By Patrick Sullivan
Luthier Joan Balter marks four decades at the Aspen Music Festival
They pour into Aspen every summer—hundreds of talented young musicians and dozens of major artists from across the United States and around the world.
And every summer, luthier Joan Balter is there waiting, work bench set up, ready to deal with everything from bow rehairs to instruments damaged in transit.
The Aspen Music Festival and School is one of the most highly regarded classical festivals in the United States. The eight-week event also may be the only festival in the country that employs a full-time repair person. And for 40 years now, that luthier/crisis counselor has been Balter.
As long as my eyes and hands hold up I expect they’ll have to carry me out. I can’t imagine a better job.
“Aspen is so geographically isolated, and the climate can cause some real problems,” Balter explains, speaking by phone from the Aspen ski shop hosting her emergency clinic this year. “Before they had someone full-time, some major artists were afraid to travel here with their instruments.”
But for any string player traveling to any festival, Balter advises taking extra care with your instrument.
Keep it away from direct sun exposure. Don’t let the change in routine distract you from wiping rosin off the strings and body before you put the instrument away. Have your soundpost checked to make sure it’s not so tight as to cause a crack.
And most important: Maintain a constant internal humidity inside the instrument to keep the glue joints supple. Case humidifiers don’t cut it. “A properly used Dampit-type device that is moistened twice a day is the best defense,” she says.
This summer, Balter has already helped a musician cope with an unfortunate accident: The young woman dropped a cellphone on her 1954 Italian violin. “It caused a major bass-bar crack,” Balter says. “It’s the very first injury of this sort that I’ve ever seen—a sign of the times, I guess.”
Over the past four decades, the Berkeley, California–based luthier has rehaired countless bows, loosened untold numbers of soundposts, and glued a lot of open edges. She’s also met some of the greatest young musicians on the planet.
“I remember the first day Midori arrived from Japan, when she was nine,” Balter says. “Virtually every major player who has come through Aspen has stopped in for a rehair or some advice or something. It’s been wonderful—a lot of history.”
Balter started off at Aspen as an apprentice to her teacher from the Violin Making School of America. “He didn’t know how to do bow rehairs so he brought me along,” she says. “And I gradually got the job when he gradually decided it wasn’t cost effective to be there.”
The first years were exciting—and a bit intimidating—as the 20-something luthier found herself handling incredibly valuable instruments.
Balter recalls the first time she worked on a Stradivari. She needed to clean the inside of the instrument but had no rice, which is commonly used to loosen up dust inside violins.
She decided to head to the grocery store but realized she couldn’t leave the Strad sitting out where someone could swipe it. So she wrapped the violin in a towel and hid it under the bathroom sink.
Then, as she was waiting in line at the supermarket, a horrible idea struck her. “I suddenly thought, ‘What if there’s a leak?” she recalls. She talked her way to the front of the line, and then raced back to her workshop.
The Strad was fine, of course—and these days, Balter can chuckle about her decades-old fear. “Now I’ve worked on so many that I’m no longer afraid,” she says. “Respectful, but not afraid.”
That calm competence has been crucial in an environment full of excited young musicians wielding irreplaceable instruments. It’s helped Balter tackle challenges many luthiers never even imagine.
When a swab blocked up an oboe’s bore, Balter was called on to drill it out—carefully. “I knew if I nicked the rim of the instrument, I would ruin it,” she recalls.
When an elevator accident damaged a Chinese orchestra’s pipa—a four-stringed, plucked instrument—Balter had to glue the scroll back on in three stages, working in the middle of the night to ensure the ensemble’s star had his instrument ready for an event the next day.
“That was pretty exciting because I knew the concert couldn’t happen without this repair,” she says.
Improvisation is often necessary because she doesn’t have the full assortment of tools and equipment on hand. This summer, for example, she had a bass emergency and had to drive down out of the mountains to get large-enough clamps.
But emergency repairs are just part of the job. Through weekly classes, Balter has taught innumerable young musicians how their instruments work and how to take care of them.
“Most of the students here have a relationship with a shop,” she says. “But certainly for many I’m the first person they’ve watched do bow rehairs or carve a bridge, because generally that’s done in the back room.”
She teaches them how to lubricate a bow screw, straighten a bridge, or use trimmed-off match sticks to deal with stretched-out bow hair. “They need to know how to take care of their instruments when there’s nobody to help them,” she says.
Over the years, the Aspen festival has undergone some changes. The event has contracted from nine to eight weeks to give students time to get back to school, and the organizers recently completed a new campus. “But the ideal remains the same—making music and friendships in this glorious environment,” Balter says. “With all the bad that’s happening in the world, music is such a positive force in people’s lives.”
And those qualities, Balter says, are what keep her coming back to Aspen year after year.
“As long as my eyes and hands hold up I expect they’ll have to carry me out,” she says. “I can’t imagine a better job.”