"The Scroll"  Newsletter for the Cox Violin Community

The Scroll's purpose

is to provide information and enjoyment to people interested in fine new instruments. I welcome your inquiries.

La Catrina Quartet moves to North Carolina

Violinist Daniel Vega-Albela and violist Jorge Martinez have been busy lately. Their group, La Catrina Quartet, was recently selected as the next quartet-in-residence at the Western Piedmont Symphony in North Carolina, and they spent much of this summer as the quartet- in-residence of the San Miguel de Allende Chamber Music Festival in Guanajuato, Mexico. They will also be showcasing their skills this fall in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

Rebecca Browne on tour with Eurythmy Ensemble

This spring, Rebecca Browne will take her Cox violin through Europe as she tours with the Austin Eurythmy Ensemble as the violin soloist and music director. She also recently started a new trio, Austin’s Angels, and she co-founded a violin program for impoverished children in Eastern Europe.

Down Under: Robin Wilson releases new CD

violinist Robin Wilson, who plays Doug’s violin opus number 300, plans to release his second CD later this year. His first CD, Melodie, released in 2006, made the top ten on New Zealand’s classical music charts. Robin is also a violin lecturer at the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney.

ON THE ROAD

If you’d like to find out about seeing a Cox instrument in your own area, please let me know.

Heading West:

In the fall I will be making a trip to Lawrence University. I will be making stops along the way in Ohio, Chicago, Bloomington, and Ann Arbor - if you are in that area and would like to see me, call or email.

What People Say

“Playing on this viola is a pleasure. It is warm and rich, and it inspires me to search for more colors and shadings since it offers such a wonder-ful range. My colleagues in the Mendelssohn Quartet all play on 18th-century Cremonese instruments, and this viola blends beautifully with them.
I feel deeply fortunate to make music with it.”

Daniel Panner, Mendelssohn String Quartet; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra;
Faculty at Juilliard and
Mannes Conservatories

“I am thrilled with my new baroque violin by Doug Cox. It’s modeled on a Guarneri Del Gesù, and has a wonderful quality throughout; I am particularly taken with the silvery E string sound, which projects so easily.”

Daniel Stepner
First violin, Lydian String Quartet Concertmaster, Handel and Haydn Society
Artistic Director, Aston Magna Festival
Baroque violinist, Boston Museum Trio Preceptor in Music, Harvard University

“I could not be happier with the way your instrument has worked out for me. I know I can count on perfect response, which is enhanced by its evenness throughout all the registers, coupled with a warm, focused, and powerful sound on all strings. I enjoy the double-takes other violinists do when they try it out. The question immediately following is: Where did you get this thing?!? I am in love with the voice of my instrument and profoundly grateful to be its owner!”

Daniel Vega-Albela La Catrina Quartet

The Newsletter for the Cox Violin Community Fall ~ 2007

Dear Friends,

Twenty-five years ago this fall I set up a small workspace on the front porch of a row house in Watertown, Massachusetts, and began my career as a violinmaker. I had already spent ten years heading the repair and restoration department at the J. Bradley Taylor violin shop in Boston, but starting my own business as a maker was an exciting new challenge. Over that first year in Watertown I built both instruments and relationships—with players, teachers, colleagues, and others.

Much has changed for me since the summer of 1982. I now work in a studio in the foothills of the green mountains of southeastern Vermont instead of on a porch in Watertown. More importantly, I am part of a community of almost two thousand people I’ve met through my work: owners of instruments I’ve built, teachers, fellow instrument makers, and other interesting people. This community is a gift, and it provides me with the inspiration and support to continue my work.

Over the years I have produced nearly six hundred instruments. These violins and violas can now be found across North and South America, Asia, and Europe. They are in orchestras and chamber groups—both professional and amateur—and they are used to make all kinds of music, from jazz, to folk, to new age, to music that does not yet even have a name, and they are played by musicians of all levels and styles. The recipients of this newsletter are a wonderfully diverse group.

