[Interview] Teacher and Professional Violinist Roy Oakley Discusses Important Characteristics of Pernambuco

Roy Oakley at his home in San Francisco

Roy Oakley at his home in San Francisco

When I started working on this project I knew Roy Oakley was someone I had to talk to. Both he and his wife are professional violinists and are directors of the Villa Sinfonia Foundation, and I was lucky to have him as my teacher all the way through High School. Since I haven’t had as much time to keep up practicing the violin since being in college, it was nice to get a chance to call him and see what he had to say about pernambuco and his experience playing with different bows.

After catching up for a bit, Oakley jumped right into the topic of bows, telling me how important both the flexibility and strength of the wood can be. He explained how structurally there are two basic bow shapes, the octagonal and the round bow—the round sticks tend to be more flexible whereas the octagonal ones tends to be more stable in your hand. Flexibility can be especially important for bowing techniques like spiccato. As a teacher, he said that since the octagonal ones tend to be more stable, he often recommends it for beginning students. Beginners need a bow that they can easily control in their hand. I asked him what his thoughts were on carbon fiber bows and he said that he preferred the wooden pernambuco sticks, though he recommended carbon fiber bows for beginning students as well. He told me that snakewood can be good and work reasonably well for students too, though it is not always as good as pernambuco wood.

He told me that although he does have a carbon fiber bow he doesn’t use it for performances because it lacks ‘soul’ and doesn’t project musically in comparison to a wooden bow. Rather, he uses it because it is easier on his hand when practicing. “It gives you sound but it’s transparent,” he explained, “whereas a fine bow of pernambuco will have more of a personality in the sound.” However, there are other upsides to carbon fiber bows. Because of the way carbon fiber bows are manufactured, he explained that they seem to be more stable and consistent as you go from one bow to the next.  He went on to say that it is also much easier to get a fine carbon fiber bow now without having to spend fortunes on ones like pernambuco.

I asked him about his best bows and he mentioned that he had a Pierre Simon bow.  He said he was able to afford it because it had been damaged when he bought it. “Now it’s probably worth the same as a car,” he explained, “but top of the line Tourte bows can be close to $90,000 to $100,000.” Oakley told me that he had asked Jim Furey, Feller’s old partner, to make a copy of his Simone bow. “It took 3 or 4 years to even find just the wood to copy the Simone,” he continued, “and what he copied was the strength in each part of the bow.” Though Furey didn’t make it look exactly like a Simone, he did make it act like one.

“Sometimes when you’re playing, you can get a sense that after a while there’s a point in time in a bow makers life where you can feel the anger and frustration in the bow because it comes out. It’s fascinating,” Oakley said. “That aspect can be felt as you go from one stick to the next. If it was a good period in the makers life, it can be a very happy bow.” He went on to explain that though these feelings are subtle, they really are there.

“You have to match a bow to an instrument,” he explained. He went on to say how a great bow on one violin may not be as great as a lesser bow on that same instrument and vice versa. “I always describe the matching of the bow to the instrument like a marriage.” He said that it’s a very personal relationship between the bow and the instrument, and in the end “you have to get them to work well together.”