August 31, 2010 at 10:13 PM
The first violin-making school in America was founded in Salt Lake City, Utah?
It's true. I confess: This is a fact I did not know, until last month.
For years, I've been hearing about the exceptional violins coming out of Salt Lake City and noticing the city popping up frequently in the resumes of luthiers. I'd never spent any time in Salt Lake City, a city which lies at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains in the western United States. You may remember that the 2002 Winter Olympics were held there. I found it to be a beautiful place. A ski trip is planned!
But when it comes to violins, one name kept popping up: Peter Paul Prier, master luthier and founder of the Violin Making School of America. The school is now owned and run by Charles Woolf, right next door to Peter Prier and Sons Violins in downtown Salt Lake City. (Here is a list of other violin making schools in the U.S.)
Peter Prier was the reason I wanted to go to Salt Lake City, and the one of the reasons we planned our summer road trip specifically to include this city. Thus I spent a morning in July, talking with Peter Prier and learning about the fine craft of making stringed instruments, about what it takes to become a luthier, and about the school he founded in 1972.
The school, Peter Prier's shop and a recital hall stand in a row along East 200 South Street in downtown Salt Lake. As I walked into the door of Peter Prier and Sons Violins, I was somewhat startled to hear the strum of violin strings overhead– then to look up and see a violin rigged to the door, so the opening door strums the strings. I smiled.
Prier is a maker, dealer and teacher, and my little tour felt like it spanned both centuries and continents.
We began with Peter the dealer, and with the year 1718. This is the year that Antonio Stradivari made the "Firebird" Stradivari, which Peter pulled from his refrigerated vault to show me. It was a fine example from Stradivari's "Golden Period."
"Never had a crack," he said, holding the fiddle. Violinist Salvatore Accardo made 52 recordings on the instrument, which was also owned by the author of "The Little Prince," Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
I wondered, how does a luthier evaluate an instrument, as opposed to a player like me, who might care primarily about sound?
"I look at an instrument first – to see that the balance, the c-bouts, is very classical," he said. "The balance is very important."
"Then, what happens to the arches, what happens to the f-holes, are they too close together?"
Prier said that he looks for a violin to be "honest."
"This one, it's honest," he said, holding up an 1840 Giovanni Francesco Pressenda violin. "Everything on this one is totally correct: no cracks, in a very good state of preservation."
Cracks can be repaired, of course. Such repairs generally last 15 to 20 years, then they open up again.
"If I can find instruments that are very clean to begin with – it is my intention to buy them," he said.
That said, "We do a lot of restoration of old instruments."
Peter pulled out a 1776 Lorenzo Storioni violin.
"It was a pile of parts," he said, then he pulled out a file about its restoration – with 128 photos! The restoration took 305 hours of work, with every repair documented in minute detail.
"We are very careful with our restorations method to make sure everything is documented," Prier said. The philosophy is to avoid doing anything flamboyant: to be true to the maker, both artistically and mechanically. If a corner is knocked off, it must be made to look exactly like the others.
I wondered, when an instrument is very old -- and when it is a "composite," with parts that were changed over the century -- how does one tell who made it?
"We know that by studying the instruments in the most intense way," Peter said. A big part of it is knowing a particular luthier's "habits – how people make things to look the way they do." People tend to be consistent enough to leave their mark on their work, and one can look for clues in the color, the scroll, the varnish, the wood.
Peter Prier was born in 1942 in Germany, and he grew up in Bavaria. His mentors include Alouis Hornsteiner, Paul Secondorf and Leo Aschauer.
Leo Aschauer of Mittenwald, Germany, was responsible -- in a funny way -- for Peter Prier coming to the United States.
"He wanted me to take over the shop – it was a phenomenal offer for a 19-year old," Peter said. "But I wanted to see the world. I wanted to get away from Germany." And so Peter crossed an ocean and came to work for Leo's son, Ludwig Aschauer, at Pearce Music Company in Salt Lake City in 1960.
Peter worked in Los Angeles and New York – "but there were no mountains." He always came back to Salt Lake City. The mountains were one reason, but another was the dry climate.
"The humidity level is very important to me," Peter said. For example, glue will dry in three to four hours in Salt Lake City. "Go to New York, or Philadelphia, or Chicago – it takes days to do the same thing."
We proceeded to the back room, a light-filled room with violas and violins along one wall and celli along the other. Peter showed me a darker cello, a Storioni in mint condition.
