Violin making career

August 29, 2010 at 09:14 PM ·

hi all

i'd appreciate any feedback and suggestions especially from the luthiers on board on the below.

 

i'm an adult  violin student (advanced beginner) and have been thinking of pursuing violin making studies and therefore a change in career (architecture being my current occupation). it is very likely that i'll be moving to canada soon (from the middle east); the only school of violin luthiery i've come across is the one in quebec but its pretty much a college course with general ed courses. does anyone know of any other such courses in canada that i could look into. or is the quebecois program technically renown?

i'm aware of  most  of the prominent schools in the states and europe (n.bennet, chicago, utah, newark, merton,cremona, mittenwald ...etc) but i don't have all that cash to put myself through 3 years of college minus income. (canada would be a place of residence, so it figures out differently). i was thinking of doing the U.S based southeast technical college 1 year violin repair program....but would that eventually allow me to bridge to a luthiery apprenticeship or even further studies later on? any other programs or ways of cracking into the profession?

 thank you for your time

Replies (27)

August 30, 2010 at 04:13 AM ·

Make a list of the types of shops where you would hope to get a job.  Call them and ask them whether they would consider hiring someone educated at one of the places you are considering, and see which, if any, they approve of.

I hadn't heard of a Canadian program before this, for whatever that's worth.

While you're calling the shops you might discretely see if they would be willing to give you an idea what sort of money their people make.  Going from Architecture to doing violin repair at a common level may be something of a financial shock.

August 30, 2010 at 03:17 PM ·

I can't answer your questions, and you may know this already, but the one-year program at Southeast Minnesota Technical College is actually in a town called Red Wing, Minnesota. It's in a very northern climate, so it's not in the Southeast. Like I said, you may know this already, but I just wanted to clarify. They also, as recently as a year or two ago, had a year-long program where they taught you to build your own instrument. I know two people who have gone through this program. I haven't played their instruments but I know they do make them. Now looking at their website I'm not seeing a reference to that part of the program. Either they scaled it back or they are not advertising it...? You would be best off emailing them for more information if you are interested. I don't think graduating from there has the cachet of graduating, say, from Chicago or Mittenwald, but perhaps, as you say, once you get the basic training there you could apprentice with someone to learn more. I'm interested in the program myself, but as I never have had any intentions of actually building instruments, I can't say.

If you do go here, it's a really pretty little American town on the Mississippi River. The people are very nice, most of them, like you, having come from a different career. There are maybe twenty people a year who sign up for the program (or at least that was the case when I looked into it a few years ago). I would email them for more information about instrument building if it sounds interesting to you. Best wishes as you move into this new phase of your life!

August 30, 2010 at 03:54 PM ·

andres; i'm not ready yet to approach luthiers or violin shops without amassing some skills that would be of help to them., therefore my interest in a bridging course. however, at one pont your advise would make a lot of sense .

emily; yes i read up the info on the red wing college website. they do actually offer what seems to be a minor option somewhere near the end of the course where you get to build one violin but thats it. yes, ill probably email them soon. i would be interested in hearing from anyone who attended the college if they're around. i've read reviews that their repair skills were looked favourably upon by employees.

and of course, if anyone can afford feedback on canadian programs, that would be great.

August 30, 2010 at 03:57 PM ·

 Tammuz, an advantage of being an architect is that you will be familiar with structures and their design, and with materials.  I think you have a lot a background knowledge which will help you in your new venture.  It's worth mentioning if you are enquiring about an apprenticeship.

One of Europe's best violin bow makers used to be an engineer specialising in designing and building wooden racing boats, before he turned to bow making (he served an apprenticeship in the craft, too).

August 30, 2010 at 04:28 PM ·

in a way, yes. architects deal with intracacies of form and (to a further degree from luthiers) with mateirality. and with accuracy. we do some model making , which only serves a representative function, as well with varying degress of success. but making stringed instruments is of course a different  game altogether. architects, after spells  during their schooling and possibly the first few years of their profession, are not very hands-on people. sketch, draw, organize...etc, yes...but rarely make (except if they also happen to be into furniture making). nonetheless, it would definitely help.  

 

August 30, 2010 at 06:12 PM ·

Kolenyo (col legno?), what do you imagine yourself doing after some training? What would a day at the job look like?

 

August 30, 2010 at 07:24 PM ·

david;

there is much that i don't know of course.i won't pretend otherwise. however, i know that i love the violin (which i'm learning to play) as well as the viola and the cello.i know i would really enjoy craft ingboth a beautiful form and a beautiful sound. i know i feel very cost working on a such an object for a prolonged amount of time without boredom. know that i would do a lot of research (and rely on others') to understand the variations in the violin geometry  and parts and consequently sound and that with experience it should become second nature. i know i will have to be very careful and precise in the work., i know i will do a lot of repair jobs and the like to begin with. i understand that it is not an easy and hardly an instant money making venture but i do hope to make a career out of it. i also know i feel very cosy surrounded by the physicality of these instruments and that i could always pick out one of them and play it (but give me time to recap lost ground first :o)

ok, i didn't illustrate a regular working day, but if the core of the day includes the above, then i would be a content fella

August 30, 2010 at 07:25 PM ·

cosy, not cost, sorry.

