In a sawdust-covered workshop in the rolling countryside just north of Ithaca, Robert J. Spear ’67, M.S. ’68, crafts modern versions of string instruments that virtually disappeared three centuries ago.
After making conventional violins, violas, and cellos for 15 years, Spear decided to take on the lost art of building string instruments similar to those that were part of the orchestral repertoire at the time of J. S. Bach. But as Spear makes them, they are not baroque but contemporary instruments scaled in eight different sizes, ranging from an 11-inch piccolo violin to a seven-foot contrabass.
“They fill in the gaps,” Spear says. “If you know anything about string instruments, we’re missing some. There should be an instrument between the viola and the cello, which has disappeared. In the 16th and 17th centuries, these instruments just fell victim to tastes in music, which changed.”
Spear, a bassist, found his way to violin making from his career as a music teacher. After graduating from Ithaca College with a bachelor’s in music and a master’s in education, Spear was hired as the elementary string teacher in Brentwood, Long Island. While there, he discovered that it was nearly impossible to keep the instruments maintained, so he set up his own repair shop in his house.
When he became the orchestra director at Ithaca High School in 1972, he moved his shop to a windowless room in the Dewitt Building downtown. At the same time, Spear began a 16-year run attending a summer violin repair workshop at the University of New Hampshire taught by Karl Roy, former director of the Bavarian State School for Violin Making.
Inspired by his mentor, Spear gradually transitioned from repairing violins and teaching string students to becoming a full-time luthier. “There just wasn’t enough of me to go around,” Spear says. “I had to make a choice, and the choice I made was to leave public school work and go out on my own.”
One of his early customers was Debra Moree, now a viola professor at Ithaca College, who first heard of Spear while teaching at Memphis State University. She bought Spear’s first handmade viola in 1983 and purchased a second one—a larger instrument with a darker sound—four years later.
“I think he’s a world-class instrument maker,” says Moree, who has played Spear’s violas for most of her performing career. “In the end, it really comes down to the devotion to the craft and taking his time making sure it is right.”
Spear soon became known for his cellos and sold one to Mstislav Rostropovich, the renowned Russian cellist and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., in 1988.
After studying with the violin acoustician Carleen M. Hutchins, who pioneered the eight-piece “new family” violins, Spear began experimenting with building instruments in new shapes and sizes.
In the workshop in his 6,000-square-foot home in Ulysses, Spear now makes between 6 and 10 instruments a year for his company, Singing Woods Violin. On an overcast April afternoon, Spear was constructing a five-stringed contrabass violin, which looks like a standard bass but is smaller, by request from a buyer.
Creating custom-made instruments is one of the services Spear enjoys because he can help musicians overcome their particular problem, such as playing a large instrument: “It just gives me a lot of pleasure to see a satisfied customer go out in the world with something that I made, and they’re not having to fight with it,” he says. “You’d be surprised how many musicians, especially string players, fight with their instruments, especially because of their size. That’s just not unusual for us in the string world.”