Conventional instruments


Even though there are thousands of good factory instruments available on the market today, there are still compelling reasons to purchase a handmade instrument or to commission a new instrument made to your specifications. Your hand-made violin, viola, or cello can incorporate many of your preferences about style, sound, and appearance, and it can be a good investment as well.

: : : More Pictures and audio clips of our new ergonomic violas coming soon! : : :


  • Violins
  • violas
  • ergonomic violas
  • cellos
  • special cellos

. . . Standard violins . . .

 

Even though I make mostly mezzo violins now, I still make standard violins for a variety of reasons. There is of course a firm historical precedent for violins on small and large patterns and the different tone colors unique to each, and I like to think that if the distinctly different sizes became available once again, composers might find ways to make new uses of them.

An example of my work pictured here is violin #111, which has an interesting history. It was one of the last two violins begun by my wife, Deena, before she moved away from the craft in the early 1990s. In the mid 2000s a client, who had always wanted a violin by Deena, called to commission one. She was disappointed to learn that Deena was no longer making instruments. Deena remembered the two unfinished violins, the parts for which were stored in a cabinet near the workshop. She suggested, and the client agreed, that I complete one of them for her. I actually completed them both. Number 110 went home with the client, and the other is available for sale.

The instrument is based on a model of Sergio Peresson, and I tuned both free plates using the methods of free-plate tuning and mode-matching I learned from Carleen Hutchins. Several professional violinists who have helped me with adjustments have liked it very much. Although #111 is not a member of the new family, it is clear to me that the application of modern acoustical theory and free-plate tuning brings out the best in members of the old family, too.

The wood used in #111 is quite beautiful, old, and light. There is a unique figure in the one-piece back and pronounced bear claw in the top. Deena patched two small holes in the top caused by sap pockets. One patch is hidden mostly under the fingerboard, and the other is hidden under the chinrest. This violin has many secrets! Deena had started the scroll, so in appearance it is still more hers than mine. She reminds me that I was supposed to use Gaurneri-style f-holes. Ooops.

 

Deena knew the late violin maker Sergio Peresson quite well, and both of her last instruments are built on his models with his frequent suggestions. We had a high regard for the sound of Sergio's violins, two exceptionally fine examples of which were owned by two of our clients when we had a shop near Washington, D.C. I think you will find that #111, one of only two violins Deena and I ever made jointly, measures up.

 

I am always happy to make a new violin to order if nothing in stock meets your requirements. This allows you your choice of wood and fittings in order to make the new instrument yours from the start.

 

. . . Standard Small Violas . . .

 

My typical standard small viola is generally about 16 1/4" in body length (about 412 mm) and adheres to the traditional viola proportions. My most recent models have been designed with the many thoughtful comments of my clients in mind. The shoulders on the instruments tend to be less pronounced than on my earlier violas. Reducing the shoulders is carried to its interesting conclusion in my special viola, which can be seen by clicking the "special viola" tab, above.

I believe these instruments have the fullest and richest sound possible, given their body size, due to the Hutchins method of free-plate tuning that I have used for decades. They are even across all four strings and speak quickly.

Although I have a lot of wood at my disposal for violins and violas, I tend to favor the spruce and maple that I bought from my teacher, Karl Roy, in the early 1980s. Roy cut the wood himself in the Bavarian Alps in the late 1940s and early 1950s when he was still a young man. He intended it to be his lifetime supply. When he was employed by the Bavarian Ministry of Education to teach at the State School for Violin Making, however, the terms of his contract allowed him to make and sell only two private instruments each year. When he realized he would never use all of his wood, he sold a fair amount of it to my wife, Deena, and me. Now it is our lifetime supply, very well-seasoned and prime for use.

Maple from the Mittenwald region is no longer available (it is too scarce to cut) and Alpine spruce is available in very limited amounts. While it is not the most visibly striking wood, it is light in weight, resonant, and has excellent acoustical properties that suit it well for violins and violas. You may specify this wood for your commissioned instrument, if you like.

Another thing I like to do, especially with violas, is to use native American woods. The wood in the picture (right) is highly flamed Bigleaf maple from the Pacific Northwest. A difficult wood that resists the gouge, it will nonetheless reward one's efforts with good-looking and good-sounding instruments.

 

 

 

 

 

. . . 16" (406 mm) Ergonomic Viola . . .

 

A few words of explanation are needed about my special violas. As an octet maker, my first recommendation to a violist struggling with a big instrument is to switch to the alto violin. As much as I hate to say it, this might not be the best choice for some players. One example is the player nearing retirement who might wish to play the last five or six years of his or her professional career on a smaller viola, the person for whom learning new left hand fingerings and right hand bowing techniques for a new instrument is difficult, or for the violinist who doubles on viola and wants a string length as close to the violin as possible. These players need another option.

When I build a conventional or octet violin, my concerns are the geometric outline for typical Cremonese proportional refinement and applying the Hutchins plate-tuning method for the best sound. In the case of the special viola, however, at first as I focused on other objectives. The instrument needed to have a short string length but a body length of at least 16" (406 mm), as I will explain a bit further on. The weight at the scroll had to be kept as light as possible, and the shoulders had to "get out of the way" for ease of playing in fifth position and above.

All of this had to fit within a framework of classical geometric design. It is easy to shorten the string length of a viola by simply shortening the neck, but this results in a disproportioned string length. The string length on viola #116 is proportional in that the player's hand comes to the shoulder where expected, yet it is astonishingly comfortable to play. As one player told me, "It isn't that the shoulders are easy to get around, it's that the shoulders just aren't there."

As a maker, I feel that a 15" (381 mm) viola is really nothing more than a violin with a C-string. However, the string length of a 15" viola is very comfortable to play, especially for the smaller hand. To merge the string length of a 15" viola with the body length of a 16" viola was a challenge, but I think I have succeeded. A 16" (406 mm) viola is about the smallest size I consider suitable for orchestral playing. The smallest special viola, with its compact string proportions and expanded body size, fits the bill. Rib height is a comfortable 37 - 38mm, and the tonal resonances lie in the areas typical for violas in this size range.

I think of the inch between 16" (406 mm) and 17" (432 mm) violas as "the magic inch." That's because as the viola body nears 17", one begins to gain some of the benefits found in the large tenor violas of antiquity. Of course, playing a viola 17" or larger is very difficult for most players, but here an interesting possibility presents itself. If you are presently playing a 17" viola, using a viola made on the same proportional model as the special viola would allow you to drop down to the string length of a 16" viola while keeping the benefits of the larger body size. The effect of a shorter string length and arm reach on one's professional longevity should not be lightly dismissed.

The exercise of designing this instrument did not really bend the geometric rules much, and the basic proportions of the violin body are present. As always, I tuned both free plates using the methods of free-plate tuning and mode-matching I learned from Carleen Hutchins. Although the special viola is not a member of the new family, I can say that the application of modern acoustical theory and free-plate tuning brings out the best in members of the old family, too.

 

. . . Comments . . .

I have long been an admirer of Robert Spear’s work and for over a decade have played exclusively on Spear violas. His latest viola (#116) successfully balances the issues of playability and tone production that are of major concern for violists. Many of us, while seeking a big viola sound, recognize the physical risk involved in playing large instruments. This model combines ease of balance, quick response, and a shorter string length with a remarkable richness of tone and projection. The sound is artistic and complex. It is a delight to play!

Roberta Crawford
Coordinator of Strings, Binghamton University
Associate Director, Finger Lakes Chamber Ensemble

. . . . .

I had a lot of fun playing the new instrument (#116).  First of all, it's SO easy!  I've never picked up a viola before and been able to play in tune so easily--especially double stops, which are a breeze (why is that?). With my Caressa bow, which I haven't used for 10 years or more, the sound became more focused and clear. It really makes the C and the A sound quite special.  I've never played violin, but with this instrument I feel like I would have the mobility and flexibility to play like a violinist.  It is SO easy to hold.  (I'm not having any trouble at all with 1/2 position, either--much easier than my regular viola).

Melissa Stuckey, professional violist

. . . . .

On a recent visit to Bob Spear's magic workshop, I had the pleasure of trying out his new design for a viola (#116) on which the shoulders have a steeper slope. The immediate effect of this was to make the higher positions more readily accessible. I could easily imagine a LOT of violists liking this. I've tried other violas on which similar experiments have been tried. The problem with them is that the luthiers did not seem to have a firm grasp on precisely what needs to be altered elsewhere on the instrument to adjust for changing the shape of the shoulders. Apparently Bob has figured this out. I felt like I was holding something quietly radical in my hands.

Clifford S. Young, Princeton Symphony
Former Principal, Philadelphia Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra
Former Principal, Opera Gezelschap Forum

. . . Cellos . . .

 

I'm a bit unusual for a maker in that I have made as many cellos as I have violins. Perhaps for that reason I also have the fewest pictures of cellos. I've always enjoyed making the larger instruments, and working at greater scale in many ways sharpens one's eyes for small detail. I built my first two cellos on a relatively small Montagnana model, after which I scaled it up to a body length of approximately 750 mm, which is the standard established by the Stradivari "Forma B."

Except for some refinements to the corners that I made a few years ago, this is the model I still make today. It is a very successful design, and it has found favor with such clients as Mstislav Rostropovich (deceased), the great 20th-century cello virtuoso;, John Martin (deceased), former principal cellist of the National Symphony; and Charles Forbes, founder of the New York Camerata. Some are in the hands of lesser-known but equally hard-working cellists, and I take as much delight in these clients as any others.

The pictures in this tab are of a cello I made for Dr. Sera Smolen in 1992. She honored me with the sacrifices she made to own this cello. It is a "middle-period" cello, and many say it is one of my nicest. Photographer Lee A. Melen made a wonderful series of photographs in 1993 when this cello was just one year old, and I've included one on this page. It is a scan of a print copy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My acoustics teacher, the late Dr. Carleen Hutchins, willed me the parts for four cellos that she had not completed before she stopped working. Three of these are slightly smaller than the standard B-form cellos and might be considered 7/8 size cellos, although they are actually just a bit larger. They are on models of Stradivari and others. Since the necks are not set, the string lengths can be scaled accordingly for the player who wants a smaller intrument or who has a smaller hand.

 


 

How to Order My Handmade
Instruments

Instruments are built to order and placed in the queue upon receipt of a mutually negotiated deposit. Current wait time for a handmade instrument is approximately one year.

Prices

standard violin
$10,000 - $14,000

small viola
$12,000 - $16,000

medium viola
$13,000 - $17,000

large viola
$14,000 - $18,000

imported ergonomic violas
$3200 - $3600

cello
$32,000 - $36,000

Audio Clips

Ergonomic Viola 406 mm


Allemande from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G major played by Carrie Reuning Hummel.

Standard Viola 412 mm

Courante from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G major played by Carrie Reuning Hummel.

Further Information

I am always open to suggestions about your particular needs. Please contact me by email if you are interested in further discussions about my instruments or would like to tell me about your special requirements.