Sunday, June 01, 2008


I used to dream of being a violin-maker.

As a teenager, romantic in my aspirations, I searched out books on the subject at the local library. There were two of them, both of them smelling funny and seemingly written a hundred years ago. One was filled with blueprints and instructions for cutting wood, a skill I didn't have. The other was filled with chemical formulations I didn't understand. Neither of them had the romance I associated with the trade, apart from their general mustiness.

Later I came to acquire a copy of Violin-Making: As It Was, and Is, by Ed. Heron-Allen (first published in 1884). It often reads more like a poetic manifesto than a practical manual.

Never let the maple be spotted in any way; for the sake of both appearance and sound the wood should be of a uniform silvery cream colour under the planing-iron. The pine should be quite white and brilliant like silk when split open, avoiding anything like a reddish tinge, which indicates a most unhealthy growth. The grain must not be too close or too wide, and must be disposed evenly and straight from top to bottom of the belly. The grain of the back should also run from top to bottom of the instrument. One is often asked, why the belly should not have the grain setting crossways, and it is often argued that the best makers have sometimes cut their backs so that the grain ran across them. In the first case experiment has proved to us that the vibrations are transmitted along the fibres of wood quickest in this position and under these circumstances, and in the second it will be remarked that the tone of the Cremonese masterpieces is always most brilliant when this perpendicular setting of the grain has been adhered to.

(I would never have thought to place the English — I mean, historically, as a class; Nigel Kennedy is excepted, of course — among the world's finest violinists or, by association, violin-makers, and I suspect there is a much richer literature on the subject to be found in other European languages, but I have not seen it.)

When I went to university, my calculus textbook had a picture of a violin on the cover. I took this as a sign intended especially for me. A marriage of mathematics and music over which I might officiate.

I took pictures when I travelled, peering into luthiers' workshops in Paris, Prague, and over all of Poland. No clear image was ever returned to me by my camera, just a blur of my half-dreamed otherworld.

It was before I read Antonietta (John Hersey), before I saw The Red Violin, that I imagined it, to pore over the wood, carefully mix resins, and polish and polish and polish. I knew that crafting a violin required a piece of its maker's soul.

I was born into the wrong circumstances, in the wrong part of the world (and of the wrong gender) to pursue this trade. My blurred photos were a sign to me that this secret world was closed to me.

Then my violin needed repair.

I'd been in various shops, of course, even some associated with workshops, but those were simple transactions: new strings, resin, sheet music.

This was the first time I crossed a luthier's threshold, for more substantial matters. I chose the ramshackle shop with the woodshavings on the floor over the one with the modern storefront on a major intersection.

He was bearded and grey, dust settled in the creases of his face. The smell told me he hadn't bathed in days. His eyes twinkled, and he talked, and talked, and talked. About learning to play, about gypsies, about nuances in shape, about customizing the violin to its player's style, about the difference between American strings and German strings, etc. I was captive for close to an hour. Several customers stopped by during that time, one to pick up his bow, others to check on progress and estimates of repair work. This luthier was a character — everything I expected a luthier to be — and he had my trust.

I'd procrastinated, wary of the expense and not sufficiently motivated in spirit to set my violin in order. The necessary fix, it turns out, was a relatively minor outlay of time and money. Recent events have led me to this place, where I'm turning with an almost desperate need to music to help my soul sing again, and I see this gnome of luthier as a catalyst in tuning my instrument to play for me the way I'm meant to play it. Perhaps he's a trickster, more savvy businessman than appearances let on, but still I trust him.

My pegs now turn the way they're supposed to. Ten years ago I knew the bridge was severely warped and needed replacing. So now I have a new one:

It must not be imagined that the design thus fixed upon by the greatest fiddle-maker the world has seen [Amati] was merely his idea of what was most pretty, though to this day there are a great many violinists who are firmly under the impression that the ornamental cutting of the bridge is merely a matter of taste. Very far from it; for countless experiments have been made with a view to altering the accepted design, any deviation from which has proved injuriously to affect the tone of any instrument to which it is applied. It is difficult to imagine the reason of this; how it is that a little piece of maple, which merely serves to keep the strings off the finger-board, should have such a powerful effect on the tone of the instrument to which it is not fastened in any way, being merely kept in its place by the pressure of the four strings. The first explanation of this influence must be sought for in the fact that it is the principal channel by which the vibrations of the strings pass, to the belly by way of the bass bar, and to the back by way (in a lesser degree) of the sound post. In consequence of these its important functions, its proportions, and position on the belly must be very nicely adjusted to the quality of the violin to which it is affixed. For instance, if it be too thick, the vibrations of the strings will not pass with sufficient rapidity of the belly. Its height must also be most carefully adjusted to the quality of the instrument, for if it is too high, the tone will be dull and sluggish, and if it is too low, a harsh, piercing tone will be the result.

While I don't claim to sound anything like ever I did at my "peak" (say, that time at which I practiced regularly and followed lessons), I am amazed by the physical memory that's resurfaced. How easy to keep the elbow under the instrument, not because it's a natural position or a particularly comfortable one, but because my body knows that's where it goes, where it's always gone. My fingers remember their distances. My hand shifts position almost effortlessly (and almost accurately); I am learning minor adjustments after having the neck planed, rounded.

It is much louder than I remember. My soul is singing louder than it has in a long time.

"Heaven reward the man who first hit upon the very original notion of sawing the inside of a cat with the tail of a horse."
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