More than any other instrument, violins have a mystique. We assume the best violins were made centuries ago—so when in recent studies, blindfolded violin masters preferred modern instruments over multi-million dollar Stradivari, many people were shocked. WXPR’s Emily Bright spoke to one Wisconsin luthier who wasn’t surprised at all.
"There are a lot of myths in this trade," says Brian Derber, a full-time violin maker from Presque Isle who runs the only violin-making school of its kind in Wisconsin. "You have to get a tree that grew on the Eastern edge of some mountain, and you know...when the moon is full during the month of February you cut it down, and all this other…garbage.”
Derber has got a thick gray beard running down to his chest and a teacher’s knack for making challenging ideas simple.
"One of the common myths is that every Stradivari instrument sounds great, and that just is not so," he explains."
Those instruments are rare works of art, but that doesn’t mean every musician will prefer their sound. Can you hear the difference between a Stradivari violin and a modern one?
Craftsmanship determines a violin’s value, not tone, Derber says. Every step affects the instrument’s sound, which no doubt gives students pause. There’s the thickness of the plates, the shape of the f holes, even the varnish, applied layer by layer in a process that takes Derber 25 hours.
"To the average person, they look at a series of violins, and they all seem to look the same," Derber begins, "but as you get into this, you starting picking out certain personality characteristics of the maker. And that’s what attracted me to it."
Carvings on the violin’s neck are the easiest way to spot the maker’s personality. Derber says his own instruments reflect his role as a teacher.
"Well, because I’m training people how to make instruments, my instruments tend to be extremely clean," he explains. "No tool marks are left shown. I try to make it as perfect as possible."
Derber opened his New World School of Violin Making in 2000 when his wife’s job brought them to the Northwoods. But “old” and “new” are fairly blurred here.
“We’re using technology that was current in the 16th century,” Derber explains.
When Martin Luther was challenging the church and Galileo was peering through his telescope, violins were made the same way.
“The first instruments that my students learn to make are done entirely with hand tools. And some of the tools you can still purchase. Others you have to make."
He opens a drawer and takes out a sharpened piece of steel that looks like a ruler. "This works pretty well," he says. "It also produces a nice finish for varnishing. You can see how quickly I can go through and clean this up."
Start to finish, a violin takes Derber about 150 hours—about a month each. Derber isn’t opposed to machines, once his students learn to do the work by hand.
"Personally, I look at some of the machine operations as having my own apprentice who can do that kind of laborious work for me."
There are only a handful of American schools that teach traditional violin making by hand, mostly in big cities. Derber’s rural setting was the draw for Leyla Kelley from Omaha, Nebraska.
“I am TRYING to fit a base bar right at the moment, which is this piece, and it goes in here….”
All morning, Kelley has been carefully shaving the baseboard with a violin knife so will dovetail perfectly into the body. She’s made furniture before.
“I really thought about, like just as a hobby, going to week-long or month long sessions, but I found that, I started thinking that really isn’t gonna work," she sayd. "It really is a big process”
Kelley’s the only student this semester, sharing the one-room workshop in a set-up that feels more like a classic apprenticeship than any traditional classroom. One or two students at a time is pretty normal.
“Six is the maximum, and that was kind of tight, but it was lively then,” Derber says.
In the course of three years, Kelley will learn to make the violin family, including viola and cello, though not double bass, which requires so much wood and time to construct, Derber compares it to “house building.” Derber uses domestic wood, by the way, and he prefers violins.
Strings go on last, and so there aren’t any violins we can play at the moment. The whole process is layers of craft and art, and the result is a tool--an instrument--on which musicians express themselves.
“And so I have this saying. It’s a Latin saying. ‘Non omnus moriar.’ Not all of me is dead. And that’s kind of how I view these instruments.
Treated well, perhaps these violins will be around for centuries.
Violin comparisons were played by Russian soloist Ilya Kaler on instruments from the Smithsonian collection. Used by permission.