By Samuel Zygmuntowicz

It is fun to sell a violin, but less exciting if it just sits in its case. Soloist Leila Josefowicz had bought a violin of mine long ago, but it was seldom used. Her primary instrument was a Carlo Bergonzi (1683–1747) that she had been playing for years, and the moment of truth came when she  was offered the chance to buy it—or return it. As a performer of contemporary music, she was open to performing on a violin that I might make now, but only if it actually did the job she needed. For both maker and musician, this is where it gets real.

We began with questions: Why did she want a different violin, and why did she come to me? What did she like about her current violin, and what was less likable? What other violins had she tried? What did she want from a new violin? What size and model would work best?

Words can be vague, so how can we get real answers?

She played her Bergonzi, and I listened. I needed to play it as well to understand and confirm her impressions, all the while commenting and discussing, establishing a common language about sound. At the earliest stages, it’s less about music than it is about tone color, response, range, projection, stability, size, comfort—a list of specific factors that make the music possible.

We found an open concert hall, where she played the Bergonzi for me. She sounded great, but to my ears the sound lacked some sizzle and scope. Under my chin, it was hard for me to play, and it felt almost dull. She then played one of my new violins, and liked the full sound, but found distracting hot spots high on the G string. The picture began to clarify. She plays with incredible intensity, and her contemporary-music repertoire is full of technical playing, so the violin had to be rock solid and dependable—no soft spots or wolf tones. She didn’t want to have to think about the violin at all.

Her Bergonzi had a compact body, shorter string length, and rounded upper bouts—comfortable to handle. The parameters of the new violin emerged. I used my small-bodied  “Panette dG” Guarneri pattern. To produce a robust sound, I used a relatively massive bass bar, a sound post–patch reinforcement, and wood that was light but thick. Our collaboration yielded a stable instrument with a similar feel to her Bergonzi, but with a richer and more powerful sound. She decided to return her antique instrument, and has been playing this violin ever since. It was thrilling to hear her performance of John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 with the New York Philharmonic last year—a new piece on a new violin!

Every person and project is different, but the questions are similar. What is the problem? What is the goal? How will we decide, what will it cost, and what happens if it doesn’t work out? Openness, detail, and honesty are essential to a satisfying result, plus a clear and relatively painless escape route—if it comes to that. I am passionately committed while I am making an instrument, but  once the player is involved, I cultivate a little emotional detachment. Now, it is about the player’s experience, and it is vital that they feel free and comfortable to express any concerns and requests. This gives me a chance to respond, to adjust or alter, all in the search of the perfect fit. I rely on the player’s reactions to guide my course.

Not long ago a client picked up his long-awaited violin, but as he first played, I didn’t sense the immediate delight I want to see. After a few days and a few adjustments, I still didn’t feel the bond forming. I’ll go to great lengths to improve an instrument, but on the rare occasion when the fit just isn’t right, sometimes it is best to start fresh. The insight gained will help me customize his next instrument, and another fine player will love this violin.

The relationship is more important than the object, and if communication is open with obvious goodwill, then the violin can be altered or exchanged, and the mission is still fulfilled. That rapport remains a powerful asset as an instrument develops over time.

Leila

Leila Josefowicz with her ‘Dragon’ violin, made by Samuel Zygmuntowicz

I recently did some yearly maintenance on Leila’s violin and she asked if was possible to add a personal symbol to her violin. I tried to understand what this signified. For Leila, her identity as an expressive contemporary performer was evolving, and she wanted something strong, fierce, fiery. Many discussions and sketches followed, and now her violin back bears a gold leaf image of a flame-breathing, spiked-winged dragon—full of fire and life!

The goal is not just to craft an object. We’re helping to create an experience, based on function and practical concerns, but infused with emotion and energy that will become a part of the player’s expression!

For more insight into the ways makers and players interact during a commissioning project, I asked violin makers Gregg Alf and David Folland and Baroque bow maker Ralph Ashmead to answer nine questions about their process. You’ll find their answers in the following pages.

GreggAlf

Gregg Alf, photo by Jan Röhrmann

Gregg Alf, Violin Maker

How do your clients usually find you?

I’ve found that the most honest and effective advertising comes from my own violins. I’ve placed hundreds of instruments in professional hands over the decades, so it’s word of mouth at this point. When clients Google my name or reach out to me through my website, they will often be already familiar with my work.

