Violin Makers Celebrate Their Craft: VSA Convention Begins in Indianapolis

September 16, 2014, 1:40 PM · The art of violin-making has taken center stage in Indianapolis, as hundreds of stringed instrument makers from around the world have arrived for the Violin Society of America's annual convention, which began today with the opening of exhibitions for stringed instrument makers at the Hyatt Regency.


It was also the start of the closed judging sessions for more than 500 instruments that were entered by makers from 26 countries for the VSA's 21st International Competition.

I enjoyed getting an insider peek at the many materials and methods that go into the making of a violin: the wood, the bridges, the pegs, the specialty tools, the hair for bows, and more. I chatted with both exhibitors and makers, and here are some pictures and excerpts from our conversations.

As I walked into the exhibit hall, I noticed that many luthiers were on the prowl for wood. For example, here is luthier Martin Heroux, of Quebec, examining wood.


This exhibit floor also is a great place for luthiers to find the tools of their trade -- and many of these tools are highly specialized and rare. Let's just say that you can't find many of them at your local hardware store.

And despite the fact that this craft is 400+ years old, people are still creating new tools for the creation and repair of violins, violas, cellos and basses. "After a few years, you thinkg you have all the tools you need, but sometimes someone comes up with another," said Andrew Carruthers of Santa Rosa, holding up a special clamp used in the repair of cracks on the edge of a fiddle.


And believe me, there were plenty of tools to be had here; this is just one table of them from the International Violin Company:


There were also many "parts" for fiddles: bridges, pegs, fingerboards and more. Another vendor, Talwar Brothers/Acura Meister of India, was displaying a special kind of end button -- you can take off a little cap and then peek through the button into the belly of the violin, to see if the soundpost is standing correctly. Vie President Abhi Chakrabarti demonstrated:


I also found luthier Antoine Nédélec of Dallas, who was milling around the exhibit floor as one of his violins was being judged downstairs in the VSA's 21st International Competition for makers. He and Geoffrey Allison were also shopping for wood. "This is such a treat, to look at, rather than mail-order my wood," Allison said.


Though most vendors were wholesalers, displaying violin parts, a few were showing finished violins. Among those was Snow violins of Beijing/New York:


Erich Husemoller of Pioneer Valley Luthier Supply Co. told me a little about the horsehair that we use for bows, most of which comes from China. He said that a major factor that affects the quality of horse hair is the washing of it, once it's harvested from the horse's tail. "It's a very dirty, smelly process," Husemoller said. If one uses hard detergent such as soda ash or bleach, it dries out the hair, making it more brittle. A softer detergent, used with a process with longer soaking and less emphasis on making the hair perfectly white, yields stronger, more flexible bow hair.


Kevin Reynolds of Larsen Strings was explaining to me the difference between their "Virtuoso" strings (brighter) and their "Tzigane" label (warmer), when he got a little more philosophical on the topic of strings. "These instruments are like living, breathing animals, and strings can pull them in different directions," Reynolds said. Your set of strings is "not an accessory, it's a tool." String makers strive to find the kinds of materials that will hold up under the extreme tension we musicians put them under, with the constant vibrations we make. He described the difference between how the player views a durable string, and how the maker does: "The player thinks, these strings will last a long time," he said. "The string maker thinks, I'm trying to keep my baby alive as long as possible!"

Around the corner there were more strings; Chris Rohrecker of Connolly showed me Thomastik-Infeld's latest strings, the value-price "Spirits." I also was happy to run across New York-based luthier Charles Rufino, who will speak as a lecturer later this week, when the VSA holds lectures on topics ranging from the "Perfect Purfling" to the controversial Ivory ban and the problems it's causing for bow makers and traveling string players.


I wish I could have made it to every table -- there were so many! But it certainly is interesting to take a look into the fine details that go into the making of every violin.

UP NEXT: At 8 p.m. tonight is a concert featuring 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis laureate, Clara-Jumi Kang with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, and tomorrow will bring lectures and more exhibits from the VSA Convention.

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