Peter Moes (rhymes with shoes) is the son of Moritz Moes from Amsterdam, Holland and Inge Baerthlein from Wuerzburg, Germany. He was born in 1946 in Seeshaupt, Bavaria. After studies at the Technical University of Munich he entered violin making school in spring of 1972.
Wendela Moes, born Wendela Taylor, was the 4th of 5 children in an academic family in Boston, Massachusetts. She entered violin making school in the fall 1971 after her studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Wendela and Peter Moes met and married while attending the Violin Making School in Mittenwald, Germany and received journeyman’s diplomas after the 3½ year program in 1975. After graduation they worked for Hans Weisshaar in Los Angeles where they gained expertise in instrument restoration and repair. In 1978 they moved to England and went into partnership with a London dealer. After the birth of their first child this partnership was dissolved in October 1981. They then moved to New York City to open their own violin shop, MOES & MOES Ltd., at 225 W. 57th St, within view of Carnegie Hall. They were to remain working in New York City for 10 years
In addition to repairs, restoration and sales of fine old instruments, the Moes’s always specialized in making new instruments that are now played by orchestral and solo musicians around the world. Among those are Yo-Yo Ma and Hilary Hahn (see Moes Owners Club). They received a gold medal for the cello they entered in the International Violin Making Competition of the Violin Society of America in 1984. Wendela received a further award for a violin she entered in the 1984 competition of The American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. The violin was on display at Lincoln Center for the Arts for several months.
Why They Left New York City
(not required reading, but many people do ask)
The shop in New York City flourished, but ironically, its success also made it difficult to continue. Jacques Francais who visited shortly after their arrival in NYC, said “You can’t run a shop and do the violin work in it.” He turned out to be right. With a steady stream of musicians in the door, it became increasingly difficult to work at the bench. At first employees were hired to take care of much of the routine work and Wendela & Peter worked on the special projects. Their reputation for being able to “fix things no one else could” also became a problem because they got many of those jobs. Difficult jobs can take 10 times longer to fix, but they could not charge 10 times as much for the work. At the same time, customer service and running the shop began to monopolize their time.
Things came to a head when their landlord began an extortion scheme charging all the tenants of the building real estate taxes for two other much larger buildings as well. The landlord did not back down even when presented with hard evidence. They returned the rent payments the Moes’s sent without the bogus real estate taxes which were then $17,000 due within 10 days and increasing every year exponentially. They started eviction proceedings. After filing a class action suit against the landlord, Peter and Wendela did some soul searching. They decided that working at the bench was their strength and that they had little talent for the stressful organizational administrative duties associated with running a full service violin shop. Eventually they settled with the landlord and moved the workshop to their West 93rd Street apartment. They reduced the services to repairs, restoration and new instruments—no strings or appraisals etc. giving them time for the work that was their passion. Shortly thereafter in 1991 a search for special schooling for their very dyslexic daughter took them to Boston for two years and then back in the New York area to Stamford, Connecticut until July 2004.
Please contact us if you would like to make an appointment.
Peter and Wendela are presently elected full members of:
L’Entente International des Maitres Luthiers et Archetiers D’Art
American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers
Verband Deutsche Geigenbauer
About our instruments
We strive to produce a balanced, rich and focused sound -- a broad palette of possibilities with a very quick response -- to enable the player to easily reach his own sound ideal.
Our instruments are original models designed with our own methods to achieve the particular sound and playability we are seeking. Even with their classical dimensions and proportions, they are easily recognizable by our models, workmanship and varnish just as all the early makers were.
Since the early 1980’s our instruments have all been made from 200-300 year old spruce taken from centuries old farm houses in the Alps of Northern Italy. We feel there is a special quality in the sound of this old wood that we could not get with regular spruce. Wood changes in stiffness and other acoustical qualities quite a bit during the first hundred years as it ages making life difficult for violin makers. The old spruce has stabilized enabling us to get a predictable sound quality.
Back in the old days, people in the mountains knew when to cut wood. They cut the wood for their houses themselves at exactly the right time with the sap completely out, preventing warping and making the wood difficult to burn. This happens to be perfect for musical instruments too. Nowadays tone wood is cut year around and there is no way of telling how much sap was left in the wood.
Our varnish matures and wears in just a couple years to achieve the burnished look of a fine instrument without any phony antiquing on our part. Every instrument looks unique with the individual wear of its owner.