"You can have breakfast or lunch and come back, and it still rings!" he said.
He also showed me a Baroque violin – luthier Jeffrey Robinson, also a graduate of the Violin Making School of America , made the Amati copy in order for it to be an example for the students. It has a decorative neck, almost no ebony, and it is strung with real gut strings.
Peter Prier with a Baroque violin made by Jeffrey Robinson
I wondered, why did Peter Prier want to start a violin-making school?
"To improve the violin-making in America," Peter said. In his early days in the United States, when he would attend meetings of violin-making societies, the Americans were not afforded the kind of respect as were French, German or Italian makers. They simply did not have the reputation.
"The big houses were importing violins from Germany, France and Italy – I felt it was very important to let America become a standard of violin making."
"America had to rise," Prier said, "and it has, to the point where all the great (violin-making) competitions are in America."
For his school, Prier brought in the best makers of the day to be honorary examiners, that is, to evaluate the instruments that students submitted for graduation.
"When I first came over, there were only five major shops in America, and they were very selfish to keep the knowledge to themselves," Prier said. "In many ways, with this school, I broke that conspiracy."
After the school had been opened for about four or five years, those same shops began to hire its graduates, and after 10 years, luthiers from those shops would visit as honorary examiners, then immediately hire graduates to work in their shops, Prier said.
"That was the idea. I had no idea how great it would go, but it did," Prier said.
The Violin Making School of America averages about 22 students at a time, with a program designed to take three and a half years to complete. At the moment, seven students are international students, with 15 from the United States and Canada. Over the last 38 years, the school has had 592 students, with 218 graduates. His graduates practice in about 70 shops all over the world, including America, Canada, Germany, France, Sweden, China and Hong Kong.
What does it take to be a luthier? Prier counts three virtues high on the list: patience, good eyesight and skill with the hands.
The curriculum at the Violin Making School of America looks rather demanding.
During the first year of study at the Violin Making School of America, students are on probation for three months, to determine if they are suited for the three and a half-year program. During the first year, a student makes two violins "in the white," meaning with no varnish or setup. During the second year, the student makes a third violin, a fractional violin, and starts a cello. The cello is completed during the third year, in which all the instruments are then varnished and set up, and the student sets up one extra violin, not his/her own, for practice. At the same time, another violin is made, to be the student's "graduation" model.
For graduation, a student has three months to complete two violins – one in the white and one finished – and to write a short thesis, present a notebook, submit both a technical and an artistic drawing and take an oral examination with faculty and a guest examiner.
"I only want to make first-class violin makers, not just amateurs that make one violin and go home," Prier said. "They first have to be trained in violin making, then in tonal appreciation." Students must learn to do basic repairs, and also they should become adept at identifying the origin of any instrument, be it Italian, French, German, Flemish, etc.
"This shop has been very helpful for the school," Prier said. Having a shop next door which deals in fine violins allows students to see them up-close and get a feel for violins of various origins. "They can handle the violins and be very tangible."
Prier said that when he studied in Mittenwald, his chances to see fine violins up close were rare – he remembers seeing only one, a Guadagnini.
How does an aspiring luthier prove himself or herself to Peter?
"Show me a restoration where the cracks are gone," he said. "A guy has two chances: do it the first time, then the second time, do it perfect."
These days, Peter is teaching less and spending more time in his shop, where he makes seven to eight violins a year. After making violins for 54 years, Peter has settled on three models for his own violins: a Strad outline, a Guarneri and a Guadagnini.
He also spent five years making a 15-disc DVD set, which includes 18 hours of detailed instruction on how to make a violin, with measurements, tool descriptions and lists of materials. (Here's a link to a video preview of those DVDs – they can be bought individually or as a whole set.)
Basically, he wanted to put his legacy down on video. "That's my life," he said.
Can a modern maker create a violin that is as good as the old masters, like Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu?
"Yes," said Peter.
"The skills of violin making have become much more detailed," Prier said. "Stradivari was outstanding, he was the Everest above everybody. He was simply that good. But the average violin maker in Italy – any of these graduates – can be that good."
It's all about the wood. Did you know that wood rings?
"The longer it rings, that means that the Hertz vibrations are not hampered," Prier said. "I like it to ring as long as possible, everywhere on the violin."
With two- to 10-year-old wood, "you don't make an outstanding violin." There is still too much moisture in the wood, and the fibers are not loose. On a violin, he said, you want the wood to be an almost cracker-like material.
