josephJoseph Curtin, violin maker

Why is this an exciting time to be a violin maker?

Given the wealth of historical and scientific research now available to makers, and the increasing acceptance of new instruments among professional players, I can’t imagine a better time to be a violin maker. Personally, I’m excited about the ways in which the art and science of violin making can now cross-fertilize.

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of violin making?

I’ve worked for several decades within (or mostly within) the confines of traditional violin making and yet I keep asking myself: What comes next? While traditions are great, I think it’s equally important to look beyond the horizon—the way they once did in Cremona.

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

Just what they expect from Old Italian makers: an instrument they love to play; an instrument with an expressive voice that projects well, but can also blend seamlessly into an ensemble. I think players expect a new instrument to be reliable, and they expect its makerto stand behind it, from commission to eventual resale.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see?

I like to imagine a convergence of classical violin making with 21st-century design. Desktop CNC machines will relieve makers of much of the tedious roughing-out process. Acoustical-measuring equipment will help us tailor instruments to the needs of individual players. Timbral ear training will allow players and makers to discuss tone quality in objective terms.

Given how quickly the level of violin making is now rising, I suspect that in 20 years only the very best old instruments will remain competitive.

I like to imagine that new instruments will by then be as exciting to look at as, let’s say, the work of contemporary designers and architects.

What concerns do you have for the future of the craft?

None. My concerns are for the future of the planet.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

My teacher Otto Erdesz once told me, “If you want to leave the room, head for the door, not the wall.”

If you could keep any one instrument or bow you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?

There is a Mariani viola belonging to Yizhak Schotten that I would love to have around for its sheer physical beauty.


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James N. McKean, violin maker

Why is this an exciting time to be a violin maker?

When I went to the school in 1973, contemporary violin making was a labor of love—there were fewer than a handful of people making a living at it. Everyone else made an occasional violin while doing repairs. Antiques were then so plentiful that a cellist I knew, when the Strad that was on loan to him was taken back, complained that now he was reduced to playing on his Joseph Rocca.

Modern Italians were a drug on the market—how could a contemporary maker, much less an American, hope to compete? Incredible as it now seems, back then the highest compliment a musician could give your violin was to say, “It doesn’t sound new.”

This was also the beginning of the feminist movement, and what was said then about women in the workplace really resonated with me as a violin maker: In our case, you had to be twice as good as the dead guys to be taken half as seriously. Now, though, most musicians—especially the young ones—look at old and new from the same perspective. Some are good, some are bad, a few are absolutely outstanding.

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of violin making?

Violin making goes back half a millennium now. What we’re making is not at all different from the first instruments made by Andrea Amati. So the very idea that is the basis of the world we live in—progress—is totally irrelevant to a violin maker. On the other hand, you can’t allow yourself to become a captive of tradition.

Using the same tools, wood, and methods can blind you to the fact that Andrea Amati was making fiddles for living musicians, as has every maker since then. Unfortunately, the vogue for antiquing contemporary instruments has obscured that. It’s really sad. There is no other art or craft—now or throughout history—that has viewed copying and antiquing with anything less than ultimate contempt. It has no creativity; the whole idea is to erase your own identity.

Every time I go in the shop, or string up a new cello, or hear a musician play it, I’m conscious of being a part of that great tradition that stretches back 500 years—a violin maker living in today’s world, helping a musician find his or her voice.

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

Sound. And dependability. As far as I see it, the better my instrument is, the less the musician knows it’s there. Ideally, it should disappear, so that nothing stands between her and the music she hears in her head. And it should be like that all the time. String players are expected to perform at any time under any circumstances, without any excuses; well, they expect their instruments to do the same. Of course, an instrument is as sensitive as the player to the conditions, which are more often than not far from ideal. So it’s not always going to optimal. But it shouldn’t be problematic. The best compliment I ever had was from a cellist who told me that she never thought of me. Her old Italian had been in the shop every other week.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see?

I’d be thrilled to see an end to this horrible practice of antiquing. It does absolutely nothing for the sound, and that’s all musicians really care about. It perpetuates that unhealthy mindset on the part of both makers and musicians—that false dichotomy of old and new.

The real irony is if you saw some of those great Strads and Guarneris when they were brand new, they would have been shockingly bright red and orange. They were exuberant—as was the music being written for them and the musicians playing them. Musicians today are just as full of life, so shouldn’t their instruments be, too?