There is no risk in ordering a Moes instrument, we do not want anyone to have an instrument they do not enjoy playing.
Instrument making flourished until about the 19th century. Around that time many makers decided they could only make a good new instrument by copying an old one. The very makers they were and are copying did not work that way. As the early makers gained insight and experience they changed their models and methods always hunting for their own perfect sound and look.
Copyists are literally painting by numbers, putting their attention in exactly the wrong direction and creating stiff soulless versions of previous maker’s work. The monetary value of the old master instruments goes far beyond their value as a playing tool, it comes from the original artistic expression from the heart and soul of the maker. Copies express neither the heart and soul of the original nor that of the copyist. They are somehow dead. Furthermore, the fallacy in thinking, “if it looks like a Stradivarius it might sound like one”, has been proved over and over. The sound of copies is never in the same class as the instruments they are copying, nor do copies have a voice of their own.
Copies of instruments, or anything else, never have and never will have any lasting intrinsic value. How would we feel about Stradivari’s instruments if he had continued to make Amatis? What if Guarneri had copied Stradivari?
We began our careers in restoration of the best old instruments starting at Hans Weisshaar’s shop in Los Angeles and continuing in London and in our own shop on W. 57th St in New York City. Although we have not found many photos yet, here is a start.
Our ideal in restoration has always been to make even the worst damage look and sound as if nothing had ever happened.
Quite a number of years ago musician parents asked us if we could find something better than the usual instruments available to rent. That was the beginning of the Moes & Moes Rental Program.
We select instruments that we can modify if need be to get a very good sound and easy response. Every instrument gets a professional set-up from us personally. That means doing the fingerboard and nut, cutting a bridge and adjusting the sound post.
Teachers & Parents Love Our Instruments!
These instruments are easy and rewarding to play allowing students of all ages to progress as swiftly as possible with their music studies.
Our rental agreement guarantees the price for the year,
but can be cancelled at any time.
Students can trade up in size at any time by simply switching instruments.
Call or E-mail us for availability and prices.
Violin Sizes: 1/16 --- 4/4
Viola Sizes: ¾, 14” --- 16 1/2 “
Cellos: All sizes (no cellos available at the moment in the USA)
We sell cellos rather than rent them, but buy them back when they are returned in good shape.
Violin makers Wendy and Peter Moes are known for their individual style.
Steve Collins finds out their secret
Wendy and Peter Moes, the Connecticut-based violin makers, are among the most highly acclaimed of today's stringed instrument makers. Formally trained in Europe and the US, this husband and wife team shares a unique philosophy of instrument making that stresses originality in both design and tonal characteristics.
The Moeses met at the State Violin Making School in Mittenwald, Germany, in 1972 and began their collaboration as violin makers upon graduation in 1975. Wendy arrived at Mittenwald after studying humanities and music at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While she was there she worked part time for a local violin maker, rehairing bows. After college, she served an informal internship at the Wurlitzer shop in New York City under the tutelage of Fernando Sacconi and Hans Nebel, where her potential was quickly recognized and Sacconi and Nebel encouraged her to apply to Mittenwald for a formal training.
Peter's interest in music developed out of hearing his father play the cello. Despite a serious interest in the instrument, Peter studied mechanical engineering at the Technische Universitat in Munich and sought entry to Mittenwald after graduation. Both received excellent training at Mittenwald; Peter worked principally with Karl Roy (later head of the school), while Wendy's teacher was Alois Hornsteiner.
After completing their studies, the Moeses decided to head for the US and seek work at one of the major violin shops. This would enable them to improve their knowledge of the old master violins and to gain more experience in making tonal adjustments, simple repairs and more complex restoration work. Even students who do not want to pursue these areas recognize that the experience provides insights that are beneficial to their work in making new instruments.
The Moeses wrote to several big violin shops in the US and were accepted by Los Angeles-based Hans Weisshaar, who was particularly noted for his expertise in restoration. They stayed with him for three years and sneak highly of his knowledge. skills and sincere interest in helping young violin makers develop. Wendy recalls that Weisshaar was very fond of teaching. 'He once took a group of us aside and demonstrated how to do a neck graft, which he finished in about half an hour; he took all of the mystery out of this difficult job.' After leaving Weisshaar, the Moes returned to Europe. They worked for a short time in Germany and then travelled to Italy, where they hoped to find an old stone farm house and settle into idyllic lives as violin makers. While looking around the Italian countryside, they realized the impracticality of making such an early retreat from the musical scene. They decided instead to settle in London and establish a partnership with Peter Biddulph, the violin dealer whom they had met briefly in Los Angeles.
