US violin-making is enjoying a rebirth, craftsmen say, despite the rapidly improving production by fellow makers in China, which US artisans see both as a threat and a boon to their livelihood.
Even with US interest in classical music slipping and some orchestras folding in harsh economic times, support for the artisans’ business is such that hundreds of individual US violin-makers are thriving.
“Violin and bowmaking in this country is the best it’s been in US history,” and the instruments being produced are among the world’s finest, said Jerry Pasewicz, who heads the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, a collection of 180 top US artisans.
Whether China can mount a serious threat to the high end of the craft — known as lutherie — is in dispute; some believe it will take several decades before Chinese instruments, which now dominate the student market, come close to rivaling the best violins of Europe and the US.
However, China’s massive production ramp up over the past decade is introducing large numbers of aspiring musicians, including thousands in China itself, to the art of playing the violin.
“As they start to grow up, they seek a better instrument,” said Pasewicz, who has been making violins for three decades and owns a shop in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Feng Jiang, a violin-maker in Michigan, says the state of US lutherie is nothing short of “a renaissance,” thanks to institutions like the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the Chicago School of Violin Making.
“In the past 15 or 20 years it’s increased a few hundred percent,” he said of the number of US makers. But “the only reason we exist at all is that people are playing the violin.”
That is where China is having its dramatic impact. Violins were hardly played at all there until Mao Zedong (毛澤東), the founder of communist China, considered it a revolutionary instrument and workshops sprung up during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
The Asian giant has squashed European low-end makers and now manufactures the bulk of student instruments — so many that it has dramatically brought down entry-level costs for violinists and allowed dealers to set up broad rental networks.
Jiang has a foot in both worlds. As the son of a Chinese violin maker, Jiang built his first instrument in China as a youth in 1989. In the late 1990s he moved to the US, where he now makes six to eight violins per year.
He sees tremendous potential for China’s artisans, several of whom have trained in Europe and the US, closely studied ancient instruments by masters Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu, and returned to improve the quality of violins in their homeland.
Still, “for the violins that professional people appreciate ... I think we don’t see a lot come from there,” Jiang said.
However, some believe China, with a 5,000-year history of craftsmanship and a reputation for rapidly absorbing the skills necessary to dominate an industry, will rival Western production within a decade or two.
US luthier Christopher Germain routinely travels from his Philadelphia workshop to China to meet fellow craftsmen, and said “all the components are in place for them” to become a force in the high-end industry.
“They do whatever they need to do to improve their product,” Germain said.
Dave Belazis of Foxes Music outside Washington said that while China’s craftsmanship has “revolutionized the student violin industry,” he doubted their instruments would knock top US products off their perch.