How to Talk to Your Violin Maker

This article was published in the April 2017 issue of Strings Magazine.

Original article was guest edited by Samuel Zygmuntowicz.


How do your clients usually find you?

My clients usually hear about me from another musician—either someone they know or someone they hear playing one of my instruments. Or possibly they may hear about me by a recommendation from a teacher.


At the beginning of the process, how do you get a solid sense of what a client wants and needs from an instrument?

Ideally, we both listen to and play a number of my instruments, and also perhaps other instruments the client likes. And we talk about them—what the client likes and dislikes, what he or she needs from an instrument, and the client’s ideal sound. The more instruments we play and listen to, and the more we talk, the more I can understand what the player needs and is looking for, and he or she will understand how I will go about providing that. It is not always easy to arrange as much in person instrument playing and listening as is ideal, but we usually manage to do a pretty good job of it. Often a player comes to my studio, where I have arranged to show a number of my instruments with different tonal characteristics. (I have enough instruments in the area that I can borrow a few for an afternoon, or I often have instruments in my shop getting adjustments and maintenance.) If the player is not able to come to my studio, there are usually instruments in his or her area that they can play and hear (and that I am familiar with), so we can talk about those. We can also send recordings of instruments back and forth to each other. Basically, we do what we can to be on the same page, hear the same things, and understand each other.


How do you handle the business details: The price, the time required, and what happens if the instrument isn’t a good fit?

I try to be very open and upfront about business matters, and put the client at ease by being straightforward and clear about the commission process. My prices are all on my website, so most of the time the players already know the price of the instrument, but if not, it usually comes up at the start of the conversation, or I bring it up at an appropriate time. The same goes for the time required to complete the instrument. I require a 10 percent down payment to start the process, but I let them know—in writing if they wish—that they are not required to accept the instrument if they are not happy with it, and that in that case I will refund the down payment. (This has only happened a couple of times in 35 years.)


What do you wish more clients knew going into the process?

I think sometimes that players have the idea that a stringed instrument is an almost magical or mystical thing, and that ideally it should have been made in ancient times by forest elves or something. So they think somehow that commissioning one is a rather risky undertaking. It actually can be a quite methodical, systematic process that will result in an instrument that fits them beautifully and they will love to play.


How important is it to get to know clients as people in addition to as players? How much time do you typically end up spending together? A

player’s instrument is usually his most important possession, so being the maker of that instrument, and often the person who adjusts and maintains it, can be like being his child’s doctor. I sometimes think there is a player-instrument connection that is similar to the mind-body connection, so of course knowing your clients as people is very helpful in the making process, as well as for maintaining a good continuing relationship.


Is there something specific in your experience that defines a positive working relationship with your clients?

Empathy and understanding the needs, concerns, and issues of the player—whether they are a professional, student, or amateur— are very important. It has really helped that I have played the violin since I was young, and am familiar with playing a violin onstage, in an orchestra, in contests—even some amateur solo playing. It is no easy thing to get up onstage in front of people and play an instrument, and every player deserves the best help, support, and admiration I can give him, no matter if he is a great professional or a beginning player.


How do you talk with string players about the more intangible elements: tone, power, color, voice?

If we have both played and listened to the same instruments, and have talked about them in these terms—tone, power, color, and voice—we can come to understand what the other means by them. You learn to speak in the same language. How can a client best express his or her appreciation of your work at the end of the process? Home-baked cookies! Also, there is nothing more enjoyable than listening to my instruments being played, so being invited to anything from a small house concert to a solo with a great orchestra is the best there is.


Can you tell me a story about one of your experiences with a client that stuck with you—that gave the process and the work extra meaning?

I am having difficulty singling out one specific commission that has more meaning than another. The first commission I ever received was significant because it was the first; the first commission from a professional player was significant in the same way. Commissions from great players are exciting and super learning experiences; even commissions from very exacting and “difficult” players are great learning experiences. But thinking about this question, and going through memories of all of my commissions, I am struck by how many wonderful people I have met, how enjoyable collaborating with every one has been, and how meaningful the whole process can be, especially when the focus is not on just me and my instruments, but rather on how I can best work with clients to give them what they need—the best instrument I possibly can make for each of them.