In time all parties realized that this arrangement was not working and the Moeses left London to open a shop of their own in New York City. In 1981 they set up their business on 91st Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side and four years later they took a dramatic step and sought a more high-profile address, moving to a second-story shop at 225 West 57th Street, not far from Carnegie Hall.
Well trained, strategically situated and welcomed into the trade by its leading memIJers (both are members of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers and L'Entente Internationale des Maitres Luthiers et Archetieres d'Art), one would expect them to have been more than satisfied with the prospects of a successful ti~ture. But with scores of musicians calling for appointments for adjustments and repairs and multitudes arriving at their door to buy strings, cakes of rosin and accessories, they soon realized that they were doing less instrument making and restoration and more administration. UltimatelY the obligatory socializing with clients left them with little time for hands-on work, which was instead being relegated to their assistants (though the making of new instruments has never involved the use of assistants). Within a few years, devotion to the craft of violin making led them to close down the shop and to retreat to their apartment on West 93rd Street where they focused their efforts almost entirely on fulfilling contracts for new instruments, taking on a few interesting restoration projects and sharply limiting visitations from clientele. This proved a happy solution professionally, as well as personally, as they were better able to attend to the needs of their two young daughters.
In 1991 the constraints of apartment and city living led the Moeses to leave New York City for Concord, Massachusetts and finally to a spacious stone house set in the woods outside of Stamford, Connecticut. It would seem that the idyllic setting that they had searched for in Italy 20 years earlier has finally been found, and now with their reputations firmly established and their house only an hour's train ride from Manhattan, they are better positioned to interact with their clients yet able to keep the distractions at bay Far from rechlsive, one or both of them make at least one trip into New York each week to minister to the needs of musicians or to attend concerts.
A popular trend in recent years has been the making of copies, replete with the most meticulous replication of wear, marks and bruises. The Moeses are adamantly opposed to the approach of copying, which they feel is artistically bankrupt. 'The last way to reproduce the tonal qualities of an instrument is to copy its dimensions, archings and graduations down to the smallest fraction of a millimetre,' says Peter. 'In fact, that is the best way to make an instrument that sounds totally different from the original, for that kind of making does not take into account the individual quality of the wood. The ability to create an instrument that produces a certain type of sound comes from within the maker.
The maker must have a concept of sound in his mind and a feel for wood and for shaping it that is partly instinctive and partly the result of experience. At first, you have to make a few ugly violins by experimenting one at a time to figure out how the instrument works.
'Working wood is like being a nutshell on top of a waterfall. As the water changes its course, the nutshell must follow. In making a violin, you constantly have to negotiate with the wood. Violin making is like white-water rafting. In copying, you never find out what is going on - there are too many variables that are out of your control.'
'Being a copyist is like being an actor,' continues Wendy. 'If you copy all the time you never develop your personality as a maker. The making of exact replicas that have the appearance of ago is like a parlour trick. It is very clever and impressive but there is no substance to it. I sometimes ask myself why anyone would want to become a violin maker today. In practically any other field it is possible to attain excellence. One can be a great musician, artist, doctor or investment banker but the notion of greatness in violin making is restricted to makers of the past. This attitude that nothing can ever equal a Strad or a Guarneri has had a devastating effect on violin making. Once you arrive at that realisation, a maker winds up mainly copying the work of either Stradivari or Guarneri. If Stradivari had slavishly copied the work of the greatest master of his day, Nicolo Amati, we would never have had the benefit of his genius and where would we be if "del Gesu" had copied Stradivari'?
It is because these makers struck out on their own and succeeded that the world cherishes their instruments. Violin making has stagnated for centuries because of this reliance on copying. Copying is like painting by numbers.
Nor are the Moeses necessarily interested in making instruments that produce the type of sound associated with many old instruments. 'A lot of people never question the idea that Strads and Guarneris are the best,' says Wendy. 'There must be more than two ways to make a violin and we are looking for another way.'
'There is a sound we are after,' continues Peter. 'We want a different sound in our cellos than achieved by Strad; it may sound arrogant but we are not interested in his cello sound. Many Strad cellos do not have a strong C-string. This is very important for chamber music and for that reason many Strads are not successful for that repertoire. Soloists in particular need a good A-string. We want to make cellos with a strong bass and a clear treble that speaks well. This is hard to achieve, but we are well on our way.
