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Laurie Niles

January 20, 2005 at 10:17 PM

We violinists understand the power and importance of our art: the wisdom that comes from studying an instrument, the satisfaction from performing with people, the beauty of listening to the music itself, the history and personality of a fine old instrument.

But it feels, at least to me, that we are speaking to the wind, for few others in our society seem to share our passion. People understand the value of reading, math, and computers in classrooms. But fine arts?

Violin classes are rarely offered in our schools. Teachers are overworked and poorly paid. Politicians and school board members don't generally understand the elegant beauty of an enduring work like a Mozart symphony and why it holds more for us humans than does the passing pop song of the day.

This is why member Bill Townsend has created The Amati Foundation. He understands. Not only that, he wants to help others understand, too.

Let's just say that I've never been riveted to a 43-page "Operations Overview," but I was to this one. Because Townsend's plan is nothing short of a vision to bolster what he calls "The Stringed Arts."

Robert and I met Bill, his assistant, Kelly, and a marvelously fascinating couple named Bill and Judy Sloan, on Tuesday at Mastro's, a steakhouse in Beverly Hills. Bill and Kelly had met with so many people during the day, they were ready to topple over. But we appreciated them meeting with us and bringing us the scoop about The Amati Foundation

You may know Bill as someone on the site who makes violins. Well, I'm here to tell you more.

Townsend was bit by the fiddle bug when he was on a 1999 business trip to China as an executive with the search engine company, Lycos. As it happened, his translator was the son of a luthier. Before he knew it, Townsend fell for the art of making violins and set to making one under this luthier's guidance. He came home to Austin, Texas, and set up shop in his garage. Since then he has made more than two dozen violins, including one played by Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks.

In explaining his reasons for forming the Amati Foundation to business leaders and potential donors, Townsend elegantly sets forth the problems of our times for violinists and those who want to see the violin thrive:

  • While studying an instrument is shown to improve memorization and analytical thinking, only 19 percent of American schools offer string programs today, compared to 80 percent in 1960.

  • American orchestras face rising costs and deficits, declining income, aging and dwindling audiences.

  • Many professional musicians have trouble getting their hands on fine instruments, while collectors are sometimes faced with dilemmas over what to do with instruments, how to have them well cared for and loaned in an appropriate manner.

    The Amati Foundation's ambitious plan involves a program for creating a historical collection of 36 reproductions of some of the world's finest violins, violas, celli and double basses. He has already invited 33 well-known makers from the United States, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, China, United Kingdom, France and Italy to participate by making these copies.

    The plan is to have all these instruments made over the next few years, then throw a big event and put them on display for the public for several months.

    After that, the collection of instruments will be available for loan for eight years. That means that orchestras around the world will be able to borrow the entire collection, so that just about everyone in the orchestra would have a replica of a Strad, Guarneri, Amati, etc., in their hands for a concert series.

    Townsend says that not only will this be a nice public relations hook for orchestras, but it will also allow orchestra musicians around the world to inspect and perhaps appreciate better the work of modern luthiers.

    In 2015, the individual instruments will then be made available for loan to outstanding young musicians who aspire to a career in music.

    On the education front, Townsend wants to provide 500 schools across America with free violin instruction. At these schools, selected fourth- and fifth-graders would be taught using a curriculum that would combine Essential Elements for Strings and Suzuki, along with a novel online program that would allow children to get feedback on their playing via the computer. He wants the kids to be able to learn a variety of styles: classical, bluegrass, contemporary and baroque. The foundation would also outfit each school with violins.

    It's a very ambitious program, but Townsend seems to have the energy for it, and he is working tirelessly on accumulating the resources. His plan is impressive, with good thought put into it. On the day we saw him, Townsend had raised nearly $100,000 on just that day. But he will need several million to pull it off.

    If you want to lend financial support or donate an instrument, you can do so through the Amati Foundation website.

    He will also need our help as a community of violinists in finding talented teachers, lending advice and promoting his efforts among those who can help.

    We can certainly use an angel and advocate to energize our world of "Stringed Arts." Let's hope his efforts, along with our own individual efforts, do just that!

    From sara a. m.
    Posted on January 21, 2005 at 12:56 AM
    I definitely agree with what you said about us speaking to the wind. When we play for others who don't understand or appreciate fine music, we are just wasting time. Also, about the school programs, I, too, agree with that. A school would give more money to, say, their football team than a school orchestra in a heart beat. At first, I wondered why all my school's sport's teams had such nice new stuff all the time while our orchestra had 10 year old $60 instruments (well, what was left of them, that is). That's why I think it's great that there's this Amati Foundation. It's definitely going to help many schools. I'll definitely try to donate to it.
    From Pauline Lerner
    Posted on January 21, 2005 at 2:52 AM
    Laurie, your writing is very moving, especially the first three paragraphs. It's true that we violinists have a love for some very beautiful things that most people just don't understand. That is why so many of us hang out at Here we speak each other's language, although we don't all say the same things. This is a belated "thank you" to you and Robert for giving us such a wonderful musical home.

    It is so important to strengthen music education in the public schools, not just because violin classes help students perform better in math, but for benefits that are hard to describe but are worth so much more. I once heard a nreporter interviewing Yo Yo Ma, and he asked, "Why do you spend so much time teaching?" Ma replied, with a touch of exasperation, "Because I love music, and if younger people don't learn about it, classical music will die off after this generation." He spoke with an Asian perspective which we would all be well advised to follow up on. In one of your previous blog entries, you wrote about your experience visiting an elementary school and teaching the kids about music. It sounded like you gave a wonderful lesson in the meaning of music. You encouraged the rest of us to consider doing something similar in our own local public schools. That was a great suggestion, and your advocacy of the Amati Foundation, is great, too.

    From Charlie Caldwell
    Posted on January 21, 2005 at 10:56 PM
    I think it is a good idea. However, the Amati Foundation seems like it is trying to take on too many things at once. Obviously, it is probably not going to be a nation-wide organization for a few years, I am assuming. I like the thing for up and coming musicians. I read the site, and I see it doing well. However, the whole idea with the fourth and fifth graders. I am in 10th grade, and I don't believe I could properly take care of such a nice violin as these 9 and 10 year olds are supposed to get. I started in sixth grade playing violin in my school orchestra. Lots of bad things happen to instruments with little kids. Kids do not have much respect for anything. Even in high school, people will bump into my case when I'm walking down the hall. Ordinary people have no respect for string instruments, even the band kids. I didn't really get into violin until I got into high school, and that was during my fourth year of playing. That's when I really began respecting the violin. I just hope that young students out in Calfornia do well with these really nice instruments. I feel, though, that the instruments would be better used and cared for in a professional orchestra, because even some professionals can't afford a nice violin.
    From Bill Townsend
    Posted on January 22, 2005 at 6:14 AM
    Hi Charlie. Just want to clarify something with you and the other readers. The Historical Collection is loaned to professionals. These are the instruments to be made by Sam Zygmuntowicz, Joseph Curtin, Francis Kuttner, etc.

    The students (beginning in grades 4 and 5) receive a nicely made Stradivari style instrument from Romania. The instrument would retail for about $1500 in the US but we purchase for under $270. We are getting cases from China and carbon fiber bows from Europe.

    From Michael Molnar
    Posted on March 10, 2005 at 12:09 AM
    How were the luthiers chosen to make the famous examples?

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