Three factors determine the price of a violin, Mel Sapp explained, just as I was leaving the bright, airy shop she and her husband Greg run in Batavia: one is workmanship. Two, materials. And three, the name of the luthier who built it.
“You notice I didn’t say, ‘sound,’” she added. “Sound is subjective. You can change it.”
Indeed, most masterpiece instruments of old —by Amati, Guernari, Stradivari — have been modernized over the years, their necks and fingerboards lengthened, to bring them into line with current musical tastes.
I am not in the market for a violin, alas. But I visited Sapp Violins earlier this month because of a quip. When the shaky future of journalism is being discussed, with what colleagues I yet retain in a rapidly contracting profession, I’ll sometimes attempt to both sound a positive note and move the conversation along by observing, “They still make violins.”
Meaning, even antique trades thrive, for some.
Though it got me wondering: How is the violin business doing? Chicago, being home to one of the world’s great orchestras, is unsurprisingly also a center of violin craftsmanship. After I visited Sapp, the January Chicago magazine took an in-depth look at John Becker, the Fine Arts Building luthier to the multi-million dollar instruments of musical stars such as Joshua Bell, the article by Elly Fishman itself a finely constructed marvel.
So how does one get into the violin making biz?
Greg Sapp was a music education major at Duquesne University in the mid-1970s when he had a realization that often comes to those whose ambitions lie in the arts.
“This isn’t going to work.”
Luckily, senior year, he had a class with the very 1970s name, “Creative Personality.” His final project was constructing an Eastern European folk instrument called a “prim.”
“It’s kind of like a mandolin,” Greg said, pointing to the ur-instrument, displayed on the wall. “I was the only one in my class that made something so functional.”
That wasn’t a complete accident — his father was a woodworker and singer.
Greg moved to Chicago in 1978 to attend the Kenneth Warren & Son School of Violin Making (now the Chicago School of Violin Making). He also bumped into Mel, whose car had broken down and needed a lift to the train station. When Greg told her he was going to violin school, Mel, who’d known her share of prevaricating creeps, assumed he was lying.
“How do I find these guys?” she asked herself.
Now Greg, 69, divides his time between building and repairing violins, and Mel does the books. Business is solid — they have three employees. Aubrey Alexander was busy at work when I visited.
“I’ve always been more in tune with the violin, no pun intended,” said Alexander, explaining her choice of profession. “I don’t do well with people so much.”
How did she get started?
“When I was 8 years old my mom took me with her to pick up my sister’s violin when it was repaired. I was instantly fascinated by the tools and the instruments,” said Alexander, 39. “When I later started taking lessons I was always more interested in my cello and how it worked, rather than actually playing it.”
And what does it feel like, to create a violin with your hands?
“I start to associate a personality with the instruments,” she said. “They take on a personality of their own. I name the instrument. I gender them. This one’s a boy. That one’s a girl.”
How can she tell? A fraught question nowadays. It isn’t as if you can flip a violin over and check.
“It’s more about the feeling and how I interact with the instruments,” she said. “If it’s giving me a lot of trouble, it’s a boy.”
The vast majority of her instruments identify as girls. Her last cello, for instance, was named “Ophelia,” after the Lumineers song.
The Sapps also tend to anthropomorphize their instruments.
Violins “sulk.” They wait for buyers like puppies in a pet store. “Some instruments like kids better than others,” Mel said. The violins choose their eventual owners like wands in a Harry Potter book.
“The way I look at it, these instruments are all waiting for their person,” she said.
Working with stringed instruments is a protracted process — constructing a violin can take years (new projects tend to get put aside in favor of more pressing repairs, which themselves can take months). A violinmaker is seldom rushed. I wondered if hobbies are necessary and, if so, what Alexander does to relax from violinmaking. She told me she loves to fish, particularly bass fishing — she is from East Texas after all.
“When I’m not up to my elbows in wood shavings, I’m up to my elbows in lily pads,” she said. “Pretty much all I do is make violins, and I fish and make coffee.”
Speaking of wood. The top of a violin is spruce, the back, sides, neck and scroll are maple. The two types of wood, soft spruce and hard maple, combine to create an ideal sound. Along with a healthy dose of time.
While aging wood is important — Sapp pays hundreds of dollars apiece for small pieces of lumber that have sat for decades — everyone agrees that once constructed, violins need to be played to keep their sound fresh.
Playing “keeps it doing what it needs to be doing,” Greg said.
That sounds almost spiritual, I observed.
“Oh, This is juju personified,” Mel said with a laugh.
And on that note — sorry, couldn’t resist — we reach our fine, pronounced fee-nay, the musical term for the end of a composition.