August 30, 2010 at 09:30 PM ·

Tamuz - after reading your last but one post I don't think you have any choice BUT to be a luthier.  Go follow your passion, if it does not work out, then well, do something else but always follow your passion first...

And let us know how it goes :)

August 30, 2010 at 11:25 PM ·

Tammuz, I was not suggesting you to try to get a job, I was suggesting that you find out what sort of education will be acceptable to the sort of future employers you have in mind.  If you choose a school without knowing what sort of job it can lead you into, you're flying blind.  :-)

August 31, 2010 at 10:31 AM ·

thank you elise for your kind words and  positive outlook, i share it.

andres, sorry,  my bad for misunderstanding.ialthough that the globally renown schools are pretty well known., your input  could well be helpful as canadian violin shops and luthiers might know of any other programs, workshops or apprenticeships there that aren't overt on the net. and still  decent. thanks.

August 31, 2010 at 12:41 PM ·

So you want to be an actual maker.

I often struggle with knowing what to say to people who want to get into that business, particularly if they're contemplating moving away from what sounds like a secure job. It's certainly not something I would recommend to my own children, even though I could probably pull enough strings to give them every advantage.

The violin making schools graduate a good number of students every year. How many of them will ever be full-time makers? Very very few. Right now, there's a student who has completed two years at Mittenwald, doing a short vacation internship in a major shop, mostly doing what would be considered entry-level maintenance. Even though this is a position where the student is paying all the expenses and working for free, it took a lot of work and phone calls to find this position, and I probably called in some favors and will owe some colleagues in the future for getting it done.

Suppose you graduate from school, somehow manage to get a job in a major shop, and wonder of wonders,  five years later end up being the hottest maker to come down the road in a long time? It may still be another 10 years before a significant number of musicians know who you are. There's a lot of inertia in this business.

What part of this looks good to you?

If you love violins, that's great, and there are ways to do that which may be better than becoming professionally involved. For instance, if you already have a good career, you could purchase instruments and bows of particular interest you, and still have a better standard of living than you would probably attain in the violin business. Some of the most enthusiastic violin freaks I know are collectors. Some of the most enthusiastic musicians I know are amateurs. Want to dink around with wood? That's great too, and I know lots of people who find a lot of happiness doing this in the evening when they get home from work.

I ran into one of the happiest violin geeks I know most  recently in China. He'd been invited from the US because of a couple of instruments he owns, and brought along. His income is from an unrelated business. Made payments for years and years to own these instruments.

I'd love to be able to offer a congratulatory handshake, and say "Go for it, but that would be irresponsible. There are already a lot of brilliant and talented people who aren't really making it.

September 1, 2010 at 02:36 PM ·

Tammuz-- You have a classic conflict of heart and head. I went through a similar period in my life, and with the advantage of hindsight, here's what I would recommend. You might not be getting enough creative satisfaction from your present job, which might be surprising to some since architecture is considered a creative career. So, are you designing hospitals, schools, and prisons? Not much difference between them, is there? :-)

You might consider looking for a new position that allows you the time to work on violins during evenings and weekends, and to attend some of the many summer courses in violin making and repair. My wife and I went to the program at University of New Hampshire for three or four weeks every year. You can learn a lot in a concentrated period of time, and then perfect skills during the remainder of the year. Some of the people on this forum might be able to inform you of other places where summer study is available. You might also find weekend classes during the year where you can get specialized knowledge about setup or varnish, for example.

Once you get into this group, you'll probably be able to find more information through your teachers and fellow students. You can then defer major life decisions while you build up your skills and get a better idea of your choices and their consequences. Much luck to you in this challenge. You'll need it!

September 2, 2010 at 12:35 AM ·

Wise points by David and Robert. I started making instruments when  I was 13 years old. I played also. It was adictive from the very beggining, but everything was expensive and information was scarce in the pre internet era.  But I never gave up, and about 4 years ago, when I found I was making good struments  I started selling my violas in NYC, that is being fine, but I have other money sources, making a living with new making is quite a tough thing, as David Burgess pointed out. The learning curve is quite slow.

And, eventually, I find violin making can be as stressing as other professions. Our craft is a very repetitive one. Seasoned makers will make just small changes from an instrument to another one.

We work with obssessive/compulsive players, these professional guys have passed more time looking to their instruments than to their mothers' and wives' faces, they are quite quite demanding about everything on their instruments. . I worked for very big companies in cases envolving lots of money and I find that musicians are more difficult to please than these big companies.

