Italian violin making in practice
This means in the first place that the instruments are made in a rather straight way according to available drawings, measurements etc. Conspicuously absent is the constant solicitude about possible effects on the sound of the finished instrument, if you do this or that. On the contrary, within the precepts you have a reasonable measure of freedom of execution. Some of the freedom you take, some happens. Exact arching heights, symmetry, placing of F-holes, thicknessing of ribs: don’t bother too much, the old masters obviously didn’t either.
By now the school has developed models for most instruments, generally yielding eminently satisfactory results as to playability and sound. But if you fancy to build to a model of your own, you are very welcome: “never waste an opportunity to learn”. We do not encourage the making of “exact” copies of famous instruments. Even in the completely unlikely case you might succeed, I deem the chance that the sound will match too, close to nil. Wood for one thing is a starkly variable material, and I am sure that the old instruments still hold many undiscovered variables for us too. And this without taking into consideration that the process of making an “exact” copy is exceedingly exacting and tedious. The old makers worked on existing moulds, clearly so, but did not venture to make exact copies. On the contrary, constant experiment and variation was the rule.
A workshop is not a laboratory. After many years of plate tuning and sound analysis with Fast Fourier Transform I had to decide that, for me at least, this was not the way. It took a tangible amount of time and money, but didn’t lead to perceptibly better instruments. Were not the computer, dead room and Lucchi meter conspicuously absent in the 17th century?
Instead we play the instrument extensively in the white, the playing preferably being done by a professional musician. By locally planing or scraping we amend firstly the most obvious shortcomings, wolf tones being notorious among them. After that comes evenness across the strings, fluent speaking up to the very high positions, to finish with the quest for the dramatic, blood red G, the powerfully singing e and the all-over big, carrying tone that good violins are universally being admired for. We call this “voicing” the instrument. All this is done in a completely average set-up, allowing for fine adjustments in both directions after varnishing.
Good to excellent
As in the world of fine old instruments, some end up better than others, but the risk of an instrument with unrealised potential is greatly minimized. So the mean quality is not between good and bad, but more somewhere between good and excellent. In the world of traditional violin making this may sound as an empty boast, but we have more than 13 years experience by now, that seem to substantiate it. Thirteen years is not a huge span of time to gain experience if you had to start from scratch. So we are well aware that this is only a start, and that more gifted players and makers will doubtlessly be able to take the method to a much higher level of refinement. Happily there is compelling evidence by now that even professional musicians cannot reliably distinguish between antique Italian instruments and good ones from living makers. In itself encouraging already for modern makers, the long term effects on the relative appreciation of antique and modern instruments could be, and should be, dramatic. The more so now we seem to have at our disposal a way of creating sound that at first glance seems to have at least a few traits in common with the classical Italian school.