What concerns do you have for the future of the craft?

None. When I first picked up my tools, people were making dire warnings about the death of classical music. I guess I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve heard this same old story come up over and over. And yet there are more people listening to classical music, and playing it, than ever before.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

I have to laugh. I remember Nigo [V.Y. Nigogosian] saying to me, “Don’t put your money on the walls.” I guess the best advice is more of an instinct—when you see great wood, buy it. Always, no matter what the price, do whatever you have to, just get it.

If you could keep any one instrument or bow you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?

Oh, man, that’s like saying pick your favorite child. My favorite is the one I’m holding now. I think back over the past 40 years or so and I’m really astounded at the masterpieces I’ve been privileged to see and hold. I wouldn’t keep any of them, though. They’re not for me. I’m not a musician. They should be out there, making music.


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Yung Chin, bow maker

Why is this an exciting time to be a bow maker?  

When I first started making bows in the early 1980s there was very little interaction among the bow-making community in America, and also worldwide. About 20 years ago I established and directed the Oberlin Bow Making Program. With the help of my esteemed colleague Morgan Andersen we brought together bow makers from around the world to share their knowledge in a very open and transparent way.

The sharing of the knowledge of bow making has raised the level of [the craft] over time and today most members of the bow-making community get along quite well with each other. As some violin makers have said to me on more than one occasion, “When the bow makers get together, you are all having fun!”

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of bow making?

I first started making bows while working for Bill Salchow, the dean of American bow making. His methods were a compilation of those  he saw in France but also many of his own thoughts about making. He actually changed his thoughts about making very often. I have kept some of Bill’s methods and have adopted other methods I have seen from some of my colleagues.

Most of the methods I use now are what one could say is the French school of making. My own work is mostly influenced by classic French makers of the past such as Pajeot, Peccatte, and, of course, FX Tourte. I also admire the work of the Knopf family of makers, especially Heinrich Knopf.

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

More and more players are turning to contemporary instrument and bow makers. They are looking for a well-crafted bow, which has good playing and sound qualities. With the escalation of the cost of old bows in the last 20 years, new bows are more and more attractive to many players. In most cases, one can buy a very fine new bow from a modern maker from $5,000 to $8,000. With a modern bow you know who made it, which is not always the case with old bows.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years? 

I do not know if the craft will really have some major change in the next 20 years from a making point of view. But with the continued escalation of antique bow prices, I think more and more musicians will turn to modern makers to purchase a bow.

What concerns do you have for the future of the craft?

The natural resources we use are of prime importance, especially pernambuco. The worldwide bow-making community, through the efforts of the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI), has been very involved with helping to find solutions whereby we can have longterm sustainability of the resources we use so that future generations of bow makers can continue our wonderful craft.

We need to use natural resources in a sustainable way and need to continue dialogue with conservation and governmental agencies to educate them about our craft.

Only by working together can we come to solutions that are acceptable to all interested parties.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

I have had the good fortune to have many people help me along my journey in life.  But I was told by my parents long ago, find something you like to do and work hard at it. When I first started learning about bows, I would routinely stay late, work, and look at bows on my own.

Thirty-five years later I still have a tremendous passion for bows and get very excited when I see a bow I like, whether it be an old or new bow.

If you could keep any one instrument or bow you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?

I have had the good fortune to take care of many fine bows by well-known players over the past 35 years. But the one bow that I have always coveted is the Nikolai Kittel bow used by Mr. Jascha Heifetz. Since the passing of the great violinist, I have had the privilege of caring for this bow since 1991.

This bow has unique playing and sound qualities that I have rarely seen in any other bow. I heard about this bow from my violin teacher when I was studying violin playing, before I went into bow making.

Years later, this bow greatly influenced my colleagues Klaus Grunke, Josef Gabriel, Andy Lim, and myself to write a book about Kittel.


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Peg Baumgartel, bow maker

Why is this an exciting time to be a bow maker?

In the past 30 years, violin and bow making has undergone a renaissance. Some makers are now recognized as rivaling the old masters—this fact has been proven in maker’s competitions, and blindfold tests between modern and old instruments.

The high prices for old instruments and bows creates a vacuum, where modern makers can earn a living because many musicians cannot afford a five-, six-, or seven-figure purchase. There has also been more sharing of work techniques in the last 20 years between makers, which was unheard of before, and this openness has also inspired great work.

