For violin maker Howard Needham, a rarefied world

Howard Needham is standing in a room deep in the bowels of Catholic University’s Ward Hall, listening to Samantha Cody play violin.

“The wolf notes are gone,” he says to Emil Chudnovsky, a CU music professor and violin soloist hovering nearby.

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Howard Needham of Silver Spring has been making and repairing violins, violas, cellos and guitars since a visit to a repair shop sparked a career change in the early 1970s. We took a look into his workshop to learn more about his passion for music and woodworking.

Howard Needham of Silver Spring has been making and repairing violins, violas, cellos and guitars since a visit to a repair shop sparked a career change in the early 1970s. We took a look into his workshop to learn more about his passion for music and woodworking.

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.

Located in an old Craftsman-style house, the shop was crowded with tools and instruments in various stages of repair that took up the entire downstairs. “Everywhere you looked was devoted to instruments,” Needham recalls. “The minute I walked in, it was like, ‘Wow, this is cool: This is combining woodworking with music,’ both of which I’ve always loved. It was, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ” He was 29.

Living in New York state and later the Washington area, Needham spent the next few decades learning the trades of instrument repair, sound adjustment and restoration. He began with guitars, then switched to violins. He took stabs at making violins, too, but no matter his approach, the fiddles he built were never much better than average. Then in 1999, he attended a workshop taught by Geary Baese, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based autodidact and expert on old violin making techniques. The workshop focused on varnish, but Baese had closely studied many facets of violin making in Italy and had a secret system he believed could make excellent instruments.

The key, Baese stressed, is aligning wood pitches throughout the violin with the frequency of the air inside the instrument. “Everything that’s vibrating has to vibrate in a compatible way with everything else,” Baese, 60, explains. His system involves tapping or blowing on different parts of the violin as it’s being made, and listening to the tone that’s produced. Each has a specific pitch, and each needs to complement the others.

Ever since he learned the system, when Needham is working on a violin’s front and back plates, he’ll tap their sides to make sure they’re roughly in tune; if not, he’ll shave wood from the inside to adjust the pitch. That continues as he cuts the f-holes in the front, glues the plate to the ribs, sets the neck and attaches the back.

“A perfect violin will have a whole stack of frequencies that reinforce its sound,” Needham says.

The result? “It’s just easy to play, but there’s also a subtlety to the sound,” says David Colwell, a music professor at the State University of New York’s Fredonia campus who bought a Needham violin last year. “And there’s a real purity of sound in the highest register, which you don’t always find even in some of the older instruments.”

But violin makers can be serious traditionalists, and many are dubious of Baese’s method. “I don’t doubt that the system could produce good instruments, but as to whether it’s the holy grail method, I sort of doubt it.” says Fan Tao, director of R&D for the strings company D’Addario. “There’s really not any secrets to making great violins.”

Still, Needham let go of virtually everything he had known and spent three years learning the technique. His time with Baese revolutionized his career. The very first instrument Needham made was so much better than anything he had created before, he remembers, “that I sold it in a week, to the first person who tried it, for 11 / 2 times what I’d ever charged in my life.”

About 2006, Needham sold one of his violins to Michael Boucher, a well-connected Los Angeles studio musician. Boucher was greatly impressed with his new instrument — it projected, it harmonized with itself incredibly well, and it was amazingly quick to respond — but his violinist friends were skeptical. So he and several colleagues established “shootouts” in L.A.: blind playing tests of violins at sites including huge halls and cork-lined studios. There were Stradivariuses and other 17th- and 18th-century instruments from Cremona, Italy — considered the best of the best — as well as violins by respected living makers such as Brooklyn’s Sam Zygmuntowicz and David Burgess of Ann Arbor, Mich. Presided over by a group of professional violinists, the competition went on for months, with almost 100 violins taking a turn.

Repeatedly, Boucher’s Needham triumphed over its competitors, including a Stradivarius. In the end, it was beaten only by an almost 300-year-old Guadagnini worth almost $1 million.

“It wouldn’t take long for people to play Howard’s violin and then to say, ‘My God, this is an incredible instrument,’ ” Boucher says. On Violinist.com, where players from across the country were following the shootouts, a blog post read, “The Needham finally met its match.”

***

It’s afternoon in Needham’s workshop,in the basement of his Annapolis home. He sits at one end of his workbench among jars of glue, half-finished violin scrolls, and a variety of knives, brushes and wood-handled chisels. It’s a tableau right out of the 18th century.

