Music Maker

Spruce for the top, pine for the sound peg, maple for the sides—the whole forest plays a role.

By James Seward, Billings, Montana
November, 2009

Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus had never sounded so awful.

Again, I drew my bow across the violin’s strings and made a rasping squeak. My wife winced as she passed the room. What had made me think I could learn to play violin at age sixty-nine?

From the time I was a boy I’d loved the instrument. Some people imagine angels strumming harps—for me it was always violins.

While my friends rocked to the Stones, I listened to Isaac Stern. I dreamed of playing like him, of feeling the magic he coaxed from those strings. But growing up in rural Minnesota, violin teachers were hard to find.

Instead, I found myself drawn to the precision of physics. I spent a career developing optics with Boeing. I learned to tackle life systematically, mastering details down to microscopic levels. To some people this kind of technology was mysterious—almost magical. But not to me. Not once I saw how it worked.

A violin—that was real magic. After I retired I met a champion fiddler at a local arts festival. Watching him play rekindled my youthful dreams. And now I had the time to make them come true.

I paid a small fortune for a violin and found a teacher willing to instruct a white-haired novice. I tried the Mozart piece again. When I drew the bow across the strings—screech! My wife moaned in the other room.

If only I’d started out younger, I thought, loosening my bow and putting it back in the case.

At my weekly Thursday lesson, I unloaded my frustration. “You’ve played for seventeen years,” I told my teacher. “I’ll be eighty-six before I can play as well as you.”

“The violin is hard to learn,” she said, “but you’re improving.”

At home that evening I examined  my violin inch by inch, like a scientist. What’s your secret? I wondered. As a physicist I’d always figured out how things worked by studying them closely. Could I find the magic of the violin the same way?

The next day I went to an instrument repair shop. “Do you have an old violin?” I asked. “I’d like to take one apart and put it back together.”

“Got a piece of junk in the back,” he said. I didn’t know the first thing about taking a violin apart. I ordered some how-to books online.

When the books arrived, I took the violin upstairs to my workshop. “First, place a thin knife between the joints of the violin,” the book read. “This will pop the glue holding the back.” It came off easily. A tag dropped out: 1860. The violin was nearly 150 years old!

I peered inside like an archeologist looking for treasure. With all its scars it was a beautiful instrument. Tiger-like stripes wove through the wood grain. That body, crafted from different types of wood. A whole forest.

Violin makers had used this pattern for hundreds of years. The same design that Stradivarius had followed, that Mozart had practiced on. Just like optics, I thought. The magic is in the details.

It took hours, but finally the violin was nothing but parts. I read the next line: “Disassembling a violin is far easier than putting it back together.” I needed more tools, more supplies and more knowledge.

I bought tools, glue and finishes, and studied everything I could find about violins. Every piece—from the bridge to the sounding post to the sound holes—plays a specific role, kind of like an orchestra encased in a wood frame. I can do this! I thought. Making music might be beyond me, but building I understood.

I spent more than two months restoring the old violin. I picked up the instrument and tucked it under my chin. As the bow glided across the strings, out came a clear bell tone. It wasn’t magic yet, but I had given it back its voice. I did a little jig. I’d cracked the mystery!

It my next lesson I asked my teacher to take the violin for a test drive. I could tell she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. “Please,” I asked. She touched the strings with the bow. She played a scale. Then Vivaldi.

The magic, that sound I’d been searching for, filled the room. I wasn’t doing the playing, but my work was as much a part of the music as her fingers moving the bow across the strings.

“I’ve no idea how you did it alone,” she said, handing the violin back to me. “Play this one instead of the one you bought. There’s no comparison.”

At home that evening I considered what the teacher had said. No one else had been in the workshop with me, but could I have been guided nonetheless? Perhaps by the violin-playing angels of my dreams?

I thought of all the abandoned violins in the world. Each one I repaired would mean more music in the world. I bought some bows from a woman on eBay and told her my story. She threw in 20 “worthless” violins.

With each instrument I restored I got faster and more confident. “What are you going to do with all these violins?” my wife asked when I finished number 50. It was December and the house looked like Santa’s workshop.

I had given broken instruments back their voices, but what did it matter if no one heard them sing? One evening the local news ran a profile on a foster child hoping to be adopted, a 13-year-old girl named Angelica. “All I want for Christmas is a violin,” she said.

Three days later I met Angelica at the music store. When she saw the violin her eyes grew wide, like a kid on Christmas morning. “Merry Christmas,” I said. Her eyes grew wider and her lip trembled slightly. She held up the violin in amazement. I had found the magic I’d been searching for. An angel with a violin.

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