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of violin or bow making?

I am “old school”—not a stylistic envelope-pusher or salesman. My personal models are inspired by older makers I admire.

I simply pour my heartfelt efforts into each bow by respecting the precious materials it’s made from, while striving to bring out the best playing qualities. Bows are a constant teacher, and I am a perennial student. I was a professional musician, so this factor also informs my making.

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

Players want a reasonable price and high quality in handmade contemporary work. They like being able to purchase multiple instruments or bows for the price of one older piece, without worrying about condition issues or authenticity. Some players like working with makers to customize their new purchase.

There are some myths circulating among players that modern bows feel like baseball bats or are too heavy, but a skilled bow maker can make a variety of bows with varying degrees suppleness and weights that share the desirable characteristics of older bows.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years? What changes would you like to see?

As the world becomes more populated and technologically evolved, I foresee a growing appeal for string playing as a profession or hobby. It is one of life’s “unplugged” pleasures. We need to further recognize and support the positive power of music to build community despite our differences, and the world needs this positivity now and probably even more in the future.

This growth in string playing will provide more opportunities for all facets of makers in our trade, whether handmade or factory instruments.

What concerns do you have for the future
of the craft?

Due to the demands on our natural resources through deforestation, over-population, and other issues, it is vitally important that makers continue to develop plans for conserving our instruments’ and bows’ raw materials for current and future makers.

The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM) and the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI) have been working to safeguard our raw materials, but every maker, player, and maker’s organizations now needs to get involved for the future of our craft and livelihoods. We can manage our future resources through careful planning with international teamwork and communication.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

Spend the first two hours of every morning making—don’t answer the phone, the door, or your email. Set a positive tone for your day in that initial focused time.

If you could keep any one instrument or bow you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?

There are several bows that still haunt me from my days as a bow restorer: a Tourte, a Simon, and a Pajeot. What they all have in common is a presence, a life force if you will, and a voice that speaks not only through an instrument, but also through the centuries from one maker (who obviously was at the top of the craft) to another.

Most great works of art—bows, instruments, paintings, etc.—have a presence that you feel, that stays with you, and is hard to define, but ultimately leaves you feeling appreciation and inspiration.


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Jeff Van Fossen, bow designer, Codabow

Why is this an exciting time to be a bow maker?

Never before in history have bow makers had such an opportunity to connect, interact, serve, and even collaborate with musicians. Web connectivity is allowing musicians worldwide to converse with people designing and crafting leading-edge bows. This new level of dialogue between makers and players will ultimately lead to unprecedented understanding of player desires and to unprecedented crafting of fine instruments. Over time, musicians will marvel at the ease with which they can find instruments ideally suited to their needs.

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of bow making?

In the tradition of bow making, CodaBow plays the evolutionary role. The “tradition” of bow making, like most disciplines, has always been in a state of constant change, marked by notable evolutionary steps, or “disruptions” as today’s innovators refer to them.

Two hundred years ago, François Tourte disrupted bow making by creating the “modern” bow, an evolutionary step in design and material. Today CodaBow through innovative research, materials, and methods is creating exceptional contemporary instruments and placing them in the hands of musicians in an unprecedented way.

Like makers throughout history, our commitment to the ultimate player experience is timeless—our approach is evolutionary.

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

More than ever, bows are instruments of self-realization for the player. The timeless expectation of players is that the maker share their commitment to excellence and to the beauty of the art form.

Today’s players expect the same of contemporary makers—even more. Considering makers’ access to advanced research, materials, and methods, and musicians’ access to makers, today’s players can and should expect beautiful, reasonably priced bows increasingly well suited to their individual tastes.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years? 

The commitment to excellence and the dedication to the beauty of the art form will not change, fortunately.

However, as players continue to gain access to high-performance instruments earlier in their development, they will develop deeper self-awareness of their style and tastes.

Enriching the player experience will ultimately enrich the industry.

What concerns do you have for the future of the craft?

I have no concerns for the future of the craft. Humanity will eternally pursue the beauty of music produced by the bowed string. Where there is beauty, there will be a craft.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

Show up every day and humbly do your best work.

If you could keep any one instrument or bow you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?

