By David Templeton | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine
If there’s one thing David Bonsey has learned about musical instruments over the years—and for the record, he’s learned a lot more than one thing—it’s that approaching a violin as if it were a painting or a sculpture can be a truly eye-opening experience, bursting with unexpected revelations. “Learning the disciplines for appraising all kinds of artwork has been invaluable in learning to appraise an instrument like a violin,” says Bonsey, founder of New York Violin Consulting and David Bonsey Fine Violins.
A violin maker, restorer, and evaluator of rare instruments, Bonsey worked for many years with Skinner Auctioneers, cataloging and selling over 10,000 instruments and bows. That experience led to regular appearances on the television show Antiques Roadshow, where he was filmed talking with people about the fiddles and cellos and bows they found in grandparents’ attics and other potential treasure troves. It’s those experiences, working alongside appraisers who specialize in works of fine art, through which Bonsey learned to approach a violin from numerous perspectives beyond just its maker and current condition.
“You learn what makes something visually harmonious, rather than just cookie-cutter”
“Thinking about art as you appraise something like a violin,” he explains, “opens your eyes to all kinds of things about the way a violin looks. You learn to look at its curves. You start to see how those curves flow and how strongly. You learn what makes something visually harmonious, rather than just cookie-cutter, something that has a feeling of being hand-wrought, not necessarily symmetrical, but beautiful nonetheless.”
When not appearing on camera with Roadshow, Bonsey works out of a small shop in New York City, across the street from Carnegie Hall. In addition to doing appraisals, sales, restoration, and repair, he builds his own violins, too, crafting approximately one or two instruments a year. It’s a skill Bonsey acquired in Hawaii, where he was born in 1958 and grew up greatly influenced by his grandfather, a self-taught violin maker.
“He would learn different things from different makers on his trips to the mainland,” recalls Bonsey, who began playing the violin in elementary school. “When I was very young, my grandfather made several instruments for me, so all through elementary and intermediate and high school, I always had nice violins to play, and the idea of making them always appealed to me.”
The young Bonsey would spend his spare time on his grandfather’s farm on the island of Maui, doing what he calls “very utopian things”—milking cows, tending vegetable gardens, going to the beach, and making violins. “It seemed like a pretty cool thing to be doing at the time,” he says. “So I did that all the way until 1976, when I came to Boston and studied music and violin making seriously.”
By then, he’d been semi-convinced by schoolmates that playing the violin was not quite so cool, compared to surfing and playing in rock bands. “So I decided, if I was ever going to meet any girls, I was going to have to learn to play the guitar,” Bonsey admits with a laugh. That took him down another musical tangent of playing the guitar, which is what he majored in at Berklee School of Music. “But I always kept the violin near to me,” he adds, “and I came to find out that, professionally speaking, I had more of an aptitude for making violins than playing them.”
For three months, in the summer of 1994, he studied in Cremona, Italy, working with the late Pier Angelo Balzarini. “He was a brilliant maker who died tragically young,” Bonsey says. Fabio Volta, who is still active and the recipient of numerous awards, is another maker Bonsey worked with while in Cremona. “They produced instruments that were so cleanly carved; the woodworking is so meticulous and precise,” he says.
In Boston, Bonsey was greatly influenced by Marco Coppiardi, a Cremona maker he worked with before joining the team at Skinner. Other significant influences on Bonsey’s work include Joseph Grubaugh and Sigrun Seifert of Petaluma, California, and various participants of the Oberlin summer workshop, specifically Christopher Germain.
“I love the Cremona approach to making, but it was really the Oberlin experience that taught me a practical way to produce instruments with different finishes, namely the antique finish,” he says. “Players kind of gravitate to the aged look of instruments. It’s experiences like that, learning from many, many fine makers, that I draw on in my own work.”
Bonsey has served as president of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, and in 2013, he completed course work and the examination to become a certified member of the Appraisers Association of America, with a specialty in string instruments. Bonsey is one of only two certified members within the stringed-instruments specialization in the organization.
“I wouldn’t say that in order to make a violin it’s necessary to know how to play the violin, but it sure helps”
“People in this business often ask the question, ‘Did you come to violin making through the wood or through the music?’ ‘Were you a woodworker first, or a musician?’” says Bonsey. “For me, it was a little bit of both. But it was probably a bit more through the music and playing the violin that I came to making them.
“I wouldn’t say that in order to make a violin it’s necessary to know how to play the violin, but it sure helps. You have to be able to relate to clients and know what they are talking about, and maybe demonstrate instruments for people. I do think it helps a great deal.”
Asked why his violin-making output is so deliberately minimal, Bonsey laughs. “Well, the world is not screaming out for more and more new violins, necessarily,” he says. “As I passed my 60th year, I realized there are a lot of great young makers out there, so I just try to keep my hand in it to show I’m legit. I don’t really claim to be significantly different from everyone else. The truth is, I’ve taken a little bit from everyone I’ve worked with and a David Bonsey violin is a reflection of all of them.”
That said, he admits there is nothing quite like hearing a violin you’ve made with your own hands being played onstage by a skilled musician.
“It’s the most rewarding thing for a maker,” he says. “To see how people respond to music being performed on a violin you’ve made, it really is wonderful. I remember one experience, in Boston, where someone played a really fine recital on one of my violins, and during the question-and-answer afterwards, one fellow stood up and said, ‘Did Douglas Cox make that instrument?’ And the player said, ‘No! This was made by Dave Bonsey—and he’s sitting right there!’
“For a maker to get applause at a violin recital is a pretty unusual, but very nice, experience.”