June 17, 2010 at 7:45 AM
June 12, 2010
Be warned – this is a long story, but I have to tell someone about it. In fact, I want to tell everyone about it!
Today, I set up a violin. This isn’t a new experience for me – I’ve done this countless times as the owner of a small violin shop. Fitting a soundpost, carving a bridge, putting the strings on the tailpiece and feeding them through the holes in the pegs, getting them up to tension. Just another day at the office. Except this time it felt so much different. It felt magical.
Today, it was my violin.
It wasn’t another student instrument. It wasn’t a nice old Saxon violin. It wasn’t even the Giovanni Gabrielli I had the pleasure of working on a few weeks ago.
It was my violin. And to me, it’s now the most valuable instrument on this planet.
Seventeen years ago, when I was just a lowly undergrad at Indiana University, I began taking the classes in instrument making and restoration. It was just a way to fill out some credits – that is, until I got hooked. I found that I truly enjoyed working on instruments, making them come to life after sitting dormant. And that enjoyment has never waned, even through the daily grind of rehairing bows, fitting posts, closing seams, and all the other day-to-day repairs that a luthier does to pay the bills. But I digress…
As part of the course at IU, we learned both making and repair. I was always drawn to the repair side – like I said, I love bringing the voice back to a violin that’s been neglected. Although I knew we were supposed to make a violin by the time we graduated, I kept procrastinating, instead turning to the endless supply of damaged instruments that the IU violin shop had.
It almost cost me a degree. If my teacher had been a little less flexible, I wouldn’t have graduated because I didn’t technically complete the course. When I left, the violin I had begun was only about half finished. But over my bench hung many instruments that had all types of repairs done to them – neck grafts, soundpost patches, rib replacement, doubling, varnish work. All this was done at the expense of the ribcage, scroll and roughed-out plates off to the side of my bench.
In the course of working on those broken violins, I’d started to see the mistakes I had already made in my own – not the least of which was my choice of model, the “Betts” Stradivari of 1704. The “Betts” has a fuller outline than some of Strad’s other instruments, with curves that almost (not quite, but almost) flatten out at the ends, and corners that are almost impossibly long. The effect is a bold look that gives a masculine, square-jawed appearance. But where Stradivari had known exactly how far to take that flattened effect, I went too far. The lower block of my violin was a little too square, leaving the bottom rib completely flat. Where Strad’s corners arch gracefully out from the curves of the C-bouts, mine stretched beyond the limits of good taste; almost as if the violin was trying to reach out and poke someone.
Then there were the technical mistakes: the one corner where the ribs don’t quite meet; the rib that partially cracked during the bending process, that I didn’t have the extra material to replace; the purfling corners that don’t resemble each other, let alone Stradivari’s; and everything was just too big! (One of the cardinal sins of a young maker or restorer is marking a line on the wood to be planed, gouged or filed to, and then being afraid to go all the way to it for fear of going too far.) I was discouraged with my work, and thinking inside that it was better to be working in a shop making sick violins better again than trying to complete this mockery of an instrument.
And so it waited.
I worked at a shop in Indiana, every now and then glancing over at the slowly aging wood with a sense of disappointment. How could I have been so arrogant as to think I could make one of these things? Once or twice I even thought about simply scrapping the instrument entirely. After all, my mistakes would be there for all to see, for all time; violins outlive people by several centuries! There was obviously too much to it – better to turn back to the fingerboard being glued onto the customer’s violin on my bench…
I moved back to New Jersey, working first in a shop there and then for a shop in New York. I worked on instruments and I sold instruments. The time came when I thought it was possible to open my own business, and be a simple, independent repairer and dealer. And for four more years after that it waited, always sitting patiently on top of a tool chest in my workshop.
Then came the snow.
I’m not sure what came over me – maybe it was as simple as the reality of not being able to get out of the parking lot with my car – but when we had our first big blizzard in February, I picked up the thing staring at me from the top of my tool chest. It seemed lonely somehow, after all those years. It had yellowed with age, the white wood taking on a golden luster. I got a small finger plane out of the chest and almost without thinking simply picked up where I left off, beginning the graduation of the back plate.