My most prized bow-related possession is not actually a bow. Instead, it is a slender hoop (about 15cm in diameter) made of one of the first samples of carbon fiber ever produced. Over 50 years ago Dr. Roger Bacon, inventor of carbon fiber, and Stan Prosen, creator of the CodaBow, crafted this ring to better understand the material properties of this magical new substance they originally called “black silk.” An inadvertent drop of this hoop on the floor, and its subsequent resonant “ring,” inspired what has now become the CodaBow. We keep the hoop in our office as a humble reminder that no matter how much any of us thinks we create innovation, true inspiration is ultimately grace that is bestowed upon us.


jonathan

Jonathan cooper, violin maker

Why is this an exciting time to be a violin maker?

It is a very exciting time to be a violin maker because so many parts of the trade have reached such a high level and, really, it’s been in the last 30 years. There’s jusat so much that’s changed. There have been so many inventions, and many of them in the way in which we all communicate. Being able to communicate quickly through email and photography and being able to get together and work as makers at the Oberlin Workshops, and all the other research that’s been done—everybody’s been able to share in it. I think maybe one of the most important hallmarks has been the openness of it. In many ways, it’s been a closed trade for a very long time. It was very secretive and the current generation of makers has really changed all of that. And it’s brought a lot of really clear thinking and good information about what goes into violin making.

And the level of playing has gotten just incredible in all of the different styles of music. And that’s been fantastic. I specialize a lot in [instruments for] people who are playing what I call acoustic music. When I first learned, you made violins for classical players, and those were the people who bought new, handmade instruments, for the most part. And that’s totally changed for me and I love that part because the players who are playing acoustic music, and all these other genres of music, have become just incredible players. The appreciation of sound, and the use of sound, has just grown by leaps and bounds. What people are doing with these instruments acoustically is just amazing these days. So that’s very exciting to me, to be a part of such a wide spectrum of music, and music that I personally love and enjoy and play myself.

I think that we really are in another sort of Golden Age of violin making. We’ve gone back to the roots of it and examined what these people were doing when they first invented the violin: What was it about, what was the impetus, how did they do it, and—there’s a very simple form that they used—how did they generate the form, and how did they interpret and change it? We have, of course, the great benefit of hindsight. We can look back over 400 years of making and see how the different iterations went over the years, and very clearly, too. It’s really been quite something.

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of violin making?

I learned in the very strict, formal tradition of copying Stradivari and Guarneri, the Italian school of making, and what those instruments came to be and sound like. And I took that information and I did what I think every violin maker has done since the beginning, and that’s work with musicians of the day, work with the people who are playing. What do you want? What do you want to sound like? What’s the combination of instruments that you’re playing in, and what’s the violin’s place in this group of instruments?

So originally, I learned a lot about how the instruments fit in orchestrally, or in smaller groupings. But then I started to think more about someone playing the violin with a guitar player, banjo player, and a mandolin player: What’s that instrument going to sound like? And if they’re recording, what’s that instrument going to sound like?

It’s different from someone who’s going to stand onstage and solo in front of an orchestra, or a person that’s going to fit into a section in an orchestra. It’s a different kind of timbre, it’s a different kind of response, so I think that’s a large part of where my work has come to fit in.

I’m, for all intents and purposes, making the same instrument. If you look at it, it’s a Guarneri model—it looks like all the other instruments—but I’ve changed things about it over time, just as everybody else has done, to fit the style of music of their day. I’ve also adapted to [changes in] string technology. But I’ve still kept that essential idea: What are the materials, what is the varnish, what is the basic concept of the instrument, what do I change to make it into something a little shade different that’s going to work better for this kind of music?

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

I think they expect a very, very high-quality instrument, that’s for sure. They demand a lot of the sound. That’s the other thing that you get when people are playing at a high level—people are really listening. If someone’s making a recording on an instrument you’ve made, they really listen hard. For a high-quality performance, the instrument really has to work, and it has to be consistent.

So they demand a lot: They basically demand everything. People want color of sound; they may want projection; they want, depending on the music, a certain kind of timbre, or a certain kind of sound for that kind of music. It varies a bit from style to style. They want something that’s certainly set up right and plays well. The standard’s high and you have to meet all of those qualifications. People are looking for range: More than anything a lot of players are looking for instruments that have color and instruments that have flexibility so they can play over a wide range of styles. The demand has become very sophisticated. People really know what they’re looking for.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years? 

