BROOKLYN, N.Y.—On a brisk Fall morning in 2006, David Mignano road his bicycle from Brooklyn to my Westchester home some 25 miles away. All that way he had enjoyed nature, the great old bridges, and the architecture, which spoke to him as he pedaled.
When he arrived, I was practicing and told him the viola was sounding “tight”—probably I had not practiced enough. He tweaked the sound post (the little stick inside the violin or viola, which the French call âme or soul).
Instantly, the viola responded, and sounded better and brighter. But then he noticed something else.
“Here, let me see,” he said. “I think the pitch needs to be raised,” meaning the angle of the neck. It had likely fallen due to the summer weather, thereby changing the geometry of the pull of the strings on the neck and the transmission of the vibration through the bridge.
Born in the early 1950s, David Mignano played bass in blue grass groups and jazz groups in Florida. He was a carpenter for many years while living in the tropics. He even had his own painting company, and his customers trusted him implicitly.
Now David is a wonderful violin and viola maker, humble about his lack of formal training. He is a very gentle soul with sensitivity and intelligence, whose every violin or viola is imbued with a special character.
Actually, the beautiful box called the violin is a simple, yet ironically, complicated beast. Little is known about how exactly the resonance of sound bounces around inside the box and is projected outwards. In the right hand a horsehair bow scrapes over the strings (with rosin to help grip them), while the fingers on the left hand serve as moveable frets, since violins do not have frets like guitars.
David senses exactly what a player needs in the instrument to have it sound its best—no small task. Many luthiers would just tell you what is supposed to be and that is that. They are not interested in adjusting an instrument for the player.
Some players have fatter sonorities due to more natural weight in their physical makeup. They know how to pull a big sound out of the instrument easily. However, if a little girl plays, she can also pull out a big sound if she knows how to compensate for her slightness and skinnier fingers.
The set ups for different players is a study in itself. In other words, a size-7 shoe does not fit everyone.
As a luthier, David has an unusually keen ear. This ever-present fact is key to his reputation as one of the best sound people around. Simply put, if your instrument is out of whack with set ups, he can fix it so that it is singing and its strings buzzing under the bow in no time.
I have spent considerable time with David working on various violas. If Henry David Thoreau were around he might just visit David near Walden Pond and present him with a pair of freshly downed cherry trees, and some aged slabs cut from a similar family of trees.
Creative violin makers are always experimenting with different woods, including willow, poplar, and perhaps a church pew sent to the garbage dump but made of beautiful old-growth maple from hundreds of years ago. Spruce is normally used for the top and maple for the back of the violin. But many different woods have been used.
A friend living in Brazil collects railroad ties to make beautiful pernambucco bows. Sadly, these trees now are an endangered species. From time to time they may be found as used trestles or as fence posts.
When David speaks of making his own varnishes and boiling them in the open air to let the sun soak into the natural wood, he is in another world. Add some turmeric into the mix and a wonderful yellow color comes out in the varnish. Mix in some natural resins and amber reigns, he explains.
No need to look to the latest great salesman from France, Italy or perhaps Russia for a superb new violin or a viola. Look no further than Brooklyn, where a master resides. David Mignano will take great care of your instrument needs and inspire you with his honesty and generosity.
Just then the phone rang. A school desperately needed their instruments repaired for an upcoming event. They knew David Mignano was the one to call and again he had to take time away from building instruments, which is his art.
The life of a violin and viola maker is not at all easy. With the talent David has, he should be able to devote himself to superbly crafted works of art; instead, to supplement his income, he must fix instruments. David finds himself fixing many instruments, including guitars at times.
An artist like David would have benefited in the Baroque times where barons and kings supported artisans focused solely upon their craft.
I would be remiss to omit the great support David Mignano has had from the fine violin dealer in Manhattan, Gregory Singer. Singer is himself an excellent fiddler and comes from a family rich in the tradition of music. He personally introduced me to Mr. Mignano and upon his word set forth a fine friendship.
Eric Shumsky is a concert violist. For more information, see www.shumskymusic.com.
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