A visit with the string whisperer
Note: This piece loses much of its music in written form. Click the audio player above to get the full effect.
Roland Feller is responsible for the well-being of many of the city's stringed instruments. When you imagine him working on a violin, picture him seated at a tiny old fashioned desk littered with tools and wood shavings, in a room piled with sheet music, billing forms...and violins. Violins hanging on the walls and from the ceiling; violins leaning against the table legs on the floor.
Roland says that the first step to making a really fine violin is to make sure you have good materials. Generally, maple is used for the back, sides and scrolls; ebony or rosewood for fittings; and spruce for the top. The better the quality of wood, the more likely the instrument will age well – which is important, since instruments are used for centuries.
And then there are the strings. Traditionally, strings used to be made out of gut, but it was a problematic material. Any kind of moisture could cause the strings to expand or contract, making the instrument particularly finicky and unreliable. Today, strings are often made of synthetic materials like nylon or Kevlar. Remarkably, other than the change in use of strings, the violin is pretty much made exactly the same as it has been for centuries.
The instrument was first created in the mid 16th century by a man named Andrea Amati in Cremona, Italy. Amati passed down his knowledge to his son Giralamo, who passed it down to his Nicolo, who passed his technique on to his apprentices, one of whom was Antonio Stradivari.
Chances are, you’ve probably heard of the famed ‘Strads’ - approximately 500 of his violins still exist today. These instruments are very valuable indeed; in 2011 a Strad violin named Lady Blunt sold for $15.9 million dollars.
Feller’s first mentor was a man by the name of Simone Fernando Sacconi; considered by many to be the premiere luthier of the 20th century, and a world renowned authority on Strad violins. Under Sacconi's tutelage, Feller made his very first Strad model violin - a violin that went on to win gold in an international competition.
When Feller talks about that violin, or any other instrument on which he’s worked, he speaks as if remembering an old friend. He clearly thinks of the violin as a living, breathing thing – something with a soul.