At the beginning of the process, how do you get a solid sense of what a client wants and needs from an instrument?

First of all, I reject the limiting paradigm that the “search process” is just about finding the “right violin.” Players come to me with wonderful instruments, expensive violins, instruments that sound great and play easily. But they’ll say, “It sounds like I am singing with someone else’s voice. It’s a beautiful sound, powerful, and all the rest, but it’s not me.” Helping a string player to find his or her own voice is an awesome experience, as humbling and satisfying to me as the actual construction process itself. It’s personal, intimate. One has to listen, watch a player perform (or, better yet, practice), and get to know him or her as a person. Words alone are almost always inadequate in expressing something so special.

How do you handle the business details: The price, the time required, and what happens if the instrument isn’t a good fit?

My job is to help customers feel at ease with the business side of things. Violin makers are no more business-oriented than string players. But over the years, we learn how to create a comfortable experience for clients. Like many colleagues, I provide my instruments with a full money-back guarantee, in-home trial, and full trade-in policy. I put it all in writing, but not for the reason that some might assume. I believe that the role of written agreements is for enhancing understanding between human beings, rather than for legal protection. When misunderstandings occur, both parties have already lost. Life is too short, so we communicate with clarity and kindness.

What do you wish more clients knew going into the process?

I think the usual experience of doing some research, honing in on selected makers, and then borrowing five or six violins (or even ten or 20) to select the best one is a mistake. String players often describe their instrument as a musical soulmate, but I doubt they would ever select a spouse based on one in 20 odds. Given the renaissance in violin making taking place today, the daunting task of finding one’s dream violin can now begin with the search for a violin maker of their dreams—to help them beat those odds. Players are good at judging human nature and makers at judging violins. So, work together with a trusted maker who can help you get closer to your dream than you could alone.

How important is it to get to know clients as people in addition to as players? How much time do you typically end up spending together?

Violin makers and string players have an incredible opportunity in each other, not just to meet each other’s professional needs, but to find personal satisfaction and happiness. For me, getting to know a customer helps me feel the context, the meaning, in what I do. As violin making becomes an art (more than just a craft), at some point the quality of the violins I make becomes limited to the quality of my interaction with the players who sponsor me. Looking back, a drawback in my career has been to spread out my instruments so much. I now live in Venice, Italy, but my customers are in China, Japan, Europe, and the United States. The internet makes that possible. But sometimes I miss not having a more concentrated body of work in the surroundings where I live.

Is there something specific in your experience that defines a positive working relationship with your clients?

It’s a misunderstanding that great violins and great violin making are merely about technical precision. Besides the usual foundation of sincerity and trust, a positive working relationship depends on truly understanding what each party needs and expects from the other. For example, one does not go to a famous designer or tailor just for fine fabric and straight seams: As is the case with violin making, technical excellence is presumed. Clients invest lavishly in a premium tailor who makes them look great. That is their real expectation. And, although it’s not often articulated, I think such a reciprocal expectation exists between string players and their violin maker as well. It’s important to talk about it and to acknowledge it as a foundation of our relationship—primary even to the cost and the business aspects. When a commissioned violin is making both the player and the maker sound great, the parties will be invested in the relationship and in ensuring that nothing goes astray.

How do you talk with string players about the more intangible elements: tone, power, color, voice?

Words are useless when it comes to talking about sound. For example, when a player says that a violin sounds “too tight,” it often means that the sound post is too loose. Instead of talking, I have to read a player’s reaction to his instrument by watching him play. Even more than attending concerts, I have spent hours watching great artists practice. That I can also play the violin helps a lot because sound adjusting is the hardest thing to teach.

How can a client best express his or her appreciation of your work at the end of the process?

I always appreciate it when string players cite a modern violin maker in their biography. That kind of program note is an acknowledgment of our relationship and of their participation in the history of violin making. Listing a great Stradivari is nice, too, but it seems less personal and more like marketing.

Can you tell me a story about one of your experiences with a client that stuck with you—that gave the process and the work extra meaning? 

When Svetlin Roussev won a spot in the final round of the 1998 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, it was felt that the Amati he used in the preliminary round was not up to the task of the Classical and Romantic finals. He visited a violin exhibition at IVCI that I was offering that year and chose to play my replica of Heifetz’s “David” Guarneri over some other, original Cremonese instruments. You can’t imagine how encouraging it is for a young maker to see the vulnerability and dependence that even great artists feel for their musical tools. It was a great lesson for me. Svetlin went on to win a medal with the violin and, as a special prize, his host family bought it for him. We grew to become good friends and he used it for years as concertmaster of the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra.

