By Emily Wright | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
When looking for a new instrument or bow, a number of musicians turn to contemporary violin makers—forgoing the cachet of ancient provenance for the pleasure of knowing the craftsperson who created their musical tools. If you are such a player, you may have noticed that many luthiers distinguish themselves within the market by detailing competition wins, membership in trade associations, and certificates from prestigious schools. While Concours Etienne Vatelot and Entente Internationale des Maitres Luthiers et Archetiers d’Artsound exotic and impressive, it can be overwhelming to attach the right significance to titles and competition results. Here’s a primer describing some of the relevant bonafides you might run into the next time you’re exploring the works of modern makers.
One of the more common forms of quality assurance a luthier can offer is proof of membership in a professional trade association. The Violin Society of America (VSA), for example, is a well-established organization likely to appear on the resume of many luthiers. It was founded in 1973 and is open to anyone who would like to be a member. Its mission is the general promotion of all things lutherie, and is purposefully broad to encourage makers and musicians of all levels to participate in the organization. The VSA’s roughly 1,200 members are eligible to enter the competition held at its eponymous convention each year. While the association isn’t exclusive, winners of its medals are generally recognized as excellent makers, and there is significant prestige associated with taking home any of their prizes.
The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM) was created to “…provide the musical community with a standard of work and expertise upon which they could depend.” As such, membership is reserved for established professionals aged 30 or older with nine or more years of experience. Multiple letters of recommendation—from members already admitted to the federation—must be submitted on behalf of a candidate. Applicants should be full-time makers or restorers, and if there is any question as to their credentials, they are subject to the Journeyman’s Examination, which is no mean feat to pass. The federation votes on new members every two years. Suffice to say, this is a serious organization with extraordinary standards.
Entente Internationale des Maitres Luthiers et Archetiers d’Art (EILA) was founded in 1950 as a Europe-wide association of string craftsmen. Initially conceived as a postwar Stradivari exhibition, the idea morphed into something larger as meetings between European makers kept turning into conversations about the need for a stronger network and sense of fraternity as nations and economies rebuilt. Its mission is expansive: lobbying for improved working conditions, creating opportunities to bring more people into the trade, and to “…promote a revival in the art of violin and bow making.”
Membership has two tracks. Full members are master craftspeople over the age of 35 who have completed educational courses from institutions of international repute or an apprenticeship under another master and are at least five years post-completion of this course of education. “Constant and direct contact with musicians” is a further stipulation to separate enthusiastic hobbyists from professionals whose work stands up to the test of performance at a high level. Associate membership requirements are only slightly less stringent, with a minimum age of 30 and full-time employment by an EILA member in good standing a must.
Opinions on competitions are astonishingly varied, and it would be impossible to determine which, if any, of the following would be considered the most prestigious. However, a win at any of them does make a positive statement about the skill of the maker.
The VSA Competition is the largest, owing to its comparatively robust membership. It awards the following medals: double gold, gold, silver for tone, silver for workmanship, certificate of merit for tone, and certificate of merit for workmanship. If a maker has won three or more gold medals, he or she is deemed hors concours (French for standout), and is ineligible for future competitions. To provide a sense of scale, as of the 2019 results, the VSA had awarded nearly 1,600 total awards in 23 competitions held.
The city of Cremona holds the Concorso Triennale Internazionale Strumenti Ad Arco Antonio Stradivari, colloquially known as the Olympics of violin making, every three years. Instruments are judged by master luthiers and musicians, and must have been completed within the last three years. Instruments must not have been aged artificially in any way, nor given an advantage by being “played in” for a long period. This is a competition that favors traditional sound and craftsmanship, from the place where the name Stradivari casts an especially long shadow.
The Mittenwald Violin Making Competition is similar to Cremona’s, with a few key differences: examples must have been completed within two years of the submission date, and bows are also adjudicated. The emphasis is very much on traditional techniques, proportions, and quality of sound.
