Earlier this month at Authentic Instrument Makers Academy: teaching the art of free-hand violin design based on 25 years of intensive study of violin making and its connection with the roots of European culture.
On the photograph behind myself you see the same violin taken with three different lenses.
Same instrument, different results:
The first one is the closest to the reality but not representing the reality.
The middle one – the closest to the human eye.
The third – about 5cm shorter than the first.
It is used to demonstrate the fallacy of using 1:1 photographs of Stradivari or Guarneri del Jesu to trace on wood and produce "copies".
Good news – musicians know even less than makers, so musicians are the easiest to fool.
Let me share with you two stories.
1997 you see me studying violin making in a school in Italy. It was just a 6 months course, but it was well worth it. Imagine a large room, some 10 students bending over their benches. Tall windows, geraniums or something similar on the window sills… Smells wooden dust and varnish, and you can see instruments and instrument plans all over the place, a tool sharpening desk and so on…
A professor, handsome gentleman, gives a class of violin design. Lots of drawing tools, calculators, the nightmare of memorising the process, even bigger nightmare of finding where to stick the compass in, virtually impossible to accomplish.
Johann, a classmate from Belgium whispers: "How do you even remember that! There is no way to replicate this process!"
Later that day, I see me at the professors workshop. Very tall ceiling. Somewhat dark room. Very nicely smelling varnish on one of his freshest instruments hanging on a wire stretched along the terrace.
He quietly takes a book of Stradivari violins. Makes a photocopy of one of the pictures. Traces in on the wood. And – Voila! – done.
Flabbergasted I ask, "By, Maestro! How? You've just been speaking how important it is to design instruments and…"
"Dima! Official program is an official program, but what I do is different".
Since the process is so complicated nobody in fact at the school designs their instruments. Just get a poster, trace, and that's it. "Whatever model".
Fastforward 2008 or so. You see me in Cremona at a workshop of a violin maker. You see a huge poster of a Stradivari cello 1:1 size on the wall and a young student of Violin making school proudly telling:
"Maestro! I have just made a copy of this!"
"Great how comes?" you see me ansewring, "Did you have that Strad on your bench?"
"Oh, no, but I have this poster"
"And you think it represents the reality?"
"Of course! It's a photo! What do you mean?"
I take a ruler and show him how the size of the scroll is shorter by 10mm when taken as a part of the cello.
"See, there is an error of 10mm", I say.
"Wow! Really? But we have never been told this at the school!" and you see him checking the ruler as if wondering maybe the ruler is wrong…
The problem is costly and complex.
Firstly, musicians get instruments that sound nice only in the beginning. Ever heard musicians not trusting modern instruments?
Secondly, makers get this issue of uncertain and unpredictable results which do not help them in their career.
Thirdly, since everyone is making copies of the same instruments, musicians have an impossibly difficult time determining the trustworthiness of the "price" 200? 800? 6500? 20.000? 8.000? Which one? They all look the same. And then they go and buy something old, not because it's better, but because it's more trustworthy. And the violin makers have to do something else, some other job. Repair, retail, or wash dishes at a restaurant. Or if they are more lucky, buy and sell antiques and accessories, tonewoods etc.
By the way, some musicians just don't brainstorm and buy something factory made, 20 bucks a crate.
Since Cremona and all other schools of violin making promote the idea that making violin is all about accurate copying from posters, these schools virtually kill violin making as a cultural tradition. Violin has become a commodity and on the commodity market the cheapest wins. Be it human made, factory made, or robot made.
Because both makers and factories make the same copies from the same posters, young and emerging instrument makers have almost zero chance of establishing themselves on the market.
If they are lucky, they can only make money by working at a bigger shop, doing repairs, or retail – buy and sell stuff.
That only adds to the potentially huge problem: if young makers have no chance to establish themselves now, there will be not enough skilled hands to maintain and repair the antique instruments in the near future.
Majority of these antique instruments will be in a terrible condition. With the exception of 6-7 figure priced antiques. Great news! The rich will get richer. The poor will get poorer because that problem will of course come at the expense of the youngest, beginning and the middle-tier musicians.
So, what's the solution? Reviving violin making as an art, as a cultural tradition, and the design is the foundation.
"When an object lacks in design, it lacks in everything" ~ Georgio Vasari.
Emerging violin makers can find more certainty and predictability of their results.
Mid-career violin makers who found what's so special in their work will find an easier way to help their clients too to see what's so special in their work.
Established violin makers who may have lost the former joy and the spirit of discovery and potentially longing for even more in their art, will have the tools to make their names synonymous with the violin. Just like the name of Strad is synonymous with the violin.
The number #1 lesson from the outstanding masters of the past and present:
"Know thy roots. Learn the rules. Create your own." ~ D.Badiarov
And nope, not copying from posters or even from physical instruments…
"The art of painting declines and perishes when artists have no other source of inspiration that the art already created" ~ L. da Vinci.
The same words can be applied to the art of violin making.
Kinda the same in music performance? You don't need to copy Heifetz or Bell or Hahn, do you? It's fine to be yourself?