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Laurie Niles

Exhibit of Modern Violin Makers at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

September 30, 2010 at 7:31 PM

More than a dozen violin makers from around the world gathered in Indianapolis last weekend for a exhibit at the Indiana History Center, in conjunction with the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

The opportunity to meet these makers and play their instruments certainly influenced my decision to attend the competition in person. The "Spotlight on Today's Violin Makers" included makers such as Gregg Alf, Gerry Borman, Joseph Curtin, Joseph Grubaugh, Feng Jiang, Francis Kuttner, Frank Ravatin, Guy Rabut, William Scott and Isabelle Wilbaux, as well as Indiana makers Ted Skreko, Chris Ulbricht of Indianapolis Violins, Alexander Leyvand, Mark Russell, Todd Matus, Tom Sparks, Mark Womack (and his assistant Luke Marvell) and Michael Duff of Berg Bows.

I tried to make it to everyone's table over the two-day exhibit, and I also tried to play everyone's fiddles. That said, the exhibit took place in two rooms, with talking and playing, and much noise! I was not able to reach everyone, and I don't feel I can a definitive opinion on these violins after playing them for a few minutes. But I will give you my impressions, my pictures, and a few thoughts from these makers. If you are interested in a violin from a modern maker, it makes sense to contact the maker, and that information is hyperlinked below with their names.

First I visited Gregg Alf of Alf Studios, who is shown here holding a late del Gesu model (the "Ole Bull") violin, and behind him is his assistant, Zach Moen. Alf made his first fiddle in 1975.

I was hoping to get to know Alf violins better – he was going to lend us a few for chamber music! But the week was so busy, no chamber music happened. I appreciated his offer though!

Tom Sparks stood at a table nearby with two violins. Sparks teaches at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music String Instrument Technology program. The program currently has about 40 students – 20 in the violin-making program and 20 taking general classes in history and diagnostics. It's possible to get an associate degree, Bachelor's degree or a minor in string instrument technology at Indiana University.

Sparks had a nice fiddle he'd made long ago, strung with steel strings because he was playing an Irish Fiddle gig (he was a United States Irish Fiddle Champion, 1980-82). For Irish Fiddle, steel strings are more responsive, "steel strings are quicker to do ornaments and rolls," he said. Here, he demonstrates a cran, which is a kind of Irish Fiddle ornament. (You can hear how noisy it was in the background!)

For his fiddles he uses new wood, from which he extracts the organic matter out of it with water. "It's green wood, but there's nothing green about it when I'm through with it." He's come to this method after many years. "I've got thousands of dollars in ruined wood and 20 years of experimentation," he said.

Violin maker Joseph Curtin was conducting a scientific experiment all week, with the help of Paris scientist Claudia Fritz and Fan-Chia Tao of J. D'Addario strings. I actually participated in the experiment, in which I was blindfolded and asked to choose between 10 pairs of violins; then after that, asked to discern characteristics between six violins. It was like wine-tasting – I was tipsy by the end from playing 20 + fiddles! I won't know what I chose until the experiment is completed and results are compiled in several months, but the idea was to get feedback from players on their preferences.

IVCI executive director Glen Kwok and Joseph Curtin

Curtin said that he spends a lot of time doing writing and research. I asked him what models he used for his fiddles and he held up one of his fiddles and quipped, "This is an exact copy of an imaginary violin!" He said he made about six violins a year, and the one I tried out had a clear, penetrating sound.

Francis Kuttner described his fiddles as being patterned after "a mishmash of models, I've borrowed from different makers over the years and it's evolved into my own model." The violin I tried had a ringing sound that was even on all four strings and smooth.

The violins of Feng Jiang made quite an impression among people attending the exhibit – a number of colleagues singled his out.

I did get a chance to sneak into a recital hall with one of his violins, most of which are patterned after a Guarneri model. His violins are currently priced at $22,000. The violin I tried sounded smooth, responsive and open. Feng gave me a good way to remember which plate is made from which kind of wood: the top is the "Christmas tree," spruce; bottom is maple. Got it? Top=spruce, bottom=maple. Originally from China, Feng Jiang has been making violins for 21 years and has been located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for 13 years.

At the next table over stood violin maker Guy Rabut, with an assortment of his "normal"-looking violins and then also this fun contemporary-looking one:

Rabut's violins go for $25,000, and he's itching for someone to commission a few more of those contemporary-look moderns – maybe for a contemporary music ensemble? I enjoyed talking with Guy, who can be philosophical.

"When the (price of) Strads went through the roof it made it impossible for students to buy – and it made it possible for me to have a career," he said. No longer do people feel that getting a modern violin is just a temporary solution, until they can buy an old Italian fiddle by a famous maker of the past. "The younger players are saying, 'Which maker did you talk to?'" he said; young violinists are getting the modern instruments with the intention of making them their own.