DFolland

David Folland

David Folland, Violin Maker

How do your clients usually find you?

My clients usually hear about me from another musician—either someone they know or someone they hear playing one of my instruments. Or possibly they may hear about me by a recommendation from a teacher.

At the beginning of the process, how do you get a solid sense of what a client wants and needs from an instrument?

Ideally, we both listen to and play a number of my instruments, and also perhaps other instruments the client likes. And we talk about them—what the client likes and dislikes, what he or she needs from an instrument, and the client’s ideal sound. The more instruments we play and listen to, and the more we talk, the more I can understand what the player needs and is looking for, and he or she will understand how I will go about providing that.

It is not always easy to arrange as much in-person instrument playing and listening as is ideal, but we usually manage to do a pretty good job of it. Often a player comes to my studio, where I have arranged to show a number of my instruments with different tonal characteristics. (I have enough instruments in the area that I can borrow a few for an afternoon, or I often have instruments in my shop getting adjustments and maintenance.)

If the player is not able to come to my studio, there are usually instruments in his or her area that they can play and hear (and that I am familiar with), so we can talk about those. We can also send recordings of instruments back and forth to each other. Basically, we do what we can to be on the same page, hear the same things, and understand each other.

How do you handle the business details: The price, the time required, and what happens if the instrument isn’t a good fit?

I try to be very open and upfront about business matters, and put the client at ease by being straightforward and clear about the commission process. My prices are all on my website, so most of the time the players already know the price of the instrument, but if not, it usually comes up at the start of the conversation, or I bring it up at an appropriate time. The same goes for the time required to complete the instrument. I require a 10 percent down payment to start the process, but I let them know—in writing if they wish—that they are not required to accept the instrument if they are not happy with it, and that in that case I will refund the down payment. (This has only happened a couple of times in 35 years.) 

What do you wish more clients knew going into the process?

I think sometimes that players have the idea that a stringed instrument is an almost magical or mystical thing, and that ideally it should have been made in ancient times by forest elves or something. So they think somehow that commissioning one is a rather risky undertaking. It actually can be a quite methodical, systematic process that will result in an instrument that fits them beautifully and they will love to play.

How important is it to get to know clients as people in addition to as players? How much time do you typically end up spending together?

A player’s instrument is usually his most important possession, so being the maker of that instrument, and often the person who adjusts and maintains it, can be like being his child’s doctor. I sometimes think there is a player-instrument connection that is similar to the mind-body connection, so of course knowing your clients as people is very helpful in the making process, as well as for maintaining a good continuing relationship.

Is there something specific in your experience that defines a positive working relationship with your clients?

Empathy and understanding the needs, concerns, and issues of the player—whether they are a professional, student, or amateur—are very important. It has really helped that I have played the violin since I was young, and am familiar with playing a violin onstage, in an orchestra, in contests—even some amateur solo playing. It is no easy thing to get up onstage in front of people and play an instrument, and every player deserves the best help, support, and admiration I can give him, no matter if he is a great professional or a beginning player.

How do you talk with string players about the more intangible elements: tone, power, color, voice? 

If we have both played and listened to the same instruments, and have talked about them in these terms—tone, power, color, and voice—we can come to understand what the other means by them. You learn to speak in the same language.

How can a client best express his or her appreciation of your work at the end of the process?   

Home-baked cookies! Also, there is nothing more enjoyable than listening to my instruments being played, so being invited to anything from a small house concert to a solo with a great orchestra is the best there is. 

Can you tell me a story about one of your experiences with a client that stuck with you—that gave the process and the work extra meaning?

I am having difficulty singling out one specific commission that has more meaning than another. The first commission I ever received was significant because it was the first; the first commission from a professional player was significant in the same way. Commissions from great players are exciting and super learning experiences; even  commissions from very exacting and “difficult” players are great learning experiences.

But thinking about this question, and going through memories of all of my commissions, I am struck by how many wonderful people I have met, how enjoyable collaborating with every one has been, and how meaningful the whole process can be, especially when the focus is not on just me and my instruments, but rather on how I can best work with clients to give them what they need—the best instrument I possibly can make for each of them.

ashmed

Ralph Ashmead, photo by Phil Schermeister

Ralph Ashmead, Bow Maker (Baroque Specialist)

How do your clients usually find you?

