Quist Violins settles into its own rhythm

Music more than just work — it’s a way of life for the
Quist family



Jim Quist has been teaching music and selling violins downtown for more than a decade.


As Jim Quist enters the room, he greets his class as they arrange their chairs and music stands in a circle. He makes sure that everyone has enough elbow room. With 11 students, the space quickly fills up.

“All right, here’s an A,” he says as he strikes the tuning fork.

The tone resonates throughout the room and the students match the pitch, quietly at first and then getting louder as they become confident that they are in tune. The room instantly sounds like an orchestra pit as each violin centers in on the central tone.

“I hear one out there that’s a little low,” Quist says, following his ear to the source. “Bring it up a bit. That sounds better.”

The group moves from the A string to the D, then G and finally the highest in pitch, the E string. Satisfied with the sound, Quist moves on to the song list for the night, and the third-year class warms up on a song called “Mrs. Helen N. Robertson.”

And thus begins the last part of another long day at the office for Jim Quist.

Quist is the owner of Quist Violins, located on the corner of Prospect and West Champion streets. He bought the business in 1995 from a friend who had started the business two years prior. It was Quist’s first venture into the entrepreneurial world.

“The shop started as a single room,” Quist says. “It was a pretty quiet little store back then.”

Over the years the business has expanded several times and taken over neighboring spaces, enough to have a display room, a room full of sheet music, a practice room where the lessons take place, and a storage room packed to the ceiling with violins and bows. The original 400-square-foot practice room has grown into a thriving, 1,500-square-foot downtown icon.

Stocking the store has become increasingly expensive, as the strength of the American dollar fades and the world market for violins picks up, Quist says. Some of the best violins and strings come from overseas, and importing the best products is not cheap.

“In two years, strings have doubled in price because of the world market,” he says. “There are a couple of American companies that make strings and we’re selling more of those right now because of the price difference.”

Though the shop has a steady base of customers, from toddlers to the elderly, it still takes a lot to keep it running. These days, you can find Quist pulling 10-hour days running the shop by himself and teaching group lessons in the evening, which leaves him with little time to practice on his own.

“I get too wrapped up in the day-to-day running of the shop,” he says, adding that he enjoys performing with his classes.

But all that means the business is thriving, for which Quist says he is thankful. This community has a strong arts community full of recreational, high school and college-age musicians, many of whom look to Quist Violins for everything from repairs to appraisals.

“Normally you wouldn’t find a violin shop this size in a city this size,” Quist says.


photo by Vincent Aiosa

Jim Quist, owner of Quist Violins on Prospect and West Champion streets, has been playing the violin since he was 8 years old. He has owned the store since 1995 and has expanded the shop from its original one-room location into a 1,500-square-foot complex with practice and display rooms.


A teacher from the beginning

Providing lessons for all skill levels has always been a big part of the business. And for Quist, teaching has always played a role in his life. At the time he took over the shop, he estimates that he had 65 private students.

“I’ve always taught privately, since I was in high school,” he says.

Quist first took to the violin 40 years ago when he was 8 and he continued to play throughout his school years. When he was a senior in high school, Quist would get out of class to go teach orchestra.

“It started because my orchestra teacher needed help filling in at the middle school,” he recalls. “She saw that I could handle the kids fine. Then I got on the payroll and other school districts starting calling me. There was a need and I just kind of fell into it.”

After high school, Quist continued to study the violin under a music scholarship to Brigham Young University in Utah, where he met his wife.


A musical family

For Quist, music is not just work. It’s a part of life.

“There’s always that pull to create music — there’s some thing nourishing about it. It’s part of being human.”

Which means it’s part of home life too. Everyone in the Quist household plays music, one way or another. His wife plays the harp — “it’s the most relaxing instrument in the world,” Quist says — and is teaching their youngest of four children to play as well. The remaining three children play drums, violin and cello.

Basically, there’s always someone practicing when Quist comes home. But this is something he finds joy in.

“I’ve never told the kids that they have to play,” he says, adding that they take lessons from another private instructor in town. “They’re self-motivated.”


photo by Isaac Bonnell

Stocking the store has become increasingly expensive, Quist said, due to the declining American dollar and the rise in costs of European goods.


Spotting a good violin

Perusing the violins in the shop is like taking a trip around the world: Japan, Bulgaria, Germany, China. But the best violins come from Italy, Quist says.

Determining the origin of an instrument is key to determining its value, Quist says. And sometimes it can take a fair amount of research to find out where a violin was made, especially if the owner doesn’t know much about the instrument.

“We get a lot of old violins that haven’t been played in 50 years, ones that are passed down through the family,” Quist says.

Once the origin has been determined, Quist plays every violin that comes in for an appraisal. Even the fanciest violin from Italy wouldn’t be worth much if it didn’t sound right.

“A good violin does not have a dry sound, it can’t be nasally,” Quist says, adding that violins mimic the human voice more than any other instrument and should sound like such. Thus, you wouldn’t want a violin that sounds like a congested opera singer.

When Quist plays during his evening group classes, he plays a German-made violin from the 1880s because he says it has a “very sweet tone and I can play it and still hear all my students around me.”

Much like art, violins tend to hold their value, Quist says, as long as they are cared for. Very rarely will a violin depreciate in value, unless it is damaged, and the good ones will even appreciate as time goes by.


Business as usual

As the evening class comes to a close, the group is working on the finer details of a song: grace notes, trills, fermatas.

“The grace notes imitate the way a piper would play this song,” Quist says to the class. “You don’t want the G to come out — you’re just barely disturbing the vibration of the string. Play them as quick as you can.”

As the class practices a few bars of the song that include grace notes, you can hear individual instruments sing out above the rest when they play it just right. And then you hear Quist playing the harmony line from memory, enjoying every measure of his job.


Look and listen

Jim Quist and his students will perform at the Highland Games at Hovander Park on Saturday June 7. For more information, call Quist Violins at 647-1984.


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