Henryk Wieniawski lends his name to the International Violin Making Competition in Poznan, Poland, held every five years. While hundreds of examples are submitted each year for evaluation in the hopes of taking home the top prize, it is as much an event for young luthiers to learn about the craft as it is for them to enter their instruments to be judged. Indeed, Poznan is a wonderful place for developing lutherie: it is one of the few places in the world where students can receive primary and secondary education in violin making the way other schools offer emphases in language or mathematics. Prizes are awarded for a wide range of qualities, including acoustic properties, craftsmanship, and ornamental merit.
In Paris, the Concours Vatelot is held intermittently, and prizes are hard to come by: a single first place and one runner-up diploma per category are awarded. Only five of these competitions have taken place, the first in 1991, and instruments and bows are judged by a jury of five experts on sound, style, and handwork.
The British Violin Making Association International Violin and Bow Making Competition is a relative newcomer, first held in 2004—although the association itself has been around since 1995. In order to acknowledge the subjectivity of judging the instruments, each jury member makes his or her own independent choices, and awards prizes individually.
China, an ancient country with a dazzling upstart industry, has become a force to reckon with in the world of fine instruments. The China International Violin Making Competition has only been held a handful of times, but the most recent event had over 400 entries from around the world. Fifteen violins, 10 violas, and 11 cellos were promoted for distinction, based on a combination of acoustic qualities, artistry, and craftsmanship.
When thinking of rigorous programs that have minted generations of highly skilled luthiers, one might imagine rolling Italian hills or misty Bavarian peaks. And rightly so: given the instrument’s history, some of the finest schools are located in Cremona and Mittenwald, as well as France’s Mirecourt and “the Cremona of Germany,” Markneukirchen. However, American violin-making schools have added their own names to the list of programs renowned for turning out superb violin makers.
The rivalry is intense between Salt Lake City’s Violin Making School of America (VMSA) and Chicago’s School of Violin Making (SVM). Founded in 1972, students at VMSA undertake three years of intensive training—totaling 3,900 hours of work—focusing on traditional methods and materials, plus lessons in sketching, history, and violin playing. A few hours east, SVM was founded in 1975, with a similar curriculum and program length. Over 200 of its graduates are currently working in the United States and abroad.
Admission to both programs is limited, but not on the basis of previous mastery of the instrument or woodworking tools. Evaluations during the initial application period and frequently during the semester make sure students are willing to devote themselves entirely to this craft. This, above all, is the criteria for success.
Perched a stone’s throw from the Boston waterfront, the North Bennet Street School is a mecca for all manner of old-world crafts, including cabinet making and bookbinding, in addition to violin making and repair. Enrollment is limited to 12 students and yields the benefit of being connected to a thriving scene that is prepared to pay for the services of a highly trained luthier.
Located just outside the Twin Cities, Minnesota State University Southeast (known colloquially as Red Wing for its home city) offers a full-time instrument-repair program and a diploma in violin repair. Students without experience are welcome in this track, and it boasts a 100-percent job placement rate upon completion of the certificate. The curriculum focuses heavily on the nature of wood itself as well as the practical aspects of repair work.
No discussion of American schools of lutherie would be complete without Oberlin, whose summer-program participants populate high-end workbenches the world over. This is more of a continuing-education program, and a weeklong haven for professional luthiers looking to learn from their peers and share their own methods. To get a sense of what makes Oberlin unique, I chatted with alumni Rozie DeLoach (owner of Caraway Strings and co-creator of the omo podcast) and Carolyn Foulkes (bow specialist at Perrin Violins), who both agreed it’s the sense of community that sets it apart. While any learning environment creates a temporary cohort, continuing mentorship is baked into the Oberlin model of education: makers of various levels are encouraged to reach out and help the people who are newer to the discipline. And it is an opportunity to be coached by master craftspeople.
Another novel feature: students can bring whatever they’re working on. So in a class of 20 people, there might be 20 different complex problems to solve—and to witness being solved. It’s also an excellent place for cross-pollination; the bow-restoration classes take place across from the violin course, offering the chance for people who are used to working in a largely solitary profession (bow folks) to talk shop with their counterparts (violin makers). Attendance confers a strong sense of community and networking that can have a real impact on professional trajectory.