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Controlling Strings, Wood, and Air

Controlling Strings, Wood, and Air

from her 1979 GAL Convention lecture

Originally published in Guild of American Luthiers Quarterly Volume 8, #3, 1980 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie, Volume 1, 2000

I’d like to take a minute to tell you a story. Imagine the scent in front of a cave some 20,000 years ago. A family has just killed a bear and is skinning it and preparing the meat for food. They’ve given some of the rawhide to their young son who has made some strips to string his first hunting bow. He and his sister are sitting out in front of the cave trying to tie some of the slippery strips to the bow-stick. As they do this the boy puts one end of the stick in his mouth to hold it steady as he tightens and ties the slippery stuff. As he plucks the rawhide to check the pull he suddenly realizes he can get different sounds depending on how he bites the stick and shapes his lips and cheeks around it.

This could have been the origin of the musical bow. When I told this story in Ames, Iowa, a few years ago it created quite a lot of interest. After the lecture they produced a record of someone playing the mouth bow. I now have a mouth bow that a young man made for me which is quite a challenge to try to play.

Actually, we are working with the same three elements that the young cave boy had under his control: strings, wood, and air. He could vary all three of these quite easily to a certain extent. In our modern bowed and plucked strings, however, the wood and the air resonances are more or less set when the instruments are made. For years I have worked to test the effects of variations in the wood and air resonances, but it means taking the instruments apart to thin the plates or slice down the height of the ribs (on expendable instruments, of course!)

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