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Master Pieces : Reputation Based on Violins Would Be Music to the Ears of Orange County Artisans


"My real profession is to make instruments as best I can, one after another, like artists make statues," Weisshaar says. "But I couldn't afford to do this all day. Out front, selling supplies, making repairs, a salesman is not the answer. People want to see the doctor, not a nurse."

Violin makers in this country are concentrated on the two coasts and in the major metropolitan cities--New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, according to Rena Weisshaar.

She decries what she calls "rampant amateurism" in violin making and repair, which she says can result in "damage to fine old instruments. . . . The system in this country is that anyone can enter the field."

She believes the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, with about 85 members, helps protect instrument makers and the public. Five members work in Los Angeles; she is the sole member in Orange County.

"The Federation is very strict," Weisshaar says. "Americans aren't used to that. It's as if quality is discrimination--if you choose some people over others you are discriminating. In Germany, you have to qualify to join an organization. [You can't join] because you are nice and have a friend to help you."

Foster, who belongs to a separate professional group, the Violin Society of America, counters that such groups are often "kind of a fraternal thing."

"I've been a member [of the Violin Society] for 15 years, but I don't think its goal is to exclude most people," he says. "I'm not into organizations. I let my reputation stand for itself in the community."

Foster says reputation is all that matters.

"The proof is in the product," Foster says. "If you play it and it sounds like caca, your word-of-mouth is going to be unsuccessful. It doesn't matter what fraternity you belong to; it's the public, the musicians that assess your work."

When a violin leaves the maker's shop, it becomes an instrument in the hands of a musician. And, if it stands the test of the centuries, perhaps many musicians.

Within the world of violin makers, some think of their work as art; others think of it as a high-skill craft. It is an ongoing debate, Weisshaar says.

"Jascha Heifetz had a beautiful old Italian instrument, which is in a San Francisco museum since his death," she says. "Many of us have had this instrument in our hands.

"We had a meeting in San Francisco, and museum custodians in white gloves brought this instrument to the instrument makers who had worked on this instrument, with instructions not to let anybody touch it.

"Sometimes this is laughable," Weisshaar says. "Is it art, [to look at] behind glass . . . or is it for making music? In centuries past, this instrument was probably used in a church somewhere. Maybe even in a hoedown."

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