June 2006

Meeting the Maker

June 29, 2006 12:06

WILMINGTON, Delaware -- It was that time of year again: time for my violin to meet its maker.

Its maker is Whitney Osterud, who, at age 33, has already established a reputation for his amazingly discerning ears. Osterud is the in-house violin maker and restorer at the violin shop of David Bromberg, a collector and historian of American violins (and a renown blues guitarist). Osterud trained in the Chicago shop of Carl Becker. He is Chicago-based soloist Rachel Barton Pine's personal violin adjuster – she flies him out to work on her instrument before recording sessions and concerts. Almita and Roland Vamos also call him up to adjust their instruments.


I first met Whitney Osterud in the spring of 2005, in the middle of my search for a new violin. We had actually come to him for a violin adjustment, not really to look at violins. We'd heard of his reputation as an excellent violin adjuster at David Bromberg's new violin shop in Delaware. While we were there, we asked Mr. Bromberg if had any small instruments, as I have small hands, and we had been looking for a smallish violin. Of the six instruments I tried in the shop, one was a clear favorite. I found it easy to play; it fit me perfectly. And I loved the sound of it. When I peered inside the f-hole, I noticed the name "Whitney Osterud" on the label! The other five instruments I tried that day were older, mature instruments, some quite a bit more expensive. But when I played Whitney Osterud's violin, I knew my search was over.

I was visiting him the other day for seasonal adjustment. My mom and I drove down to the shop on Market Street in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, in an unlikely urban area bustling with dollar stores and Caribbean restaurants. It's in a beautiful old restored warehouse, decorated with violin curios, violin sculptures, and filled with hundreds of violins.

The backroom, where Osterud and bow maker Glenn Bearden work, smells pleasantly of wood and varnish.

I started with the opening to Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.

"Hmm, it’s a little nasal, overall," he said. He took the instrument and tapped it gently at the foot of the bridge with a metal ruler. I played the passage again.

Oserud looked thoughtful. "It's a little more open, but still tight on the A and the D," he said. More tapping.

"Play a scale up the G string."

"Smaller. Not as big a sound. Play something different, something fast." So I played the opening of the Rondo. Tap, tap.

"More inward, now. A better tone, yet more inward. We need to get that same tone, but get it out…"

We continued like this for half an hour. Then suddenly I played the opening of the Introduction again, and Osterud exclaimed, "That I like!"

"I like it too!" I said. My violin was singing again.

Osterud modestly attributes his adjustment ability to techniques he learned while working as a craftsman in the Chicago studio of Carl Becker. "Mr. Becker taught me how critical set-up is to tone, and how to make an instrument perform up to its optimal level. I learned what to listen for—as well as what not to listen to—and when I started to hear what he was talking about, I just ran with it."

Osterud makes about two or three violins every year, but he spends most of his time on restoration work. So far he's made 25 violins, two cellos, and two violas, although in the future he'd like to spend much more of his time making instruments.

I was curious to learn what led Osterud into violin-making and restoration. It's one thing if you happen to grow up in Cremona and come from an old line of violin-makers. But how does a regular American kid end up in a business like his?

"I combined my two favorite hobbies to make a career," he says. Osterud, who started playing Suzuki violin in kindergarten, in his home town of St. Paul, Minnesota, and studied throughout high school. He also loved working with wood.

"There is no profession for model-making, so I became a violin maker."

Osterud's first foray into violin-making was in high school. He was looking for a better instrument for himself, and found an $80 violin an antique store, which he took to Miller and Fein Violins, a shop in St. Paul (now Fein Stringed Instruments). They told him it would be $1,800 to fix. But, would he like to sell it to them for $650? He ended up selling it. Over the next few years he bought and sold violins until he found one that Andrew Fein said "wasn't worth the wood it's made of." So Osterud decided to work on the violin himself. He would go to the shop and ask Andrew Fine questions -- "How do you do this? How do you do that?" Then he'd go home and work on the instrument. Finally, Andrew Fine invited Osterud to come work in his violin shop on Saturdays, and he began tutoring him in restoration and repair techniques.

Osterud graduated from high school in 1991 and went to the Chicago School of Violin Making for three and a half years. While he was in school, he also worked in a violin shop on the side, learning restoration and repair techniques.

