• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

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

three pieces.

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

it ...”

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

violin …”

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

monetary value.

“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

those stories.”

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

teaching.

“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.”


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