Producing consistent good tone results and a good looking instruments is hard, requires lots of concentration, study and dedication. Once you remove the wood from the wrong place, you just can't replace it back. There is also a physical effort envolved. And you  have to compete with makers from all parts of the world, including China, just imagine how few are the craftsman who can compete with Chinese products today!   If you are a Doctor, a lawyer or an architect you don't have this direct competion of services produced in other countries. 

In order to live from new making you have to sell your instruments  for 12K up (perhaps more in the USA, due to life cost), produce at least 10 instruments a year and  sell them quickly. Selling instruments is an art by itself, David mentioned the idea of  inertia in this market, and that is quite apropriated, I think.  

So, I find Robert's idea good, you can start learning little by little and have fun!

www.manfio.com

September 2, 2010 at 10:48 AM ·

david;

i want to know how to-and to- make good varied violins with beautiful sounds, sort of like you. i didn't say i was after fame, recognition and the kind of success that you garnered and possibly had in mind. i try to be a lighter soul than that. i just know i spend 8 hours a day doing something that doesn't mean anything to me.  i don't regret it mind you; it gave me discipline of thought and culture . and what if i should lose this secure job? will the hounds of hell come after me? i don't want to own a house and to build a family so my (ir)responsibilities stop short of my own person. like elise said, if it doesn't work out then do something else. and really, why care how long it takes to be established, this notion of time is paranoia..hopefully  i can make some commonsensical living out of it.  anyway, this is talk in the cyber air. all reveals itself in its own time. i just hope, perhaps in spite of your experiences that you were less foreboding,  do you enjoy your work? can you imagine newbies enjoying this work as well, whether they are success stories or not-as-successful stories? well then, why drag tarrot cards of capitalism into this. better share your joy :o) i would very much like to know what you think are the technical and work abilities that make one maker stand out in terms of qualify if you don't mind. thank you

robert;

i think i explained my perpective above. however, let me tell you that architecture need not be a creative field, despite assumptions of otherwise. also, many many many architects got laid off apropos the crisis globally and had to turn to other ways of earning a living...so this proves that there is no such thing as a scure job. i also was aware of the new hampshire uni courses. it is a good idea as well and thanks for mentioning the idea. i am thinking of actually starting with working on woodworking skills first...then take the next step.

Luis,

yes..but you are doing something you enjoy and producing something you relate to, yes? thats my desire as well.

 

September 2, 2010 at 12:39 PM ·

Ok, as Joseph Campbell said, "follow your bliss"!  And you can start studying right now. I made a scroll carving tutorial "step by step" you could give a look, here:

http://www.maestronet.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=317301&st=0&start=0

Get the book by Courtnall & Johnson,  "The Art of Violin Making". Henry Strobel books are good too. You can read some good articles by Roger Hargrave, here:

http://www.roger-hargrave.de/Seiten/english/Bibliothek/Bibliothek.htm

I would get some Strad posters also, perhaps about 15 of them. Other essential books I find are Biddulph's books on Del Gesù (about 800 bucks), Hill's books on Stradivari and Del Gesù, Sacconi's book about Stradivari.

There are also some DVDs about violin making, the most comprehensive seems to be the one by  Peter Prier (15 DVDs), here:

http://www.prierviolins.com/Fine-Instruments.aspx

Good luck! And keep us informed!

www.manfio.com

 

September 2, 2010 at 03:15 PM ·

Tammuz-- Don't be too hard on David. If anything, he understated the problems one can (notice, I didn't say "will") encounter. I perhaps jumped to a conclusion about your age. The younger you are, the better as it will give you time to back up if you need to. Also, I don't know where you are living, but in any case, whether it is near to places where summer courses are given or not, you'll need to take care of other things first. In almost every public school district you'll probably find adult education courses in woodworking. If the district nearest you has none, someone will know which district offers such classes.

When you find such a course, take it. Become familiar with the operation of a few basic machine tools such as the grinding wheel, drill press, and band saw. Learn all you can about sharp-edge hand tools. If you can just start by learning how to sharpen hardware-store variety chisels and planes to a keen edge, and by that I mean surgically sharp, you will be off to a good start. Learn how to put an edge on scrapers, both rigid and flexible, and then finally knives, which are the most difficult. Learn how to join boards on edge, how to clamp them correctly and how to use and apply hot hide glue. If you have an architect's eye for form, symmetry, and proportion, it will serve you much better when your tools are sharp.

Otherwise, I offer the Pizza Shop analogy. If you (meaning "one") open a pizza shop to make a lot of money, I can almost guarantee that within five years you'll be into something else. On the other hand, if you love making pizza, if the aroma and atmosphere of a restaurant appeals to you, and if you like chatting with your customers, I think the money part will take care of itself in a modest but sufficient way.