I hope that my instruments have helped musicians to grow as players because my interactions with all of you have certainly allowed me to grow as a maker. I’ve had opportunities to develop new ideas and try new things, to learn what works and what does not. My primary concern has always been with the sound production and playing characteristics of my instruments, with their effectiveness as musical tools in the hands of players. It is the experience of those who play my instruments that shapes and directs my practice as a violinmaker.

I am grateful to everyone who has become part of this community. Thank you for your support and for providing me with the ideas and connections that continue to inspire my work.

Douglas Cox signature

FROM THE BENCH

Douglas at the BenchWorking at the bench is primarily a matter of shaping wood, and most of this process is guided by the eye and the touch of the maker. But the ultimate goal is to have the best possible sound and response for the player. A constant challenge for me as a maker is to understand how the way I shape wood will affect the sound and responsiveness for players.

This summer, I explored this challenge at Oberlin College, when I again attended the annual violin acoustics workshop organized by the Violin Society of America. This workshop allowed me to meet with other instrument makers, acousticians, and players to expand and develop my understanding of how the violin works, which will better inform the choices I make in my work.

The acoustics workshops have focused on three questions: What is a great violin sound and how do we know when we’ve achieved it? What details determine small differences in sound? And how can we use experimentation protocols and share information to improve the quality and effectiveness of modern violinmaking?

If we can open our thinking about how the violin can function for the next generation of music-making, it creates the possibility of using the accumulated experience, imagination, and tools of makers past and present to go beyond the current limits of the violin.

What constitutes good sound is the major issue. The usual goal is to reproduce the sound of the great Italian violins, but this practice leads to a problem: the “Strad ceiling.” This is what makers call the belief that it’s impossible to make anything sound better than those venerable instruments.

Because sound is so subjective and depends on so many variables other than the instrument itself (such as the player, the bow, and the setting), some workshop members are using the latest measuring and analytical tools to develop an easy-to-use and reproducible system to create an acoustic fingerprint of what we hear as the voice of a violin. These tools may be able to analyze experiments and train the ears and insights of makers. I have not yet included such systems in my work, but the idea of capturing the subtleties of each instrument’s voice—and differentiating between the voices of various instruments—seems very promising.

Some of this exciting work makes use of computer-assisted visualizations of the motion of the violin body as it vibrates. Information from laser measuring devices and modal analysis systems can then be shown as a slow-speed animation of how the violin vibrates, bends, and stretches as it’s played. Medical imaging technology is also allowing non-intrusive recording of the physical properties of violins.

One of the greatest assets I have as a maker is the experience I’ve gained building many instruments, as well as the records I’ve kept. I hope eventually to be able to use the insights of the acoustics workshop to make better use of my experience, and I hope that these explorations of sound will help young makers learn more readily from their own experience.

What are the next areas for me to explore in the quest for the perfect violin? The collegial atmosphere, diverse perspectives, and extensive knowledge and experience of those gathered at Oberlin allow these thoughts to grow. I’ve returned to my bench with new ways to think about my work, new insights to feed my understanding, and new practices and techniques to help me learn more. It’s an exciting time to be making violins.

MAKING CONVERSATION

I was recently interviewed by a local writer about the process of making a violin. I thought the conversation might be of some interest…

Carving the violin topLet’s start at the beginning: What’s the first step in making a Cox violin?
Well, I age the wood for at least ten years, so setting aside wood that I’ll be using a decade later is the first step. I generally use wood grown here in New England. Choosing the wood is a crucial part of the process, since you can’t have a great violin without good wood. Also, the different types of wood—usually spruce for the top and maple for the back, ribs, and neck—have to match. I start by taking the blocks of wood and rough shaping the top and back, which I then let sit for two to four weeks to relieve any tension in the wood before going any further. Next, the ribs are bent and glued onto the corner and end blocks on a form defining the shape of the violin. The plates and neck are carved and assembled on the rib cage. After the construction is complete, I stain and seal the wood, then hang the instrument in the sunlight for three to six months to harden and take on a stable color before I add the varnish. The entire process takes about a year.

