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Renaissance Couple

John O'Neill '55 and Nelle Doak O'Neill '56 make beautiful music together.

John and Nelle on a Rockies hike

Former IC violin student Nelle Doak O’Neill ’56 now makes violins. Her husband, John O’Neill ’55, studied clarinet and music theory and now photographs wildflowers, composes music, conducts, and teaches violin. Although they’re both past retirement age, they probably would not know how to conduct themselves should they ever actually retire.

It’s clear to see why: they love their work.

John, who grew up in central New York, began studying clarinet in fourth grade with Emory McKerr ’37, M.S. ’52, learned more with Ed Timbrell ’42, and continued in high school with Bob Toft ’44, who hardly needed persuasion to convince John to attend Ithaca College.

John (who went by “Jack” at IC but later changed back for his work as a conductor) was a junior clarinet/theory major who was playing for Walter Beeler’s Concert Band when he met sophomore Nelle Doak. She too had been taught music (in New Jersey) by an IC graduate: Joseph Racina ’45. (Forty-five years later John and Nelle would discover that Toft and Racina had been Phi Mu Alpha fraternity brothers!)

Courtship was difficult. Nelle was scolded for impropriety when she waited out Hurricane Hazel in John’s parlor rather than returning to her dormitory, even with the streets blocked. “If a boy invited you to sit in his lap,” she recalls, “you were supposed to put down a sheet of newspaper first!”

In the summer between Nelle’s junior and senior years Nelle and John married. In 1963 the couple and their two children, Michael and Kathleen, moved to California. There John and Nelle organized and, for 18 years, managed the Los Gatos-Saratoga Symphony (John was conductor), and spent nearly three decades teaching in the San Jose area public schools. After early retirement in 1992 they moved to the high desert of Nevada to design and build their dream house, which stands nearly a mile above sea level in a spectacular setting and includes two teaching studios and an instrument-making shop, home to Carson Valley Violins, “the only full-service violin shop between Reno and Las Vegas.” That was also the year they founded the Carson Valley Violin School, which is now in its 15th year.

Nelle didn’t make her first violin until the age of 51, six years before the move to Nevada. (She made it completely on her own and to this day refuses to show it to anyone, even John.) But she had long been interested in the craftsmanship involved, having grown up with tools; her father had a woodworking shop.

In 1986 she began studying violin making and restoration with luthier (master violin maker) Edward Campbell. The sexism in the competitive field startled her, although she now says she is treated royally by her male colleagues. Nelle soon established a strong reputation, with her violas and violins winning national awards in both the overall and tone categories. For Nelle, tone and functionality are paramount. Her finishing and varnishing have also drawn praise.

John has taken numerous  photos documenting Nelle at work on her award-winning, one-of-a-kind creations

Nelle spends days on one of the most painstaking steps in the process: tuning the plates (partially carved sections of the instrument, supported on foam over a powerful speaker) to specific pitches that produce the best sound. To do so she uses—of all things—dancing tea leaves. First she suspends the plate over a loudspeaker connected to an amplifer and tone generator. She sprinkles the tea leaves randomly on the plate and turns up the volume at different frequencies. When the sound waves resonate in the wood, she explains, “the tea leaves make specific patterns on a plate at specific frequencies. Then I thin the wood [using the pattern as a guide] to get the result I want.”

Meanwhile, John was on his own odyssey. Semiretirement brought more time to compose; his new Celtic Suite No. 1 for string orchestra will be released shortly by TRN; other publishers of his work are Alfred, Belwin, and Warner Brothers. Photography, too, had always been a passion; today he specializes in American wildflowers. Since 2001 he has been writing a column for the Gardnerville Record-Courier, on topics ranging from the reasons behind the lack of a strings program in Nevada schools—“Strings don’t march,” he concluded—to satirical send-ups of George W. Bush. Beyond Nelle’s occasional admonition of “You’re holding the bow wrong,” and two semesters of strings while at IC, John had mastered the violin on his own. He teaches beginners and intermediates; she works with the more advanced students. John also built and maintains a fascinating website documenting Nelle’s violin-building process, bringing together music, photography, and technology: www.Music-FoodForTheBrain.com/vio.html.

John (right) and his photos of their spectacular backyard (left) and "dream home" (below)

John is not only webmaster; but even after 51 years of marriage he is also Nelle’s publicist and adoring fan. He describes the instruments she makes as “dazzling” and insists that the greatest accomplishment of his life was getting her to marry him. (For her part, Nelle praises John as “my Renaissance soul mate,” with extra plaudits thrown in for his gourmet cooking.)

Their daily schedule currently consists of an after-breakfast walk in the mountains that surround their home, violin-making time for Nelle and time for John to compose and photograph, followed by an afternoon of teaching strings. While at 72 and 74 their lives still revolve around music, given their wide-ranging interests and delight in life, it’s not hard to imagine that Nelle and John will yet find new passions to pursue. 

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