Instrument, Bow Makers & Judges Offer Advice on Having a Successful VSA Competition

By Greg Cahill

Winning a medal—gold, silver, or bronze—or a certificate of merit at the prestigious Violin Society of America’s International Instrument and Bow Making Competition can translate into financial reward for luthiers and archetiers. But entrants in the violin, viola, cello, and bass categories, as well as the various bow categories, looking for recognition for their workmanship and tone are faced with stiff competition from an international field of makers.

The competition is held biennially; 2018 marked the 23rd instrument and bow making competition—it was held in November in Cleveland, Ohio.

Here are a few tips on making your first competition a successful affair.

Getting Started

Make your competition instrument or bow as you would for your best customer, Gideon Baumblatt says. “Don’t try anything special, but do your best effort. Personality is important. We don’t try to hide ours in a competition entry. But don’t overdo it. Also, we take all the necessary time for any instrument and don’t rush our work. We always aim for the best result we possibly can, so the same counts for the competition.”

That’s sound advice: The Berlin-based Baumblatt and his partner, Mira Gruszow, earned coveted double gold medals for both violin workmanship and tone at the 2018 VSA competition.

“Work with musicians,” 2018 violin tone judge Cristian Fatu says. “Even better, learn to play yourself, so you can evaluate by your own standards and the results of your work. Imagine a painter that can’t see his work. What kind of painting would that be? Of course, you can always ask a violinist—and you should—to play your newly finished instrument and then adjust it together. You need to know how every decision you make during the build influences the final result.”

He suggests that you have a clear concept of the model, school, or style of instrument you’re making—and be prepared to learn from your mistakes. “Try to examine up close examples of the work you’re trying to copy or emulate,” he says.

To Antique or Not to Antique

While the VSA is a showcase for new instruments and bows, it does allow makers to “antique” their instruments, altering the finish to mimic the wear-and-tear of vintage instruments. That’s a practice that is opposed by those who feel that a new instrument should be judged on the merits of its pristine varnish. But even those who oppose antiquing point out that, since some judges prefer to see antiqued instruments, those that don’t add wear-and-tear may be putting themselves at a disadvantage, even in the tone competition. “The ear follows the eye,” says one veteran maker opposed to antiquing and who asked to remain anonymous.

Still, Baumblatt says that the type of finish should be a personal choice and does not present a clear advantage one way or another. “It depends a lot on the jury, I think,” he says. “Some might prefer antiqued, others prefer a new look. Some are able to leave that out of the equation, others maybe less.”

With a straight finish—not antiqued—judges are looking for quality in color and transparency, reflectivity, and texture, all of which are achievable with a good quality oil varnish. “It’s all about application,” says Raymond Schryer, a Canadian maker who over the years has won numerous workmanship and tone awards for his violins, violas, and cellos. “Those who choose to apply an antiqued varnish take more risk in losing marks, since it has to be fantastic to achieve medal standards. Often makers in the antique realm use too much repetition in the dents and scratches applied as well as over-softening and rounding edges before varnish, actually wearing edges that don’t even show in 300-year-old instruments.”



The Set Up

The primary area that most competitors fall short on is set up, Schryer adds, noting that it entails paying a lot of attention to detail and components to get it right: neck, fingerboard, nut, bridge, saddle, and pegs. “Oftentimes, makers rush through this process because they want to hurry up and string the violin for playing,” he says. “I will typically take almost a week to work on set up of an instrument to achieve the best results, sometimes making two or three different bridges. And the ebony work has to be fantastic to reach medal-quality marks.”

Baumblatt agrees: “We pay extra attention to the final set up: ebony work, bridge, pegs . . . . It’s all about clean shapes and lines. A fingerboard can tell a whole world to a judge. Nevertheless, there’s not one true way—different judges might prefer different shapes. So we stick to what we believe in, but we go for a very clean finish with super fresh cuts. In general, there should be a flow in the work, which we accomplish best with models that we have made many times before. We wouldn’t try new models or a special wood choice or other experiments for a competition.”

The Right Tone

Getting an instrument to look great is challenging enough, but getting it to sound great as well requires additional expertise. “I believe that the most important attribute of a violin should be its sound and the easiness of producing that satisfactory sound,” says tone judge Cristian Fatu. “There can be many things that attract in an instrument, such as the look, model, beauty of materials, attribution, label, and the caché that comes with that, and so on. But at the end of the day, a violin is a musical tool that should allow uninhibited freedom of expression with the greatest ease. In other words it should simply disappear in one’s hands.” 

Among the considerations are projection, evenness across the strings, response, tone color, tone texture, and tone density. “When I play a good-sounding violin, I can hear the sound bouncing from the back of the hall almost instantly,” Fatu says. “There is a sheen, an edge to the sound, a ping—instant feedback. When I play a poor-sounding violin, I feel how my bow arm shifts pressure and speed to coerce, to drive the sound I need to get out of that instrument. It’s possible to sound good on poor violins, but it takes a lot of energy and extra work.

“I would recommend makers enter instruments that have been finished and played-in at least six months to a year before the competition. I’m not a maker, but I’m fascinated by violin making. I’ve commissioned many contemporary violins and I’ve observed that it takes a while until a new violin becomes stable. Even something as common as the bridge sticking to the top can influence drastically the sound output and response that are so important in a tone competition.” 

Beyond the Medals

VSA winners and judges emphasize that the competition is a powerful way to advance your skills. “In a competition, be ready to fail, then ask those whose opinion you find valuable for feedback,” Fatu says. “Most importantly, make friends, establish connections, and always keep learning.”

Baumblatt adds: “The most important thing is not to enter because you want to win. Competitions help us to put our work in perspective with what others make. It can be a great learning experience. One gets feedback from judges and colleagues. We always come home with tons of new ideas and inspiration. That is really what it’s all about!”



Judging the Quartet

At the 2018 VSA competition, no gold medals were awarded for a quartet of instruments. However, silver medals for tone were awarded to Jonathan Hai; Julia Jostes & Simon Eberl; and Mira Gruszow & Gideon Baumblatt. Certificates of merit for workmanship, the highest honor for workmanship given in the quartet category in 2018, were earned by Minsung Kim; Yunhai Xu; and Jinlong Yang.

Strings asked the members of the Omni Quartet—Amy Lee, violin; Alicia Koelz, violin; Joanna Zakany, viola; and Tanya Ell, cello—to discuss the evaluation process used to select the winning quartets of stringed instruments for tone at the 2018 VSA competition. Here are their collective thoughts, as related by Zakany:

“We wanted a beautifully blended quartet sound above all else. We had different ‘favorite’ individual instruments, but wanted to put those preferences aside for what was the best group of instruments. 

“Ideally, we wanted a great combination of high-quality tone with ease of playability. The groups of instruments we ended up awarding prizes to were the ones where we all agreed that the standard of excellence was met all around. We were looking for all the same characteristics you would look for in a fine individual instrument, with the added quality of how the instruments blended together to form a quartet sound. 

“Over the process of six-plus hours, we became well acquainted with several different groups of instruments that we came to love for some very different personalities. We relied on the Adagio movement from Beethoven’s Op. 132 to help us get to know the instruments’ ability to ring together or create a group resonance. We also played some faster movements of Mozart quartets to test responsiveness and clarity of sound.

“VSA officials helped us through the beginning process, when we were faced with the daunting task of vetting 25 different groups of instruments, to narrow them down to single digits of contenders. Each of us judged the first round without communicating to the other members of our quartet. This made for a streamlined, efficient, and fair process of elimination that allowed us to spend plenty of time getting to know the finalist quartets of instruments.

“It was such an interesting and unique experience for all of us. Typically when one tries an instrument out, it’s such a personal level of appeal. Judging a group sound vs. the individual instrument under our ears was quite special. We were surprised by how much we learned about ourselves though this process. After this experience, we can say with even more confidence that the future is bright for modern instrument making.”



How to Make a Winning Bow

What distinguishes a gold-medal bow? Tom Dignan, one of three bow judges at the 2018 VSA competition—along with Pierre-Yves Fuchs and Benoît Rolland—says it’s important to remember that all three judges must agree on what bow or bows are of outstanding quality to be awarded the highest prize. “The competition takes place at a very high level and is a credit to the VSA for succeeding in their objective to raise the quality violin and bow making in the United States and the world,” he says. “Most of the bows submitted are of superior craftsmanship. The level of bench skills is outstanding.

“Beyond the sculptural aspect of carving a beautiful and expressive head and a frog, the gold-medal bows also demonstrate an artistic sense of playability and function. The bows must perform and sound for the musician using them.”

He offers these three tips:

1. Know your pernambuco wood. The density of the wood will dictate whether it is better suited for violin, viola, or cello bows.

2. The camber of the stick should have a sensible relationship to the height of the head and frog.

3. The finished balance of the bow is very important. This is not just a numerical point on the shaft of the stick—it is also a sensual feeling in the hand.