Andy is a luthier. He lives in the world of stringed instruments, making, repairing, and restoring violins, violas, and cellos – and bows. He and his wife Julie, a teacher, have two sons, 6th grader Isaac and 9th grader Elijah. They and the boys ski together, mountain bike together, and climb together. To the point where Elijah is very much into bicycles, and Isaac (who will become a Bar Mitzvah in October (on Halloween)) is a very good competitive climber.
Andy grew up with his brother and parents in Cherry Hill, NJ, and after stops at a few colleges along the way, he graduated from Wesleyan before eventually attending the Chicago School of Violin Making. His studio, Fein Violins, is on Grand Avenue, literally doors down from the Grandview Theatre. From that studio, and along with a staff of three, and connections around the world, he plies his trade from a large workbench facing a picture window with a commanding view of life along Grand Avenue.
So you initially studied chemistry and biology, what prompted you to leave that career?
My first job was working as a chemist at a chemical factory in Camden NJ. I started in the factory, like household, cleaning chemicals. And when I finally became a ‘real’ chemist there, one of my jobs was to get dressed up in a hazmat suit and go out and find out what was from oozing from the barrels in the yard. And I felt there had to be a better way to make a living. It was like your nightmare of a New Jersey chemical company.
What were some of your Jewish experiences when you were young?
Growing up in Cherry Hill, I was active in the youth group of Temple Emanuel, and I was a song leader there and in the regional youth group (PAFTY). All because I went to NFTY’s leadership camp – Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. I had gotten a scholarship from Temple Emanuel to attend Kutz Camp, and as it turns out, it’s had a lifelong impact!
I see a lot of instruments around your shop. Do you mostly make, or repair violins?
I make an instrument maybe once every five years but I also work with three shops in Europe – I share my wood with one of them – and they make my forms and I finish them here. And I also restore very old, very valuable instruments. This one I’m working on right now might fall into the category of repair, but it was completely unplayable. It’s more of a restoration to me. This violin was made by a man of no small ego. His name was Rimo De Giorgio. He lived in the town of Cremona, which is the town where Stradivari, Amati, all those people lived.
So he gave himself the name Giorgio de la Cremona! You can see there’s a label in there, and it’s also brand stamped, he burned his initials inside. It was made in 1917.
What would be the most famous or expensive violin you’ve worked on, have you worked on a Stradivarius?
Stradivari made maybe 2600 violins in his lifetime and there are still about 600 in existence and yes, I have worked on them, and I’ve sold them. I’m still actively in the process of selling a couple.
I’ve worked on Pinchas Zukerman’s Guarneri del Gesù that a lot of people feel are a bit better. But they are very quirky instruments, whereas Strads are considered very predictable, true to form. A del Gesù is not a symmetrical instrument, they are quirkier and generally for soloists. There are only about 50 or 60 del Gesù violins still left in the world.
Where do you find your wood today? I assume it is very special somehow.
Most of the wood I use today I bought many years ago, it was kind of happenstance. Many people have been using European wood, which is great wood, but I met a Sikh fellow one time. His family had been woodcutters since before WWII. Where do you meet someone like that, you might ask? Well it was in the subways of Chicago, I was travelling with another friend and we were drawing out designs, and he asked if we were instrument makers. And he sent us some samples and it was incredible stuff. His family had cut wood in the foothills of the Himalayas for many years. So it was very slow growth wood, high altitude wood, it is fantastic wood. So over the years we’ve bought a bunch of that. It’s nothing exotic, its spruce for the top, and maple for the back and sides and neck.
Where do you keep this wood, do you keep it in a climate controlled chamber, like a humidor for cigars?
It’s best is when it’s air dried. A lot of it is in Europe right now. Actually in an outdoor shed with air circulation, that works better than humidity control.
And how do you judge wood – do you see it, do you feel it, do you tap on it? How do you know?
All of the above. We also use what we call a Lucchi meter that measures how sound travels through the instrument. But for all of that, just to be able to tap the wood, and flex it, seems to be the best judgment.
In a way, what you do reminds me of the scribes we’ve seen who create and repair Torahs, in terms of the experience and skills and dexterity involved, and the attention to the materials that you use. I know you chant Torah at Temple quite often, and you’ve mentioned that your great grandfather was a sopher (Torah scribe). Are violins kind of like Torahs, in that they might reach such a state that they cannot be repaired?
No, there are violins that are 400 or 500 years old that are still being played.
And what about this as a business – it seems you’re doing well, but if I might be so bold, do you have an “exit strategy”?
Violin makers tend to die at their work bench.
It’s not like a business you can really sell. And there are enough schools to teach new violin makers, so it’s not worth it for me to bring on an apprentice.
While in ways reminiscent of the life of a sopher, it seems also a better way to make a living for at least one former chemist from New Jersey.