'We like the freedom to make instruments that sound the way we want,' says Wendy. 'It is important to recognize that taste in sound has changed over the centuries. In the Baroque era people used gut strings and most instruments were heavier in wood so their sound was much brighter. They undoubtedly preferred that bright sound. Today people are very interested in dark sounds and many old instruments have been altered to reflect this change in taste. We have the opportunity to make instruments that reflect the variety of musical needs of today's players. We can design instruments that can fill a great hall with sound, if that is what is needed, but that may not have been a requirement back in the 17th and 18th centuries. We are going after a very filled-out sound, but with an edge.' Peter continues: 'in terms of responsiveness, an instrument should work without a fight. If you have to work too hard to get the sound you want, you have no energy left for the music.'
Though they eschew copying, they too had to start somewhere. 'For our cellos', says Peter, 'we began with a Montagnana outline that was about two centimeters shorter than a typical Stradivari cello, but much wider. The original was so wide that it required a very steep string angle for bow clearance. This created a lot of difficulties and limitations in adjusting the sound because of the bridge height, so we reduced the width of our model, which gave us more control. Though we at first used the f-hole outline of the Montagnana, the purfling and edgework were of our own design.'
The Moeses divide up those aspects of the work that lend visual character to their instruments. Wendy works on the scrolls and purfling while Peter cuts the f-holes, does the edgework and attends to the varnishing This lends a consistency of style to their instruments. Other chores are shared evenly, the instrument being passed back and forth between them. 'That way we have a series of checks and balances on the way it is turning out,' says Peter. Being of one mind when it comes to stylistic matters leads to few disputes and an instrument whose design features are well integrated. Though some machinery is employed (for example, the purfling channel is cut with a specially adapted router), they avoid the machine-made look which can be achieved whether machines are used or not.
The Moeses consider a musicians role to be an important part of violin making. 'We like to get to know a musician and find out what they want,' says Wendy. 'One of the problems in making an instrument for a player is that when they pick up a new instrument (to them), they are still trying to play the one they are familiar with. They continue to compensate for weaknesses or inequalities even though the new instrument may not have them. It takes some time for a musician to get to know an instrument and adjust his or her playing to bring out its best.'
Peter feels they have sufficient control in making their instruments so that they can tailor them to the player. 'If you make every instrument the same, using one pattern and with the same graduations, they would surely come out sounding differently. Some makers are fatalistic - they let their instruments turn out the way they turn out. If I did not feel I had some control over the end product, I would give up. I want to influence the way they sound and respond.'
One of the factors that provides some predictability for the Moeses is their wood. The spruce wood that they have been using for many years comes from panelling taken from several old Tyrolean houses.
‘Unfortunately, it has a lot of knots, many nail holes and worm damage that we have to avoid and work around,’ Peter remarks. ‘Because the old timbers from this house were not originally cut the way violin wood is prepared, we do not have wide planks to work from and we must piece together our tops from narrower boards. This is a lot of extra work, though we feel it is worth the extra effort because of the particularly fine tonal characteristics of the wood. We have a lot of this material -- enough for many instruments -- and because we have worked with it for so many years, we know its properties and how it works acoustically. This gives us extra control over the tonal quality of our instruments.
The Moeses’ varnish, like the planked tops and inevitable knots, is also a readily identifiable trait of their instruments. It is a rich deep reddish varnish, with great clarity. The craquelure, often approaching alligatoring, is an intentional feature that develops in the drying process, though it is, in part, controlled by the application. The craquelure, they feel, breaks down the varnish layer so that it does not ‘straightjacket’ the instrument, thereby restricting tonal production. The precise formula of their varnish is a trade secret, but they admit it is not a drying-oil varnish, which they believe becomes too hard with time and has a deleterious effect on sound. Peter characterizes such varnishes as ‘bulletproof – horrible – like some old waterproof coach varnish. It is totally inappropriate for an instrument. We have experimented with adding various percentages of drying oil to our varnish but we were not happy with the effect. It chipped off in a way that one never sees in an old instrument and was very unattractive.’ ‘While not a spirit varnish, as such, our varnish is alcohol sensitive,’ Wendy admits. ‘Shellac is often a major component of spirit varnish and it is much too hard.’ ‘And spirit varnishes are very difficult to apply over large surfaces because they dry too fast and you cannot go over them,’ adds Peter.
Varnish making takes place in a small room off of the main woodworking room of their shop and is the subject of never-ending experimentation. Various resins are prepared by heating in laboratory glassware and the inimitable colour of their varnish is carefully developed. Colouring matter is added to alter the hue and intensity (the only clue given here by Wendy is that just about everything that goes into the varnish is edible). Another small room is fitted out with banks of ultraviolet lamps, which are used for sunning the wood prior to varnishing and also for controlling the drying of the varnish. Sitting in the shop and receiving final touches prior to varnishing is a cello that had been ordered a number of years ago by the cellist Donald McCall. ‘Waiting time for an instrument has quite a bit since we gave up our shop in New York,’ says Wendy. ‘It used to be about four years but now we are able to get to new orders in about 18 months. We don’t have a rigid waiting list. Some of the better-established players with good instruments are in less of a rush and this enables us to move more quickly to meet the needs of players who are in desperate need of a good instrument, or musicians with tendonitis who are struggling with an instrument that is very hard to play. We try to get instruments to those clients as quickly as we can and we are thankful to those customers who are patient.’
Peter Wiley of the Beaux Arts Trio came upon his cello quite suddenly, though. He had brought his Testore to the Moeses for an adjustment and happened to try an instrument of theirs that was sitting around the shop. The instrument wasn’t fully varnished but he liked it so much he insisted upon having it. When he joined the Beaux Arts Trio, the Moeses we afraid that Menachem Pressler was going to object to this bold new instrument and make him get another cello’, says Wendy, ‘but nothing was ever said and he has been using it for most of his concert work and recordings ever since.’
The Moeses must be proud of their achievements, for their instruments have been selected by orchestral players, chamber musicians and soloists all over the world and by some who have put fine old instruments aside. Yo-Yo Ma has ordered an instrument, though only time will tell whether he will retire the ‘Davidoff’ Stradivari or Montagnana cellos in preference of his Moes & Moes.
Looking For Your Next Instrument
By Wendela Moes
"As long as you have done your preparation and know what you like, you can follow your own taste and instincts and automatically end up with what's best for you."
Almost everyone who has looked for a new instrument will tell you that it is a nerve racking, exasperating, exhausting, time consuming task. But, with a little preparation, you can have the confidence and knowledge to make the job interesting, pleasurable, and ultimately rewarding.
Before you waste time and money going around looking for instruments, play every instrument you can get your hands on from friends, teachers, and stand partners. Play every instrument at length for-hours, not minutes.
Instruments come in all different materials and builds, and they will make subtle, or even drastic, demands on your technique before you get the best sound. Chances are great that the technique you use on your present instrument won't be an instant success on others. This does not make them bad instruments. Try changing the bow speed, pressure, and sounding points. Be able to play on different kinds of strings. After doing this for a while, you will get used to changing instruments and finding out how each responds. Discuss the pros and cons of each with their owners and anyone else who cares to take part. This is very good for opening your eyes and ears, and will help you develop a definite opinion of what good sound is and what suits you best. Unless you know this, you don't really need to change instruments. Then, with new ears and playing ability, you can start looking for an instrument. It is sad to see how many people looking for a better instrument merely end up with a louder version of what they already have.
But first, check your financial situation. You need to know your available funds. Promises need to be nailed down, otherwise you may get all excited about an instrument only to find out that a promised loan is not forthcoming. Don't count on tradeins. With the high price of instruments, more and more instruments are sold on a consignment basis. The previous owner usually does not want an instrument; he or she wants to be paid. Dealers are not able to buy back all these instruments at nearretail prices.
Try all instruments up to your dollar ceiling. There is no use in going beyond that; it only makes you discontented with what you can afford. Make sure you bring your own bow (BYOB), so that you are not dealing with a second big variable. This is very important. If you are considering an instrument and bow, look for an instrument first. It is easier to find a bow to match your instrument than an instrument to match your bow.
Once you have found an instrument you like, here are a few things not to do:
Don't bring it to another dealer and ask his or her opinion. If this is hard to understand, imagine this scenario: You are a freelance musician in New York City with lots of bills but rather irregular work. Jobs are few and far between. An agent calls you up and asks you to recommend a rival for a job you could be doing and badly need. How do you feel ? What are you going to say? A lot of people would have trouble with that, and this is analogous to what you would be asking the dealer to do.