Terry Michael Borman has been making violins for 35 years, and the word that came to mind while testing his instruments was "sweet tone."

Borman said that musicians' input is very important to him. "Musicians are never wrong," he said. "In fact they can be absurdly right! Most of my instruments have been modified from musician feedback." His violins go for $32,000 and violas for $34,000.

Frank Ravatin was in town from Vannes, Brittany, France. His violins, which I found to be very high-quality and responsive, are priced at approximately $22,000 or €15,000. (I do not find a website for him, but here is his e-mail address:

William Robert Scott, or "Bill Scott," of Minneapolis, had a number of copies that he'd made, of the 1733 "ex-Kreisler" del Gesu; 1720 "ex-Rochester" Strad and 1742 "ex-Beno Rabinoff" del Gesu. "Really playable," is what I scribbled after trying his fiddles.

Joseph Grubaugh was on hand from Petaluma, California, and his partner Sigrun Seifert was there in spirit.


He showed me several violins; one was a copy and the other not. The copy was $38,000, the other was $28,000.

"A copy is like repairing a violin into existence – it's a lot more work," Grubaugh said.

I tried some bows from Berg Bows, which are composite fiber bows.

They are not, said bowmaker Michael Duff, "carbon" fiber, but they are another kind of fiber that is less dense and more like pernambuco wood. I would have loved to have taken one of these babies home (I actually need a bow), but the first price he quoted was $7,500, which seemed a bit much for a composite bow. He amended this to say their bows were anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500. At any rate, I still liked the bows!

I hope that the above information helps to give you a starting point for modern makers. It was my starting point with these makers as well, and because I did not have the time or proper situation to truly test every maker's instruments, I simply can't give you anything but my impressions. Besides which, instruments are very individual. I will say that all the above are worthy of consideration if you are looking for a modern instrument. They are also live makers, which gives you the benefit of being able to talk with them and create something that suits you.

Posted on September 30, 2010 at 11:29 PM

Nice! I participated in a similar event during the last Viola Congress and it was nice meeting so many makers and top players!

From Jim Fellows
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 1:42 AM

Laurie--you mentioned in a previous blog that at the finals, 4 cremona and 4 moderns were matched up and played, with 2 Strads and 1 modern choosen by the audience. Any specific information on the outcome regarding the 4 modern instruments?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 3:18 AM

 They actually kept it a secret, sigh. But the audience members liked the moderns, most of the matchups were very close.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 5:24 AM

I noticed that most of the copies you mentioned were of del Gesu's.  I'm surprised.  Is that consistent with what's popular with high level players in general?  (I wouldn't guess it from the sample of recordings I hear on classical radio stations.)

Posted on October 1, 2010 at 11:27 AM

Ciao Francesca!

Del Gesù instruments are more rare, and till some years ago the information about his instruments was scarce for most makers.  This scenario has changed now that we have so many STRAD POSTERS and that fantastic book by Biddulph with 25 fine Del Gesù violins with real size photos and plans.  The violin making world is becoming less and less "Stradcentric", and that is good.

Many soloists who are playing Stradivari violins today are dreaming for the day they will upgrade and be able to play a fine late Del Gesù violin... 

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 4:14 PM

 lol, I can't say I've heard any soloists wanting to get their hands on a del Gesu to replace their Strad! It's just such a specific, individual choice, I guess I don't see a trend there. jA person would be lucky to get either one.

Maybe it's true that there's simply more information out there about the del Gesus nowadays and thus more ability for luthiers to use those models. I would be curious to hear from more luthiers about that.

The fine Italian instruments are wonders, but they tend to be outrageously priced, very old, precious, delicate and moody, if you will. Many are difficult to play. The idea of getting something that is more stable, that is patterned after a fine instrument, made of good tonewood but that doesn't carry with the price tag and the difficulty -- I think this has great appeal for players, even soloists.

Posted on October 1, 2010 at 11:30 PM

It depends also on the maker's style. If the maker is very precise, clean in his work, both in execution and design, probably he will prefer making Stradivari or Amati models.  If the maker wants to work with a bit more freedom he may prefer Guarneri models.


From Oliver Bedford
Posted on October 4, 2010 at 1:14 AM

I suspect those prices are really just "kite-flying".

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on October 7, 2010 at 4:31 AM

Laurie, I have asked my local luthier to weigh in but he (modestly) said he didn't feel knowledgable enough.  He happens to be visiting Cremona on Friday and said he will ask some of his friends for their opinion.

Luis, I'm confused.  If someone is trying to make a copy of something, whether the original was made in an exacting or more free fashion, wouldn't the copy have to be made exactly?

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