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After 50 years, Brattleboro violin maker still finds wonder and mystery in process

A man works in his shop, sanding a viola.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Doug Cox works on a viola in his studio in West Brattleboro. Cox uses maple that grew nearby for all his instruments.

Doug Cox has been making world-class stringed instruments for more than 50 years.

And he says even after all that time, there is a sense of wonder and mystery behind what it takes to produce a great violin or viola.

“I like to think that throughout this process I am responding to the wood,” he said on a recent afternoon as he scrapped away at a chunk of maple inside his studio in West Brattleboro. “And the way that I’m shaping this piece of wood is a little different than I would shape a different piece of wood.”

"There isn’t one right way to make the great instrument. And so it’s a mystery, and I find it rewarding to be working in something that has a mysterious quality to it.”
Doug Cox, instrument maker

Cox grew up on the New Hampshire seacoast, on a small farm, and he says he’s always liked working with his hands.

In the late 1960s he studied violin making in Germany, and worked for a while in Boston with a master luthier.

And it was in Boston where he was able to study the world’s great instruments, measuring how a fine violin is put together down to the tenth of a millimeter.

In 1985 his wife got a job teaching in southern Vermont and he set up shop in West Brattleboro.

Violins and violas hang in Doug Cox's shop in West Brattleboro.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
Violins and violas hang in Doug Cox's shop in West Brattleboro.

Since then Cox has built a reputation as one of the premier luthiers in the United States.

His violins and violas start at more than $20,000, and players all over the country have traveled out to his southern Vermont studio to find the one single instrument they want to call their own.

“The question of how do you go from good to great is a very real, and important question,” he says. “And there isn’t one right way to make the great instrument. And so it’s a mystery, and I find it rewarding to be working in something that has a mysterious quality to it.”

Cox produces about 20 violins and violas a year and he finished his 1,000th instrument just before the pandemic.

A special concert was planned in Brattleboro, which COVID-19 delayed, and on a very cold night recently a string quartet from Portland, Maine came to the Brattleboro Music Center to celebrate Cox’s career.

All four instruments on the stage were made by Cox, and one of the violinists was using the landmark 1,000th violin.

A string quartet from the group Palaver Strings performs on instruments made by Doug Cox in a concert at the Brattleboro Music Center. Ryan Shannon, second from left, plays on Cox's 1,000th instrument.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
Vermont Public
A string quartet from the group Palaver Strings performs on instruments made by Doug Cox in a concert at the Brattleboro Music Center. Ryan Shannon, second from left, plays on Cox's 1,000th instrument.

When Cox was studying his craft in Germany, there was a lot of talk about the wood that was used to build the great instruments that were produced in the 18th century.

And many instrument makers today seek out wood from the forests in Italy and Germany.

For Cox though, his craft is rooted in place, and all of his violins and violas are made with maple that grew not too far from his studio in Windham County.

“We seem to be in a place, as a society, or as a civilization, as a species, where we need to find a different way. And I think that music is part of that way."
Doug Cox, instrument maker

He expects his violins to last 300 years. He says when an instrument leaves his shop it is half-finished, and it is up to the player to develop a relationship with it and truly bring it to life.

“That’s what I want the players to feel; that this is an instrument that draws something out of them,” Cox says. “There’s something there that is intriguing. That is, well maybe back a little bit to the mystical, or the wondrous. That goes further in producing the effect of music, than does something that is technically perfect.”

Cox took up instrument making because he didn’t want to go to a regular college.

It was the late 1960s, and Cox didn’t want to contribute to the military industrial complex. He believed in peace, and art, and beauty.

He says our planet is still threatened by greed and consumption, and the wonder people find in artistic expression, he hopes, will help the human family heal.

“We seem to be in a place, as a society, or as a civilization, as a species, where we need to find a different way,” he says. “And I think that music is part of that way. And my work is a drop, but hopefully it’s a drop in the right direction. It’s going to move things it’s going to provide an opportunity for some good things to happen.”

Cox is 74. His eyesight is not as sharp as it once was, and he says his craftsmanship might slip a bit more here and there than it did in the past.

Still he says there isn’t much else he’d rather be doing, and as long as he can climb the stone steps up to the studio near his house he says he’ll continue turning dried planks of wood into instruments of joy and wonder.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Audio for this story was provided by Q Filmworks.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.