When someone asks you about your most prized possession, something immediately comes to mind, right? An autographed Itzhak Perlman record, your favorite stuffed animal, ticket stubs from your first concert—personal treasures often mean the most. We’ve asked players and violin and bow makers to name their most prized string-related possession (other than an instrument or bow), and the results vary as far and wide as their styles of music.
1. Lara St. John, violinist
Something I prize highly is a Barenreiter hardbound copy of the manuscript of the six Bach violin solo works given to me a few years ago by Jean-Anne Aldwell, the widow of pianist and theoretician Edward Aldwell, from whom I learned so much about counterpoint, voicing, and harmony as a young musician. I believe he bought it in 1977 while traveling in Germany. We are inordinately lucky that this manuscript survived into our time, unlike so many that have been lost.
Another adored possession is the design I got painted on my $300 “shiddle” in Oaxaca, Mexico, by a lady at a marketplace who worked in the art of Oaxacan pointillism. I told her I loved lizards and to do whatever she liked, and the result is now a centerpiece of my living room!
2. James N. McKean, violin maker
One day in late July or early August 1973, I walked into a violin shop in Bloomington, Indiana, intent on buying an E string. I was in a Russian language immersion course, but playing a lot of fiddle to relax. When I walked out, I had my string, but I was no longer going to Russia. In fact, I had decided to drop out of college and become a violin maker. But I had to find a place to learn how to do it. Someone told me about Peter Prier, who had just opened a school in Salt Lake City. I called him and he told me that a student hadn’t shown up, so there was a space available, and I could take it, and so I did.
Monday morning, when I walked into the school, I was shown to my spot, the last on one of the benches that ran the full length of the side walls. I put down my bag, and there, on the narrow shelf above the bench, was a tiny plastic pig. Green Acres was my favorite TV show—and here was Arnold to greet me. (Arnold Ziffel, Fred’s Pig.)
It’s been 45 years, and Arnold is still with me. He’s in the small tin box where I keep the essentials I use all the time. Every time I catch a glance of him, I’m taken back to that magical day, when I walked through that door in Salt Lake City, took my place at the bench, looked around, and knew it was actually happening: I was going to be a violin maker.
3. Susan Lipkins, bow maker
Imagine going to the Oberlin bow-making workshop for the first time and seeing all of your colleagues well tooled up (which I wasn’t). The tool I coveted the most was the traditional French bow maker’s drill called a Fouret, which is hand-operated and controlled by a recycled fencing foil strung up with a nylon cord.
The way to operate the drill is to string up the foil and take one turn around the drive cylinder with the nylon cord. With the drill clamped to the workbench, one moves the foil back and forth, much like a bow playing
One holds the bow in line with the drill and in this way can perform 18th-century bow drilling in the 21st century.
Bow maker and friend Michael Hattala had made many of the Fouret drills there at the Oberlin workshop, and was intending to make another few. I was lucky to get my name on his list. In 2005, my very own Fouret drill was brought to Oberlin by Michael to be stamped “Oberlin 2005” along with the personal bow stamps of 17 of my colleagues.
4. Alasdair Fraser, fiddler
One of the most beloved gifts I ever received is an art piece created by acclaimed mosaic artist Jenni McGuire. Jenni is also a keen fiddler and has led workshops in visual arts and crafts at our Sierra Fiddle Camp as a way for students young and old to spend time “off the instrument,” while gaining perspective and thinking creatively as we explore our music together. Jenni loves to work with recycled materials and here she took an old violin that was no longer playable and gave it new life. Inside the violin, in the usually “dark inner sanctum” she placed pieces of gold to cause the violin to twinkle anew.
It is absolutely beautiful and, in her own words, “The musical world informs my mosaic work as an integral part of its creation. Traditional music styles often overlap and blend, morphing and evolving. Taking genre cross-pollination a step further was inevitable, exploring where multiple arts intersect. Sound waves meet solid, fluid meets firm.” This piece has pride of place in our home.
5. Guy Harrison, violin maker
When I left Australia at 19 to study violin making in England, my father gave me many woodworking tools from our family. I’ve used them for making instruments as I’ve traveled and worked around the world. One of my favorites is a wooden plane from my great-grandfather, Granville Harrison. He was a cabinet maker in the north of England and this plane was possibly made by him.
I use it for preparing the maple or spruce in the early stages of making a violin or cello. The body is from some dark heavy wood with unusual brass inlayed reinforcements. With its thick old blade, it slices through the wood with surprisingly little effort. It’s also a pleasure to use tools from my father and reminds me of the early lessons in woodworking he taught me.
