Ute Zahn ~ Violin Maker
This is a video I made for the virtual Festival of the Viola a couple of months or so ago -- I have finally remembered/worked out how, to post it!
The Huthmaker Violin Shop in Suwanee, GA has been sponsoring a series of talks aimed at all musicians who are currently stuck at home and would like to deepen their conncetion to music-making and the instruments they love. I was honoured to present a talk on violin making last week. No "secrets of Stradivari" or magical silver bullets here -- but if you would like an overview, click below to check out the video!
Class for the Curious Musician- A Night with a Violin Maker, Ute Zahn - Bing video
On the Porch
Due to the Corona-situation, I moved operations back to my home workshop a couple of months ago. I expected to be in the studio all the time, cranking out instruments, but this turned out to be harder than expected. Nature abhors a vacuum, the home studio is now filled with donations for LSF, and in order to have space to work, I must first make space to work.
I have not, however, totally succumbed to quarantine-induced inertia, but got stuck in with my cello practice in order to present some concerts from my porch, for neighbours, friends and passers-by. One of my musician neighbours came up with the idea of a neighbourhood concert porch crawl, which is planned for the last weekend of May. I love being part of artists' fruitful interactions at work!
One aspect of violin making I butt heads with is the obsession with having to match what those Italian guys did three or four centuries ago. Even though there are a number of makers of different time periods with divergent styles to base one's work on, the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable styling and execution in lutherie are pretty narrowly defined, and while I often yearn for more artistic freedom of expression, it was with some trepidation that I started entertaining the idea of a non-traditional inlay pattern.
Brescian-style instruments lend themselves to a freer style -- they are not subject to the same strict geometric and taste requirements as Cremonese models. Still, I wondered "am I too personal? rebellious? will this be considered too flashy? trashy?"
In the end, I arrived at something that I thought to be elegantly stylized and, for students of Eastern Philosophies like myself, somewhat evocative of their recurring themes; visible above: the evolution of an invisible idea into a two-dimensional template into a three-dimensional channel, coming to full fruition (excuse the pun) in the finished design.
While attempting to cook some varnish the other day, I dropped my thermometer onto the patio, where it shattered into two big and countless tiny pieces.
I was very attached to my thermometer -- it was the old-fashioned kind, a hollow glass column containing a bead of mercury, a hand-and-mouth-made precision lab instrument which I had purchased for a song thirty years ago at "China Products". China Products is where Hong Kongers went if they needed to buy something functional, rather than stylish. It was a little piece of mainland China right in Hong Kong -- a place to buy sensible clothing and kitchenware. Browsing was not encouraged. On entering the store, an attendant would greet you with aggressive cheer to ask you what you were looking for, then follow you around until you had paid for your purchases.
Back to the varnish cooking. I was at that most delicate stage of having to add the turpentine, where obtaining accurate temperature measurements is vital, and I had a patio full of mercury. Thank God for google! It reassured me about the dangers of mercury on the loose (not as bad as I thought it was) and told me how to safely collect it. I got to work with shaving foam and a little brush, patiently picking up ever-smaller droplets of mercury, wiping them off on a damp paper towel, sealing everything inside many plastic bags. But then google directed me to check with the local fire department about where to dispose of the lot.
I figured the local fire department might have an interest in someone cooking varnish on their patio, but my conscience won out, so I made my way over there. It was evening and all was dark, but when I rang the doorbell, a young firefighter came out. I told her I had been cooking … something … on the patio, and had broken my thermometer, and google had directed me to her. She scratched her head and invited me inside, where she called the captain. "Captain, there is a citizen here who broke her thermometer when she was grilling …"
When I told the Captain that the government website had referred me to the fire department, he quipped "Well, I would just refer you to the nearest trash can!" Then apologized a thousand times, saying "we didn't get any training on mercury."
In the end, he gave me a couple of suggestions for where to ispose of my "hazmats". It made my job sound so high-stakes and adventurous.
Are you getting ready for that summer workshop, festival, or opera under the stars? Would you like to reward your hardworking instrument with a day at the spa? Or are you looking for an excuse not to have to practice for a few days ("Honestly, my viola was in the shop!")?
From now through July 4th, all instrument se-up and cleaning work will be 25% off. This applies to small repairs such as gluing seams, too.
Call, text or email to make an appointment!
Come to Quinn Violins and listen to, look at, or try out our locally-made, contemporary instruments and bows! Get to know your local luthiers, watch them in action and ask them questions! Have a refreshment or two (rumour has it there will be violin-themed cookies!). All musicians of any age or level are welcome!
Minneapolis luthier Frederik Bethke, bow maker Jesse Berndt, and myself recently cooked up the idea of showcasing our vibrant Twin Cities lutherie scene by hosting an exhibition of local violin and bow makers. Twelve Twin Cities makers will show their work at Quinn Violins.
All musicians are cordially invited to join us for an opening reception and concert on Friday, March 29th, 5pm-8pm; for tone and instrument making demonstrations on Saturday, March 30th from 10am-4pm, and for seminars and demonstrations on Sunday, March 31st, 12-4pm.
All instruments and bows will be available to be auditioned at Quinn Violins from April 2nd through 4th, and with individual makers subsequently.
I am very excited to see that my former colleague, Laura Vick Alaghbash, and her husband Fakhri, have launched their new enterprise making high-end fittings. Laura is a meticulous, experienced and highly skilled craftswoman. All the wood they are using is carefully sourced to ensure it comes from sustainable sources.
To start with, Laura and Fakhri have focused on making chinrests, but they will develop a line of pegs, end buttons, and tailpieces, too. Can't wait!!
First-time orders get 30% off. Go to www.alaghbashworkshop.com to find out more.