Disappointment leads Marsee to repair, then share violins
Orchestra teacher and bluegrass musician Greg Marsee says he’s always
wanted to get into repairing string instruments. Personal
disappointment, and the COVID-19 pandemic that was to follow, became his
path – giving him a purpose, really – to begin purchasing old violins
(also known as fiddles) that are copies of much more expensive originals.
Marsee, director of orchestras for Woodford County Public Schools, says
some “really good deals” come in pieces. The violin that has become his
favorite to play was purchased with a top that had been separated in
The quality of its wood and the characteristics of its back – flamed
maple – intrigued Marsee because that pattern only happens on the north
side of a growing maple tree, he says. Beyond its beauty was a message
on the inside of the violin’s top that identified it as a copy of a
Giseppe Guarneri del Gesu that was last repaired in Colorado Springs in
1953 (the year Marsee’s dad was born).
“The history that came along with it,” he says, “I thought was
fascinating. Just the fact that somebody almost 70 years ago took a
second to write down … when they worked on it … put their thumb print on
Marsee says he made that purchase in November 2019 – one month after his
last unsuccessful attempt to buy another violin (the same model Guarneri
del Gesu) that had meant a lot to him since high school.
His violin teacher, Mearl Risner, played that instrument.
“It was the first fiddle I ever heard live in my life. I always just
loved the sound of his fiddle. And he (Risner) was an amazing fiddle
player anyway,” says Marsee.
With his love of history and music, Marsee remembers telling himself,
“How awesome would it be to own the instrument that really helped
inspire me to be what I am today.”
Risner had by then returned the fiddle to its original owner and she
gave the instrument to her son. He agreed to meet with Marsee, who got
to play several tunes on the instrument.
“It was just a joy to get to play it again,” remembers Marsee.
Before leaving, he told the instrument’s new owner, “If you ever decide
to part with it … I would consider it a great personal honor to own that
Eventually, its new owner chose to give the violin, which was in need of
repairs (about $600 worth), to his niece. She was a musician who played
violin and eventually decided not to part with the family heirloom –
even after Marsee offered her a violin that he says had a much higher
“That was very heartbreaking,” says Marsee. “It was a very intense two
months of waiting to see if this was going to unfold …
“I was really disappointed. I had my mind set on that violin. It had
this tone that I always loved.” Although it wasn’t an original Guarneri
del Gesu, it’s a copy of what’s considered one of the two highest
quality violins made in Italy – a Stradivarius being the other.
Marsee channeled his disappointment into a new purpose – making repairs
to violins and other string instruments for other musicians to play.
“I try not to spend over $50 on these instruments,” he says. “Once
they’re fixed up, they can be worth up to $1,500 to $2,000 – if they’re
of real good quality and have some age on it and a little bit of pedigree …”
Marsee especially enjoys learning about an instrument’s past. That may
come from the son of a now-deceased musician, or the photos or song
lyrics written on a piece of paper left in a violin case, he says.
“That’s people’s history that wasn’t told, and I just find that
fascinating,” says Marsee. “And I think it’s real important to hear
On his YouTube channel – Kentucky Small Batch Strings – Marsee says he
videotapes himself making repairs, but also shares the stories behind an
instrument when they’ve been uncovered by him.
He takes pride in being able to “preserve a bit of history.”
Before becoming a nontraditional-age student at Eastern Kentucky
University and then a music educator, Marsee was a woodworker and
cabinet maker. So he’s watched a lot of YouTube videos and reached out
to friends who are luthiers (makers of string instruments) for guidance
to make repairs to violins and other string instruments.
“They were just really, really helpful with my pursuit to learn as much
as I can about these instruments,” says Marsee.
He completed an online professional development course this past summer
to improve his craft in making repairs and will pursue a grant so he can
spend a year as an apprentice to a luthier.
“I do want to build instruments … maybe, one or two a year just to keep
up the skill,” says Marsee. He says it would take 20 years for him to
become a trained luthier, and that’ll be awhile after he retires from
“For my life,” he adds later, “this is the resting point of the pendulum
because I’m right there in the middle of creating and teaching, reviving
and teaching, I guess you’d call it.”
Marsee says his former high school teacher and mentor has given him
several violins over the years and, very recently, shared a life lesson.
“I’m going to give you these to you, but they’re not yours,” he told
Marsee. “… You’ve got to give them away. You can’t hang onto them.
They’re not yours. They never were mine …
“… I want you to give them to a student. You’ll know who it is.”
Marses says he hasn’t found the right student where those instruments
and others in need of repair belong yet, but he continues making repairs
– knowing one day each will find a home. He says leaving a violin or any
instrument in a closet where it’s not played for 30 years would really
be “the biggest sin.”
“It’s like finding an orphan a home,” he adds later. “… That’s what
these (instruments) need is someone who is looking for a way to express
themselves … beyond their physical voice.”