Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Creativity in a Commercial World

Thanks for all the feedback about violin fittings.  Between the comments and direct emails the opinion was overwhelmingly for rosewood, with a few for ebony and almost no one speaking up for boxwood.  It actually caused me to order more sets of both rosewood and boxwood, because every individual piece is different in coloration and I decided I want a few more options before I choose.

Here's what it got me thinking about, though: As a luthier (or an artist, or a writer, or a designer, or a scientist....) who wants to make a living at it there is a constant tension between what one wants to do and what will sell. 

People ask me occasionally if I would make a violin in an unconventional color like blue.  I could, but someone would have to pay me for it up front because I don't think it would sell.  Classical players tend to be conservative in their tastes, and if you play in an orchestra there could actually be a clause in your contract about the appearance of your instrument.  But the truth is, I don't want to make a blue violin.  It doesn't appeal to me.  Maybe it will someday, but not today.  So would I build one if you paid me?  Probably. 

Is that selling out?  Not really.  It's a challenge to work within different parameters.  I would find a way to do it in a manner that I still found satisfying.  However, if a job completely offended all my sensibilities I would turn it down.  For instance, there is no price at which I would carve swastikas into my instruments.

So as much as I was leaning against rosewood fittings I'm reexamining the idea after all of your input.  The only person who shared my thoughts on fittings for my new violin, interestingly, was Aden.  She has a good sense of color and design and I trust her taste, so I asked what she thought.  She studied my violin for a minute against each of the tailpieces I had at home and then said she understood why everyone was attracted to the rosewood because it was pretty in and of itself and it did go with the varnish.  She liked the rosewood, but thought the boxwood was not as distracting.  This is what I was thinking, and is probably why most of the violins I've seen out there built by Stradivari and comparable people currently have boxwood fittings on them; so you will look at the actual lines of the instruments and not have your eye drawn too quickly to details.  I want people to look at the violin (which I made) as opposed to the fittings (which I didn't).  Boxwood is understated.  Rosewood is showy.

However, I also want this instrument to sell.  It should have a home and be out playing in the world or else what good is it?  If the general consensus is rosewood, and that feature is enough to give my violin an edge over another with a buyer, then it makes sense to use rosewood.  In the end the violin is not for me, so in some ways my preference doesn't matter, even if it's my work.

Klein viola 2008
Building an instrument for a competition affects my choices, too.  The last time I entered an instrument I made the mistake of using a viola I'd built to amuse myself because it was the only instrument I had available.  If I was going to be at the convention, I felt I should enter something and get feedback from the judges.  But this was not the right instrument to enter.  It has mismatched pegs because I liked them all and couldn't decide.  The varnish color is too bright with questionable shading elements.  The rib heights are extra tall because the viola was for my personal use and my neck can handle it.  I carved a little flower on the back of the scroll.  All of this made me happy while I was creating it.  It did not make judges happy.  Not at all.

Quirky Klein Scroll
But there is a big difference between what judges like and what regular people like.  People like unusual touches and unique elements on their instruments.  They want things to be special.  Judges just want things to be correct, and you have to earn the right to branch out creatively or deviate from the standard.  And since Stradivari set the standard, it's dauntingly high.

The first instrument I ever entered in a Violin Society competition was a violin on which I used a combination of potassium dichromate and tannic acid to create the ground color under the varnish.  It gives the wood an aged look that I kind of liked.  People loved it.  Judges hated it.  Every judge said, "Oh, potassium dichromate?" and shook his head.  But that instrument only took a month to sell.  Whatever judges are judging versus what people are judging can certainly be different.

I've been going back and forth in my mind about this question with my writing as well.  Fellow writers try to console me as I'm getting buried in rejections that it has less to do with writing and more to do with business.  It doesn't matter if an agent likes my book, it matters if an agent can sell my book.  And selling books is becoming a very complicated business indeed with everything about the industry in flux, so I don't know what to make of it.  I don't want to write books while thinking about what sells.  I just want to write good books.  I feel if I ever start writing based on what other people want then I shouldn't bother, but is it really more personal than building violins?  Maybe what the judges in that industry want is different from what people want anyway, and I should just bypass the system somehow.  I need to think about that more.