The school is very small – while Osterud was there, there were 21 students in all. It's a difficult course, and the attrition rate was high. Of the seven students who started in his class, only two students graduated. At the school they worked 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. "It was kind of like a job," said Osterud. "You sit at a bench, work until you complete something, and then bring it to your teacher." In the first semester, you are required to make a violin body. In the second semester, you make two more. In the third semester, you make three scrolls and set them into the three instruments. In the fourth semester, you make a viola body and varnish the three violins.

"When you're first learning to make a violin, a lot of things won't make sense. Why do I have to do this step? It won't all come together until you're done. Each step builds on the next. It's cumulative."

One of the requirements for graduation from Chicago School of Violin Making is to produce a violin in six weeks. This is accomplished by having made a violin in the white in advance and set aside. You varnish the first one, then make another one in the white, since the varnish takes so long to dry. Students also must take written exams, be able to play a solo piece on an instrument, and render a full technical drawing of the instrument. "The drawing is a little mechanical, and a little artistic," he says.

"After you graduate you know how to make a violin one way, but you have so much more to learn. There are many more ways to make an instrument. In school you follow your teacher and learn everything you can to make an instrument one way. Then you begin the next phase of your learning, working in a shop."

After graduation, Osterud returned to Minnesota, where he worked for Miller and Fein for four years. "There, I processed what I'd learned at the Chicago school," he says. "Then I was ready for the journeyman stage of my career. I contacted Jenny Becker, the daughter of Carl Becker in Chicago, to see if he could work in her Minnesota shop. She liked my work, but she wasn't hiring, so she sent me to work for her father, Carl, who I believe to be the greatest living maker in the U.S."

In 1999, Carl Becker hired Osterud as a craftsman. He stayed with Becker for three and a half years. When David Bromberg invited him to Wilmington to take a look at the shop he was starting on Market Street, Osterud decided to accept the opportunity. Their shop, the only violin shop in Delaware, is in its third year.

I asked Osterud what advice he has for a young person interested in a career in violin making or restoration.

"You need patience and attention to detail; the ability to sit at a desk an stare at something for 3 hours straight, to care about 1/10th of a mm measurements. You need to understand that most makers and restorers are in the profession for the joy and satisfaction it brings—you probably won't make lots of money. Dealers make the money in this business. Some people go into violin-making or restoration thinking, oh, it's so romantic! Then they realize it's a job.

"As in violin playing, you need to learn how to make your left hand and right hand do two different things simultaneously," he said. "Knowing how to sharpen your tools, and understanding mechanics is important. But these skills can be learned."

Osterud says that woodshop skills help, but aren't crucial—some people whom he went to school with had never worked on violins before in their life.

"Right now, as opposed to a century ago, the state of violin making and repair is at a very high level," says Osterud. "There are still a lot of people out there doing violin repair work on essentially a student level. And, there's a need for that sort of work—maintaining instruments in rental shops, for example. But it's important to remember that set-up is critical to any instrument; otherwise it will be difficult to play. The first ethic in violin restoration should be 'Do No Harm'—do nothing to an instrument that isn't reversible. You'll need to spend years as an apprentice and journeyman in a fine shop in order to do quality work. It takes a long time to learn the craft of fine violin restoration."

"What I do is a craft, not an art," he insists. "When I'm in the company of artists, and somebody asks me whether I'm an artist, too, I say no. They ask, what do you do? I say I'm a violin maker. They say, well isn't that an art? But I'm making a tool, not an object of art specifically. The art is the music itself, and I love being part of that process."

4 replies

A Conversation with David Russell

June 21, 2006 09:43

David Russell is a renowned violinist, pedagogue, and Violinist.com contributor. He is the Assistant Director of String Chamber Music at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

CVS: You've been a longtime and valuable contributor to the discussion boards at Violinist.com, and most of us are familiar with your reputation as one of the faculty members at CIM. But we don't know much about how you got where you are today. Tell us about your early life. Where did you grow up? What got you interested in classical music, and in violin in particular?

DR: I grew up in Pensacola, Florida. My father was a well-known jazz trumpeter there. As a child, I at first wanted to play jazz like my father, but being a discerning musician, he wanted his kids to first study classical music. My sister started violin first and she played me the Ricci recording of Paganini caprices. I had never heard anything like it before. I was hooked.

Photo credit: Amnon Weinstein

CVS: Who were your early teachers?