Our craft is an interesting one in that we are producing something that has been produced in essentially the same way for a very, very long time. That’s by hand, sitting at a bench, working with materials you select. It takes a lot of time. I think that the craft is essentially going to stay the same in many ways. I mean, you can’t change the way in which you make a violin too much. There are certain things [available now] that make it easier to, say, sharpen tools or rough things out with machinery a little bit better, but essentially you’re going to have to sit there.

And it really does become, in a lot of ways, almost freehand. Because when you’re voicing something, you’re not going by a set of numbers: You’re going by the feel and the sound of it as you work, and just a lot of touch goes into it, and your personality.

I think violin making went through a big change quite a long time ago, when it went from people who were drawing and designing instruments to people who were just copying instruments. Now we’re going back to people understanding the basic formulation of it, and designing their own instruments. And I assume that as music changes and what people desire in sound changes that everything will change with it. I think basically the big change will be the quality of things will just continue to go up. Seems to be the trend.

What concerns do you have for the future of the craft?

Well, there’s always the concern that there are musical styles and musical sounds that come and go, but whenever I [ask] myself, “Are people going to get tired of the violin?” I remind myself that it is the string equivalent of the human voice, and that sort of never goes out of style. And so I don’t worry about that really. I think the violin will always have a place. It’s simple in some ways and also almost boundless, in that as you can change vocal styles, violin styles can change as well. So there’s plenty of room for these styles and new interesting things to happen musically.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

It wasn’t necessarily advice, but just more [learning] by example [about] the focus and the attention on quality, and the ability to think about what you’re doing and to really understand it, and not just imitate the things you see but to actually understand why they were done the way they were done. That was really enlightening for me.

And you start out with this tremendous history and pantheon of great makers and you look at it and wonder, “How will I ever fit in there?” I [got] some encouragement early on from people who were very experienced and had been around for a long time, who just said that you work at it and you do it all the time and you get good at it. It’s a lot like music—you’re interested in it, you love it, you do it. And that made a difference for me—not to worry about a whole lot of other things, just look at [the work] and understand it and be a part of it and continue to work at it every day, you know, all the time. Consistency, I guess.

If you could keep any one instrument or bow you’ve ever handled, what would you pick, and why?

I actually did keep the one bow that I really liked the best, a bow by Eugene Sartory, which I bought very early on. I’ve had that bow for 40 years. I love it and I’m glad I kept it, and I’ve actually sold it and gotten it back once. I love having it because I’ve set up every instrument I’ve made for the last 37 years with that bow, and it’s a very consistent part of my life. I love the way it sounds and plays and it gives me a very good standard of what things sound like, and how they feel.

And then as far as instruments go, I make instruments every now and again, and I think, “Oh man, I’d love to own that instrument,” and I have to give it to the person I made it for.

I used to own a violin by George Gemunder that I really loved. There’ve been a number of instruments over the years, and because of the sound and the playing and the look of them—the same things that any musician likes—I think, “Hey, I can relate to this instrument.”


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Michael Duff, Bow Maker

Why is this an exciting time to be a bow maker? 

There is a danger of getting caught up in new innovations, and that is to ignore the wonderful traditions that have stood the test of time—e.g. the emphasis placed of the use of carbon fiber.

Where do you see your work fitting into the tradition of bow making?

I have made a conscious effort to keep closely to the wonderful French tradition [and strive to make synthetic bows] that look amazingly like pernambuco wood. I try very hard to think green, and use alternative hardwoods when possible.

What do you think players expect from the work of contemporary makers?

The top-end players that I deal with expect standards that are close to the French tradition of beautiful bows. I consciously aim for my bows to compete with the likes of Peccattes.

How do you see the craft changing over the course of the next 20 years? 

Bows are, currently, at their zenith. If there is any improvement it will be from scientific study. Although the geometry of bows is fairly well worked out, there is room for improvement in some respects. For example, although Vuillaume left details on the taper, the correct sweep (camber) is still erroneously variable, and sometimes incorrect, which leads to unsteadiness on the strings. The camber should conform to a single logarithmic equation.

What concerns do you have for the craft’s future?

My main concern would be the exploitation of precious woods: ebony, pernambuco, ivory, and tortoise shell, which is now tightly controlled.

What’s the best career advice you ever got?

To love what I am doing, and second, not to let profit be my focus.

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