Don't ask other people to play it for you. Everybody has a different sound. You won't be learning what your instrument sounds like when you play it. This is a problem solvable by asking people to listen only.
Don't take other people's opinions more seriously than you take your own. No one is more interested in your well-being than you. There is only one person who is going to play this instrument- you. By this time you should know what you like. If you can't tell the difference between two instruments, then for you there is no difference; neither one is better. Another person will have different tastes and may prefer one or the other. These other opinions will only be confusing and can spoil your fun. People come to us all the time, saying: "I like this violin, but dealer X said such and such and dealer Y said something else. My teacher doesn't like it. I just don't know who to trust." Our answer to this is to say that the only person you need to trust is yourself. As long as you have done your preparation and know what you like, you can follow your own taste and instincts and will automatically end up with what is best for you.
Although I am writing about how, not where, to look for an instrument, it pays to know your options:
Dealers with repair workshops.
Dealers without repair workshops. (Sometimes called "wheeler dealers.")
Player/teacher dealers. (Yes, they are dealers, too.)
Private individuals making a one-time sale.
Some myths are worth mentioning here. The dealers with workshops are not necessarily the most expensive. They also generally give their owners priority repair service, and maintain high standards of repair quality. They have a lot at stake if you as a customer are unhappy.
Dealers without shops, including player/teachers, are often thought to be "bargain" sources because of low overhead. This "ain't necessarily so." Their prices are usually comparable. People who sell things for a living have a way of knowing the market and if they stray a whole lot, there is a reason. They also know less about repairs and can be overly optimistic about condition and, therefore, price.
The auction houses have invested heavily in the last ten years in encouraging private people to buy at auction along with the dealers who have been their traditional customers. But their viewing procedures-which were geared to dealers, not players-haven't essentially changed.
This means it's next to impossible at an auction to put into practice much of the advice I offered earlier. Hoping for bargains, people are willing to put up with poor viewing times and lighting. Some instruments aren't playable at all, and none can be taken out and played in halls, shown to friends, or played in a trial concert. Repairs and wrong parts aren't generally mentioned in catalogues. One has no control over the time of sale or price, which often has more to do with politics and the mood of the other bidders than actual values of the instruments. Prices can just as easily be too high as too low. Again, if the price is low, there is often a reason. Bidding goes on in a very charged and competitive atmosphere conducive to overbidding. Nobody would tolerate this treatment from a dealer.
Private owners with a onetime sale usually have little knowledge or authenticity. Sometimes their instruments are genuine and in good condition, sometimes not. The prices are often set by the last insurance appraisal, or the owners have consulted someone. Occasionally there are good buys to be had. But would you sleep well, having paid a little old lady half, or less, the market value for her late husband's Guadagnini?
I have left for last the two thorny questions of authenticity and investment value. It is true that the identity of the actual maker of an instrument is sometimes a matter of opinion. Since it won't help to show instruments to other dealers, the only solution we know is to buy from someone whose opinion you respect, or to buy an instrument with a genuine and respected certificate. Buying from an established dealer is another safeguard. In this case, you have legal recourse if the instrument is not what it is supposed to be.
Although an instrument can be seen as an investment by the professional musician, it is really a tool. It should be in sufficiently good condition to be reliable and give you the best sound and playability you can find within the limits of your finances. If these requirements are met, the instrument should not be difficult to resell at its market value. To buy a bigname instrument is not a guaranteed good investment. You pay a premium for the name, while the work of a less well known maker may give you more instrument for the money. It is important, also, not to spend more than you comfortably can. Possessing even the finest instrument won't compensate for a life of financial struggle.
STRINGS, (www.stringsmagazine.com) the quarterly magazine in which this article originally appeared, "one can't imagine a better written, more authoritative magazine than this for the stringed instrument enthusiast," in the words of Library Journal.
Copyright by "Strings Magazine"
How to Look for and Evaluate the Work of Today's Instrument Makers
By Wendela Moes
Why are new instruments drawing so much attention? Perhaps people are making better ones. Or perhaps the world's stringplaying population is outgrowing its supply of ablebodied old instruments. Or the prices of these antiques are getting too high. Or all of the above. Whatever the reasons, the stigma that once attached to a brandnew stringed instrument seems to be less and less evident. Today, renowned players are recognizing the worthiness of new instruments and using them proudly in public.
