Robert Isley ’81 has built his career hand-crafting, replicating, and repairing violins and other string instruments. Isley’s instruments are played by members of the New York City Opera, Broadway players, and several freelance musicians in New York.
Isley was a music education major at ECU and he became interested in making violins through his work study job his sophomore year.
“I fell into a work study job which was to take care of the violins, violas and cello which belonged to the school of music. As a violin student I played one semester of viola and two semesters of cello with the school providing the instruments for me to do so,” Isley said. “Those instruments would need occasional light repairs and it was my job to do the repairs with my violin teacher Dr. Paul Topper advising me on the correct way it should be done.”
Isley says it wasn’t until his junior year that he realized that working on violins was more of a passion of his than playing the violin was.
“Through a friend I was able to inquire in the major violin shops in New York City as to how they recommended one get into the business. Without exception they all said attend the Violin Making School of America, which is located in Salt Lake City,” Isley says.
Isley earned a diploma from the Violin Making School of America and went on to work at a Houston music shop for two years and then joined a company in Mamaroneck, NY that sold, repaired and restored violins.
Today, Isley works a relatively normal work schedule at his studio/store located in Rye, NY. Violins and violas that he creates start at $16,000, and cellos start at $35,000.
“I recently was asked by the concert violinist Elmar Oliveira to make a copy of his Guarneri del Gesu violin, known as the ‘Stretton’ del Gesu. Another recent commission for a viola was from Eve Wickert, a violist who lives and works in Berlin,” he said.
To this day, Isley credits ECU for helping him get to where he is today. “I am proud and very glad that I attended East Carolina University. The environment of the School of Music and the course of study seemed to mesh very well with my desires to learn about music. The faculty, while very challenging and demanding on a daily basis, seemed to be enjoying what they were doing as much as I enjoyed what they were doing for us,” Isley says. “Most of all, my violin professor Dr. Paul Topper was a great mentor to me. He opened a door way for me, which led to the world of great violins and violin playing that I now live in. I was very fortunate to have Dr Topper as my violin professor.”
By Sara Strickroot