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In 1973 James McKean joined the first group of students at the first violinmaking school in America, in Salt Lake City. Graduating in 1977, he returned to New York City, where he spent the next four years working under the noted luthier Vahakn Nigogosian, learning the techniques of repair, fine restoration, and set up. At the time a destination for some of the world's finest musicians, the Nigogosian shop afforded him the opportunity to study and work on some of the rarest and most celebrated antique instruments. Equally important, though, was being able to learn the fine points of sound and set up from Nigo, one of the world's acknowledged experts in realizing the full potential of instruments, antique or contemporary.

McKean left to open his own shop in 1981, moving to 54th street in midtown Manhattan six years later. Even though he offered a full range of services, from restoration to handling the sale of fine antiques, the primary emphasis was always on making instruments, which have over the years garnered several awards in international competitions. In 2006 he moved the shop from Manhattan to devote his time solely to making instruments, which he does from his home in Westchester County. To date he has made well over two hundred violins, violas, and cellos.

As corresponding editor to Strings Magazine, McKean has over the past thirty years written extensively on all aspects of the violin. His articles have also appeared in the Strad. He is a past president of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers.