The Hands Behind the Craft
You may doubt that I could pick out the smell of my instrument, but I believe I can. Due to the tradition behind the use of the same natural ingredients in varnishes, all string instruments, regardless of their age, share a distinctively similar smell. However, at the same time, each instrument has its own character. For me, the tangy smell of varnish on my violin, mixed with the scent of the wood and the metal, warm from being pressed to my neck is comforting. As I rub a cake of rosin on to the horse hair of my bow, flakes and particles of it fly every which direction, masking all other smells present in the air. Every day, I scrape the rosin off of my strings, wipe clean the wood, and reapply rosin to my bow, but every few months it’s time to go into the shop. There, they replace the worn out hair, and sell me a new set of strings, bringing new life to my instrument.
The shop is David Kerr violin shop, and as you walk in a little bell signals your arrival. Some days, you may be alone in the front of the shop for a minute until someone comes out to greet you, but at the top of the back staircase eight full time employees are busy working repairing instruments and rehairing bows. When help is needed, they set down their work and wait on customers. There’s a sort of pecking order in who goes out to the front first, explained Steve Banchero, one of the employees who has been working for Kerr since 1991; while some people do not do any repairs, most people do a mixture of repair work and other jobs. Those who specialize in major repairs are the last to set down their tools to go work in the front of the shop, because their time is best spent on their work, which includes disassembling instruments, repairing or replacing damaged parts, and then rebuilding the instrument piece by piece. On Saturdays, you will never find a quiet moment in the shop. Since they are only open for five hours all weekend, the shop is filled with people looking to trade in their instruments, buy new strings, or get a repair done, and even people who have brought in old instruments they found in their grandmother’s attic. Some of the repairs have to be put on hold, as more hands are needed in the front.
Three side rooms are lined with instruments, and in each one is a prospective buyer searching the wide range of violins, violas, cellos, or bows that have been pulled out based on their budget. A violinist is whipping through three octave scales and trying out some harmonics, the Elgar cello concerto is coming from the “cello room” as they call it, which houses a couple dozen cellos for sale, and all the while some bows are being compared with a range of staccato, spiccato, and ricochet bowings.
Back in the main part of the store a carpeted counter runs the length of the room, and employees are rushing back and forth helping customers. Behind the counter are shelves of instrument cases, and racks of chin rests, each one a unique shape, so that anyone with enough patience can find their perfect match. If you’re anything like me, then while you wait you’ll be trying to take in your surroundings, which include a potted tree in the corner. It’s a pretty scrawny little thing, but it’s tall, reaching all the way up to the skylight, about fifteen feet. A sign on the wall identifies it as Caesalpinia echinata, commonly known as pernambuco (“brazilwood”); it is the national tree of Brazil and the preferred wood for bow makers around the world. Unfortunately the tree is now endangered, and so exportation of the wood from Brazil is highly regulated, forcing many bow makers to experiment with new woods and helping push for the development of carbon fiber bows ("Caesalpinia echinata"). The tree adds a nice natural element to the room, but it is also symbolic of one of the many traditions associated with the craft of violins.
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Cremona, Italy, has been home to such famous luthiers as Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri. Today many of the world’s finest instruments still come out of its workshops and the love of the craft seems present throughout the town. The Stradivari museum began in 1893 with a donation, to the city of Cremona of tools, molds and patterns that had belonged to various Cremonese makers, including Stradivari. Since then the museum has acquired collections of additional molds, paper patterns, and wide ranges of tools, as well as entire workbenches, unfinished violins, notebooks, and a wide range of historical instruments. The museum leads people through the process of making a violin in one room, but a visitor can also wander through the rooms of instruments and see how the modern violin, as we know today, developed. Even instruments of the early 18th century, such as Strads, are significantly different from modern instruments. Since that time, the neck as lengthened and thinned to accommodate playing in higher positions, bridges have become higher, and sound posts thicker, while strings have gone from gut to steel, and string tension has increased, giving instruments a larger, more powerful sound. Most Strads now have been modernized so that they can still be played; the neck is replaced and other adjustments are made, and yet they’re still a Strad.
The old instruments have a certain mystique surrounding them; everyone is asking the same question: Is there a secret behind the Strads? Some say it’s a secret formula for the varnish, some say that the wood from that time was better because of a tighter grain due to cold weather, some say that he cured or treated the wood before varnishing (Lovett), and some even say they can give an instrument the sound of a Strad by subjecting it to a fungus (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine). Banchero, like many other people, is skeptical that there is such a simple answer. “What makes an instrument great? Well, everything makes an instrument what it is,” said Banchero, “You can try to make two instruments exactly the same way from wood from the same tree, but they won’t be the same because the first piece of wood is not the second piece of wood, even if they were cut from the same block.” Banchero doesn’t think that violin making can ever be defined by science, because it is just too hard to control the variables. You can’t test one theory unless you can make two otherwise identical instruments, and in audio comparisons of instruments it’s all subjective; they can’t quantify the sound of a Strad, partly because every stroke of the bow on the instrument will sound different.
