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Rye Violinist Makes Beautiful Music With Handcrafted Instruments

A violin at Robert Isley's studio in downtown Rye.
A violin at Robert Isley's studio in downtown Rye. Photo Credit: Carol Bloom Stevens

RYE, N.Y. -- Ever wondered how violins, violas and cellos are made?

Violin maker Robert Isley, who maintains a two-room studio in downtown Rye, says that a considerable amount of detail goes into crafting the string instruments.

For centuries, the surface of these instruments have been made from the wood of Canadian and Swiss spruce trees. The back, sides and neck are made from Maple trees from the Alps, Balkans and Bosnia.

Only “hide” glue, an adhesive made from the connective tissues, bones and skins of animals (usually cattle), is used to assemble them.

Isley studied the violin while a music major at East Carolina University.

Once, Isley said, while he was taking a lesson, someone walked in and exclaimed, "I quit."

As a student, Isley needed some extra cash, so he grabbed the job and starting fixing and maintaining all the school’s string instruments.

After graduating from the university with a degree in music, Isley gave up on the idea of making a living playing violins and starting learning how to make them.

He studied the craft at the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Isley discussed the Stradivarius when talking with a visitor recently about the differences between a good instrument and a great one.

Considered the most expensive violin, Strads are often purchased for investment purposes.

Isley said that if you were to examine a random collection of Strads, you might find that only a handful are of investment quality.

Violins require constant tune-ups and repairs to keep them in mint condition, and not all owners do that, he said.

Sometimes owners believe that they are sitting on a ton of money only to find -- after the instrument has been examined by experts such as Isley -- that the bow is more valuable than the violin itself, he said.

It’s all part of the rich and interesting mosaic of timeless musical instruments, the sounds they make and the values they create, Isley said.

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