Paul Bartel, owner of Cincinnati's Baroque Violin Shop, doesn't actually have an office. In fact, he barely needs a desk.
That's because nearly all the time, "I'm at the bench, or out in the schools, recruiting students," Paul said when he spoke to me last week at his shop, Strad in hand.
Paul, along with his three sons, runs an impressively large stringed instrument operation, with some 10,000 stringed instrument rentals, a considerable online and in-person shop and a wholesale company. They operate from a historic two-story brick building in northern Cincinnati, complemented by several large warehouses across the street. Bartel also is the founder and board president of the Wyoming (Ohio) Fine Arts Center, a nearly 20-year-old center that offers programs music, visual arts and dance for students of all ages in the Cincinnati area.
I did say "Strad" -- Bartel owns the real deal. The instrument serves as his own model for excellence in construction and sound, and he shares it with generosity, allowing students and customers to play it in order to get that sound in their ears and using the instrument in demonstrations at schools.
As is often the case with the long-lived, the fiddle has a lively story. A circa 1680 Stradivari, complete with papers from Robert Bein and Charles Beare, for years the instrument was known as it is listed in Herbert Goodkind's Violin Iconography of Antonio Stradivari, as the 1698 "Eckstein" Strad, named after a London jeweler who owned it. "For a very long time -- about 150 years -- that's the way it passed through all the violin dealers," Bartel said. But before Bartel purchased it in 2007, Robert Bein evaluated the instrument and concluded that the label had been falsified to set it closer to a "Golden Period" Strad. Based on its early-model mold, the instrument was actually made by Stradivari around 1680. Based on papers from Hill, it earliest traceable owner was a 19th-century Parisian judge named Silvestre. Subsequent owners included cellist Martin Lovett of the Amadeus Quartet, who purchased the instrument in 1966 for his wife, violinist and teacher Suzanne Rozsa. (This is Bartel's second Strad; up until 2005 he owned the 1703 "Lady Harmsworth" Strad, which is now part of the Stradivari Society's collection.)
There's the history -- but how does Bartel's "Eckstein-Silvestre-Rozsa" Strad sound? I was thrilled to have the chance to find out, by playing it when I visited.
He keeps the violin in beautiful condition, and the sound is smooth, like its honey color. I found I had to ride the sound, not drive it; to back off and play without force. It has a sweet sound that carries easily; it doesn't sound loud against the ear. The instrument is physically light and fit my hand easily.
I'm certainly not the only person familiar with this instrument; it's well-known locally, among visitors to the shop and among the thousands of kids across the Midwest who have seen Bartel's recruiting shows in schools, where he both plays the instrument and allows kids to play it.
A graduate of Miami (Ohio) University, Bartel started his career in the public schools, as a high school orchestra director, before his "hobby" of violin-making took over some 42 years ago. But that urge to teach has apparently never subsided; during the first two months of every school year, Paul goes to two to four schools every day, playing for 300-400 fourth through sixth graders at a time, to recruit students on behalf of school music teachers in the area. He also plays for kindergarteners, to recruit for Suzuki teachers.
Bartel brings an electric violin and the Strad to his recruitment shows. "They're mesmerized," he said of the students, "they just sit and listen." He starts with the electric violin, making funny sounds and telling stories, and he ends up on the Strad. He plays familiar music from movies, like Hedwig's Theme from Harry Potter. In fact, for that song, he tells the kids that there's one note that sounds so out-of-place, the first time he heard it in the movie theatre, the note made him lean over. He leaned so far, in fact, that he spilled his popcorn on the person next to him. Then he plays the tune again, demonstrating that note by leaning sideways and having the kids do the same. "They learn to lean on that dissonant note," he said.
By the end of his shows, the kids are moving to the music -- "I tell them, this is what music makes you do."
Paul sees school string programs striving, particularly in places such as Texas and Michigan, where he said that "the music programs are on steroids!"
"The level of teaching has gone up, and it all starts with good teachers," Paul said. It also requires a commitment from school administrators, not only for the money, but for time during the school day for music. He can say from experience: "If they make the kids come in before school for beginning strings, the program is dead."
He also teaches three classes on instrument maintenance and repair at the annual Ohio State University String Teacher Workshop run by Robert Gillespie, author of the ubiquitous method book used in schools across the country, Essential Elements for Strings. In one of his classes, Bartel teaches teachers how to set up sound posts. "It might cost $15 - $30 to set a sound post in a shop, but it takes me 10 seconds," he said. During the class, "at first, it's like hearing popcorn," with all those sound posts popping out, "but after 45 minutes, everyone is proficient in setting sound posts." The classes also include instruction in rehairs, bridges, cleaning and touching up stringed instruments -- crucial fixes that can nonetheless prove financially impossible for a school district.
His shop does such fixes for schools at a deep discount, but sometimes the work is like "meatball surgery," he said: cracks, fallen sound posts, broken bridges, you name it. Teaching teachers the skills to do some of the basic repairs is very helpful, as most shops don't have the time for that.
When it comes to the instruments that his shop sells and rents, they are predominantly Chinese, with the finishing touches and maintenance done at the shop.
"Right now, China dominates the world for this, and they're doing a great job -- if you get the good stuff," he said. A lifelong student of good construction vs. bad, Paul said that he sets high standards for the specs required of the products they have made in China, and he's been developing lines for retailers who sell them under their own name: instruments, cases, strings, carbon fiber bows and more.
The game has simply changed. Twenty years ago, dealers rejected all Chinese-made instruments as being of inferior quality. But as Chinese know-how increased, some of "those cheap Chinese violins got really good," particularly the handmade ones, he said. One has to set and enforce standards for quality, workmanship and materials used, and that makes all the difference.
"A cheap violin made by a machine is still a cheap violin made by a machine."
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BELOW: Paul Bartel, in a 2010 video from Cincinnati.com, shows his passion for the violin by bringing music to children. Producer: Stacy Doose.
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