This recognition encourages violin makers to invest their time and talents in making instruments to an extent never before possible. Many of these makers have backgrounds in repair and setup. With extensive knowledge of the classical maker's methods, successes, and failures, they are equipped to make real advances in both the quality of sound and appearance of new instruments.
A common mistake is to assume that any old instrument is better than any new one. People come to us often and say, "I already have a new violin." (As if they were all the same.) "I am looking for something better now." (An old one.) Some people think that anything Italian is better than anything that is not. This is certainly not true with modern instruments; there are good contemporary makers all over the world. The very best old instruments can beat the new ones, but there is a lot of middle ground. Unless the status of an expensive old instrument is absolutely vital to your career, you may well consider a new instrument. It could have the sound and playability you are looking for. The lack of interest in new instruments on the part of dealers, though unnerving, probably has more to do with low profit margins than low quality of sound. When a maker sells an instrument, dealers are not usually involved-a good reason for their lack of enthusiasm. New makers have a distinct advantage over the classical makers: They can build for today's players and today's halls, both enormously changed in the last 50100 years. When players want more focus, quicker response, and a fuller bass sound, they can ask that such qualities be built into their instruments In posing such challenges, they set the stage for creativity and ingenuity on the part of makers. Both players and makers then enjoy a sense of collaboration and of taking a meaningful role in the evolution of instrument playing.
You may not intend to alter the course of musical history when looking for an instrument, but there are several reasons why you ought to consider a new one the next time you do look. By discussing some of the factors that enter into such a decision, my aim is to help you become a free agent in this process. You can then make your own decisions and be confident of them.
When looking at new instruments, you will probably find them falling into one of three categories: copy, model, or original. A copy is meant to look exactly like an old instrument-often like a specific old instrument, such as the Stradivari "Messiah." Copies are given scratches, dirt, wear, and sometimes even cracks to make them appear old. To look more authentic they are usually built to the exact dimension of the original. Undoubtedly some copies were made to be deceptions, but many makers build copies as study projects-the best way to learn another maker's style is to try to copy it. Players order copies for various reasons. Maybe they are ashamed to be seen (but not heard) playing a new instrument, or they want an instrument that looks just like the one they already have. Some people simply prefer the look of an old instrument.
A model is a violin modeled after a specific maker's violins, or after one in particular. A Stradivari model, for example, would have either an exact or a stylized Stradivari outline, fholes, and scroll. It may or may not stick to Stradivari's dimensions. Some people who make Stradivari models follow Stradivarilike workmanship very closely; others use the outline and/or proportions as a foundation and allow their own ideas to take over from there. Such an instrument is a kind of "variations on a theme by . . . " and is on the way to becoming an original work.
An original is a model designed by the maker himself (or herself), not borrowed from a previous maker. It will have his or her own outline, proportions, fhole style, and scroll. Many makers begin by modeling their instruments after those of their teachers; they become more and more original (if they ever are going to) only as their careers progress. Stradivari, for example, began by using a model based on Nicolo Amati's violins (during his socalled "Amatise period"). Later he began to make his violins wider in the middle bouts, quite possibly for acoustic reasons; in doing so he straightened the bouts, tightening the curves at their tops and bottoms. Thus his model looked different from Amati's, and so his originality progressed. Because originals often seem to evolve rather than come about by spontaneous generation, it is hard to draw an exact line between originals and models.
When looking for any instrument, the biggest considerations are authenticity, condition, sound quality, and appearance. The harrowing thing about the first two is that both are matters of opinion, and worse yet, usually someone else's opinion. Since violin dealers seem to make a sport of disagreeing with one another, the musician looking for an instrument can be left in a miserable nervous quandary.
One of the biggest differences between looking for an antique instrument and a modern one is that both is that authenticity and condition are both givens in the latter case. The nervousness and resentment that can grow out of the necessity of relying on other people's sometimes fickle opinions is gone. To many people there is also something special about the experience of ordering a new instrument, seeing the rough wood (sometimes even getting to choose it), and watching the instrument grow. This certainly matches the excitement of owning an instrument that has had many experiences you have not shared.
Sound quality is still the major factor in choosing an instrument, new or old. So a little preparation is necessary in order to learn what sound you like best. Before you spend time and money going around looking for instruments, play every instrument you can get your hands on, borrowing them from friends, teachers, and stand partners. Play every instrument at length-for hours, not just minutes. Instruments vary in material and build, and each will make subtle, or even drastic, demands on your technique before you get the best sound. Chances are great that the technique you use on your present instrument won't be an instant success on others. This does not make them bad instruments. Try changing the bow speed, pressure, and sounding points. Be able to play on different kinds of strings. After doing this for a while, you will get used to changing instruments and finding out how each responds. Discuss the pros and cons of each with their owners and anyone else who cares to take part. This is very good for opening your eyes and ears, and it will help you develop a definite opinion of what good sound is and what suits you best. Then, with new ears and playing ability, you can start looking for an instrument of your own.