While it snowed, I worked. The snow kept away the customers who could interrupt me, and slowly I started to realize that the violin wasn’t all that far from being finished after all. All I needed to do was carve the f-holes, graduate the plates, fit a bass bar, set the neck and maybe, just maybe, I’d have a violin.
When it snowed again 10 days later, I cut the ff’s. A slow week at the shop came a little while after that, and the plates were graduated. The bass bar came in April, sandwiched between a pair of quartet concerts. The work of the shop and my performing schedule kept me from the violin more than I wanted them to, but by mid-May I was ready to set the neck. I’m actually fairly proud to say it only took two tries to get the angles right – properly setting a neck is arguably the single trickiest part of making the instrument.
As I got closer to the end of the road, things became more familiar. Instead of working on something new, it started to seem like I was working on things I knew how to do, that in the course of my career I’ve done over and over again. And in a flurry of activity after a long day at the shop yesterday, I fit the pegs, nut, and saddle, cut a soundpost, carved a bridge, grabbed a tailpiece and a set of strings, and suddenly, I was stringing up my violin.
WOW! It looked like a violin! It sounded like a violin! The first notes from it were beautiful – a little raw, like the first step on the gas in a new car, but with plenty of power and evenness across the strings. I played Bach on it, reveling in knowing that the wood was being vibrated for the very first time. I played and played, and it felt like the violin was beginning to “wake up” already, that the wood was becoming more supple and responsive to the sound being transmitted across it. Even the mistakes that I so regretted earlier on had softened in my eyes. Suddenly, they seemed like old friends, markers that designated this violin as mine that would be there for all time; after all, violins outlive people by several centuries!
It was finished!
Well….. Of course, it’s not actually finished yet, in more ways than one. Aside from the inevitable tweaking, opening the violin up again to play with the graduation a little, changing the angle of the fingerboard slightly, making another bridge and post (or two or three) to test how it responds, there’s one last hurdle. The violin is literally “unfinished”; there’s no varnish on it yet. But there will be, and soon. I want the varnish to dry in the sunlight of the summer, and I have a deadline of the end of July – after that, the slow summer days of a violin shop end, and the fall rush of repair work will begin, and it’ll be too late.
But the hard part is over. Getting over the insecurity about whether I could ever finish the violin was the hardest part of all. Now that I see it in its completed state, it’s amazing to me that I ever thought it was an insurmountable task. In this violin lies a label now – after all, a violin has to have a label. On it is not one date, but two. It’s the only way I could think of to let anyone who might look inside know the journey that the violin and I have taken together. The label reads
Indiana New Jersey
So, what now? It’s only logical – I split out some wood today to begin the corner blocks for the next violin. I plan on cutting my production time in half, so expect another announcement… maybe by 2018!
This is one of the coolest stories ever! Congrats!
I love this story. It shows how something can seem so insurmountable, for years! And then one day, you just do it, and your whole viewpoint is transformed. A huge congratulations to you! And give us some pictures !
Michael - what an awesome experience and incredible story!! I can only imagine how wonderful it would be to play the first notes...to hear the violin speak for the first time. Wow! Pictures would be fun to see.
I'll second that, Pictures!!!
How about uploading a video so we can all hear you play it !! Wonderful ! I can't imagine how thrilling it would be to play a violin that your own hands have made !
"What kind of instrument are you playing?"
oooOOhhhhh nice indeed! when will gonna hear it sing?
Great story! Congratulations to you, and what a motivating lesson for the rest of us..
Congratulations, I know the feeling, and I bet you won't trade it for a sack of gold.
I've never even met you, but I'm SO proud of you and happy for you!! You and your violin share a soul now -- may you have a long and fulfilling life together!
Without pictures, the instrument doesn't exist :-P
I have nothing but admiration for luthiers and archetiers. Heck, anyone that can make ANYTHING deserves respect in my mind. I can't make anything, I can't even reheair my own bow :-( But some day I hope to learn, bows are my area of interest...
Will you bring it with you to Alaska? Perhaps play the Mozart on it? Or are you playing viola?
Thanks, everyone, for the comments!
I promise that as soon as I have some pictures, I'll put them up in a new blog. Maybe I'll make a little photo documentary of varnishing it -- that sounds like a fun July project!
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