September 2, 2010 at 05:02 PM ·

luis and robert, thank you so much for the information. this is very good for me. 

i hope i didn't sound too critical of david's contribution. i know that i have to contend with this sort of caution but it is based on some rather intractable assumptions. in any case, its good to know it to work against it :o)

also about that pizza shop analogy, my ambition is to start with good knowledge and move on to the next step. i don't want to worry aboutt the $$$$ that i could, or would have, or should have made or not made.

i have one question which has been of slight concern. is there an alternative to hide glue? i am not a full on vegetarian (i eat fish), but feel slightly queasy about using this material...

again, thank you for your time and concern to share info

September 2, 2010 at 05:28 PM ·

No, there is no alternative to hide glue, it is impossible to make a violin without animal glue.

Some other animal products are widely used in our trade too, such as lamb gut for strings, horse hair for bows,  shellac, propolis, etc.

www.manfio.com

September 2, 2010 at 05:48 PM ·

ok thanks, i just read the contents of this thread

http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=18228 

fine, i don;t want to open up a can of worms (then have to eat them)...and anyway, i won't be chewing on violins.

September 2, 2010 at 06:02 PM ·

Tammuz, sorry for dragging "the tarrot cards of capitalism" into the discussion. LOL

You mentioned becoming a professional maker, and that will involve some capitalism, whether you settle in Canada or China.

When I mentioned some time elapsing before musicians know who you are, it had nothing to do with "fame", or some silly ego trip. If you make instruments, you'll need to move them. Otherwise your space will fill up, you'll have no more room to work, and you won't be able to make any more. ;-) It's easier to move instruments once you have some kind of reputation, and that can take some time.

And you did mention a desire to make "some commonsensical living out of it". If you're talking about doing this from making full time, that's something that very few people manage to do (except for a whole bunch of factory workers in China, to whom $200 to $300 per month is attractive pay).. Going beyond that, there are many who are highly trained and have very good reputations who don't manage to  sell everything they can make. Sorry for not candy-coating it to  your satisfaction, but that's the way it is.

If you want to do it for enjoyment, then more power to you! Just don't assume by any convoluted stretch of the imagination that it will make you a "living". The odds could improve if you live in a cave, and hunt, forage, or grow your own food, but all that takes away from "violin making"  time, so it might be a wash.

I'll embrace idealism as much as the next guy, except when it seriously starts to butt heads with reality.The reality of our business is something which I know pretty well.

 

 

 

September 2, 2010 at 06:39 PM ·

 Tammuz you should try the Czeckoslovakian schools, the fees will be a lot more affordable. There is a nice English community right in the center of Prague and their violins schools are so good that the graduates produces violins that will do Stradivarious proud. Our v.com friend Timothy lives there and I am sure he will make you feel at home and could help find accommodation. You are squeamish about animal glue and rightly so, I feel a man should fall on his sword for his convictions. You eat fish and the Czechs being a very accommodating people, will be willing to make fish glue for you. It is smelly but it soon disappears if you put it next to your old socks at night.

I wish you all the best and just consider the tradition of violin making started in Europe and Stradivarious was known for making Czech violins. 

September 2, 2010 at 10:30 PM ·

I agree with David Burgess. Jeffrey Holmes mentioned sometime ago that the number of full time makers is less than 20 in the USA.

High quality sturgeon glue is quite dear, 1166.20 EUR the kilo.

September 3, 2010 at 06:46 AM ·

i appreciate your candid input, david.  the idea of a troglodyte luthier is droll  :o). something to think about. if it makes sense, there is the possibility of making violins part-time and doing repair works? i think there are more who fall into that category? 

dion, just out of curiousity, what are the czech schools? any website? in english? there's also that one in hungary, but it is exclusively, and understandably, in hungarian...which is a rather difficult language to learn.

luis, maybe the sturgeon glue can also double up as pâté spread, since i won't be making enough money  ;o)

September 3, 2010 at 07:01 AM ·

....or you could specialize in making high quality American glue as your stock in trade ;)

September 4, 2010 at 12:39 AM ·

Hey, I live in Nova Scotia.

So far as i know there's no school in canada teaching repair, most luthiers have learned the craft by apprenticing with someone. It's totally possible to start at the bottom and go up, if you aren't tied down to what part of Canada you can live in. In the major cities you could probably find a few shops that would take you on as an apprentice

The other option is to take the summer courses or short workshops while working around repairs.

I would love to go to the North Bennett St school, but it would be impossible due to the finances of going from Canada to the States.... So i feel your pain! good luck!

September 4, 2010 at 03:12 PM ·

yes fhinn, its weird as well..large western country...only one french college degree in violin and family luthiery which not too many have heard of. hello, any enterpeneur luthier around want to go to canada to open up a school and kickstart a tradition, a canuck peter prier? ok i'll shut up and go practice my scales now :o)

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