A few students trying out a violin in a theater space

Opening Up to the Unexpected

Opening Up to the Unexpected

On a January afternoon, 19 Williams students gathered in Brooks Rogers auditorium to hear three of their classmates rehearse on the violin.

But this wasn’t just any violin. These young musicians were rehearsing on a Stradivarius from 1708—widely considered one of best instruments ever made—in the Winter Study course Stradivari, taught by Jason Price ’00.

“At first, I was afraid of dropping this instrument that has been handled by so many people—that has been so mythologized,” says Isabella Hayden ’26, who began classical violin training at age 7 and has performed in international competitions and festivals. “Playing on an instrument that is so superior is like going from a vocabulary of 10 words to suddenly being handed the entire Oxford dictionary.”

The rehearsal was part of a blind test between the Stradivarius, two other historic violins—a Rugeri and a Guarneri, both from 1675—and several instruments made in the last 10 years. The students were attempting to understand whether other violins could offer the same rich sound and vast projection of the Stradivarius, and how 300-year-old instruments compare to the violins of today.

“A lot of the dialogue around Stradivari instruments [asks] if you can tell that they sound better through a blind test,” Hayden says. “Or are you blinded by the immense value that we ascribe them as historical artifacts?”

Throughout the course, Price sought to explore that question through a series of lenses, from history and performance to science and technology. In addition to performing the blind tests, students learned the history and provenance of various violin makers, and they used dendrochronology, infrared imaging and CT scanning to study repairs and other details of 300-year-old instruments.

Finding a niche

The course itself reflects Price’s own interests and path. A musician in his own right, Price left Williams at the end of his first year to attend a Cremona violin-making school in Italy. But two weeks in, he realized the school involved very little violin making, and he left to work for Renato Scrollavezza, a violin maker in Parma, for three years.

“In the middle of that third year, I realized I didn’t have the patience to sit at a bench for the next 40 years of my life,” Price says. “I was still desperately in love with violins and their history, but I wanted to do something more related to historical instruments, restoration and dealing.”

He returned to Williams to major in English, pursuing his love of reading and discussing texts. But Price didn’t want to lose the professional momentum he had gained in Italy.

In the fall of his senior year, he partnered with a violin maker he had worked for in high school and a violin expert he met in Italy to host a one-off auction of violins. Held opposite the Skinner auction house in Boston, the event capitalized on the Skinner’s convergence of dealers from around the world. It went so well that Price and his collaborators hosted a second auction that spring opposite Christie’s in Manhattan. Soon after, the trio founded Tarisio in New York City to focus on the sale of fine instruments.

“Auctioning violins is a really small niche,” Price says. “The big auction houses have so many advantages, but they don’t cater to the needs of musicians. That’s what we realized our advantage would be.”

Their reputation grew, thanks to a few key sales. In 2003, they were chosen to handle the estate of American violinist Isaac Stern—an event that captured worldwide attention. In 2011, they were selected to auction the Lady Blunt Stradivarius violin, which sold for nearly $16 million and remains the most expensive stringed instrument sold at auction.

Jason Price, Williams Class of 2000, holds an instrument in his hands and discusses it with a person with their back to the viewer.
Jason Price ’00; photo provided

Tarisio now has offices in New York, London and Berlin. Each location hosts three major auctions per year, and the company has a growing private sale business. In 2023, they sold 2,391 instruments and bows at auction and about 50 violins by private sale—many of which are then loaned out to musicians for use in live performances.

“The thing I love about this business is it’s in the service of musicians,” he says. “When we sell a violin, the end result is someone putting a 300-year-old piece of wood under their chin and playing it for three hours.”

The chance to derail

Teaching the Stradivari Winter Study course was yet another learning experience for Price. He says it was “challenging but fulfilling” to engage his students in a subject he knows so deeply.

“I was aware that it could get really nerdy, really fast,” he says. “But I didn’t want to water it down. I wanted to provide access to [a bunch of] rabbit holes and see where it led.”

For Hayden, that meant combining her background as a musician with her double major in English and anthropology. In her research paper for the course, she explored the limited vocabulary used to describe sound and how many of the terms are borrowed from other senses.

“If you think about how people describe violins, they say it sounds dark or bright,” she says. “It was interesting to see how we can start scientifically defining those terms to better describe violins.”

Hayden put those terms to use when describing the outcomes of the blind test between the Stradivarius, Guarneri and Rugeri, and the modern instruments she’s accustomed to playing. In particular, she says, the Stradivarius was more “striking” and could project to the back of the room, while playing a Vuillaume, a 19th-century violin modeled after the Stradivarius, was “really special.”

“My instrument definitely doesn’t respond in the same way these instruments do,” she says.

About a half-dozen violins rest side by side on a table in the Brooks Rogers auditorium.
Students had the opportunity to compare the historic Stradivari, Rugeri and Guarneri to modern violins. Photograph by Isabella Hayden ’26

Nathaniel Tunggal ’25, a computer science and Chinese double major, chose to focus on technology. Working with a fellow computer science classmate, he developed an AI model that can analyze images of instrument details and identify the associated part of the violin. He says the system could be used by companies like Tarisio to catalog its instrument database.

“It was an opportunity to learn a new skill,” Tunggal says. “It was also really cool to see AI being applied to art and violins.”

Beyond a deeper appreciation of the Stradivarius and other renowned instruments, Price hopes his Winter Study students also picked up a few life lessons about opening up to the unexpected.

“I consider my Williams experience to be atypical, but I am so happy with it because it allowed me to derail,” he says. “I tried to tell students not to be afraid of those moments. That’s where you find what’s exciting. That’s what leads you to go places.”

Kim Catley is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va.

Top photograph: After a blind test of the instruments, students inspect and test a variety of violins.