The Violin Society of America
I just attended the 44th annual conference of the The Violin Society of America. The VSA is the world’s largest violin maker’s group and in my mind the most useful resource available to members of the trade. Over the years the VSA has become an umbrella for other violin making groups, it has absorbed the venerable Cat gut Acoustical Society, a band of the sharpest and most dedicated researchers into violin acoustics, the VSA now collects and distributes their publications. The VSA also now administers the Oberlin Violinmakers Workshop which is basically violinmakers summer camp, with workshops in violinmaking, restoration and acoustics. These workshops, with their emphasis on openness, mutual teaching and information sharing have been the biggest factor in raising the standards of modern violin making. This was about sixth conference that I have attended, I go every second year when they hold their violin making competition. The competition, in my mind at least, is the event around which everything coalesces.
An exhibition put together by Bruno Price and friends provided a rare opportunity to compare a number of fine classic period Italian violins. We were reminded of greater diversity of successful instruments in the earlier days.
One of the things that I enjoy about the VSA Conference is that it is open to anybody willing to pay the VSA membership fee. As a result of this open door policy you can meet anyone from the top, seasoned professional violin makers to the newest, enthusiastic amateur. There are the the best minds in acoustics research or violin connoisseurship, violin dealers, musicians, violinophiles, materials suppliers, genuine kooks and snake-oil sales men (and women), and this cast of characters is drawn from all over the globe. Here are a few of the reasons that I have to attend the conference:
- A chance to meet colleagues and talk shop. For better or worse many of us makers live fairly isolated lives and it is reassuring to know that others survive and thrive the same way. Exchange technical tips and violinmaker life hacks without boring the pants off of polite society.
- Attend presentations made on every topic related to the violin. What you hear may alter the course of life
- See classic instruments. There is usually an exhibition of old instruments and bows. Go to the source material! For most makers not closely associated with a big shop, the chance to (carefully) handle genuine classic instruments is rare and invaluable.
- Vendors Room
- Buy Supplies. There are vendors goods and services from all over the world. This is a particularly good place to buy tonewood without the leap of faith involved with mail order. Getting your cello wood home after the conference is always an interesting project.
- Talk to innovators. The ideas that will change the way instruments are designed This year there were several compelling cello endpin innovations
- Makers Exhibit Room. To keep things fresh makers can only win three gold medals in the violinmaking competition before being lauded “Hors Concours” and excluded from future competitions. The Makers Exhibition is a place for them to show their work and for the rest of us to get inspired or discouraged. The makers exhibit is non selective, entry-by-fee so you can also see innovative work here.
- Sell your stuff. There are dealers here looking for inventory. For musicians looking for an instrument this is a great place to find work by up and coming makers.
Having attended VSA conferences since 2004 I’ve noticed a few changes. Firstly the size, it just grows and grows, this was the largest meting ever with the broadest international attendance. From my vantage point, as I slide up the demographic age scale, I see more young people coming in, violinmaking is apparently not a dying art. Even more encouraging is the greater number of young women coming into the trade.
Dan Gillespie’s memento mori wins the unofficial Bad Ass Fiddle award and reminds us that in the end we are all just woodchucks
In my mind at least, this is the event around which the conference revolves. It is held every second year and it gives a reason to re-examine your thinking about the kind of work you do and why. There is always the question whether to just do what you always do versus actively attempting to please the judges. Ideally the week before the competition you would grab a quartet of your typical instruments and return after the show, chest glittering with gold medals, instruments traded for a pocket full of cash, and a list of interesting orders to fill. In reality, despite each time resolving to follow my only my own preferences and judgement, as the deadline approaches the temptation to try and win by mimicking past winners is overwhelming. From a personal perspective this is good in that it pushes you to try new stuff and to raise your standards, from a trade-wide view it is good that standards are relentlessly ratcheting up but there may be a down side in that those standards promote a narrowing set of acceptable solutions. Looking at this years competition entries the trend towards more and more faithful copies with ever more precise antique finishes continues. At a certain point, when the apparent pinnacle of achievement is a perfect snapshot of the current state of a work completed three hundred years ago, you have to wonder where it is all going. I make this last comment while chewing on a handful of sour grapes, if I was able to make these precise copies I would do it all day long, they are fabulous tributes to beautiful things and I’m in awe the skill that goes into making such reproductions. More thoughts on antiquing and violin aesthetics later.
Luckily there is a second, more important side to fiddles, the quality that distinguishes them from ornaments or fine pieces of furniture; sound and playability. The competition instruments are played and listened to by a panel of musicians who give their personal, subjective opinions on what they feel and hear.
This year I signed up to enter a quartet but in the end, despite having enough time to complete it, I only managed to enter a cello, my head got in the way and I lost my direction. I had decided to try and sidestep judgement of my antiquing skills by doing more of a “straight” instrument. When the cello was done the overall appearance – to my unaccustomed eye – was rather thin so I attempted to texture it up by “lightly antiquing” it, hoping to combine the honesty of a new instrument with the visual interest and comfort of an older one. The result, though it has a fairly spirited look, plainly showed my lack of direction and it didn’t do too well with the woodwork judges.
In instrument sound I’ve always been blessed and I was happy to receive a certificate for cello tone.
As ever I left the VSA conference inspired with a list of new things to try – and few things to avoid – in the coming years. I’d like to sincerely thank those that did the hard work of putting the conference together.