Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak took a roundabout route to making bows for violins, violas and cellos.
Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak, 65, trained with the "father of American bowmaking," William Salchow in New York, French bowmakers, Jean Grunberger and Stephane Thomachot in Paris, and bowmaker and owner of the highly respected Maison Bernard, Pierre Guillaume in Brussels, Belgium. She began her work at Primavera House of Violins in 1982 and later established Bow Studio of Philadelphia.
In 2003 she established Mount Airy Violins & Bows at 6665 Germantown Ave. in honor of the shop’s present neighborhood.
“We now have seven employees and are working towards being worker-owned in the near future,” said Shaak, whose handmade bows are played in orchestras, bands and sessions around the country. Her shop has clients from the neighborhood, while other musicians come in from us far away as Allentown, Harrisburg, Atlantic City and Delaware. “We enjoy being a gateway to Mt. Airy, recommending shops, restaurants and treats for many people who were previously unfamiliar with Philadelphia.”
Shaak took a roundabout route to making bows for violins, violas and cellos. She was a double-major in fine arts and audiology at Ithaca College in New York State. As a graduate student in psychology at Bryn Mawr College, she helped to develop a test to reveal hearing deficits in babies before they showed signs of deafness. She also considered becoming a midwife.
However, in 1980, after a year of graduate school, Shaak knew that her life lay in music. She’d studied the piano and the guitar from age 12 and at one point took lessons from Alicia Bjornsdottir, a world-class Swedish violinist and fiddler when the latter lived in Wyndmoor. “For most bowmakers, our career path isn’t a straight line, regardless of background,” said Shaak, who loves working with her hands. “The thread that binds us all is attention to detail. There are some 240 steps in making a bow, and it takes about 70 hours.”
Before learning bowmaking, Shaak had the opportunity to study folk culture in Bulgaria from 1979 to 1981. It was still a Soviet Bloc country, with many restrictions on access to popular culture and modern material goods. “I spent time in rural areas,” she said last week. “It felt like stepping back 150 years but with electricity, usually one light bulb per room. There were no household phones. You had to go to the local post office to make a call. There was no indoor plumbing outside of the cities, and people still went to the Roman baths once a week to bathe. There was no plastic at all, and all waste was either burned or given to the pig.
“Horses and carriages shared the road with the few cars. People would sing in the fields and entertain themselves by playing traditional music on handmade instruments or singing local ballads at the dinner table. The average person would know over 200 songs by heart. It was a culture rich in history, hand-stitched, decorated costumes, homegrown and raised food, music, song and a thorough memory of the past. The sense of community was vivid and something I vowed to take with me and hope to somehow recreate.”
When the pandemic started last March, there was an immediate impact on Shaak's income. However, between her savings and her intention to have a diversified business (high-end to low-end instruments; local, regional and national clients; and different types of income streams) the business was only down 30 percent by the fall.
“Our biggest hurdle was learning how to work safely and effectively while working separately in our homes or later taking turns coming into the shop. We networked our accounting software, created online appointments, rental contracts and a small accessory store and had too many Zoom meetings. We mandated masks in the shop and used 'curbside' appointments in our ventilated foyer to see customers one at a time.
“We reduced the number of workers to a room to two ... We created a garden space and a well-ventilated room inside the shop for players to try instruments and bows in person. It has not been seamless or easy, but it is working. And our rental program saved the shop from closure during this pandemic … We have been able to keep all of our crew employed throughout the pandemic while continuing all of their benefits.”
When I asked what was the hardest thing she had ever done, Shaak replied, “Give birth. Raise kids. Let them go ... Now I realize that this same sentiment will apply to Mount Airy Violins & Bows in a few years.”
For more information, visit mtairyviolins.com. Constance Garcia-Barrio contributed to this article. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org