Seasoned viola player and luthier Igor Gersh picked up a damaged bow in his workspace, tucked into a corner of Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood.
Held together with aged wood, likely a century old, the hairs on the bow were torn.
“Ah, poor bow,” he said. “This is really beautiful stuff. You can’t find this in American markets.”
Gersh, 60, has a small space right next to the larger Ted’s Musicians Shop on East Center Street. Students from the neighboring Peabody Institute and people wanting to repair old violins come into Gersh’s shop every day.
Fernando and Alvaro Roman, co-owners of Ted’s Musicians Shop, decided to expand their business to include violin repair services a few months ago and hired Gersh to lead the new service.
People are very sensitive about who touches their violin or other stringed instrument, Alvaro Roman said, to the point they often don’t even take the instrument out of its case unless they are told the store has an experienced luthier.
When they meet Gersh, they open the case.
Gersh came to the United States 25 years ago from Russia, where he was a conservatory-trained viola player in Moscow. In his 30s, Gersh was a little too old to compete with younger musicians to get into a prestigious orchestra, so he enrolled in the Chicago School of Violin Making and enjoyed every minute of it.
Gersh’s musical background brought a unique skillset to the trade and allowed him to use his knowledge when making and repairing instruments.
“You’re understanding how it’s supposed to sound,” he said.
Gersh moved to Pikesville with his wife three years ago to be closer to their children, who live on the East Coast. At Ted’s, Gersh spends most of his time restoring German string instruments, or as Gersh calls it, “give them a second life.” The instruments date as far back as 1890.
Over the years, Ted’s, which first opened in 1931, has accumulated old German-made violins, “too many to count,” according to Roman.
Stepping back in time
While at first glance, Gersh’s workspace looks like a toolshed, stepping inside is like going back in time. One wall is lined with the violins he has repaired, while the others are full of little tools and gadgets. He calls the tools “old funny things,” many of which he finds at flea markets. He estimates some of those tools are as old, if not older, than the violins he repairs.
In the past two months, Gersh has restored six violins. Depending on the amount of work needed, each violin takes about a week to repair. The violins are then sold in the store.
“Because the instruments existed 100-plus years, (they’re) quite unique,” said Gersh. “A lot of musicians prefer old instruments because the wood is dry.”
Dried wood means the sound of the violin will not change over time.
“This instrument, you know it will stay like it is,” he said.
When Gersh repairs a violin, he starts by researching its history. He looks up the instrument’s design in books and on the Internet, one of the few times in the repair process when he uses modern technology.
Finding out about the violin’s history is important for determining its resale value but, for Gersh, it’s also about learning about who made the violin. The violin-maker’s name is usually inscribed inside the body of the instrument.
“Lots of people who made instruments are just forgotten in history and they should not be forgotten,” he said.
As for his own work, Gersh doesn’t think people appreciate what luthiers do, but that doesn’t bother him.
“Most of the things we do aren’t for appreciation,” he said. “It’s like a kid’s game.”