Stradivarius made a lot of instruments in his lifetime, and most professionals would agree that some of them aren’t as good as others, and they definitely don’t all have the same sound. His instruments went through many different phases from when he started the craft as a teenager until his death at age 93; he changed around the shape and form, and sometimes it didn’t work out, but sometimes it did (Banchero). Maybe the secret behind the multi-million dollar instruments is simply the hands that made them.
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Banchero can often be seen from the front room of the shop; his workstation is in the front of the repair area, visible at the top of the staircase as he sits hunched over his work. He does most of the rehairs for the shop, and so a large stand holding bundles of white horse hairs sits next to his chair. Rehairs are a repetitive job, but he says that he finds them relaxing. Aside from that work, he also does minor instrument and bow repairs from time to time, and sets up instruments to be sold in the shop. Lots of instruments can be bought by shops from factories and workshops all set up, meaning they can be taken right out of the box and are ready to be played, but Banchero explained that in the shop, they buy them without a sound post, strings, or a bridge. To set them up, he carefully positions a sound post inside the body of the instrument, cuts a bridge to fit, and puts on a set of quality strings. Why does the shop take the extra step to set them up? It’s because of quality. “It’s just as easy to cut a bridge the right height and the right shape as it is the wrong shape and the wrong height,” says Banchero, but sometimes “someone comes in with an instrument where the strings are so high no one could ever play it,” a result of the bridge being too tall. Banchero explains that, as employees of the shop, they then have to think, “How can we get this person to play? They seem to want to play an instrument. Let’s be as helpful as we can to get them to play an instrument.”
Playable was an idea that Banchero emphasized over and over again. He says he wants everyone to have something they can play, whether their budget is a few hundred dollars or tens of thousands of dollars. Not everyone can afford even the cheapest instruments in the shop at five hundred dollars, so when someone brings in a hundred dollar instrument they bought at a Saturday market he says he tries to make small changes that will make a big difference. As for the instruments they sell in the shop, “our least expensive instruments or our most expensive instruments, they’re set up pretty much the same way.” From the moment you walk into the shop you can see this attitude. “A person can be looking to rent their first instrument, and next to them someone could be buying a twenty thousand dollar bow, but they will be treated just about the same.” The hierarchies of instrument makers, budgets, and instrument statuses that seem so present in the music industry seem to dissolve in the shop. As a shop, they want every customer to find something that suits their needs and budget, and for most people that isn’t a twenty thousand dollar bow. Besides the equality in treatment of customers, there are two main things that the shop does to support customers often dismissed in other shops: rentals and trade-ins. Rentals are a big part of the shop, letting new students have an instrument to play even if the family doesn’t have the money to buy or isn’t ready to commit. The shop also has a trade-in policy that is becoming popular across the country, where any instrument previously bought from the shop can be traded in with the original price going directly to the purchase of a new instrument. Banchero explained that sometimes it’s hard to know how much you want to put into an instrument because you don’t know how committed your son or daughter is, or how committed they will be in three years. Instead of worrying about getting an instrument that will “last” for years, a parent can purchase an instrument appropriate at the time, and know that if their child starts practicing three hours a day, they can always upgrade to a better, more appropriate instrument.
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We walked down a narrow cobblestone street to find the small workshop of Philippe Devanneaux. When we walked in, the man greeted us with a “Ciao” and kissed cheeks with our guide. He spoke no English and so he would talk to us in short bursts, leaving time for our guide to translate. He sat behind an old wooden workbench with all of his tools easily within reach, and explained to us in detail the process of making a violin. It takes two months to make each violin, one month to carve the wood and assemble it, and one month to apply the varnish. Since the varnish must be applied in lots of thin layers, a couple times a day he must carefully apply more varnish. While each layer dries, he works on building the next instrument, and so by working on two instruments at a time he completes twelve violins per year. I quickly do the math: if he can sell them at an average of $6,000 dollars a year, that’s $72,000 of revenue, but when you start taking off the price of materials and the cost of his workshop that starts dropping. What if he can’t sell some of them or what if one of them doesn’t turn out well? What if those numbers were cut in half? Suddenly the instruments don’t seem so expensive, they were two months of long hours, each one unlike the others, a product of a fine craft that takes years to master.
First he selects a piece of wood; every piece of wood will create a very different instrument, and so picking just the right one is the first important step of the process. After a piece of wood is selected, it is sliced it in half, and opened like a book, the pieces glued together to form the back of the violin. A pattern is used to trace the outline of the body and then begins the truly amazing process of carving out the perfect curves of the instrument. Devanneaux demonstrated how he carves an instrument, shaving off the wood little by little. First he starts with a wood plane most woodworkers would recognize, it’s couple inches across, but as the violin starts to take shape, his tools get smaller and smaller until he uses a plane that’s about as long as a nickel and only half that wide. He uses calipers and rulers to make measurements, monitoring his progress, but the symmetric curves and corners of the instrument are all carved and shaped freehand.
