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Savior of the Strings

Savior of the Strings

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Published by Mark Holt
Amati foundation founder is profiled, explaining his project to bring solid business sense to Orchestras, and bring string music to the masses.
Amati taught Stradivarius how to make violins, it's a fitting name for this non-profit.
Amati foundation founder is profiled, explaining his project to bring solid business sense to Orchestras, and bring string music to the masses.
Amati taught Stradivarius how to make violins, it's a fitting name for this non-profit.

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Published by: Mark Holt on Nov 17, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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reporter’s job is to inves-tigate stories objectively,ignoring emotion in order to deliver a story. We are trained tonot take a personal interest in our subjects. Truth be told, when I met Bill Townsend to learn about thenonprofit organization, The AmatiFoundation, I had no interest in vio-lins, classical music, or the effectsof music education on children. My own children are six and nine and while one plays piano, the other is more interested in Manchester United. But after two hours withMr. Townsend, I was so convincedhis foundation holds the key to im-proving education and all facets of classical music that it may provedifficult to objectively write about this man’s exciting plans. Townsend lays out the frameworkof a plan that seeks nothing lessthan to help save the future of clas-sical stringed music, to reverse thefortunes of orchestras around the world, to give children musical op-portunities they might otherwisemiss, and to help modern stringedinstrument makers achieve rec-ognition with the world’s leadingmusicians.“The problem with most nonprofit groups is that they don’t manage themselves like a major corporation and they often thinkso small that they miss the oppor-tunity to expand their ideas beyonda geographic boundary. I built thefoundation like McDonald’s: wedo something well, prove out themodel, then expand it so others canbenefit,” says Townsend.I’m starting to feel like a fish inthe Danube River eyeing a freemeal and ignoring that there is a hook attached to it. Whereas most American compa-nies plan on a quarter-by-quarter basis, Townsend’s plan is a time-line stretching more than 20 yearsinto the future. The timeline begins with the commissioning of a collec-tion of 37 virtually exact acousticand visual copies of history’s most famous violins, violas, cellos, andbasses, among them Stradivari’s1715 “Messiah” and Guarneri’s1742 “Lord Wilton” and the 1739“Sleeping Beauty” cello, by Mon-tagnana; all built to look the way they did the day they left their mak-ers’ shops 300 years ago.“We conducted research that found the average person who doesnot attend symphony events doesso primarily because they equateBach with one song. Mozart is onesong. Beethoven is one song. They don’t realize that these are com-posers who wrote lots of different pieces. It may be because there areno words, so the songs don’t stickin your mind like pop music does.”But the fact remains, for orches-tras to grow and prosper, you haveto bring people into concert hallsand Townsend has developed a program to do just that. “We foundthat 62% of those surveyed knew that Stradivari made instruments,but less than 1% had seen a Strad. When asked if they’d be interestedin seeing what a Strad looked like when it was new, 87% said they  would. And when asked if seeing
Savior of theStrings
tor informed him that she was “just average” and that if he’d return thenext day he could hear what good violinists sounded like. Townsend returned the followingday and was delighted to witness a performance by nearly twenty vio-linists, aged seven to fourteen, per-forming what appeared to be im-possibly difficult pieces. He leanedtoward his interpreter to share hisexcitement and she offhandedly mentioned her father made mu-sical instruments and had many students who could play as well asthese children.spending every free hour trying tolearn more about the violin’s his-tory, construction and industry,resulting in a passion for the instru-ment.” Townsend was then 36 years old,(he’s now 40) and in the monthsbefore his first son was born hefound himself asking many of life’sbig questions. “I’m thinking, ‘I’mgoing to be 40 in a couple of yearsand there are a couple of things Ihaven’t accomplished that I want todo.’ And one of them was to createa really great program to help chil-dren learn.” The problem was, hedidn’t know what it should be. For a while he thought he’d do some-thing to help kids learn computers.But he quickly realized the time for that was past. “Most kids can jumpon a computer and do amazingthings. They don’t need help withthat now. My four-year-old has beenusing the Internet since he was 20months old!” Then he thought,“This whole thing with the violin iskind of interesting. Maybe there issomething I can do in what appearsto be a staid, old-fashioned indus-try and get children and teenagerstuned into classical music.”He soon began visiting violindealers, luthiers, orchestras, teach-ers, and anybody in the music in-dustry that would agree to sharetheir knowledge. Finally, in 2000, while sitting in a cafe in West Palm Beach, Florida, in the UnitedStates, he sketched his idea for a non profit organization on a nap-kin. “One thing I wanted to do wasthink big. When my partners and Istarted the search engine Lycos in1995, we thought big and createdone of the enduring Internet com-panies. I believe life is too short to think small,” says Townsend.So he devised a plan that incorpo-rated instrument makers, orches-tras, musicians, museums, donors,corporate marketing partners, andmost important, kept children at the center of it all. And so was born The Amati Foundation, named af-ter Nicolo Amati, considered by many to be the teacher of history’smost famous violinmaker, AntonioStradivari.By this time in our meeting, Iam still not emotionally attachedto Townsend’s story, but becauseof his enthusiasm, I can’t help but  wonder what will come out of hismouth next.“First let me tell you that up un-til 1998, I had zero interest in the violin,” begins Townsend. “In fact,if it wasn’t recorded by Ted Nu-gent, AC-DC, or Queen, it prob-ably wasn’t on my musical radar screen.” A chance encounter at a Beijing,China Children’s Palace wouldopen the door to a trek Townsenddescribes with boundless excite-ment. Children’s Palaces arefacilities where children congre-gate after school to learn the artsand sciences. A business trip hadtaken Townsend to China and ashe walked through Beijing’s mainChildren’s Palace he heard a per-formance of Bach’s Chaconne inD Minor. Walking into a room he was surprised to see a ten-year-oldgirl playing violin. He mentionedhow good she was and the instruc- Townsend quickly arranged to vis-it the luthier’s workshop and foundhimself “fascinated” from the first moment and “hooked” after a twohour discussion in which the mak-er informed him that the very best stringed instruments were made inCremona, Italy in the early 1700sand their quality has never beenmatched in the centuries since.“I’ve spent the majority of my career in the technology industry and to think that you couldn’t im-prove upon something made 300 years ago seemed ludicrous,” said Townsend. “Virtually every tech-nique in modern civilization hasbeen enhanced or dramatically im-proved in the last century. I began
Damek Hovorka 
a recreation was of interest, nearly 75% still said ‘yes’”. Townsend says it will take twenty months to build the Historical Col-lection. He then plans a grand pub-lic unveiling and museum exhibi-tion, after which he intends to put the collection on tour, loaning it for 8 years for use by orchestras andmuseums around the world. Thefoundation’s minimal requirementsinclude the orchestras openinga dress rehearsal to local schoolchildren whom the foundation willinvite and educate about the musicand instruments of the orchestra.“This gives us the ability to bringin over 2,000 children, parents andteachers, primarily from inner city schools, to experience live musicalperformances,” says Townsend.Following the rehearsal and a ques-tion and answer session with themusicians, each child will receivea booklet entitled,
“So You Want To Play A Musical Instrument,” 
  which will help guide them in thebest manner to pursue learning aninstrument; even if that instrument happens to be the drums. “While The Amati Foundation is centeredaround the magnificence of the violin, at the core of our child out-reach is the goal of getting kidsplaying an instrument,” espouses Townsend. “We’re not trying totrain the next Yehudi Menuhin; we want to bring music into children’slives because of the proven ben-efits of improved comprehensionand math skills and the lifelong joy found in playing music.” The orchestra and museum pro-gram will culminate around 2015,after which the collection will besplit up and the individual instru-ments loaned out for the long-termuse of talented young players. Each year, the instruments will be mea-sured, tested, and recorded, creat-ing a massive amount of data oninstrument wear and maintenancethat cannot be easily replicated intraditional settings. To that end, Townsend is in discussions withthree leading American musicschools and universities to becomethe permanent home of the collec-tion for research purposes. At two of the universities, theinstruments would be loaned first to the institutions’ own studentsand then to outside performers.One of them is the University of  Texas, one in the largest university systems in the States. Townsend is working with the well-known vio-lin makers Gregg Alf, Christopher Germain, and Raymond Shryer toform a violin making school as part of the university’s curriculum.