WORLD BAZAAR - Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta violin maker keeps strings of history in tune

Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Stephanie Voss carves out history with her hands.

The master violin maker from Hamburg, Germany, restores, repairs and makes from scratch fine string instruments in her home studio. Lining the walls of the  workroom are three dozen violins. A cello made in the 1780s and valued at more than $80,000 sits on her bench, awaiting her attention.

Graduated files and chisels lined up at arm's reach, Voss spends her days playing these instruments in a different way. Rather than stroking them with a bow or plucking their strings, she must coax the secrets of instrument makers who have been dead a couple of centuries.

"We're trying to preserve as much of the old violin makers' work as possible," she says.

With their varying shades of rich browns, intricate wood graining and varnished sheen, these instruments could be called a work of art themselves. Voss argues with that description.

"They are pretty things," she says. "But they are made to make music. If they don't make the right sound, they disappear in time."

And the instruments she spends her days with are, after all, only "tools that make art," she says.

It was no coincidence that Voss chose this as her profession. Her grandfather, a music teacher, taught her as a child. ("The first time I held a violin in my hands I was 4 years old and much too young, according to my grandfather, because he took it away from me," she says, laughing.)

Her father, a clarinetist, worked for Steinway & Sons in Hamburg. Through one of his co-workers, Voss first became interested in violin making, eventually working at Steinway part time through high school. She learned to play classical guitar and trumpet -- and some violin. With the cello and viola, "I know scales to adjust them, but I wouldn't want to give a concert."

Upon graduation, she was one of 12 students accepted out of 600 applicants to the famed Mittenwald School of violin making in southern Bavaria in Germany. In 1995, she chose to come to the United States to work for a violin shop in Atlanta. After four years, she went solo.

Voss' customers are professional musicians, collectors and everyday music students -- primarily from around the Southeast, though she takes in work from shops in the Northeast and one customer sends instruments for repair and maintenance all the way from Tokyo. "Going to a violin maker for a musician is like going to a doctor for most people," she says. "It has to be someone you know and trust."

In addition, she makes new instruments from the stack of European spruce and Bosnian maple that sits atop an armoire in her studio. These new pieces are most time-consuming, taking up to 4 1/2 months of full-time work, including time for the multiple coats of varnish to dry.

And she also buys old instruments at auction -- mostly from wholesalers in Europe -- and restores them for resale. Like people, the instruments have personalities, she says. "Maybe it's like a chemistry between human beings. Some instruments you like; others you go, 'Oh my God, what were they thinking?' It's after a while that it reveals more and more about itself.

"We are just caretakers of these instruments while we're alive. They are so much older than we will ever be. They will survive their owners by hundreds of years."

Despite her modesty and even protestations to the contrary, Voss finally admits that, yes, these instruments she devotes her life to are more than just "tools."

"They are works of art."

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