School fine-tunes violin makers

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week And patience. Students often sit and whittle away at wood for six hours straight, months at a time. Not even sandpaper is allowed. The only sign of progress at times is a small pile of wood shavings on the floor of the quiet shop where posters of 18th-century violin masterpieces adorn the walls. But when completed, a handmade violin is a work of art that no modern mass-manufacturer can reproduce, said Peter Prier, the school’s founder. “All instruments of any value are all handmade instruments,” Prier said. A student-built violin can sell for up to $3,500. A mass-produced violin sells for as little as $100. Prier sells his for as much as $35,000. SALT LAKE CITY – Sitting side-by-side on wooden workbenches in a small, two-story shop in the heart of Utah’s capital city, 22 of the nation’s most-promising violin builders are learning to make the instruments by hand as it’s been done for centuries in Europe. The oldest school of its kind in the United States, the four-year Violin Making School of America attracts students from around the world despite an international economy increasingly focused on high-tech pursuits. Admission standards here are tough. Musical ability, superior hand-eye coordination and drawing skills are needed, as are letters of recommendation. Only about 10 percent of applicants who pass an entrance exam and interview are admitted, roughly the same acceptance rate as most Ivy League schools. Some students come straight from high school. Others are already college graduates and want a more rewarding career. But everyone must have a passion for the violin. “It takes approximately 250 hours to make a violin. You can make a violin in 30 hours, but if you do, it’s a piece of junk. Cheap means only that it’s bad,” Prier said. Cheap is a relative term. A well-made 18th- or 19th-century violin can cost millions, opening up a niche market for Prier’s graduates. Typically, it is professional musicians and those at music schools who will buy a handmade instrument, he said. That includes Judy Rich, a graduate of The Juilliard School of music who performs in the Utah Symphony Orchestra. The quality of the violin she recently purchased from Prier is impeccable, she said. “I think he’s a master,” Rich said. “He knows what makes a violin good. Even before he works on a piece of wood he taps it to know what its pitch is.” There are fewer than a dozen similar schools in the world. “I think we’re so lucky to have a man like Peter with his kind of experience and reputation to be amongst us,” Rich said. “It’s one of the three or four violin shops in the whole world. That’s phenomenal. He’s one of the very few that teaches.” Before Prier’s graduates began entering the work force in the late 1970s, most violin builders and repairers came to the United States from Europe, said Christopher Germain, president of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. They also tended to move only to the country’s largest cities, such as New York and Boston. Now, violin builders live just about anywhere. When third-year student Ray Palmer graduates from the Salt Lake City school he will likely return to his Wichita, Kan., home to open a shop there, he said. It wouldn’t be unusual. A book the school published to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2002 lists alumni living and working in nearly every region of the country. “Post-1975 we have a generation of American-born and -trained violin makers because of the emergence of violin schools in the country,” Germain said. “The schools in America have also helped to raise the bar for standards of the craft to the highest level it’s been in a century or more.” Germain attended the Chicago School of Violin Making, which opened three years after the Salt Lake City school. Other violin building programs exist in America, but the level of the training at the Chicago, Salt Lake City and Boston schools can’t be matched elsewhere, Germain said. Prier brought his brand of violin making with him from Mittenwald, Germany, where he studied at the State Violin Making School of Bavaria for five years. He was the last of 33 students admitted to the school in his class because he could play the violin better than other applicants. His grandfather bought him his first violin for his seventh birthday, and Prier fell in love with its shape and sound. After a skills assessment test at 14, he decided violin building would be his career. He moved to Salt Lake City to work for another violin maker in the 1960s. It turned out Salt Lake City’s dry, mountain climate is perfect for shaping wood. Prier soon opened his own shop; his school opened its doors in 1972. Little has changed since. Students still learn to cut down a tree from nearby forests and shape a violin from it. Maple, spruce and willow trees, all found in Utah, are among the most commonly used for violins. The coursework is demanding, with students taking 25 hours of practical instruction and 10 hours of theoretical instruction a week. It’s all necessary, Prier said. “It’s a small clientele for people who make instruments,” he said. “You have to be very good at what you’re doing.” Tuition at the school is $2,400 per semester, or $7,200 for the three semesters a year. The course of study is three years, but most students take three and a half to four years. About five students graduate each year, usually to become professional violin players or builders. Sometimes, they come back to teach. Charles Woolf was a video editor in Hollywood, Calif., when he decided he needed a more fulfilling career. After graduating from the school in 1987, he worked at a violin shop in St. Louis before returning to Salt Lake City in 1991. Now, he teaches students like 20-year-old Greg Crawford from the Binghamton, N.Y., area. As a freshman in high school Crawford knew he wanted to go to a violin-making school. The instrument had the same romantic draw for him that it did Prier. Now as Prier did, he’s learning the craft – and patience. “I think everyone, when they go into the violin, realizes what a struggle it is. But it’s also so much fun. You can still look back on what you accomplished,” Crawford said. “It’s a personality trait to really want to do it.” 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more