“The wolf notes are gone,” he says to Emil Chudnovsky, a CU music professor and violin soloist hovering nearby.
Chudnovsky cocks an ear, listening for the undesirable overtones, and looks skeptical. “I think the post is tight,” he says.
“I loosened it already,” responds an irritated Needham, shaking his head. “I loosened it a lot.” Still, he gestures to Cody to hand over the fiddle. Using a worn brass tool that he slides inside one of the curving f-holes cut into the violin’s top plate, Needham makes a small adjustment, then passes the instrument back to Cody.
She raises it to her chin and resumes playing. The two men look at each other and nod simultaneously. The sound is better.
This is a meeting with several motives. Cody, a 16-year-oldChevy Chase resident and one of Chudnovsky’s star students, is about to play in a string competition; to best her rivals, she’s playing Chudnovsky’s own violin, which has a much more powerful sound than her own.
Needham, a Maryland-based violin maker, built that violin, and he’s on standby today to help it reach its potential. Every string instrument benefits from tiny shifts to the sound post or bridge that allow the sound to pour out more easily, and Needham is an acknowledged master at these crucial adjustments.
But there’s a second reason he’s here. After several flush years of working as a full-time violin maker who regularly sold his creations, Needham has recently seen business drop off significantly. These days, he’s actively seeking clients who might be in the market for one of his $28,000 violins. Cody is young, but she’s a promising musician; if she wins this competition, her parents might recognize the need for an instrument that matches her talent.
Violin-world insiders familiar with Needham’s work might be surprised to see him peddling his wares to teenagers, since he’s considered by many to be one of the country’s best modern violin makers. But he’s an uber-independent in a relatively unregulated field. Unlike most top-tier American violin makers, or luthiers, he didn’t come up through the ranks of an apprenticeship system, which means he lacks access to the networks that could lend him more credibility. The violin universe is all about reputation: If you’re a violinist in the market for a new fiddle, you might spend a couple of years talking to colleagues about their instruments and trying out various models before buying. Almost wholly self-taught, Needham relies solely on word of mouth — and whatever marketing approaches he can devise.
Today’s effort won’t work out. Cody’s violin will slip slightly out of tune just before she performs in the competition, so her sound will be just short of spectacular. She’ll win second place, which won’t be enough to persuade her parents to plunk down a sizable sum for a Needham violin.
Needham, 68, took an unconventional path to violin making. The son of a foreign service officer, he grew up in India, Guatemala and Paraguay, finishing out his high school years in the District. He dabbled with the idea of law school and bounced from job to job — lobbyist, darkroom technician, data processor — before finding his way into an instrument repair shop in search of help with a guitar he had been learning to play.