Generally by word of mouth. When my clients are happy with their bows, they pass that information along to their colleagues and their students. Otherwise, musicians will Google me and find me on my website.

At the beginning of the process, how do you get a solid sense of what a client wants and needs from an instrument?

I like to know whether the player is coming from an early-music background or a modern background; what time period in history [the majority of their music is from]; generally what kind of playing they are going to be doing, i.e. orchestral, solo, quartet, etc.; whether they tend to like a heavier, stronger stick or a lighter, more flexible stick; and if they have tried any of my bows owned by someone else. If so, what model [it was] and what they liked or didn’t like about it. In essence, I get as much information from them as I can—it helps me understand what they want and need from a bow.

How do you handle the business details: The price, the time required, and what happens if the bow isn’t a good fit?

I found out many years ago that it worked way better to make bows in a wide variety of styles, woods, curves, etc., and then let the players decide what works for them rather than trying to make a “custom” bow based on their verbal description. In addition, I have a form on my website with a list of questions as to what the musician is looking for.

Just like a picture can paint a thousand words, a bow in the hand can answer a lot of questions really fast.

I try to have as many  samples of different models and woods as possible in stock at all times so the client has options to choose from. That said, I can never have all the possibilities available all the time, so when necessary, I will work with the client to make a different model or use a different wood based on the client’s response to trial bows. If the bow is still not right, then the client gets his or her deposit back.

What do you wish more clients knew going into the process?

I would like clients to know that there is no perfect bow for everyone. Sometimes, string players will fall in love right away with a bow, but it doesn’t always work that way. Their opinion or experience with their bow may change over time as  they  change instruments, teachers, and  playing  styles. Bows and instruments are also investments, unlike a new car, which loses value the second you drive it off the lot. A well-made instrument or bow generally will increase in value over the years!

How important is it to get to know clients as people in addition to as players? How much time do you typically end up spending together?

Well, of course, ideally it’s great to meet the player and hear him or her play. However, my customers live all around the United States and the world—meeting most of them in person  is not possible. Living a two-and-a-half hour drive from the Bay Area, I don’t get a huge number of client visits, so I make time to travel and visit musicians, friends, and colleagues. I also visit orchestras, attend workshops, and participate in early-music festivals.

Is there something specific in your experience that defines a positive working relationship with your clients?

It takes patience on both sides! I appreciate it when a player has faith in my work—even if he or she has tried several bows that weren’t quite “it” for whatever reason—and can communicate what is missing clearly, then allow me to do what I think will work best for his or her needs.

How do you talk with string players about the more intangible elements: tone, power, color, voice? 

This has always been a very gray area, because there isn’t a common language. Talking about a bow’s power is fairly straightforward. Color I do talk about with players, as there are different woods that tend to either brighten up, tone down, or deepen the tone of an overly bright instrument. Beyond those still slightly vague ideas, I strongly urge players to try bows and instruments in the spaces where they will be playing. Most importantly I urge clients to have a colleague listen and play as well, so they can step back and hear the results.

How can a client best express his or her appreciation of your work at the end of the process?

It is always great to get a note about their new bow or a YouTube video of them playing with my bow. I also enjoy getting a CD where they used my bow. Instruments used in a recording are often listed, but bows are almost never mentioned. It would be great if bow makers were listed, too.

Can you tell me a story about one of your experiences with a client that stuck with you—that gave the process and the work extra meaning?

One example is when [Baroque violinist and conductor] Enrico Onofri and [period-instrument ensemble] Il Giardino Armonico first came to Berkeley to play a concert in 1995. I had a great selection of  bows to show them and decided to contact them. They were very interested and invited me to show up before the concert.

What a treat that was!

They were so excited about the choices, and I was inundated with all the string players excitedly trying bows and gabbing among themselves in Italian. (I didn’t understand a word, but could certainly read their enthusiastic body language.) It was, of course, thrilling that some found bows right there on the spot, but more importantly, it became the beginning of a longterm relationship. I have since seen them quite a few times, not only in the United States, but also in Europe. Twenty years later, I am still in contact with some of them and even get birthday greetings. I have really enjoyed the many wonderful connections with musicians over the years.

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