October 2006

A peek inside the world of elite violins

October 29, 2006 22:10

Ever since writing about Jerry Kohl, the investor who fell in love with the idea of a Strad and then bought one, I've been rather curious about the finest of fine instruments and their fates.

With such enormous price tags, who buys them? Where do they end up?

When I heard that Michael Selman would be in town, I took the opportunity to chat with him over lunch. Selman is director of one of the the world's most revered dealers of fine violins, the London-based J & A Beare Ltd., the same dealer that sold Kohl the Milstein Stradivarius.

I must confess, the words "fine violin sale" make me seize up a bit; I've had the intimidation experience... have you? Going into a fine instrument store and feeling the pressure of being in a place where everything is out of reach -- where the dealer's expertise seemed to cloud any instinct of my own, where financial matters were on an entirely surreal plane, where even the instruments themselves are hidden somewhere in the back.

So I wasn't sure what to expect. I found a very affable American, a fellow Indiana University guy -- studied with Franco Gulli -- carrying his two valuable and delicate charges, a Testore and a Landolfi violin, in a single violin case. Selman is Beare's American director, and he helps match the right instrument to the right buyer, and/or the right player.

"A lot of people don't care about fine instruments until they really need one," Selman said. "The sound is what you are looking for. People don't say, 'I want to buy a violin with beautiful Cremonese varnish'; the sound is the starting point. In seeking that sound, they have to become educated about makers and about fine instruments."

Selman has been with Beare for about eight years, when the company merged with his London-based shop, Morris, Smith and Selman, with partners Steven Smith, David Morris and Simon Morris.

On one hand, "we've completely changed what Beare is," opening offices in New York and Seoul. On the other, they have worked to preserve the company's reputation for expertise. "We're kind of the first-stop company for Strads and del-Gesus," Selman said. "People who want the finest instruments come to us. Even people who buy elsewhere come to us for certification or opinion."

I was curious about how many Strads they sell in a year, and Selman said between 10 and 15.

"It depends on the country," he said. For example, Japan has set up the Nippon Music Foundation for the acquisition of instruments. "They are very generous about lending to artists all over the world," Selman said. Taiwan also has similar foundations.

In Europe and the United States, musicians and soloists are more likely to buy them, as well as investors. China is building many new arts facilities and is still catching up with acquiring fine instruments. In Korea, where Beare has an office, "music is incredibly important," Selman said. "The number of concerts, you just wouldn't believe." Office buildings have concert halls; Selman gave the example of the Kuhmo Co., which sponsors a full concert season and many music-related events.

Though many of the world's finest violins are sold to foundations or investors, "The majority of fine instruments are played on by musicians/artists," Selman said. Whether a musician or other entity buys the instrument, "We make every effort possible to provide as much information as possible regarding the care of the instrument. It is our philosophy that we are all caretakers of these precious instruments. We encourage all purchasers bring their instruments to us periodically for a checkup."

As for the instruments that wind up not in the concert hall, but on display in a museum or private collection, Selman said that such instruments serve an important function.

"If violin making is to continue to progress, it is important that makers have the opportunity to study the few pristine examples that remain," Selman said. "It is important that a few of the greatest examples be preserved for future generations to have."

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Fifty-two colors in this rainbow

October 15, 2006 18:37

This week I met my 52 new students.

I'm already extremely proud of every single one of them; look what they did...


They made their very own violins. A group of fellow parents at McKinley School in Pasadena had taped 55 rulers onto 55 egg cartons; I drew the violin [PDF for 8.5x14 page], and they provided the color.

As you can see, they are going to provide me with quite a lot of color!

Here's the plan I came up with, for those of you who are curious about what a person does when presented with the task of starting a Suzuki-based violin program for 52 first graders, "next week!":

They'll have two 45-minute-long classes a week: a "lesson class" with about 15 kids in each one, and a "group class" with about 30 kids. (So I'm teaching four lesson classes and two group classes.)

Even though I had only a week to come up with a plan, I had some good brains to pick, particularly that of the extraordinary teacher, Cheryl Scheidemantle, who has run a similar program for slightly older children at Polytechnic School in Pasadena for some 18 years. She's the one who told me that one class a week is not enough, it only works if you do two. So two, I'll do.

She also reminded me to go slow, and build a reverence for the delicacy and care of a violin. And have rules, lots and lots of rules, for kids!

So each day last week, I gathered my small charges and we walked to the room. But we did not enter. I first numbered them off and told them that their numbers were their rows. Then, we walked in and made rows. We practiced how to bow to each other and say "good morning!" I ran them through how to stand while playing, then played them Twinkle. My lovely assistant, Robert, helped me distribute the violins to color and crayons. (He gets parent volunteer credit!) As the kids colored and listened to the Suzuki Book 1 tape, I called them up individually to be measured for their "real" violins.


I sent them home with lots of info: What size real violin to get, where, when class will be and a page on the Suzuki philosophy [PDF], boiled down to its essence.

There are certainly challenges ahead, like how to distribute 16 violins to the more-than-16 kids who aren't able to go rent a violin. But I'm so excited, this is such an amazing opportunity, to teach this rainbow assortment of children.

When they finished their violins, we had a little art show. I hadn't planned this, but I always like to have one activity that brings out the individual in every group class. So we showed them, one by one, commenting on each violin's special qualities. Then I had each row take their violins to the cabinet, slowly and carefully, slowly and carefully... And they did; they walked slowly, handling their new violins like they were made of thin glass, laying them carefully in the cabinet.

All those little violins are sleeping in that cabinet now, waiting for the new week.

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Yes, kids really do love music

October 4, 2006 22:35

I just got fifty new students, all of them ages seven and younger!

It all began when the music teacher at my children's public elementary school sent out notices to parents, offering all kinds of instrumental music. Hundreds of children signed up. The most popular offering? More than 50 children signed up for first-grade Suzuki violin, and latecomers still are begging to get in. The school has 120 first graders, so, basically, half of them are interested in Suzuki violin.

Up until this point, our very dedicated and overworked music teacher had been going it alone. I'd said, "If you ever need me, just call..." Now, she did. She called me.

"I can't believe these numbers," she said. "Can you help me?"

We decided to meet for coffee. Ms. O described to me all she's doing: a class of flute, a class of saxophone, violin for older kids, trumpet, clarinet... my head was spinning, just hearing about it.

"I could teach all the first graders, all of them," I told her. "I'd like to do it. As a parent volunteer, until we can get funding, if we can."

She looked at me. She blinked.

"Are you sure?" she said.

"I'm sure, I want this to happen," I said.

She paused. "Maybe one day, then, we could have a real orchestra," she said slowly. "If you did that, I could work with the older children...."

Hurdles remain. But fewer than one might think; there is so much community support in our school for this. Parents are pitching in, writing grants to get money to buy violins. They've already bought 40 larger violins, now they are working to get tiny violins for the little ones. It is such a testament to the importance of instrumental music; our children crave it. And somehow they crave the violin above all: it represents some of music's highest accomplishments; yet it is an instrument that has evolved as the most teachable one for young kids because of the work of Shinichi Suzuki and so many other dedicated teachers.

We start next Tuesday. An army of parents is donating egg cartons and rulers so we can make pretend violins to use during their first lessons, teaching position and respect for the instrument. I put one together today; it's just right, like a quarter-sized violin!

I think this will take every ounce of creativity I can muster. How exciting!

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