Tucson firm still has violin market on a string - East Valley Tribune: Business

Tucson firm still has violin market on a string

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Posted: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 9:31 am | Updated: 1:44 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

TUCSON -- It's an oddly quiet and peaceful place for a warehouse of so much future noise - from awful to sublime.

But at Southwest Strings, headquartered in an innocuous building near the post office, hundreds - sometimes thousands - of violins await shipment to their new owners.

The 30-year-old privately owned local company is probably unknown to most Tucson residents, but it's one of the busiest sellers of student violin-family instruments (violin, viola, cello, bass) in the country.

"We're one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the country to school programs," said Rebecca Ensley, who heads up the department that inspects and prepares the imported instruments for sale.

Southwest Strings' record school sale sent 350 violins, 80-some cellos and 39 basses to one school district, Ensley said.

The company also sells and repairs new and used, or "vintage," mid- to high-level professional instruments.

At the top end, "We had a Paolo Vettori (violin), $17,000 to $18,000," said Adan Rico, who heads up the repair shop.

But student instruments make up the bulk of the sales, said Sydney Cook, a supervisor in the business office. They're sold "mail order" through a glossy 32-page catalog, the company's Web site or its retail showroom or directly to schools.

Southwest Strings also wholesales instruments to music stores, but that is the smallest sales category, Ensley said.

Violins range in price from $150 for a beginners kit to more than $10,000 - and occasionally far beyond - for professional-quality instruments, Ensley said.

The beginners instruments are made in Germany, Eastern Europe or, increasingly, China.

"Violin making in China is nothing like it was even five years ago," said Rico. "They were poorly made. But a lot of (Chinese) makers since have received excellent training. One of the guys we deal with, Scot Cao, he's a really good maker. They make a great product."

Rico appreciates a variety of styles of music. Now 29, he started playing violin when he was 9 and continues to play with Mariachi Cielo de Mexico.

It's his job as a luthier to get the sound out of an instrument that a musician wants, often by delicate adjustments, even things as subtle as a bridge with a particular type of wood grain.

Rico apprenticed locally but has twice studied under a master at a Paris violin shop.

Correct setup and repair service are every bit as important for a big catalog, mail order or Internet instrument dealer as for a local shop, he said.

The student instruments, in particular those from China, may have had a rough life getting to Tucson. Before the school-season demand period, which starts in late July and peaks in October, the company may receive two or three shipping containers packed with violins, violas, cellos and basses.

A transoceanic trip from the other side of the world in a giant shipping container and another leg across the desert from the Port of Los Angeles to Tucson constitute an ordeal for a delicate wooden instrument.

Some trips are worse than others. One time, Ensley said, a shipment showed up with vegetables in some of the instrument boxes after the truck had a collision with a produce load.

She said it takes from an hour to an hour and a half to set up each instrument - between 10,000 and 15,000 instruments a year - so that it's fit to play.

"This department is the backbone," Ensley said of the group of technicians adjusting the string height, bridge placement and fingerboard finish on instruments awaiting shipment.

The technicians also make adjustments in the setup based on the climate the customer lives in. Differences in humidity change the string height. A violin going to soggy Florida takes a different adjustment from one bound for a Southwest home.

To protect that setup work, the company takes care to route shipments to minimize exposure to extreme heat and cold.

The recession has touched Southwest Strings, but Cook said the company has been partially protected from the school-district budget slashing going on nationwide, "because of the importance of music and the arts." Parents, teachers and administrators have tried to keep it in the forefront in many districts.

Although Cook wouldn't disclose sales figures, the company's staff growth and physical size speak for its success.

Owned by Celta Godfrey Sheppard and Stephen Sheppard, the company began with three employees and now has 36 - nearly all musicians, many of them students, Cook said. It began in a 2,500-square-foot building, moved to a 10,000-square-foot building with 4,000 feet of offsite storage, and a few years ago moved to the 30,000-square-foot building.

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