There is no single secret to making a good violin. There are thousands of secrets to making a good violin. The truth is that just like making any complex structure, success in violin making depends on the individual and cumulative effects of hundreds of tiny decisions made during the process.
Playing the violin, or any instrument is very similar. At any moment during a performance, hundreds of questions are being decided, about bow pressure, bow speed, articulation, timing , phrasing, bow direction, shifting, slurring, dynamics, tempo etc.etc. not to mention even more subtle matters of interpretation and style. It’s a wonder any music gets played with so many questions simultaneously on a musician’s mind.
The answer of course, lies in the fact that these questions are not fully active in the musician’s mind, or at least not in their “Small mind”, that less than 5% of the mind which is under our conscious control. Our “Big mind” which is that unconscious 95% we trust with the infinite complexities of running our bodies, coordinating our breathing, circulation, nervous and endocrine systems etc. not to mention our even more complex psychological and spiritual welfare; this is the part of our mind that keeps us alive, and to which we turn when we have needs that are important or very complex. i.e. Playing an instrument or making a violin.
Just as thoughts are the language of the “Small mind”, instincts and intuition are the language of the “Big mind”. The reason that musicians and instrument makers can function at the high level of complexity that they do, is that they have trained in their craft, to such a high degree that their “Small minds” no longer need to struggle with the mechanical practicalities , which they have long ago mastered. What is needed goes beyond mere physical skill and dexterity, and that can only be supplied by the unconscious 95% of the “big mind” communicating with them through almost imperceptible intuition. Picasso understood this when he said “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child” The four years gave him access to his “Small mind” while the lifetime was needed to allow him to access his “Big mind”.
If you think this requires sensitivity, you’re absolutely right. Between 15% to 20% of the population could be classified as Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), which means that they have a neural trait which makes them more aware of subtleties which they then process more deeply than others. (See The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron 1999) . These people have a natural neural disposition which allows them greater access to the subtle language of intuition, which on the one hand grants them great advantages in dealing with complex and subtle tasks like playing music or creating instruments of music, but on the other hand, can sometimes leave them over stimulated and overwhelmed.
Artists, scientists and creative people generally come from this group, and if you are alive to the beauty of music, you are probably in this group too. Surprisingly, not every violinmaker has this trait. There are those who constantly seek some simplistic formula or chemical secret, or who slavishly copy every detail of Stradivari’s work, not realising that he varied every instrument in ways that cannot be measured or easily reasoned. I am a Highly sensitive & Intuitive person myself, and I use these abilities every day in my work, to make instruments that sound as musicians wish them to sound, and to restore particular voices to damaged instruments. I have realised that my skills, training and experience will get me quite a long way but if I want to go further I need to access the 95% of my brain that can easily cope with matters too complex for the less intuitive and more down to Earth 5%. From many years of research into violinmaking I have also discovered tangible evidence that the greatest works of Stradivari and Guarneri were also guided by the intuitive skills of these great makers. This also explains why many millions of pounds and years of painstaking scientific research into Stradivari’s work, have failed to produce anything more than plausible facsimiles. What they are trying to measure and quantify is far too subtle to be measured and quantified. It’s like trying to teach a computer to give a musical performance with human qualities.
We are indeed strange creatures, for we invest an almost mystical quality to the heart touching tone of a beautiful violin played by a master musician, yet we try to reproduce these qualities mechanically and by computer. Just as great violin playing is a human art, so too is the art of fine violin making. The best violins will always be the result of the combination of skill, sensitivity and intuition of a violinmaker using his 95% capacity, whereas, the mechanical methods of the superficial copyist can only ever reflect the results of a 5% level of human involvement.
I am not condemning the practice of copying great works. This is how artists train, and for many years, I too copied every fine instrument that came my way. However, there comes a point when you cannot progress further through copying. After all, how do you copy the subtle, almost intangible instincts of another person. We can only follow our own instincts, and if we want to make the finest instruments we can, there is no other way. This is the greatest difference between a copy and an original. The original is guided by the instincts of the maker, whereas the copy lacks this human “soul” aspect. If great violin making contains any “secret”, this is it.