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Our quest for a new violin

July 16, 2013 at 2:03 AM

Finding the perfect violin is a daunting experience, especially when thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands) are at stake. I decided to share our experience in hope that it might assist somebody else in their search.

For my wife’s 40th birthday, I decided to commission a new violin for her. She has some specific needs due to her small stature, so I figured it would be best to have an instrument made specifically to fit her; I also knew that for a purchase this large, and on something so deeply personal as a violin, I needed her involvement from the beginning. Consequently, rather than attempting to surprise her, I involved her from the start (I did surprise her by having a trial instrument shipped out to us from one of the makers under consideration. I spent a great deal of time combing through discussion boards, looking for suggestions on who might meet our criteria. We were looking for a maker who met the following criteria:
• Priced in the $20-40,000 range
• Willing to produce a smaller instrument
• Is easy to work with, and could help us identify the sound and playing qualities we wanted
• Had a waiting list of less than 2 years

We made contact with and tried instruments from the following makers: Howard Needham, David Gusset, Joseph Curtin, Terry Borman, Feng Jiang, David Burgess, Gregg Alf., and a local maker by the name of Jonathan Franke. We also went to two dealers in Portland and tried dozens of instruments at their shops. My wife consulted with her orchestra’s concertmistress, and they made the trip to Portland to try instruments together. The concertmistress advocated strongly in favor of purchasing an existing instrument rather than commissioning, on the basis that you know what you are getting with a completed instrument, particularly an instrument that has already been played in. She expressed concern about what would happen if we commissioned an instrument and were unhappy with it—it could be an uncomfortable and awkward situation. It is a fair concern, but in discussing that concern with the luthiers mentioned above, we learned that they all had approval policies whereby your money would be refunded if we received our instrument and it did not suit us. I asked if it ever happened, and I was assured that it sometimes does happen, but that it did not ever create bad feelings. In the worst case, we stood to lose time, but not money. I felt that was a fair gamble.

To start the process, we had Howard Needham ship us an instrument, as he had a smaller instrument on hand (a Guarneri modeled after the du Diable). My wife quickly discovered how much benefit she would receive from playing a smaller instrument. Playing double-stops was so much easier for her on this instrument. It didn’t, however, speak to her musically. It was definitely better sounding than her current instrument, but it wasn’t what she was looking for with respect to tone. In speaking with Howard, he was genuinely interested in receiving feedback about his instruments, both positive and negative. We had a difficult time describing what it lacked, and we quickly learned that we needed to develop a more articulate vocabulary for describing sound. Howard had the misfortune of being the first in line, before we were able to develop a sense of what we wanted in terms of sound.

After some discussion, we decided that we should make a trip to Ann Arbor, since so many of the makers on our list reside there. Over spring break, we spent a few days visiting 4 makers: David Burgess, Feng Jiang, Joseph Curtin, and Alf Studios.

We started at David Burgess’ studio. We had a nice visit, and he had a few examples of his instruments to play, although by his account, none of them were entirely representative of his current sound. I loved the aesthetics of his instruments. He doesn’t do any antiquing (which is a rarity,and which I love). His workmanship is spectacular, and I loved how he leaves prominent chisel marks in his violin backs.--it gives them a wonderful texture. In discussing our desires for an instrument, it became apparent that David’s instruments weren’t a good fit for my wife. David builds a specific model, and he is at a point in his career where he doesn’t want or need to go through the trouble of creating a custom small model. He was kind enough to make a few phone calls to local dealers to determine if they had any instruments on hand that would suit our needs. We talked for a while, and it was a pleasant and cordial visit.

Next up was Feng Jiang. He had three instruments for us to try, one of which was the winner of the double-blind tests at MondoMusica. His instruments were lovely.: Beautifully crafted, and they had a very refined sound. We really liked his instruments, and he had expressed a willingness to work with us on a smaller instrument. Unfortunately, he had just returned from MondoMusica in New York, and it was apparently a very successful trip for him—his wait time had expanded to over two years!