DR: I'm fortunate in that Pensacola is the home of an incredibly wonderful violin teacher, who was one of Ivan Galamian’s first pupils in the U.S. (In fact, he was then still known as Jean Galamian, having recently taught in Paris). That wonderful teacher, Anna Yianitsas Tringas gave me the basic foundation I needed to excel, and imparted a love of music making that is with me today. I am incredibly grateful to this wonderful woman, who at age 90 is still teaching a full studio in Pensacola.

After four years, she sent me to study at Meadowmount. My life was changed there. I was introduced to Linda and David Cerone, Josef Gingold, and Ivan Galamian. Their impact on my life as a violinist is unparalleled. The things I learned there put my playing together. The playing of the other students also taught me tremendously. Those years were full of unforgettable experiences. Later, I began my teaching career at Meadowmount. I will always be grateful for what I learned there.

CVS: You've taught at ENCORE, Meadowmount, ARIA, and Keshet Eilon in Israel. What do you see as the differences between these programs?

DR: In past years, I taught at Meadowmount. In present summers, I teach at ENCORE, ARIA and Keshet Eilon International Violin Mastercourse (in Israel). These are marvelous programs, in that they are at the core of learning the skills needed to thrive in the classical string world. They have some differences:

Meadowmount enjoys an intimate relationship with nature which is an important (and often overlooked) part of the accelerated learning experience which can happen there. It is a complex relationship, which can all too easily be dismissed as the result of "having nothing else to do but practice." I think there is more to it than that. It is something which must be experienced to fully understand, I think. Also, the history of great string playing in the mid 20th century is centered at Meadowmount. One feels the impact it has had on the musical world when there.

ENCORE is incredible. I have been fortunate to be a faculty member there since 1985 (22 years). Linda and David Cerone have created an environment of excellence in string playing and teaching which is hard to match anywhere! The latter decades of the twentieth century produced several great violinists, many of whom were students at ENCORE. Many of the great concertmasters of the major orchestras were also ENCORE students as were members of preeminent chamber ensembles. I believe the tools for great playing are being passed down to the new generation at ENCORE. I also believe the values and standards necessary to a meaningful career may be honed at ENCORE . The dedication of my colleagues at ENCORE is an inspiration in itself. It is an honor to be their colleague.

Keshet Eilon is a different type of experience from the other programs. It is held on a beautiful Kibbutz in the Galilee region of Israel. The format is public violin master classes with professors from around the world. Private lessons also occur several times weekly. The playing level is extremely high, and the program is quite innovative.

One of the interesting qualities of Keshet Eilon is the international flavor. The master classes are interpreted into Russian, Hebrew or English for the various audience members who speak those languages. Also, Shlomo Mintz has an incredible idea in that he teaches his master classes from the conductor’s podium. That is to say, the student is the soloist with the orchestra he is conducting during the class. He imparts very practical and helpful insights to the soloist (having himself frequently been in that position) from the perspectives of both conductor and soloist. He also engages the orchestra musicians and audience in order to maximize the experience. I have rarely seen classes as useful as these.

An interesting part of the educational/recreational activities at Keshet Eilon is a specially designed archery program which seeks to explore how learning archery can strengthen our violinistic skills both physically and mentally/psychologically. (I told you it was innovative.) Violin maker Amnon Weinstein (who took this photo of me) is the mastermind behind this idea.

ARIA is a very fine program which is different from the others because the students study with a different teacher each week. During each week, however, they will have several lessons with a particular teacher before they move on to another. It helps develop flexibility in the students, as well as help them learn to choose the approach which fits them best. Mihai Tetel, the Romanian 'cellist is the Founder/Director of ARIA. He is an inspiration and an excellent leader to his exceptional faculty. His humor is legendary!

CVS: When did you found the Pensacola Chamber Music Festival? Are you still involved with it today?

DR: I founded the Pensacola Chamber Music Festival in 1985 and directed it for four years. What a pleasure it was to bring a great Chamber Music Festival back to my hometown. It gave me special pride. I was living in Philadelphia at the time, and the performers were my friends, many of whom were graduating Curtis at the time. Some of them are very well-known performers and conductors today. I like to look back on that festival. It was a thing of beauty.

CVS: Philadelphia? That's my hometown! Although, 1985 is a little before my time (I was born in '92). What were you doing in Philly?

DR: I was continuing private studies with David Cerone after my graduation from CIM. I played in Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia [now the Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra] and taught at the New School of Music before it merged with Temple University's Esther Boyer School.

