Musician and bow-maker connects with the human spirit
One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith
When we listen to violin music at home, or go to hear an orchestra, we usually pay more attention to the sound than to the instruments themselves. We might not think about the intricacies, say, of a violin bow. But Brian Johnson does. But he’s not just a listener, he’s a maker of fine bows; and he’s the Principal Second Violinist for the Regina Symphony Orchestra.
It is logical that a good bow-maker would be a musician, because a musician knows intimately the mechanics and feel of playing. Brian Johnson began to learn those mechanics in music lessons in Shaunavon when he was five years old. After a year of study there with Don Metke, further development required lessons in Swift Current with Hazel Steinborn. For twelve years the family made the two hundred kilometre round trip weekly for his lessons. The trip continued for three more years to accommodate lessons for Brian’s brother David.
The dedication to driving of the Johnson boys’ parents – Ken and Maggie – was motivated by their own love of music. Music in their families, was possibly a kind of salvation, as they grew up in Saskatchewan in the dirty thirties. Ken, of Instow, played the guitar, and Maggie, from Ponteix, played the accordion by ear.
Brian and David were a rarity in Shaunavon in the ‘60s, as the only violin players. In grade school Brian took up the saxophone, but the violin remained his primary instrument. In 1979 when he went into the University of Regina Bachelor of Music program, Brian was fortunate to study with Howard Leyton-Brown. Leyton-Brown was head of the Regina Conservatory of Music string department, and he had previously been Concertmaster of the famed London Philharmonic; he was Conductor of the Regina Symphony Orchestra from 1960 to 1971, and was its Concertmaster until 1988. Johnson, while a student, played with the RSO between 1979 and 1983.
Then, after graduating with a Governor General’s Gold Medal, Brian moved to Toronto and studied with Canadian Trio violin soloist Jaime Weisenblum, who was the Concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company.
Brian Johnson began looking for a full-time position with an orchestra. This led him to audition successfully for the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. He notes that even a full time position such as this “did not provide a living wage.” But he gained experience, and sat in every principal violin chair on different occasions. He continued studying to upgrade his skills and look for an even better position.
About earning a living by playing music, Johnson says, “In orchestras, it’s the same as with most of the arts in Canada, the musicians or artists are vastly underpaid when you take into account the training and the skill required. But we’re doing something we love, and it’s satisfying in other ways.” Of course, you can’t eat satisfaction.
In 1987 Johnson returned to Regina to become Principal Second Violin of the Orchestra. In this role, Brian leads the ‘second’ violins in the orchestra – the second section musicians are just a skilled, but play different parts than the first section. The first violins are led by the Concertmaster. In the orchestra, brother David is now Brian’s ‘right hand man’ – as Assistant Principal Second Violin.
In 1985 Johnson began making bows. Hand-crafting bows requires skill, care and precision. To develop the craft, Johnson studied with respected bow maker John Norwood Lee of Chicago. Johnson’s bows are made with a wood from Brazil called pernambuco, the wood of choice for the modern bow. And the strings are made with hair from the tails of Mongolian horses.
His bows may have octagonal or round sticks, and other parts made from ebony, buffalo horn or mammoth ivory. The metal fittings are handcrafted in silver or gold. His bows sell for between one and three thousand dollars.
By comparison, bows made in France in the late 1700s by François Tourte – who perfected the violin bow – are now worth more than sixty thousand dollars. Factory-made bows imported from China sell for between two and five hundred dollars.
Johnson makes twelve to eighteen bows a year. He can tailor a bow specifically to a musician’s tactile preferences, which can be quite particular. Among the musicians who use his bows are recording artist Lara St. John, Regina-connected musician Erika Raum, and David Stewart, former concertmaster of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. Johnson’s bows are currently making music in the hands of violinists in England, Spain, Japan, Hong Kong, Texas, Florida, and New York as well as in orchestras across Canada.
Playing any instrument in an orchestra is challenging. Orchestral musicians have to listen, be with and follow the conductor, read the music, and manipulate the instrument and the body. Brian says “your brain is doing a lot of things at one time. Yet it’s exciting. Playing the big stuff where the walls are shaking is a kind of high.”
Johnson’s favourite musical context is chamber music, played by a small configuration of up to twelve players. “Chamber music is more intimate, and can be more rewarding to perform and play,” he says. “There’s one player on a part and no conductor.” Everything relies on communication between the musicians themselves as they are playing.
Classical chamber music and symphonic music seem to have staying power despite societal change and the availability of all kinds of music Johnson says: “Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart convey universal things that are deeply connected to the human spirit.” Mozart is his favourite. “No matter what I’m feeling, if I put Mozart’s music on, the world just fades away. His music is peaceful. It transports me to another level of consciousness.”
“Classical music is everywhere, but it’s taken for granted. One place today where it’s very important, but hardly noticed, is in the movies – the Lord of the Rings sound track comes to mind. People don’t realize what it would be like if classical music just disappeared.” Indeed, our sonic world would become a shallower place.
To pass on his love of music, Johnson teaches students from Regina and area, and once a week he goes to Moose Jaw to teach. He observes that the students who have the greatest challenges to taking lessons often value them the most. “The kids who have to make the most effort to get the lessons seem to go further with their abilities.” Like kids, say, from Shaunavon, like Brian and David Johnson.
“The violin is a good instrument to start children on at a young age,” Johnson says. “Holding and playing a violin is awkward at first, but children are adaptable and get used to it. But if they start later, it is more of a challenge to achieve the same level of skill.”
Reflecting on his long career in music and his goals, Brian says that “life changes your goals and dreams as you go along.” Brian and his wife, RSO Timpanist Lisa Simmermon have a fifteen year old son Hans, who has autism. They home-school him, are involved as autism activists, and turn many of their resources to their son’s care. Johnson says “I’m less interested now in buying an expensive instrument. I’d rather spend the money to insure that Hans has a rewarding life.” Hans likes music, but isn’t a musician – he’s into computers.
The violin that Brian Johnson uses is about one hundred years old. It’s a German instrument he acquired from an old-timer here in Saskatchewan. He changes violins every few years, and often buys locally. He also makes violins and violas. It can take three hundred hours plus to make a violin. He says that making bows and instruments has the same challenges as playing the violin – “there’s the constant necessity of learning new things, learning from your mistakes, and your successes.”
And you can bet that one of the successes is in his hands when he plays – a bow that’s a Brian Johnson special.
Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.
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