The next morning, we visited Curtin Studios. First off, he has a magnificent studio space. He lives out in the country, and his bright, open studio overlooks an idyllic pastoral scene. We had an interesting visit. We talked about the findings of his research and how it influenced his violin making. He had a few examples on hand for us to try. One instrument really stood out. “That’s it! That’s the sound!” my wife exclaimed. Sadly, it was already spoken for, and it was a regular sized violin in any case. Joseph had several ideas for making a violin more playable for Dawn. He suggested moving the nut a couple of millimeters and moving the bridge a hair, and we talked about thinning the neck a bit to make reaching around the neck a bit easier. We loved Curtin’s instruments: great projection with lots of depth and a touch of grit. A really interesting sound.

Finally, we visited Alf Studios. I admit that I considered Alf Studios the least likely candidate. Had we not been in Ann Arbor for the other visits, I’m not sure I would have attempted to try an Alf. Gregg currently resides in Venice, Italy, and logistically, I just couldn’t see it working. Gregg left behind an office manager and a couple of apprentice makers. As it happened, Gregg had just shipped four instruments to Ann Arbor when we visited. My first impression of his violins was how strikingly beautiful they are. All of the instruments we looked at were superbly crafted and aesthetically lovely, but I was really blown away by Gregg’s instruments. Dawn took her time playing and we spent a few hours discussing all aspects of violin making. Gregg’s staff is patient and engaging and went the extra mile to accommodate us. The Alf Studios staff connected us with Gregg via Skype, and we talked about our needs and tastes. We came away from our visit tremendously impressed. Sound-wise, Alf’s instruments didn’t engage us like the Curtin did, though.

We flew home that afternoon, and were confronted with the dilemma of which maker to choose. In pursuit of thoroughness, we contacted Terry Borman as well. We had several in-depth discussions with him about how to adapt an instrument to meet our needs, and he had lots of great insight. We had to wait a few weeks, but he eventually was able to send us an instrument that could suit us. His instrument was very nice. I think it was an instrument we could have happily lived with, but ultimately it wasn’t quite what we were seeking. It was a little too sweet for our taste. I can readily see why one would love its sound, though, and my wife said it was very comfortable to play. Terry goes to great lengths to make his instruments feel comfortable in the musician’s hand.

Finally, we tried a few instruments by a local luthier named Jonathan Franke. His instruments cost significantly less than the other makers we tried—roughly 1/3 as much. His instruments were very solid, and one in particular had a very lovely tone. It was a rather large violin, though, so it was unsuitable for our purposes. If cost were a driving factor, he definitely would have won us over. For us, though, we are looking for a lifetime purchase, and we decided we were willing to pay a lot more for a small incremental improvement. I wouldn’t even say that Franke’s instruments constitute a compromise in sound. They just weren’t exactly “our sound”. He is a remarkable craftsman, even if not as well known as the others described above.

The short summary of our experience with these makers is this: I expected to encounter a temperamental, elitist, egotistical bunch of artistes. I was very pleasantly surprised. All of these men were supremely confident (as they should be), but none acted with conceit. They all are passionate about their craft, and about sharing music with the world. They were all friendly and engaging. They all seem to have a collegial relationship with each other. Despite the fact that each one of them hoped to sell us their own instrument, I never heard any disparaging remarks about one another. Quite the opposite, in fact. They seem to know each other well and respect each other. They understand that by working cooperatively, they are elevating their craft. I could readily see myself being good friends with almost all of the luthiers we met.

We labored for over a month in deciding whom to choose to make our instrument. We put money down on a Curtin, but Dawn was uneasy about the expense; he is notably more expensive than the other makers, and at the very top end of our price range (although I would have happily paid the money for a Curtin).

