Many of the world’s greatest violinists beat a path to Samuel Zygmuntowicz’s Brooklyn workshop
Walking down a quiet, leaf-strewn block in Brooklyn, few people might guess that the upstairs of a charming, red-brick-faced row house is the nerve center of one of the world’s most brilliant violin makers. Since 1985, Samuel Zygmuntowicz has made this pleasantly cluttered Park Slope locale his home and studio, in which living and working converge with comfortable furniture, stringed instruments, and history.

It’s from this place that Zygmuntowicz has collaborated with many of the world’s greatest musicians, including Isaac Stern (who owned two of Zygmuntowicz’s instruments), Leila Josefowicz, Joshua Bell, Cho-Liang Lin, Walter Trampler, Maxim Vengerov, and members of the Emerson Quartet, among many others.

Dressed in tan slacks and a violet shirt, on a cold November afternoon he sits in his living room and sips tea while a cluster of small violin-shaped bottles—brown, cobalt, and grass-green—glow in the sun.

Smiling often beneath wire-rimmed glasses and a wavy mane of hair, he speaks softly, yet his warmth and willingness to discuss his methods are disarming, like the precision and enthusiasm of a scientist eager to regale you with his latest discovery.

And his knowledge base is immense.

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(c) Dustin Cohen

Influences include his early teachers (Zygmuntowicz made his first instrument at age 13), training in sculpture, violin makers Carl Becker and René Morel (he studied with both), acoustic pioneer Norman Pickering, and lately, physicists and other scientists who study the properties of sound. In the world of violin making, technological advances can make the luthier’s job easier.

Zygmuntowicz (pronounced Zig-mun-TOE-vich) mentions the multidisciplinary Strad3D project (strad3D.org), begun in 2006 with violin acoustician Dr. George Bissinger and a team of musicians and scientists. Together, they have harnessed technology to analyze an instrument’s vibrations through modal analysis, computed tomography (CT) scans, and other acoustical tests—even analyzing blocks of wood to determine their properties before the carving process begins.

The Philadelphia native takes a violin from a shelf and carefully straps it upright into his response-testing rig, a tall, Rube Goldberg–esque device used to measure resonance. After attaching sensors to key instrument spots, a small hammer gently taps the side of the violin’s bridge with a sound like a banjo strum, and the resulting waveforms appear on an adjacent computer screen. By examining the pattern, noting the peaks and valleys, he gets visual confirmation of the instrument’s unique properties.

“A physicist once told me, Coke cans have as much resonance as violins,” he laughs, adding, “But nobody cares what Coke cans sound like.”

He briefly discusses vibrato and points to the screen. “This is another factoid I didn’t know: for vibrato, a note not only changes in pitch but in volume. Each of those harmonics is different. Think of a chorus of 100 singers—each person singing a different note, each getting rhythmically louder or softer. This is one of the reasons synthesizers sound so boring—it’s all the same. On a violin, every single note sounds different, and each part of every note is different. The note is changing all the time. Who knew that?”

Up a steep flight of stairs is his studio, where he has two colleagues busily sanding and cutting: shop manager Collin Gallahue, who recently won a gold medal at the Violin Society of America competition, and Justin Hess, who graduated from Boston’s noted North Bennet Street School. Work tables and shelves hold instruments in various stages of completion, as well as a range of rasps and other wood-carving tools. Small jars sit next to a small, white glue pot on an electric burner. “We use traditional hide glue. I like new ideas, but am conservative about materials and techniques—for stability.” Lining one wall are bins, some marked “old wood,” others “very old wood”—the master’s equivalent of a wine cellar—including specimens he acquired from his teacher in the 1970s.

And like wine, not just any grapes will do. Zygmuntowicz uses Alpine spruce for violin tops, and Balkan maple for the backs, ribs, and necks. The discussion turns to measuring and millimeters, and whether to round up or down if a measurement falls in between—even a fraction can affect the sound. He leafs through a book of sketches, each page diagramming the back of a completed violin with dozens of points marked on a grid. One might expect the wood’s thickness at those points to be uniform, but the opposite is true.

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(c) Dustin Cohen

Zygmuntowicz likes to interact with his customers, and he’s not happy until they are satisfied. “I can pretty honestly say that I don’t have any bad instruments out in the world,” he says. “For those that weren’t great, I would work on them until something changed.”

He occasionally takes a violin out of circulation to rebuild it or to make other restorations. He brings out a violin originally built for Isaac Stern in 1991 and recently brought in for maintenance. “People are using these instruments—they wear out the fingerboards,” he explains, “they get dirty, and they wear out the varnish.”

Zygmuntowicz takes pride in being available to his clients and ensuring they are pleased with his artistry. “The most important thing when I talk to someone about commissioning an instrument is that I understand what they are looking for, and that they understand what I do, to make sure there is an affinity to start. Usually people who contact me have played one of my instruments, and that’s a great starting point. If possible, I like them to visit my shop and play at least two violins. If they like one and not the other, that’s a trouble sign. If they like both—but prefer one—that gives me information to establish a line of direction.

“Some of the basic considerations are physical. Is the client a small person, who needs a small Guarneri model, or someone with big hands, who would like a large Strad pattern? The set-up—the neck, the size—is the main way people interact with the physical instrument, and that needs to be right.”

He also considers the venues in which the musician will perform. Most of his instruments are more suitable for soloists, concertmasters, or chamber musicians, and he is highly sensitive to their preferences in timbre and projection. He makes a point not to suggest, ask for technical feedback, or get distracted with ornamental details. “What I really want to hear from my clients are their reactions to the instruments they are playing,” he says, “so that I can understand what they need, and then I can help them make the choices that will best suit them.”

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(c) Dustin Cohen

Above all else, Zygmuntowicz shows a fluent, engaging altruism, perhaps since he is a child of immigrants and Holocaust survivors. “So many traditions from the last century were destroyed, and violin making is one that is actually in better shape than it was a hundred years ago. One of the things I like about the world of the violin is that it’s a little bit like the world used to be—like an alternative Utopian society: a gender-neutral, ethnicity-neutral meritocracy of people who are striving to make art. It’s kind of a beautiful world, you know?”

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