6. Malcolm Parson, cellist
My most beloved string-related item currently is a CD containing a composition by cellist and composer Kermit Moore titled De Natura Nature for woodwind and string quartet. Not only is this special due to it coming from my current teacher, Mr. Ron Carter, but it’s a great reminder of what can be accomplished as a cellist and composer today. To set the bar high enough to compose and perform pieces that are pulling from your ancestry and sculpting it to fit the current climate is something that I’m hoping to accomplish. Also, there is not a place to listen to his compositions and performances . . . what happened to Mr. Kermit Moore?
7. Christopher Jacoby, violin maker
My prized item is this bronze sea monster thumbplane, by California luthier and artist Richard Barnes. Luthiers use small planes like this to shape and refine the arches and channels of the top and back of instruments, among countless other small jobs. A thumb- or fingerplane is designed to do the work of a sharp gouge, without putting stress on the wrists and elbows.
Centrifuge cast in small batches, this little woodworking plane, about four inches long, provides the palm control and weight of small planes—modified with a “squirrel tail” handrest—but cranks the aesthetic appeal off the chart.
Barnes has engineered a few changes on the classic design, including a downblade locking system that keeps your blade set if bumped, and a micro-adjuster indicated by the florid tail of the beast, recessed behind the head.
But the little Kraken gulps fine shavings off of maple and spruce as sure as history could want, from a tool that hasn’t changed much since the Roman Empire.
As the years and the violins, cellos, and odd gamba roll by, the joy of using a colleague’s mad vision to shape another bassbar lifts me out of the dust and sore hands, and reminds me how lucky I am to be a luthier.
8. Anne Akiko Meyers, violinist
Hanging in my practice room is a watercolor painting of Lake Como by the great Felix Mendelssohn, which was given to me as a gift. When I received it I was trembling, knowing that Mendelssohn created this painting—that his hands had touched this piece of paper.
While Mendelssohn today is known as one of the greatest composers in history, he was a genius who spoke many languages, a poet, an accomplished artist who loved to paint, a fine conductor, and virtuoso performer. All that in just 38 years!
I recently revisited the beautiful Mendelssohn museum in Leipzig, Germany, which two centuries ago was his family home. In it, there is a room with many of Mendelssohn’s watercolor paintings—the same room where he passed away. He loved visiting Lake Como, Italy, and the painting immediately transports the viewer to this beautiful, magical place. He and other giants, such as Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, found inspiration from Lake Como. Whenever I get frustrated or need a break from practice, looking at this beautiful painting fills me with great inspiration.
9. Ray Chen, violinist
When I was eight years old, I had a cool opportunity to play in Japan at the Winter Olympics because of Suzuki Method. They invited 500 children from around the world to perform in the Opening Ceremony to spread the message “Peace through Music.” It was such an amazing experience; surrounded by a new culture, meeting new friends, trying new foods, and of course playing wonderful music. These sorts of experiences made me decide I wanted to become a musician. I thought to myself: If music can take me around the world and bring experiences like these, then this is who I want to be.
And that was the idea behind this violin case—the coolest string-related item I own. It’s a partnership with Gewa Strings known as the “World Case,” designed by me. It’s a map of the world with Bach’s manuscript from the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. For every purchase, a portion of the proceeds is donated to support education through UNICEF.
10. Jay Campbell, cellist
When I bought my cello, Carlos Tome from Tarisio also gave me a completely ridiculous one-of-a-kind glittery green-gold case that he apparently found at a flea market in Italy, which has Picasso’s sketch of Don Quixote blown up on the front. It’s still one of my favorite string-related items.
Also, there’s my autographed copy of Boulez’ Derive 2, by the man himself. I played that and his cello concertino in Lucerne when I was 19, and it was a life-changing experience. I think I was more nervous to ask him for his autograph than to play the concert, but he was super sweet. It’s kind of cool to have this little thing to remember how nice a musical titan like Boulez was to a completely oblivious teenaged Jay.
I also have a sweet watercolor portrait of Arnold Schoenberg, by Egon Schiele, in my practice room. He has this weird, terrifying claw hand, and he is always menacingly staring at me while I practice—really keeps me on the straight and narrow, you know?
11. Stacey Styles, violin restorer
One winter, a cherry tree came down in the woods beyond my kitchen window. There was a burl on a branch about half way up, which I harvested and set aside in a dry place. A few years later, I set to making my first violin-bridge-making knives out of this gorgeous and unlikely example of nature gone awry.
I cut and shaped, created channels to receive the Swiss blades I had chosen, and then, in my youthful ignorance, epoxied the blades right into the wooden handles.
My mistake was soon evident. Without being able to remove the blades from the handles, my options for sharpening would be limited. In addition, as the blades have been honed over the years, I have had to shape back the wooden handle to keep the right amount of steel exposed.
