Featured article, February 2020

Spotlight On…The Brobst Violin Shop

I recently visited Brobst Violins to meet the owners of this business who have been supporting Cellospeak for many years, and to learn a few things that would be of interest to our readers. The music I heard when I first walked into the store was irresistibly beautiful, even though it clearly did not come from a cello.

In one of the large showrooms, Gerald Brobst was playing a violin, which he promised to tell me more about later. During our conversation he explained how this family business evolved over the past five decades, and also shared his thoughts on changes and trends in the string instruments service and sales industry.

Location and History

The Brobst Violin Shop is located in Alexandria, Virginia, right off the Capital Beltway and I-395. However, this oasis of tranquility and musical accomplishment feels light-years away from the nearby busy interchange and industrial park.

Growing up in a family of artisans, Gerald Brobst played the violin as a child, but wanted to do more with the instrument, so learning to build one was a natural progression. Combining a passion for music and outstanding craftsmanship, he and his father Loren Brobst founded Brobst Violins in 1966. They started their business with only one violin and two bows, and applied their talents, knowledge and technical expertise to what they loved: the restoration, repair and the building of string instruments. Little by little the Brobsts assembled wood and tools, continued to learn from luthiers, and gathered information from the Library of Congress instrument collections and various other sources.

During the early years the rental program for school instruments carried their business. Over time, their reputation for excellence allowed them to expand their services and move to a bigger store. In 1991 the shop moved to its present spacious location, where the entire family of craftsmen, artists, teachers and musicians continues to work together. Gerald Brobst is the president of Brobst Violins and also tries to find time to build violins and violas. His wife Emily’s domain is the extensive sheet music library of over 7000 titles and represents one of the largest sheet music collections available for strings. The passion for string instruments certainly runs in the family. Both the son, a daughter, and a son-in-law are involved in the family business, either in the workshop, in sales, or in curating and expanding their collection of fine instruments.

In the full-service workshop, experts build, restore and repair a wide range of string instruments. They take great pride in setting up any cello, viola, or violin, regardless of its value, to the same high professional standard. Listening to Mr. Brobst talk about his life, one senses the satisfaction that comes from running a company through hard work and honest business practices, and the quiet pride of growing a business without ever having to borrow money, or go into debt.

Changes and Trends in the Strings Business

Since 1966, Brobst Violins has expanded their collection of instruments to serve a world-wide clientele. In earlier times, dealers would travel to auctions, but the internet has changed that. Now, online auctions predominate.

As fine old instruments are becoming scarce, cellos, for example, are traded across international borders and continents. It is not unusual to have a representative overseas who can help match a valuable, rare instrument with a prospective customer.

According to Mr. Brobst, the Stradivarius Society or individual owners will sometimes loan these special instruments to musicians whose careers are greatly enhanced when they play a prized cello.

This reminded me of stories by our Cellospeak faculty who told of auditions and performing opportunities where the make and pedigree of their cello was a deciding factor. So, how do you recognize the quality of a string instrument? Brobst has a huge library of information about all the luthiers with photographs of their instruments. As specialists share information online, expertise has increased tremendously over the past few decades, so correctly identifying a cello is more reliable than ever before.

Essentials and Accessories

Many of us have been through the process of acquiring a cello and a bow, but it is not something we do very often. Mostly it’s about maintenance, such as replacing the strings, for example. It’s time for new strings when they start to unwind, become corroded, or snag your finger when you try to shift, or when the fifths do not sound true anymore. (Some of us need help with the latter one, because we do not have our ears trained well enough to hear that!) However, finding out what type of strings to put on your cello is a little more complex. Certain brands may sound good on one cello, but will not sound the same on another. At Brobst you can get advice on strings, and what works best for projection, blend, and your style of playing.

Your bow obviously needs to be re-haired if a lot of hair is lost, or if it is dirty, looks unhealthy, or when it does not sound good. Sometimes the problem is rosin, as un-rosined hair gives you very little or no bite on the strings. In general, darker rosins are better suited for cellos. But again, what works well with one bow does not automatically produce the same effect with another.

Not Just an Object, but Truly un Objet d’Art

We could have talked more about endpins, pegs and other cello parts but I had a rather personal question for Gerald Brobst. That is, I wondered if he gets attached to his instruments. His response: “When I play an instrument I get acquainted with the sound, its voice and its true nature. I feel like it is mine, but I know I will have to sell it to someone who wants it.”

While I was taking pictures of his showroom an exceptionally gorgeous violin caught my eye. It turned out to be the violin whose voice I heard upon entering the store. And I understood how the sound and the beautiful craftsmanship justify the price of such a piece of art!

By Agnes Manley, Cellospeak Board Member

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