Alf Studios contacted us to follow up, and we shared with them the reasons we didn’t select Alf, despite the many things we loved about his violins. The office manager suggested we speak with Gregg via Skype to see if he could address our concerns. When we spoke with him, and described what his sound was missing, he said, “I’m so sorry, I wish I had known. That could probably have been addressed with a different set of strings!” We had a couple more conversations via Skype where he discussed what he could do to tailor the violin’s sound and dimensions to our needs. He went to work customizing an instrument he had already commenced. Less than two months later, he contacted us, letting us know that he had an instrument nearly ready for us. He was coming back to the States for the Oberlin workshop, and suggested we come meet him if we could possibly do so. That would give him opportunity to make final adjustments and tailor the sound to our liking. As it turned out, Gregg finished the violin on my wife’s birthday—her 39th birthday; I believe it will still serve as her 40th birthday present as well! She flew out a few days ago, and the results are spectacular. The instrument was originally nice sounding, but still a bit shy of ideal. Gregg made a small sound post adjustment, and switched out strings, and it opened up. Suddenly, it was a spectacular instrument: Tremendous projection, a full, rich tone, and sized down a bit in the neck. Overall, the string length is a few millimeters shorter than normal, and the neck is a bit narrower than most. The body is a smaller Guarneri model (a Lord Wilton model). All of these adjustments served to make the instrument easier for my wife’s small hands to reach. We asked Gregg to go easy on the antiquing (we have 5 boys who damage virtually everything in sight, and we wanted to have something in our home that is undistressed). I believe he would have rather applied a little more antiquing to the violin, but he obliged us in our request. We have found our instrument, and we are thrilled. Working with Gregg and his staff was a genuine pleasure. He was excited for the chance to tailor an instrument to our needs, and he took a great deal of time to learn exactly what it was we wanted and needed. He is a sincere, passionate man who builds magnificent instruments. The same could be said for all of the luthiers we met. We truly are living in a golden age of violin making.

If I had sufficient funds, I would buy one from each of these makers. I really liked each of them as people, and the work of each one of them warrants the reputation they enjoy as luthiers—they are all exceptional.

If you are contemplating purchasing a contemporary violin, take the time to explore. All of the makers we dealt with have liberal instrument trial policies, and all of the luthiers mentioned were very generous with their time in answering questions. The cost of shipping instruments was barely more than what we would have spent in gas travelling to Portland to visit the violin shops there. The world has become a small place. Don’t let geography rule out the great makers across the country. For us, the trip to Ann Arbor was a valuable experience in making our decision, but I wouldn’t deem it essential. Trying a variety of instruments helped us refine our goals and identify what constituted our ideal instrument, and we were ultimately able to find an instrument we love. I am confident we will love it for many years to come, and hopefully we will hand it down to a new generation of violinist who love it as well.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 16, 2013 at 12:43 PM
What an interesting experience! However, as your post makes clear, if you are going to spend that kind of money on a violin, you really owe it to yourself to do as much due diligence as possible. The information in your post should be helpful to all who are contemplating buying an expensive instrument. Even those who are not spending the kind of money you are can profit from some of the suggestions in their search. Thanks.
From Casey Jefferson
Posted on July 16, 2013 at 1:01 PM
Thanks for posting the story, I've always love to read stories about someone hunting for the right violin, especially a successful one!

At the same time, it also goes to show how much the price has gone up ever since Smiley Hsu's similar blog entry back in 2009...

From David Beck
Posted on July 16, 2013 at 4:08 PM
Very interesting !
Kevin Zhang started a similar thread :-
I must say that I have found dealing directly with makers a rewarding experience. The ones I have known were all down-to-earth, practical folk.

From Brent Davis
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 2:35 PM

With respect to violin costs: Based on the prices Smiley listed, a Needham is about $6k more expensive now, and a Burgess $3k more expensive.

From Casey Jefferson
Posted on July 17, 2013 at 4:17 PM
Brent - Thanks for the info and that was much less than I expected...! My bad for the assumptions...
From Douglas Bevan
Posted on July 18, 2013 at 1:12 PM

Congrats on finding an instrument for your wife! It is always interesting to read about these violin searches and their conclusions. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

I started a similar "quest" about 2 years ago (although it has yet to be fully resolved). Looking forward to writing a post about the experience.

There are just some fantastic instruments being made today!

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