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Master Violin Maker Feels Economy's Sour Notes


Now it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. And today a story about the business of music.


MARTIN: That is the sound of Howard Needham tuning a violin in his workshop in Maryland. He not only tunes them. He makes them. And when business was booming, he could barely keep up with demand, but now with the economy in the doldrums, buying a new violin just isn't as high on the shopping list as it used to be, especially an expensive handmade one, and that means that violin makers like Howard Needham are feeling the pinch, even as the quality of modern violins has never been higher.

Amanda Abrams is a freelance journalist who wrote about this economic dilemma in her story "The Ballad of Howard Needham" for this week's Washington Post magazine and she's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

AMANDA ABRAMS: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I learned a new word from your piece. Howard Needham is a luthier.

ABRAMS: Yes, exactly.

MARTIN: Luthier.

ABRAMS: But you can say violin maker.

MARTIN: Violin maker. OK. Thanks so much. He is one of the best violin makers in the country.


MARTIN: And what makes him so good?

ABRAMS: Well, he's got a great technique, something that helps the violin sort of work together as one unit and really brings the sound out. It's just a richer sound, a fuller sound and his violins are more consistently great.

MARTIN: And how much do they cost?

ABRAMS: About 28,000.

MARTIN: Twenty-eight thousand dollars. And is that a lot? It's a lot to me, but is that a lot when it comes to...

ABRAMS: I mean it...

MARTIN: ...a handmade violin?

ABRAMS: In the general range, I'd say a really good modern violin in somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000, but when you're thinking about, like, Stradivariuses, which are from the 1700s or late 1600s, those can be in the millions.

MARTIN: Now, one of the points that you make in your piece, your very interesting piece, is that the quality of these modern handmade violins has never been higher, but you also make the point that - and you quote someone here - 30 years ago, if you were a concert master of a major orchestra, you could afford a top value violin on your salary. You're quoting here a Boston-based dealer who sold some of the field's most precious instruments, but you say that's not the case anymore. Why is that?

ABRAMS: No. I would say there's a couple of different things happening. The first is that violins have become kind of investment vehicles, the really good violins, the really old ones. On the other hand, the music business has been hit pretty hard, the classical music business, particularly.

So you've got declining subscriptions, declining grants, foundation funding. There are symphonies that have gone out of business, so a violinist - even a top violinist - is going to be, in some ways, probably earning less than he was 30 years ago.

MARTIN: If you just joined us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about the struggle of one luthier, or violin maker. My guest is Amanda Abrams. Her story, "The Ballad of Howard Needham," was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

How many violins would a professional buy in the course of his or her lifetime?

ABRAMS: Once you're really a mature, established violinist who is making some money or doing well and recognized for your craft, then you get a great violin, and if it's really good, you keep it for the rest of your life. I mean, the relationship's like kind of a love affair, almost. You really want a violin that complements you and that you can enjoy and explore for your life.

Now, before that you've probably owned, you know, several - three, four - as you grow as a violinist. You start out on something pretty low quality and then you get something that's moderately good and then you get something that you think is pretty good and then you get something that's great.

MARTIN: You make the point in the piece that the upper range of violins - I mean, I think many people who don't play will have heard of a Stradivarius. You make the point that these - last year, for example, a Stradivarius sold for $16 million, but is somebody actually playing that or is it sitting in a vault someplace?

ABRAMS: Some people play them. The thing is, the violin gets better when you play it, so in fact it's going to be to people's benefits, the investors, the owners, to have, like, a great violinist play their violin. There are some places - like in England I've heard they don't play them. Nobody plays them. They sit in a vault. In this country, even the ones that are in the Smithsonian or, you know, in museums are played from time to time by great violinists.

MARTIN: And is this all stringed instruments or just violins?

ABRAMS: It's all...

MARTIN: Like cellos, for example.

ABRAMS: The same. The same.

MARTIN: The same?

ABRAMS: Yeah. They get better by being played.

MARTIN: So somebody like Yo-Yo Ma, who's a very well-known cellist, his instrument - does he own that or does an investor own that and does he just get to play it? Is it kind of like a racehorse, where a consortium, you know, owns it and then, you know, he gets to play it or something like that or...

ABRAMS: That, I don't know. He undoubtedly has his own great instrument, but I bet you there are folks who come to him and say, hey, you know, we've got this amazing instrument. We'd love to have you play it. And that's lucky for him. I mean, to be able to play an amazing instrument is a blessing.

MARTIN: What should people draw from this story? You know, on the one hand, you know, it's a story about craft. I mean Howard Needham came to violin making in an unusual way after kind of knocking around. He's an innovator. He learned a very unusual technique. He's earned his spurs, as it were, by - there was even like a playoff - right - where his reputation was established. There were a series of competitions where musicians played his instrument and they compared them over a long period of time and his reputation was earned and now he's struggling, you know, to make a living here. But he still loves it. He's mastered something that's very difficult to do and he's really - you could argue - improved, you know, the market by adding value, and yet he's struggling to make a living.

ABRAMS: Well, I mean, it's good and bad. On the one hand it shows that there's still a real value placed on handmade items, which I think is cool. This is something you could never make in a machine. You know, there's violins being made in Asia, but those are not particularly good, so that's very neat.

You know, on the other hand, it's like - yes - he is absolutely struggling and there's in some ways less value placed these days on these kind of items because, obviously, the funding - it's harder to get enough money together to buy one of these.

But it's also a neat story, I think, because it's very sort of classically American. I mean, here is this guy. He just decided to do this on his own and he worked his butt off and he learned it, but he's still struggling because he's not affiliated with any organization and it's just a very independent sort of story.

MARTIN: Amanda Abrams is a freelance journalist. Her story, "The Ballad of Howard Needham," was featured in this week's Washington Post magazine and she was nice enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Amanda, you know I have to ask. Do you play?

ABRAMS: You know, I grew up playing and I can still play, but the violin's sitting in the closet. So no.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. I take it it's not a Stradivarius.

ABRAMS: No, definitely not.

MARTIN: All right. Thank you so much for joining us.

ABRAMS: Sure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.