When Devanneaux found out I was a violinist, he pulled a completed instrument out of a cabinet and handed it to me. Our guide translated, asking if I’d like to try his instrument. I started playing the violin and for the first time I thought of an instrument not as a tool for the production of sound, but as a piece of art, waiting to have its music released.
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Every worker in the shop seems to have a pride about what he or she does, and they put all their attention to their given task. Banchero explained that a large part of repair work is to clean out prior work that is not of acceptable quality, and to redo the repair with attention to detail. The process can be seen throughout the shop; lots of violins lay around the shop with their tops removed, ready to be worked on, or already in the process of being repaired. Banchero picked up one top and flipped it over, motioning to some wood patches on the inside, “Look, they didn’t even bother wiping off the glue around them.” The patches weren’t straight either, and even though this probably didn’t affect the sound of the instrument and they would not be visible once the violin was reassembled, Banchero insisted that “a good worker would put them on straight.”
“The ribs are only a millimeter thick, so reinforcement is an important part of repair,” he said, pointing at a cello lying on a table like a patient in the middle of surgery; however, patches are tricky business, because too much wood used as patches is another taboo of repairs. “Less is more,” he explained. They make the repairs as unobtrusive as possible to retain the sound quality, but also because they want to keep the instrument as close to its original state as possible. While it’s called instrument repair, a lot of it would be better classified as instrument restoration.
Major repairs are an art in and of themselves, but “there are no schools for instrument repair.” Instead, most of employees of the shop have been trained as luthiers, violinmakers, and have developed and applied their skills to a related field from experience gained working in shops. If they make any instruments at all, they do it on their own time as a sort of hobby.
For Banchero, a big reason to do repairs is the atmosphere. If you do instrument repairs, you get to work in a shop with other people all day, whereas if you make instruments, you sit alone for most of the day, and maybe if you’re successful you’ll have one employee to help you. Not only is there solitude, but if you’re a luthier you have to really work an entire business on your own; once you make an instrument you have to sell it, you always have to be working hard to promote yourself. Working in a shop is a very different experience: you show up to work, you sit in the shop with a handful of other workers, and you do your job − you aren’t self employed. Banchero also spoke fondly of David Kerr as an employer, saying he is very accommodating and understanding, and he said he has fond memories of his kids coming to work with him at a young age when they were out of school and had nowhere else to go.
If you go into repair shop out of violin-making school because you want the atmosphere, how do you decide to go to the violin-making school to begin with? Banchero explained that there are two main ways that people get into the business; either they are crafty and really good with their hands, or they get into it from the musical side of things. Banchero identifies with the latter of the two groups, making it all the more intriguing that his only formal music lessons growing up were on accordion, and he admits he didn’t have a strong background with classical music. He did love music though, enough to decide to pursue an art history major at UCLA. After a semester of grad school he decided that was not the path he wanted to take and in the end he settled on going to the Chicago School of Violin Making.
In the 21 years that Banchero has worked for Kerr, he has seen a small shop with three full time employees grow to the large business that is one of the prominent instrument shops in the city. And yet in every way that he describes it, it still seems to be just a collaboration of people working together, doing what they love to do, and continuing a craft steeped in tradition that brings music into people’s lives.
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Stradivarius’ violins have become the most popular models for new instruments. His lifetime work developing the design of the violin, perfecting the proportion and shape of the instrument, left a lasting impression on the world of violin making. Many luthiers model their instruments on precise measurements taken of great violins such as Strads, often documenting the copied instrument on the label placed on the inside of the violin, sometimes even neglecting to put their own name on the label. A copied instrument that’s marked just like the original, with no indication of the true maker, isn’t that a counterfeit? But what if it wasn’t ever meant to deceive anyone? It’s an interesting phenomenon surrounding many instruments, and it’s not just Strads that have been copied either; many French and German made instruments are also used as models. My violin is marked as a 1796 Aegidius Kloz, a maker from a German family with a long history of famous luthiers. However, even if you aren’t an expert you can be skeptical of anything labeled as a Kloz; more of them are copies than originals. One quick look by a worker in the shop and it’s identified as a “modern German,” probably about 100 years old.
Banchero tried to briefly explain how the masters identify instruments. “Do you see the gap in the curve of the scroll? Do you see how they both have a gap but the one on the left has a little bigger gap?” I hesitate to answer. It baffles me that anyone could notice that subtle of a characteristic in a violin without comparing it to other instruments, since I can barely see the difference when they’re sitting right next to each other. “Certain traits are characteristic of certain makers,” and so with enough knowledge and a little detective work the masters can identify most anything. Banchero made it clear that he by no means considered himself an expert, and was apologetic that he couldn’t better identify my somewhat mysterious violin, but as I had unpacked my instrument earlier he had noticed something from across the room: my bridge was leaning ever so slightly. I handle my instrument on a daily basis: holding it, staring it down, playing it, but he noticed it almost by accident as he was walking from the other side of the room. He picked up my instrument, rested it on his knee, and with a confident, tender touch that reminded me of Devanneaux working in Cremona, he gently pushed the bridge back into position.
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Works Cited: Cover
Cover photography by Katie Reinders