At the other end is David Truscott, Needham’s apprentice. Truscott, 29, was hired in 2009, shortly after graduating from a violin making program in Boston, to help Needham chip away at the waiting list that resulted from the L.A. shootouts.

“I got orders and I got backlogged, and pretty soon I had three years of work backed up,” Needham says. In 2010, he sold a whopping 15 violins for $28,000 each. (He can build an instrument in about a month.) But about the middle of last year, that waiting list dissipated. And as an independent without any sort of pension, Needham needs to ensure a steady income.

A big part of his sales problem is the economy, which has heavily affected the music world. “The large nonprofit organizations that employ musicians have been especially hard-hit by declining ticket sales and flat, if not falling, donations,” said Gerald Klickstein, director of the Music Entrepreneurship and Career Center at Johns Hopkins’s Peabody Institute in Baltimore. “I expect that [instrument makers and technicians] are having to cut margins, let go of staff and squeak by.”

Middle-range makers such as Needham are particularly feeling the pinch. So Needham has been brainstorming marketing schemes and considering traveling to Asia, one of the few booming markets. But few of his propositions come to fruition. “About 40 percent of my time is non-bench-related stuff like marketing, e-mails, shopping and mailing,” says Needham — and he simply prefers to spend his time making instruments.

When the doorbell rings, Needham greets Martin Monnett, an amateur violinist who plays in the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra . He’s coming to pick up his violin, on which Needham has put a new neck.

Monnett lifts the repaired instrument to his shoulder and plays. He’s happy with the sound, but both Needham and Truscott furrow their brows.

“It’s very loud under my ear,” Needham says.

Truscott nods. “The bridge pitch is high.”

The two work to adjust the instrument. Truscott, a gifted violinist, plays and makes further observations; Needham responds by shifting the bridge and sound post. Then they repeat the process several times. Finally, they agree that the violin has popped into focus, its sound clear and full. Monnett himself can’t really distinguish the changed sound, but he leaves satisfied, certain that Needham knows what he’s doing.

More quiet weeks go by, and Needham, increasingly desperate about the lull in business, has to lay off Truscott. The younger man soon gets a job doing adjustments and some violin making at the Potter Violin Company in Bethesda. It’s a place Needham considered selling his own instruments after the owners reached out to him, but with Truscott working as an in-house luthier, it’s unlikely the company will want to buy Needham’s instruments as well. “I’ve shot myself in the foot this time, big-time,” Needham says.

***

A vintage Gibson Les Paul guitar, the object of more than a little fetishism among players and collectors, might cost $25,000 at the upper end. But that’s relatively low compared with the $50,000 that the country’s best modern violin makers are charging, or the millions that an instrument from the 17th century can bring.

The violin occupies a hallowed spot in the pantheon of instruments, both in price and attention paid to sound and construction. That ultimately comes down to a simple point that drives the value of every violin: It’s one of the oldest instruments still being played in its original form.

The first violin, created in the mid-1500s, is virtually indistinguishable from a modern one. That’s a testament to the genius of Andrea Amati, of Cremona, who is credited with inventing the violin. Bowed stringed instruments existed before him, of course; they were played in the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East.

“But Amati’s instruments were a quantum leap past that,” said Philip Kass, a violin historian and appraiser. “He came up with a system and a design that just worked so well; it enabled him to make instruments that were consistent and reliable.”

How Amati made such a giant leap isn’t fully understood. He and his sons built complex instruments “from the inside out,” as Kass likes to say: Using curvilinear designs and architectural concepts circulating in Cremona at the time, they developed a structure that served as the vehicle for a rich, penetrating sound, one that has frequently been compared to the human voice.

The instruments were visually beautiful and built to last. Unlike lutes, for example, which were popular at the time, violins were varnished, allowing the wood to hold up to intense use. And Amati’s instruments included an overhanging edge, as all violins still do: The front and back plates are a little bigger than the rib structure they’re attached to, making the instrument less prone to cracking and pulling apart over time.

Amati’s instruments set the standard. By the early 1600s, his sons were shipping instruments from their bustling workshop to cities all across Europe.

A few craftsmen who lived several generations after Amati perfected his initial design. Over a long lifetime, the former woodworker Antonio Stradivari went through several stylistic evolutions in his search for a better tone and a more elegant instrument. His later violins include several subtle structural changes, particularly to the instrument’s outline and the arching of the top plate, that allow them to project sound better than many of the instruments that preceded them.

