Buying a violin isn't like buying a screwdriver or a pair of sneakers, where you simply Google the best price and expect consistent quality, sight unseen.
"The very simple fact of the matter is that it's a very personalized kind of an endeavor, even for beginners," said Dalton Potter, luthier and founder/co-owner of Potter Violins, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary with an expansion and move from Bethesda to Takoma Park, Md. "It's an easy thing to buy something -- you're just exchanging money for a product. What's hard is to get something that actually works for you. Like tennis rackets or other kinds of sporting equipment, a violin has to be balanced correctly, it has to be right for the particular body that's using it. It's not like buying a toaster oven."
A violinist needs to have a violin that is the correct size and weight. It needs to be fitted with a shoulder rest and chin rest that matches the body of the player (unless you're going rest-less but that's another topic...). The bow has to have the right balance, length and weight.
"Basically you won't be able to make progress past a certain point, if the equipment you're using isn't correct for your body," Potter said. Complicating things even further: young students grow. "You can get everything just perfect, then six, 12 or 18 months later, they've grown and changed," he said. "Then you have to be able to analyze and re-fit them for new endeavors."
To that end, Potter and co-owner Jim Kelly have built their business around being able to offer those kinds of personalized options and expertise to string players at every level, from beginners to elite professionals. It started back when Potter bought the business in 1996 from a family that had been selling violins more than 100 years. Potter had a vision for a different kind of business model: one that didn't just sell violins, but that supported the entire stringed instrument community.
"We wanted to cater more to the whole lifestyle of the musician," Potter said. Potter Violins started with six people and has grown to a company with 21 full-time employees, including nine luthiers and bow technicians. Moving from a 4,000 square-foot space in Bethesda to a 13,000 square-foot space in Takoma Park, Md. is just one more step in creating a place that not only sells fiddles, but helps the local music community grow and thrive.
"My original dream was to have a multi-generational business that catered to all levels of musical professionalism, in a way that didn't exclude anybody and didn't inconvenience anybody," Potter said. "What you're seeing now is the final resolution of being able to handle a wide variety of customer needs, from beginners, to people in high school or college, all the way through professionals needing $100,000 instruments and bows taken care of."
The trick was to create a shop where beginners looking for their first student instruments were given the same degree of specialized attention as those buying highly expensive fine instruments, and where they would find inspiration and not intimidation. "They would be exposed to it in a way that was educational, and they would say, 'Yes, I can climb onto that train, I can do that too.' Then maybe in 15-20 years, they'll be the ones playing in the National Symphony or the Opera House," Potter said.
The recent expansion involved a two-year renovation of the Blair Mansion (not to be confused with the Blair House), a landmark building that started as the residence of a shoe mogul's daughter and in more recent years was used for murder mystery parties. Let's just say, the property needed a lot of love. "Everything has been restored, from the foundation to the roofline," Kelly said. "Electrical is all new, air conditioning is new, everything. It was a very big project."
The new facility has six instrument show rooms and an expanded selection of accessories, sheet music and cases. It also has a repair counter and a library room with historical materials used for appraisals and research. A new recital hall is named after Suzuki pioneer John Kendall.
"The recital space will seat 75 to 100 people, and our goal is to have a regular schedule of events that range from teacher training to master classes, to chamber music recitals to student recitals," Kelly said. "Sometime in the fall, the Kendall family and the Dryden Quartet will play at the dedication of the recital hall. We picked John Kendall because John and the family have supported us from the beginning, and it was John that came to Dalton and Bill Weaver years ago, with Ronda Cole, saying, 'We need great student instruments.' And if wasn't for him bringing Suzuki to the country and to our area, we wouldn't have a thriving business that was founded on all of that. He was such a wonderful human being."
They also plan to hold classes with teachers, to help them understand what is available, provide tips on fitting students for violins, etc.
"When it comes to professional care; students' needs are generally sculpted and guided by their teachers," Potter said. "Our relationship with the teaching community over the years has allowed us to be able to adapt our products and our services to make sure those needs are taken care of correctly."
On the other end of the spectrum, "we offer a kind of concierge service for professionals," Potter said. If someone is looking to purchase a specific kind of fine instrument or bow, Kelly, as well as other luthiers, will fly to Europe for a targeted search. "We evaluate people's playing and what their needs are as a player, to find the right inventory that matches them," Kelly said.
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