Thirty years—and many more knives made with removable blades—later, these cherry burl knives are still my go-to bridge-cutting blades. They are small and light, albeit shorter than they used to be, and fit in the crease of my hand. They are easy for me to control and can turn a very tight radius.
12. Gabriela Guadalajara, violin and viol maker
This is my favorite tool: It’s a Bedrock plane. It belonged to Phil Monical and I used to borrow it from him all the time when I worked at the Monical shop. I have small hands and this plane fit perfectly from the beginning, and the blade keeps sharp for a long time. They discontinued making them decades ago. When Phil stopped working, he gave it to me. I also love it because I got it from a dear friend.
A few years ago, I ordered a beautiful facsimile volume of Mozart’s manuscript of the five violin concertos. Mozart famously made almost no mistakes or corrections when writing down his works. He had already written most of the music in his head, and then filled in the orchestrational details on the fly. These are some of the most perfectly balanced, lyrical, and elegant works written for violin, and it is awe-inspiring to look at the handwriting of the man who created them, seemingly without effort!
For decades, a debate has raged about the “carrots” or “wedges”—vertical lines taking the places of dots. Looking at the manuscript, there can be no doubt that the distinction is intentional. I believe that they indicate not only shortness, but also lightness—they are pen strokes going up, intended to lighten the note, not pen strokes coming down as an accent or emphasis.
In the last movement of his fourth concerto, he uses carrots to indicate that the opening bar is essentially an upbeat to bar 2. In places where someone without good bow technique or taste might jarringly accent a note in an unmusical, inelegant way, Mozart also uses carrots, often on short final notes, or on short notes between slurs, to ensure that they won’t stick out just because of the bow speed increasing. I think these are some of the earliest “defensive” markings (meant to pre-empt an unmusical result) in the violin repertoire, and suggest perhaps some frustration with the violinists he worked with!
I know I will never get tired looking at this book and admiring these works!
14. Matt Wehling, bow maker
I don’t think of material objects as intrinsically valuable; the things I value invariably have a connection to people I’ve met along the way who have been important to me. An example would be a small drill chuck that is mounted on a red wooden handle, which was made by Stanley. When I first moved to France in 1995, it seemed every bow maker had one, but I delayed trying to get one—until after they were discontinued. For years I would stop in every French hardware store I saw, hoping they would have one left over that never sold. I kept my eyes open at every flea market I went to, and each trip to Paris invariably included a pilgrimage to the magnificent basement tool department of the Bazaar de L’Hotel de Ville (BHV), hoping Stanley would have decided to start making them again.
One Friday in 2014 at a lunch in Paris with several colleagues, I mentioned I’d been looking for one for years. Bow maker Sylvain Bigot said he’d recently found a box of a dozen of them in a small-town hardware store. The handles needed to be modified, but he would have an assistant do the work and he’d bring me one next week. Lo and behold, I now have the tool for which I’d searched for almost two decades. But when using it (or any other of the many tools that have been gifted to me over the years) I don’t think of the tool itself. I think of the many wonderful people (like Sylvain) who have helped me in some way over the many years I’ve worked in this trade.
15. Stefan Jackiw, violinist
In 2013, I premiered a violin concerto written for me by American composer David Fulmer. I’ve known David since we were both in high school, playing in the same youth orchestra in Boston. I fell in love with David’s music when I first heard it in 2007 and together we had been plotting a concerto for years—all the way back to when we were roommates in New York City. So, the 2013 premiere was not only a musical highlight for me, but also a personal milestone—a culmination of years of planning and discussion.
A few days after the premiere, David gave me the opening pages of his handwritten manuscript to the concerto, beautifully framed. It was from these pages that I first sightread sketches of the concerto, and they contain countless hours of meticulous notation, fueled by Chinese takeout and beer. These pages now hang on my wall at home in New York City. Every time I look at them, I’m reminded of the musical adventure of learning a brand new masterpiece, and the fun times David and I had leading up to the premiere. It still feels exciting to have played a small role in the creation of such a special work of art.
16. Paul Huang, violinist
I was born in Taiwan and began my violin studies there from age seven to 12 before I moved to New York to study at the Juilliard School Pre-College. Before I left Taiwan, my first (and only) violin teacher—with whom I’m still very close to this day—gave me the Henle edition of the Beethoven Violin Concerto music, and wrote all the thoughts she wanted to share with me in the first page of the music. The Beethoven concerto is one of the pieces I play most often throughout the season, and it continues to hold a very special place in my heart, so whenever I revisit the piece and open the score again to that first page, I can’t help but feel nostalgic.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.