name revered in bowmaking circles. How she could afford it, I don’t know. Possibly the chipped ivory on its tip. Possibly some other quirk. Possibly the dear friends who helped fund her career as a concert violinist.

I don’t know.

What I know is this: When she played with it on her violin, the world screeched to a halt on its axis. Time stopped. The heavens cracked open. The beast in her hands joined forces with her fiddle, a beast of another sort that was made for her in the sixties by a Swiss-American luthier named Karl August Berger. In Mama’s hands these twin beasts made music that hit the bottom depths and reached the loftiest heights and bounced the surface of the earth, oceans and lava and rose petals all splashing in their wake.

I never felt good enough, musical enough, to master either of these small wooden objects, two exquisite products of the hope and vision that fuel every act of creation in this world and (I believe) the next. We humans are makers at our core. But some are better at making than others. Some are fueled by clearer visions, greater hope, more honed abilities.

That was my mother. She was an astonishing concert violinist. But she heard some music in me (flawed me, amateur me) and made me promise that I would keep playing her violin after she died, that I wouldn’t let it sit idle and decline with neglect. I gave her my word. And I’ve been playing it consistently since her death in 1994 — never with perfection,  always with passion and joy.

But the mighty Ouchard: That was too much for me. I played with it, yes. I tried to get a grip on its power and complexities. But I wielded it with fear, never able to master its weight and find its balance, never able to draw from it the warmth, nuance and muscular, singing tone that I heard in Mama’s playing. As decades passed and osteoarthritis kicked in, I also felt increasing pain in my right thumb. With no small regret, I decided I needed to sell the Ouchard and find a lighter bow. I made a few calls, asked a few people, got nowhere.

Then, two summers ago, I was chatting with Jason Anick at Django in June.

You ask: Who’s Jason Anick? One of the best goddamned violinists you’ll ever hear in any genre. He can do anything on the fiddle. I’m not exaggerating. Any. Effing. Thing.

You ask: What’s Django in June? A band camp for nerds (I’ve been one since 2016) obsessed with the swinging Paris jazz of Django Reinhardt. It’s held at Smith College each year — well, except for 2020 and 2021 — and its instructors are mind-boggling musical virtuosi from all over the world.

Jason had just wrapped one of his afternoon violin workshops when he mentioned, hey, he had a few instrumental goodies for sale from his own collection. Come take a look, he told us.

So I did. I tried out a couple bows. One was a sweet, light stick that sat perfectly in my hand and pulled lovely tones from the fiddle.

“Oooooh,” I said, “that feels good. I like that. And I need a new bow, ’cause I’ve got one now that’s way too heavy for me. It was my mother’s. I’m thinking I should sell it, but I don’t know where to go. It’s an Ouchard. Do you know any violin shops that might be interested?”

He looked up

An Ouchard? 

“Yep.”

Emile Ouchard? 

“Yep.”

Do you have it here? 

“Yep.”

Can I see it?

“Yep. It’s not perfect. Got a chip on its tip, see? But Mama played everything with that thing. Kreisler. Bach. The Chaconne! I remember her playing the Chaconne!

I handed it to him. He hefted the bow. Hefted his fiddle. Started in on the Chaconne. The sound, the force, the beauty of that soaring, searing, thundering Bach — I hadn’t heard that music, not that way, since I last heard Mama play it. My God, I thought. My God. My God. My God. It took all my self-control not to collapse into a blubbering mess in a sunny corner of Smith.

He stopped playing. Put the bow down. Looked at it. Looked at it again. Nodded.

Clearly, it had to be his. Mama would want it to be his. The universe would want it to be his. It was his.

We agreed to a trade — his light, dancing bow for my mighty but chipped Ouchard. He’d take it into his luthier for a look, he said. See how much the repair would cost. Then weigh that against its value and see if we’re even.

We were. After a couple emails and phone calls, we finalized the trade. I told Jason I could feel Mama smiling, and I meant it. I meant it.

I felt her smiling again — and I told him again — after hearing him perform on the Ouchard with his killer trio last month at a “Django by the Sea” concert in Kittery, Maine. It was some of the best goddamned music I’d ever heard in any genre. They did everything on those instruments. I’m not exaggerating. Every. Effing. Thing. 

Once more it took all my self-control not to collapse into a blubbering mess. I’d made it about two-thirds of the way through the concert when, stepping up to the mic, Jason mentioned someone in the audience named Amy. He gave a little shout-out to my mother and her fine beast of an Ouchard, holding it up for the audience to see. Then he lifted to his fiddle and played a gorgeous Latin tune with warmth. With nuance. With a muscular, singing tone.

Did time stop? Did the heavens crack open? Did a halo blaze around him, the Ouchard bathed in celestial light? No. I mean, not that I recall. But I I did, in fact, burst into tears, and I can also report that I’m shedding a few right now.

That, my friends, is the Tale of the Bow — and it’s quite an arc, is it not?

In cased you missed it, that was a pun.

And I can still feel Mama smiling.

12 thoughts on “the tale of the bow

  1. Beautiful, beautiful story! I’ve always loved everything you write about music since I first read articles you wrote in the T-U. Thank you!

  2. This is a wonderful tribute to your mother and terrfic story in its own right! As a fellow music nerd, I can relate to a lot of the sentiments expressed, and have had a similar experience with the recent passing of my piano playing dad. Your prose captures the human side of music that really touches the soul and is the cause of the tears that you feel streaming down your face.

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