That era was the pinnacle of violin making. By the late 18th century, city-states such as Cremona had lost much of their independence, and the region’s economy had changed. Gradually, the area’s supply of violins outstripped demand, and the center of violin making shifted to France and England. But the makers there, Kass says, were copying Italian models, not innovating, so the instruments didn’t have a particularly interesting or complex sound. In many ways, according to Kass, the Cremonese spirit of investigation and exploration has been seriously revived only in the past 50 years.

And in that time, the older violins’ value has swelled to an unprecedented degree. These days, that upper range of violins — the Stradivariuses, Guarneri del Gesus and other Cremonese instruments — is far out of reach for the average soloist. Last year, a Stradivarius sold for almost $16 million, a record.

“Thirty years ago, if you were concertmaster of a major orchestra, you could afford a top-value violin on your salary,” explains Christopher Reuning, a Boston-based dealer who has sold some of the field’s most precious instruments. “That’s not the case anymore.”

As a result, the current economic dip notwithstanding, American violin making is doing remarkably well — and middle-range makers, whose violins sell for between $10,000 and $50,000, have benefited. There are about 300 luthiers in the country these days, and the field is characterized by a new spirit of openness among makers about their strategies and techniques, likely facilitated by the Internet’s increased information flow. The quality of modern violins has improved considerably.

“The best of the Cremonese violins were really, really good; there’s no debate,” says Jerry Pasewicz, president of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. “But you can get an instrument that sounds very similar for $25,000 to $28,000.”

“The best sound for the buck is in contemporary instruments,” agrees Gerald Fischbach, director of graduate studies in music at the University of Maryland.

That’s a perspective of which Needham is well aware. This could be his major selling point — if only more people knew about him.

***

A few months after he has laid off Truscott, Needham sits at his workbench, the raw pieces of a violin before him. Business has suddenly picked up again; he has recently had four serious inquiries. His personal life has taken a nice turn, as well. He and his girlfriend, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, got engaged, and they’re preparing to buy a house in Silver Spring.

Needham lifts the violin’s top plate and softly flexes it to feel for stiff spots. “You learn how you’re supposed to carve a plate, but with the actual motions to do that well, your body has to figure it out,” he explains. “Your head just can’t get into the nuances to the degree that’s required.”

Some luthiers think that’s the real answer to the eternal question of why Cremonese violins are as good as they are: the simple tenet that practice makes perfect. Antonio Stradivari lived to be about 93 years old; 600 of his violins are still in circulation, but he probably built closer to 1,200. In contrast, the most experienced living luthier may have a couple hundred instruments to his name. Needham has about 100.

Before long, a prospective customer arrives. A young Ukrainian couple, Solomia Gorokhivska and her husband, Andrei Pidkivka, are here for a short-term loan of one of Needham’s violins. Gorokhivska, one of Emil Chudnovsky’s students, recently earned a PhD in music and was just invited to play in the Naumburg international violin competition, a prestigious contest that requires a superb instrument.

She picks up the violin Needham has set out for her and sets the bow to the strings. “Oh! It’s so nice,” she exclaims. “It has this round sound.”

“It’s for sale,” Needham says.

“I know,” she says with a smile. “If I win!”

“It’s something we have to consider,” her husband adds.

But the two, both full-time musicians, are also thinking about buying a home. Needham knows the odds are long that they would buy another violin instead. But he’s okay with that. Recently, he made a choice to go back to part-time repairing, which is enough for him to live on, and to devote the rest of his time to making violins. “You have to stick with what you know,” he says. “I’d like to do four instruments per year and make them spectacularly beautiful.”

Gorokhivska plays the violin for a few more minutes, praising its mature tone compared with her own fiddle, and then the couple prepare to leave. They’ll be meeting with Needham the next day so that he can adjust the violin and bring out its best sound for the competition. He’ll be doing it gratis. It’s all part of a day’s work for a self-employed violin maker who can’t afford to ignore a potential customer. Who knows? Maybe in a year, maybe in five, Gorokhivska will finally be in the market for a new instrument, and all Needham can do is hope she’ll remember him — and his violin.

After all, as Needham knows, in the modern violin market, a fiddle’s true value isn’t fully apparent until it’s resold; only then are perceptions of its sound finally decoupled from its maker’s reputation. “They will eventually acquire a reputation that they deserve,” Needham says of his instruments. “Whatever that is.”

Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer in Washington. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

 
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