What’s involved in the process of designing the violin?
Before I start any of the construction, I think about what I’m trying to do visually and acoustically. I have about forty patterns that I’ve developed over the years, and I usually pick a pattern that I think will provide a good start for what I want to produce. As I go through the process of selecting wood and building the violin, I’m constantly thinking about what changes I want to make to the pattern. I try to respond to the way the instrument develops as I go along.

What happens to the instrument once it’s been built?
Measuring the woodAfter construction, I have the instrument played for a while to help it settle. Then I make any necessary adjustments, such as adjusting the bridge and post, or changing the strings and string angles. At that point, I consider it about half done. Once it leaves the shop, it will be played more, of course, so there are more adjustments to make, and the occasional repair as well. I like to think that my instruments will be around for quite a while, so construction is really only the beginning of a very long life span.

In the process of building a violin, how do you determine what the instrument is going to sound like?
I think the most important factor is the graduation—the thickness of the materials. After that, the wood itself, then the pattern used (especially the arch design), then the varnish and the set-up of the instrument.

Do you usually have a good sense of how the instrument will sound when it’s completed?
After all these years, I do have a good idea of what the instrument’s sound will be, but there is still some sense of mystery. I’ve learned where the instrument needs to be stiff and strong, and where it should be more flexible, and how this will affect the voice of the instrument, but there are times when I’m surprised by how it all works together. My work with the acoustics workshop is also helping me understand how everything fits together to produce the right sound. At times, it does seem like the more I know, the more I have to learn. But that’s a good feeling.

What have you learned over the years?
I think I’ve learned to make more tonally interesting instruments, which I think is the result of paying closer attention to sound. My goal has always been to make instruments that respond to the player, have a range of tone color, and have distinct personalities. This means that not every instrument I make is right for every player, but I hope individual players can find an instrument that feels just right.

CHOOSING A VIOLIN

Cox Violins waiting to be chosenChoosing an instrument is one of the most important—and sometimes difficult—decisions musicians have to make, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here are a few tips on navigating the selection process. I hope they can help make choosing your next instrument a manageable—and even enjoyable—experience.

To figure out what you’re looking for in an instrument, play as many instruments as possible. Borrow them from friends, stand partners, and anyone else willing to let you try their instrument. If you’re moving up significantly in quality, it helps to spend some time playing other instruments of that level before you look more seriously for your own instrument.

The most important things to consider are the sound quality, condition, and appearance of the instrument. How much power does the instrument have? Do you like the tone? Does it play easily, or do you really have to work to produce sound? Try changing the bow speed and pressure to see how the instrument sounds and responds. A well-made instrument’s sound will improve with age, but even a new instrument should sound good. Unlike vocalists, you get to choose your voice, so make sure you pick one that sounds true to yourself.

The second part of the process requires compromises. There’s always the issue of price, and you should also think about what is most important to you. Are you willing to trade a bit of flexibility for more power? Can you still play softly and sweetly if you get that powerful instrument? This process can help you learn about yourself as a player. Once you find an instrument you think might work for you, spend a week playing it to get to know it. Then, take another week to play it in all the conditions in which it will normally be played — try it in different halls and accompanied by other instruments. After those two weeks, you should have a pretty good sense of what the instrument can do and whether it’s for you.

Teachers can help with your decision, but ultimately it’s up to you. An instrument you love can help you become a better player. It’s the best players who spend the most time practicing, and you won’t want to practice if you don’t enjoy your instrument. Try to buy the most responsive instrument you can afford. There is not one single, perfect instrument out there waiting for you, but there is probably one that both fits your budget and sounds just the way you’d hoped.

After you’ve made the big decision, the final step is to learn from the instrument you’ve chosen.
Each has its own personality, so it will take time to figure out how to play it. But if you’ve chosen the right instrument, this is the most enjoyable part of the process, so have fun!