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The making of a violin by a Minden luthier

by Laura Brunzlick, Nevada Appeal News Service

Using a gouge, Nelle O’Neill shaves wood from a violin’s plates in just the right amounts. With each curl of wood, the sound of the finished product will change.

“The more wood removed, the lower the sound,” said O’Neill, owner of Carson Valley Violin Shop.

She has crafted violins and violas in her Minden home since 1992.

O’Neill, one of only a handful of female luthiers in the U.S., received a first-place award in October for the tone of her latest viola at the Violin Makers Association of Arizona International 2002 Competition.

She named the viola after her granddaughter, Liane.

O’Neill, 68, also took second place for tone for another violin.

A viola she made took first place overall at the competition a year ago.

O’Neill competes each fall to the event in Tucson, Ariz.

She goes there each spring to study violin making and restoration with master luthier Edward Campbell of the Chimneys Violin School.

O’Neill crafts her violins and violas with traditional materials. Most orchestral string instruments are made with spruce for the top and maple for the back, neck and scroll. O’Neill’s violins sell for between $2,500 and $3,500 a piece. Violas sell for $3,500 to $4,500.

It takes 200 hours to make an instrument by hand, she said.

O’Neill has been playing the violin since she was 9, when she attended a public school string instrumentprogram in New Jersey.

She became interested in making violins at 11 while working in her father’s woodshop.

“I used a jigsaw to make lawn ornaments,” O’Neill said. “I always liked working with wood.”

Before opening Carson Valley Violin Shop and Carson Valley Violin School, O’Neill was a string teacher at public schools in New York and in San Francisco’s Bay area for 30 years. During that time, she did minor repairs on various wooden instruments.

“It was a natural step to open a violin school,” she said.

She owns both the school and the shop with her husband, John “Jack” O’Neill.

The O’Neills opened the businesses in 1992, when they moved to Minden.

“It’s my passion,” O’Neill said. “Making instruments and teaching is a therapeutic thing to do.”

The Douglas County School District stopped teaching music year-round during the 1995-96 school year, said Lisa Fontana, director of curriculum and instruction for the district.

O’Neill does her best to fill in the gap and expose students to the fine arts.

“So many kids want to play the violin, and they don’t offer it in public schools,” she said. “That’s why I hold classes.”

Carson Valley Violin School is the only comprehensive string program in rural Nevada, O’Neill said.

Students come from the Carson Valley, Dayton and Carson City to learn the violin, viola and cello.

Former students have made a musical name for themselves, including Alyse Tom, a sophomore at Douglas High School. Tom was the assistant principal cellist for the Reno Philharmonic Youth Chamber Orchestra. She joined the Reno Philharmonic Youth Symphony Orchestra this year.