CVS: Wow, I'm sorry I missed you. Although it's probably safe to say that there are quite a few violinists in Ohio who are glad you decided to move back. I understand you've also done some festival-organizing in Cleveland.

DR: Yes, I did develop the CIM Chamber Music, which was a really fun project. We used the Guarneri and Juilliard Quartets, Cleveland Orchestra members and CIM Faculty as coaches. There was some stellar performing! That festival has now passed into the incredibly capable hands of my friend Peter Salaff, former member of the Cleveland Quartet and head of Chamber Music at CIM.

CVS: Tell us a little about your current projects.

DR: In addition to the summer teaching and travel for master classes, I am a juror at the Sion-Valais International Violin Competition in the Alps of Switzerland. After a day of hearing and judging great violinists, I plan to explore the wine, cheese and chocolate famous in the region. Hopefully, I can also find time to climb one of the peaks so I will not come back to the US much heavier than I left it!

I am also involved in some master classes in East Asia later this year. It is part of an exciting ongoing project of cultural and musical development in that area. I am also helping to develop some touring master classes on the Galamian Bow Arm which may come to a city near you in the near future!

CVS: Did you always want to be a pedagogue?

DR: At first, I had the blinders on in regard to my career. I wanted to be a soloist. End of story. As a young person, my ignorance of the difficulties of that life and the continuous standard one must hold oneself to as a performer, allowed me to pursue this goal with abandon! Then, a different idea struck me one evening in the parking lot of the Main House at Meadowmount. (I will never forget it, because it was a moment of great clarity for me.)

At that particular moment in time, Josef Gingold was coaching a Dvorak Quintet in the Library. Warm light (as well as the wonderful sounds of great string playing) was coming from the library window. Mr.Galamian was still teaching in his studio a few feet away, and the sounds emanating from the studio were amazing. Students from all over the world who had come to study with these great teachers were hurrying here and there around the campus, and I realized what a marvelous thing these men were doing. They were insuring the future of this great art through the lives of all the students who came to seek their wisdom and teaching. I became aware of the profoundly positive impact they were having on our world. I decided then and there that I wanted to have that same impact. I was 15 years old at the time. I began teaching two years later. I am still teaching some 30 years later.

CVS: You're one of the distinguished teachers at CIM, one of the most respected conservatories in the world. What is it like to mentor developing talents? Did the student-teacher relationship there make you want to become a mentor yourself?

DR: I have been on the violin faculty at CIM since 1985. It is an amazing place and has developed into a top-tier conservatory. The violin playing there is truly astonishing in terms of quality. The joint violin classes we hold monthly showcase the violinistic talents of the school, and they are most impressive.

Teaching such talents is an awesome responsibility. It comes with as many (or more) challenges as teaching other levels of playing. As a guiding principal, I try to strike a balance between teaching the student what I think they need to know, and knowing when to step out of their way. It is not my goal to create "mini-me's" to send out into the concert world. It is my goal to help the individual talent develop and grow naturally into its utmost potential. I try to introduce or reinforce (depending on the student's level) the knowledge of how to attain the absolute values (such as a very exacting sense of intonation, beautiful sound and articulation, and precise rhythm and coordination). I can then serve as a guide in matters of repertoire selection, musical interpretation and taste, while allowing the student to develop their own personality as an artist.

I have enjoyed working with so many students at CIM over the years! Truly, all of them are important to me and hold special memories for me. Of my former students, I think of Eliesha Nelson, who is now a member of the Cleveland Orchestra. I remember Hayley Wolfe, who was the youngest winner of the CIM Concerto Competition at the time she won it. Her Tchaikovsky Concerto performance will remain in my memory for years to come. Presently, I think of Ji-Won Song, who is growing into such an artist. I am humbled by the response she received at Kennedy Center last year when she performed Sarasate Carmen Fantasy at age 12! But I must say, in all sincerity, I am equally gratified when any of my students show significant growth and maturity in their playing from week to week. That is what makes my efforts as a teacher worthwhile. It may sound hokey, but it's the truth.

6 replies

More entries: July 2006

Our Kokopelli
Please support Violinist.com
through your
one-time donation or
sponsorship campaign.

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music

Yamaha V3 Series Violin


Coregami Performal

Metzler Violin Shop

Heifetz International Music Institute

Snow Stringed Instruments

Anderson Musical Instrument Insurance

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases



Long Island Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Pro-Am Strings

Violin Lab

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Violinist.com Interviews, Volume 1