Monday, January 23, 2023

Making beautiful music together

Greg Sapp in his workshop.

     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.

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  1. How lovely to wake up on a dull January morning and learn something so interesting and classical!

  2. Terrific. An inherently boring subject transmuted into a fascinating exploration of a parallel universe.


  3. Great column. I know there is a violin school/shop in Skokie and I figured that was probably the only one. Well done. The hard copy paper has some nice additional pictures. You really find some real gems for stories and this one is great.

  4. I was fortunate that my eldest son took up cello. He was loaned a fine instrument when he played with the CYSO

    This brought us to one of the few repair shops in the area several times. A fascinating craft

    I also built a guitar in my woodshop. Very difficult work. Big props


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