“Imagine top young performersperforming on these incredible in-struments; violin making studentshaving access to study the worksof the world’s best contemporary makers; and acoustic and chemicalresearchers being able to study theeffects of construction and wear and tear,” says Townsend Addto this the estimated 200 millionpeople that will be exposed to theHistorical Collection’s tour, includ-ing thousands of corporate leaders,and over 200,000 children who willexperience classical concerts first-hand and the social benefit of theprogram is far reaching. Perhaps it is the most important arts programof the past century.I feel the hook being set in my mouth. Townsend exudes confi-dence in the program and statesthat it was 5 years in planning tomake sure the program was viable.He continues on and I am becom-ing more and more a fan of thishumble entrepreneur.I delved into his childhood andearly career to try to understandfrom where his passion emanates.His story begins in the miningcountry of western Pennsylvania, where Townsend grew up on a horse farm that had been in hisfamily for over 200 years. At theage of five, his mother, JacquelynMayer Townsend, a former Miss America of 1963, suffered a stroke which left her paralyzed and with-out speech. “I remember cominghome from kindergarten and first grade and I’d read my mother thebooks I read that day in school. Asshe lay helpless on the couch, I’dteach her the A-B-C’s and how to tieher shoes, lessons she had taught me just a year or two before.” Townsend proudly announces that his mother has since recoveredand become a motivational speaker,proclaiming, “If she can come backfrom a devastating stroke to inspirethousands of others with her story,I knew there was nothing that wasgoing to get in the way of reachingmy goals.”It is in western Pennsylvania that he returned three years out of col-lege to start an advertising agency at age 23 and where, “to make a dif-ference,” he ran for United StatesCongress at the age of 27 against a 16-year incumbent; just narrowly losing in the general election. Thenext year he sold the agency and joined the $1.3 billion communi-cations firm Ketchum as head of global new business. Shortly there-after he and four others started thesearch engine Lycos, taking thefirm public in a then-record eight months. “We had 23 employeesand very little money in the bank,but through hard work and focuseddetermination toward reaching our goals, we created one of the big-gest names on the Internet.” After Lycos he started severalcompanies, the largest of which, YouthStream Media Networks,employed 1,100 people and servedover 8,000 high schools andcolleges and hundreds of the topadvertisers in America. Townsend grew up in a house-hold of music. His grandmother,Beverly Mayer, was an Ohio publicschool music teacher for over 30 years. Townsend took saxophoneand piano lessons as a child, thenself-taught himself guitar, playingin several bands during his highschool and college years. “It’s fun-ny, but my undergraduate degreeis from The College of Wooster and the first day I was on cam-pus, I moved into my dorm roomand saw that my roommate had 2 violin cases in the closet. My first thought was, ‘oh, great, I’m room-ing with a nerd,” but it turned out that he was a guitar player too and we spent countless hours playingmusic. Sometimes we’d take classi-cal pieces by Vivaldi and Bach andtranspose them for rock guitar,”says Townsend.I asked Townsend who his one-on-one dream lesson would be withand he quickly replied, “Without a doubt it would be two people: TedNugent for a guitar lesson and Aar-on Rosand for violin. Nugent proves you can have great fun playing themusic you love without resorting todrugs or alcohol, plus he’s a great  American patriot who I admire for this candor.” When Townsend first returned tothe States from China he purchaseda CD which included Rosand’s per-formance of Sarasate’s Zigeuner- weisen. “That song penetrated my heart like no other. I was so touchedthat I wrote to Mr. Rosand. Never before had I realized a violin couldmove me in such as manner.” Townsend’s career and life expe-riences certainly provide him theskills to pull off the Historical Col-lection. But that’s only half of theplan. He tells me that one of thethings he noticed when he cameback from China was that many of the people he knew in the comput-er industry were also musicians.He started asking around, and theresults “always showed that a highpercentage of people with soundmathematical or programmingskills were also musicians.” Morebroadly, Townsend argues that 
The Amati Foundation founder Bill Townsend 

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