A first-class violin speaks immediately, Peter said.
"You can only do that by using 30- to 150-year-old materials," he said. The moisture has to be completely gone. "After the tree is cut, the wood has to dry for 30 to 150 years."
Why can't you simply cook the moisture out? Put the wood in an oven?
"J.B. Vuillaume tried that," Peter said. "The sheen of the wood is reduced. The elasticity and sheen of the material is dulled by baking, by forcing the wood to be eliminated." The wood needs to be stacked and dried over years; it even gets to looking darker over time. And that's another characteristic of a fine violin: that it is darker and fuller in sound, that it receives more body of sound.
"The ease of playing is because it's dry," Peter said. "The expansion of sound is because of the vibration cycle – which has nothing to do with graduating the plates thinner. That is a big problem with violin makers, they think, this instrument doesn't want to sell, so I'm going to take this thing apart and graduate these plates...Well, it takes away the body. Takes away the roundness of sound. It will make it louder, but it doesn't produce a full sound."
Old wood makes an instrument lighter, and it even literally feels warmer to the touch, he said. Prier has spent considerable time seeking out and buying old wood for his own instruments – from retired luthiers, from the estates of the luthier Simone Sacconi and from other shops.
"I have about 800 sets," he said – that's enough to make 800 instruments. "Maple, spruce, ebony, tailpieces, fingerboards, pegs. My son, Daniel, will make old violins."
As a luthier, you have to be on the constant lookout for wood. "That's a most important thing. The older the material, the better your success," he said. "Old wood is the answer. But on new instruments, we can't afford it."
"Oil varnish, in many ways, is more dimensional. You can look deeper into the material," he said. "Spirit varnishes are faster. They dry quicker, and a lot of people would like to have an instrument with spirit varnish because they get it in their hands faster. But oil varnish, to me – the Italians all made oil varnish."
Next door, director Charles Woolf showed me around the Violin Making School of America, where students were working on repairs. Upstairs was a north-facing room, lined with violins in the white. Apparently the light is more consistent in a north-facing window.
Violin Making School of America Director Charles Woolf
I met a few students: Julian Cossmann, a student since March 2009, was repairing a scroll, preparing to graft a longer neck onto a violin. At present, it was in 13 pieces.
Miles Miller, 19, a student since Sept. 2009, was removing the neck from a violin.
Violin Making School of America students Miles Miller (front) and Julian Cossmann
The school has its own supply of wood – a huge trap door in the floor leads to a flight of sawdusty steps into a cellar full of wood.
From the cellar one can hear the scraping upstairs, from the students honing their craft. There is 1991 maple from Minnesota, 1960s spruce from the Alps, and much more. All of it waiting. Ah the smell of wood – wood that will one day sing!
Laurie, I thoroughly enjoyed that interview.
What a great article! I always enjoy learning about how violins are made.
Thank you for the nice write-up of Peter Prier.
My first full size instrument came from the shop of Pearce Music Company and I distinctly remember the handsome young German man who ran the violin shop (this was 1962-65). I grew up in Salt Lake City and Peter Prier came to schools to lecture on violin making. Of course I was frequently at his shop for repairs and strings. My parents bought violins for my sisters from him.
I bought my current instrument from Peter, an instrument that he had restored and which I continue to enjoy immensely.
When I showed Peter my first violin he recognized it immediately. Like many shops, Pearce Music imported violins in the white (to get a favorable import duty I suppose) and finished them locally.
Your interview made me want to visit there and simply ABSORB!!! Thanks for sharing the experience.
This interview made me homesick! I've been in Peter's shop hundreds of times, and he ALWAYS welcomes you with a warm smile and two-handed handshake. This guy is a legend and an institution. His school has made Salt Lake City somewhat of a mecca for luthiers.
He knows his business....it's amazing to bring ANY violin to him and just listen to him talk, like a Forensic Scientist at a crime scene...well, ok...maybe not THAT analogy...
This was great! I hope to go back to Peter Priers some day and get a new violin.
Thank you for all the years of helping violinists.
Interesting point about wood weight loss. I have two violins - a modern, reasonably good student model, and an older one (late 18th c). Without chin rest, the modern one weighs 425gm and the old one (very slightly larger) 375. The difference in tonal quality is equally noticeable, but both have the same "playability" due to similar set ups, so I can swap from one to the other with no problems.
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