This vital knowledge applies to new and old instruments alike. With new instruments, one question that often arises is whether the sound will change. This is an ageold problem with improperly built instruments, and it deserves some demystification. Everybody knows a young branch will bend and an old one will snap. This stiffening process goes on long after the tree has been cut. A stiff piece of wood vibrates differently than a flexible one, resulting in a higher and more complete overtone series. We can't hear all the overtones, but we perceive the sound to be more full and pleasant. This means a well-made instrument will improve with age as it stiffens, but it should sound good to begin with. A badsounding instrument will not necessarily get better and could get worse.
Proper arching and graduations are also necessary in any instrument. An instrument built to be too thick or strong will gradually become too stiff to vibrate freely. Be cautious about an instrument that feels heavy, and of sound quality that is quite good on the top string but fades toward the bottom string. The lower register requires more flexibility and suffers first when the instrument begins to stiffen.
Another factor that can cause New Instrument Syndrome ("It sounded great to begin with, but now . . . ") is improper varnish application. Watch out for thick varnish and varnish that soaks into the wood. This is often the case when the wood looks stained and the grain is reversed. These instruments can sound fine for a while, until the varnish begins to harden and hamper the vibrations. A knowledgeable maker can avoid these problems. The violin maker, like a painter, must know his or her materials, how they age, and how they affect each other.
If you have a particular maker in mind, play as many of his or her already existing instruments as possible. Play those that are as old as possible to see and hear what age does to them. Discuss sound and changes, if any, with the present owner. There are also a few further considerations. When you find a maker whose instruments you like, consider whether he or she is easily accessible. This is important because a new instrument, like a new car, needs extra service for the first year or so. After vibrating and being under tension for a while it can settle, as do older instruments that have been opened for repair work. This settling usually takes the form of soundpost tension and changes in the neck angle. Be prepared to make several trips to the instrument's maker during that first year. If settling problems go unadjusted, the instrument could appear to change or lose some of its sound quality, causing the owner to worry that it is afflicted with the dreaded New Instrument Syndrome.
Is the maker you have chosen also knowledgeable about setup and sound adjustment? Is he or she able to perform necessary bridge and soundpost adjustments? A maker is ultimately responsible for keeping his or her instrument in tiptop playing shape; only if you live too far away should you need to go anywhere else for help. This crucial ability of the maker's usually comes from years of repair work or direct work with players in fulfilling their setup requests. Makers should welcome feedback and the chance to monitor their instruments' progress, and players welcome a truly caring service.
It very often happens that players with new instruments from other makers come to us for adjustments, saying, "He makes fine instruments, but he cannot adjust for beans." Some players and makers are almost proud of this, as if it proves the makers are artists and not mere mechanics. To us, it means the maker doesn't have a full understanding of how instruments work. Violins, unlike art, must not only look appealing, but they must also function very precisely. Understanding how they work and how to make them work- and there is a lot that can be understood- is absolutely essential and comes before artistry. The maker's artistic merit will show up automatically in the amount of personality and character he or she puts into the work, not in how well he or she can copy a modernday conception of a Stradivari, nor in machineage ideals of symmetry and workmanship.
Until recently, a great number of musicians were reluctant to play any instrument that looked new. But that prejudice is rapidly disappearing. The instruments of Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri were all once new. They looked it, and they looked great-fit for kings. They were not antiqued. It is not the newness of some modern instruments that makes them unsightly, and it is not the age alone of old instruments that lends them their charm. The charm was there to begin with in the character of the work and the varnish, and it should be there in new instruments too.
Audiences, by the way, are notoriously unable to hear the difference between old and new instruments. Any soloist who owns a new instrument-and there are many now who do-can tell stories by the dozen of greenroom compliments on the Stradivari or Guarneri, when the performer had actually played the new one that night. The best instrument is the one that performs and handles best for the player, not the one with the biggest price tag or the most venerable reputation. When you next look for an instrument, keep that fact in mind. You may end up living happily ever after with something brand new.