On a bitterly cold morning in early February, Sharon Que drove to Dearborn to keep an appointment with a very, very old friend: a Stradivarius violin, built in 1703 by master luthier Antonio Stradivari. Known as “Rougemont,” it is one of seven classical Italian violins in the permanent collection of the Henry Ford. The eighteenth-century Cremonese violins are among the best in the world.
For six years, Que has been called on to assess, conserve, and optimize the museum’s collection. “Each of these instruments has a personality,” she says with a smile, “and I know them very well.”
She’s been called in today to optimize the instrument acoustically for a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) later in the month. Mary Fahey, the museum’s chief curator, meets her at the entrance of the conservatory and leads her to a small secluded work area. A security guard enters the room carrying the violin in a hard-shelled case with a soft-cushioned interior. Que gingerly removes the instrument.
Optimizing the acoustics of a violin is painstaking work. The instrument expands and contracts with temperature changes, affecting the sound. Que adjusts the bridge, where the strings rest, and, using a dental mirror and a light, examines the internal sound post. As she works, she runs a frequency analysis program on her laptop to measure the effect of every change.
“I’ve been trained to be methodical,” Que says. “But when I hold a Strad, I fall in love with how the light accentuates the sculptural aspects of the instrument.”
Que is fond of saying, “I went to school at U-M, but I got my education in the GM-UAW wood model-making program.”
Born in Detroit the second of five children, Que (pronounced like the letter) was raised in Shelby Township. “We shortened our family name, Querciagrossa, which in Italian means ‘the most robust oak tree on the mountain,'” she says. With a strong, independent mother, and a father who was a mechanical engineer at GM, Que was curious about how things worked even as a child.
That curiosity led her to Ann Arbor, where she waitressed at the Fleetwood and the Old Town while studying art at the U-M. With her BFA in hand and no job prospects, her father suggested she apply to a model-making apprenticeship.
She passed a rigorous timed test that included algebra, geometry, and trigonometry and began her training at the sprawling GM Tech Center in Warren. Hundreds of woodworkers shared a single, cavernous room, all wearing gray smocks designating their trade. Most were men, and some were wary of her–but more because of her BFA, she says, than her gender. After a full day of work, she attended mandatory evening trade classes at Macomb Community College.
“We didn’t make scale models,” she recalls. “We made full-sized parts out of mahogany laminated with epoxy,” which were used to create metalworking dies. The intense focus on accuracy helped develop her woodworking skills and honed her ability to analyze forms in two and three dimensions.
She earned her journeyman’s card but eventually tired of the long hours. After six years, she began exploring other job opportunities. A 1989 Observer article about local violin makers Joe Curtin and Gregg Alf piqued her interest.
“When Sharon approached us, we were not looking for anyone,” Curtin remembers, “But she had an artistic eye, and we saw that her precise woodworking skills would be valuable in our shop.”
Que started as a woodworking assistant, designing jigs and tools to aid in the violin-making process. She also developed a core knowledge of the violin and how it functions.
After seven years at Curtin & Alf and another five at Joseph Curtin Studios, she was ready to solo. In 2001 she opened Sharon Que Violin Restoration and Repair. Today, she has numerous clients throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Que and her husband, Tom Phardel, who recently retired as ceramics chair at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, share a home filled with artwork on a wooded lot on Dhu Varren Rd. Her violin workshop is on the second floor of a cinder-block barn next door. It’s bathed in light that pours in through a skylight and large south-facing window, and classical music plays softly in the background as she repairs a damaged button, the section where the neck of the violin attaches to the body. After precise measurements, her strong hands guide a razor-sharp chisel to carve away the damaged wood. As tiny, tight curls of shavings rise from the edge of the chisel, she gently blows them away.
A specially made mold holds the instrument secure and stable as she works. After carving for a few minutes, she measures the thickness of the wood with a caliper then continues carving.
She keeps detailed handwritten notes and measurements for every instrument she works on. “When she went off on her own, I was struck by how much she continued to learn,” Curtin says. “Her self-directed pursuit is very impressive. She has that rare ability to keep learning and understanding things.”
Que’s speaking style is much like her work: precise and exacting. “In museums, conservation of the instruments is the focus,” she explains. “In the performance world, my work is restoration and repair.”
She teaches classes and lectures at Violin Society of America conferences, and writes technical articles for The Strad magazine. “Most of my work is restoration and repair, but I bring conservation ideas into the work,” she says. Que also restores violins that she buys at auctions then sells through her website, sharonque.com.
The most difficult part of her journey was learning to play the violin. With no frets to follow or keys to hit, playing a violin is all about feel and ear. “I had to overcome fear!” she says. She’s not a performer but uses her playing as a tool in her work.
Que keeps a hand in the art world as well. She has a sculpture studio across the hall from her violin workshop, and her work is exhibited in galleries in Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago, and Venice.
In late February, Kimberly Ann Kaloyanides Kennedy, the DSO’s associate concertmaster, played the Rougemont violin in a concert at Orchestra Hall. Que has optimized violins for Kennedy for a number of years.
“Sharon is a miracle worker,” Kennedy says. “She figures out how to get the best out of the violin.”
At the concert, “the Rougemont filled the concert hall, and the sweet soprano sound soared above the orchestral music,” Kennedy says. “It was magical.”