In the meantime, I'm getting my new violin ready to play.  This one is constructed by the book because I want useful feedback.  I do not want anyone distracted by color or creative carving or pegs that are fun, I just want to know what things I might be doing well and how I can improve.  Will rosewood vs. boxwood affect that?  I don't think so, but it's hard to say.

I like this violin and I'm looking forward to hearing it.  I like that it is simple and straightforward.  But I have some overly creative ideas that would probably make judges keel over and I plan to get to those soon.  Because some things you make to sell, and some things you just make because they must be made.  Stay tuned.  (And no, I didn't realize until I typed it that that was a pun.)

My two latest violins, all polished up!


  1. Ah yes, writing what you want to write or writing what will sell/receive the most page views/comments/etc. I think that as an early-stages blogger, I may feel that more than a blogger who is more established. Still finding my sealegs within what interests me and what I am passionate about.

    Some posts I wrestle with and spend hours writing, taking photos, putting together, editing. Some I write off the cuff with little editing. And sometimes the latter ends up receiving more interest.

    There's honour in sticking with what you love but there is also honour in writing well what will earn you a living (or making the violins that will pay the rent).

    As an aside, I was at a house concert last Sunday where Jan Vogel played his Stradivarius Cello. 25 adults and kids attended. The usual pieces - Bach Cello works, etc. It was heavenly.

  2. I totally understand your conflict about the writing. I say write from the heart. Write good books. be passionate. Over time, your path will reveal itself. Beautiful violin. My grandfather played the violin. It is an instrument of the soul. Best Wishes!

  3. Great post, Kory. It definitely is a fine line between selling out and simply needing to make a living. Or wanting to try something different. I like the idea that even though you're not a fan of some things customers want (i.e. a blue violin!) you are interested in the challenge of making it happen. And who knows; your feelings about aesthetics may change as a result!

    And the writing thing is so tough. Although it's easy to say that you have to write from the heart, it's easier said than done when you're facing rejection or are, say, under huge pressure to fill your posts full of slide shows. :-)

  4. Trust your instincts - I'm sure you will.

    What do you write? I mean, other than a blog?

    When I was a kid I knew from the start that I wanted to play the flute. And I did, and I loved it. But I love LISTENING to the violin. I'd love for one of my kids to play.

    1. I like writing novels and short stories. I've been sending out queries to agents about my first novel for a while, as well as a non-fiction proposal for a collection of the correspondence with my husband while he was deployed the first time. It's disheartening to have hundreds of people give you the form letter version of a shrug about your work, so writing is fun, but getting published is not for the weak.

      It's never too late to start violin! If your kids do Suzuki method parents are usually expected to play along at home and during lessons. Could be good!

  5. Fascinating. I love how you relate your writing to your violin crafting, which is something I am enjoying learning about, by the way! I write what I want to write, mainly, and am basically baffled by what does or doesn't strike a chord with readers. I realize I should probably try to find a niche to fit in if I want to build readership, but then my blog wouldn't be for ME anymore.

    1. You know, with my blogging the only audience I've ever given consideration to is my children. I try hard not to tell stories that are really theirs to tell if they choose. But then, I don't make my living writing a blog, either. I write because I love to write.

  6. I remember diagrams in the paper about ergonomic instruments - maybe one of the members of the CSO had a non-standard-shaped viola (which he probably didn't use in concerts!).

    But the acoustics would have to work internally as well. I imagine that was thought of. Your "blue violin" mention made me remember that piece.

    1. Violists are more open to unconventional designs, maybe partially because we're under less scrutiny? But yes, there are some crazy things, including the Pellegrina viola by David Rivinus (an extremely nice man) which looks like something out of a Dali painting. (Worth the Google time!)

    2. WOAH! Blew my mind! And the lady staring out at me from the top of the scroll on the 6-string was a trip!!

      Thanks for sending me to learn something new. Very interesting!