Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak, who lived in Bulgaria in the 1980s and learned from master craftsmen in Europe, can spend 70 hours making one amazing bow.

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

“The hills are alive with the sound of music,” the famous song says, and more Philly homes will be too, if Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak has her way. “Music can add such joy to life,” said Shaak, 62, a Mt. Airy bowmaker. “It can make an enormous difference.”

Shaak took a roundabout route to making bows for violins, violas and cellos. She double-majored 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 likes 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.”

Shaak first studied bowmaking — an unusual choice for women of her generation — at age 29. In 1982, she got a job replacing the worn horse hair on bows at Primavera House of Violins on Rittenhouse Square. A third-generation violin maker, Adolf Primavera, was at the end of his career. After the store folded in 1983, Elizabeth began studying bowmaking with William Salchow, considered the “father of American bowmaking,” in New York City.

Honing her craft and broadening her knowledge of music meant travel. Shaak lived in Bulgaria in the early ‘80s, where she studied the country’s folk music and learned the language. Next came a 1986 sojourn in France. “The French method of bowmaking is more intuitive,” she said. “You use the wood’s strengths to create the best possible bow.

“A tree isn’t uniform throughout. You test a piece of wood to see how fast it vibrates. A machine may make a good bow, but it doesn’t have the sensitivity of the human hand.” In 1987, Shaak spent time with master bowmakers in Belgium. Upon returning to the U.S., she worked at the former Vintage Instruments in downtown Philadelphia.

Chance and convenience brought Shaak to the current location of Mt. Airy Violins and Bows at 6665 Germantown Ave. in 2003. Her daughter Juliana, then 11, and her son Gabe, then 9, were attending Project Learn Cooperative School when a creaky building a half-block from the school became available. “It used to be Maude’s Curiosity Shop. A number of people had inquired about buying it, but Maude, an older woman, decided she wanted it to be a violin shop.”

Environmental issues loom larger now than when Shaak opened Mt. Airy Violins and Bows. “Ebony is endangered, and its use may well become banned,” said Shaak, whose shop is a sensual delight with the scent of different woods ranging from honey to brandy-colored. She has begun experimenting with maple as an alternative. “It’s available and grows fast.”

Bows also have metal parts. Shaak uses silver instead of gold because it cuts costs and takes into consideration the wretched conditions in which some gold miners labor. “I make a traveling bow that has no ivory, ebony, black oyster shells or other items that might be flagged at an international border crossing.”

Shaak’s clients include internationally renowned cello player Camden Shaw of the Dover Quartet and the late jazz violinist John Blake Jr. “We have a rental program for students who can’t afford to buy an instrument. Even a $100 bow is a lot of money for many people, but it’s the bottom of the barrel in the trade,” said Shaak. Quality bows generally start at $350 to $400, and handmade bows may cost in the thousands. “We also have a works-in-progress soiree where several musicians present pieces they’re composing. The soirees are open to the public, and the musicians receive all proceeds from a free will offering.”

For any artist or craftsman, the question boils down to this, Shaak says: “How are you going to make a mark in the world? How are you going to do something memorable?”

For more information: 215-438-9031 of mountairyviolins@gmail.com. This article is reprinted, with permission, from Milestones, the publication of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.