By Cristina Schreil
Photos by Kevin Derrick
Twenty-six-year-old Nick Gerald began playing the cello in the fourth grade. He pursued it head on, first at a boarding school for the arts and then at university in North Carolina.
Halfway through college, something shifted. “I decided I didn’t really want to be a performer,” he says. “I still wanted to be involved in the music world.” Eventually, he found a new path: violin making. “Just the way that my brain works, I thought the visual aspect, the craftsmanship aspect, would be more satisfying to me personally than performing.” He said it was a gamble; it’s hard, he asserts, to really know what it’s like without diving in.
Growing up a Boy Scout, he’d tackle the occasional woodworking project—but nothing that garnered significant experience. Painting himself as balanced between a mathematically inclined, punctilious mind with an artsy side, Gerald considered several United States–based violin-making programs. He wanted something full time, and eyed such top programs as the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City and the Chicago School of Violin Making. But after visiting the North Bennet Street School in Boston—a smaller program of only 12 spots—he decided it was the only one he’d apply to.
“My honest first impression was that it was somewhat magical, akin to Santa’s workshop,” he recalls. Boston’s rich music community was also appealing. Another attraction: the cost of materials was built into tuition, which means students own the instruments they create.
The North Bennet Street School offers a three-year, full-time program. The Boston institution, founded in 1881, trains students for several traditional trades: violin-making students interact with aspiring locksmiths, piano technicians, bookbinders, carpenters, jewelry makers, and furniture makers. The violin-making program launched in 1983. The bench room has a library, a drawing area, and a new tool-sharpening station. There’s only one teacher: maker and violin-restoration expert Roman Barnas, who’s taught there since 2004. Barnas honors the aesthetic and geometric principals of 17th-century Italian violin making.
Barnas was a draw for Gerald. “He’s an amazing teacher and a great maker,” he says by phone. And Boston’s extensive community of luthiers provides vital connections—musicians, many from the nearby New England Conservatory of Music, test instruments. Nearby shops, auction houses, and museums make for illuminating field trips. Guest instructors have included Andrew Ryan, Philippe Raynaud, Paul Wiessmeyer, David Hawthorne, and Marco Coppiardi, plus alumni Christopher White, Kevin Kelly, and David Polstein.
How to Be One of the Dozen
As Gerald found, there’s a wait list. “The wait list is more of a pool, where we identify the best-qualified applicants to move forward,” says Rob O’Dwyer, director of admissions. They typically add two students each February and two each September. The free online application is open year-round, with different start dates having different deadlines. Prospective students submit letters of recommendation, transcripts, and a one-page personal statement. There’s also a two-part mathematical assessment judging applicants’ grasp of applied arithmetic and computation. A personal visit is required.
When assessing an applicant, Barnas looks for passion and potential over direct experience. The website stresses “good woodworking experience and devotion to the craft,” but Barnas suggests it’s not compulsory. Even if a student has spent time in a maker’s shop, it might not be smooth sailing. “It’s more this overall personality of the person,” says Barnas, speaking alongside Gerald. “I try to understand why they want to be a violin maker.” He assesses if students are motivated to do the tangible work and can “imagine themselves sitting behind the bench for most of the day and working with their hands.” He also makes sure prospects understand that consistent work hinges on some physical strength. “They must also have a good sense of hearing and some visual-art talents,” Barnas adds.
“My honest first impression was that it was somewhat magical, akin to Santa’s workshop.”
—Violin-making student Nick Gerald
O’Dwyer looks for a “holistic” commitment, blending mechanical aptitude and technical passion. “Each prospective student is a case-by-case. We try to identify any red flags up front and counsel people forward or away toward becoming better qualified,” he explains. “Red flags would be no hand skills, no musicianship, and being stubborn, in the sense of being unwilling to learn new habits.”
Barnas adds that prior musical training can complement other qualifications. Every student seems to play an instrument of some kind, Gerald notes.
Gerald has just finished his second year. He’s varnishing his sixth instrument, a viola, at the time of our interview. He aspires to build cellos. Despite Gerald’s mounting skills, beginners learn to be patient. There’s a sturdy foundation in the basics. Barnas asserts that the longer steeping in technique allows students to later branch into something different, like instrument restoration. Compared to Barnas’ training in his native Poland—where students churned out one violin per semester—his program is slower, yet steady.
“We start by learning tool basics and sharpening techniques, then template making, then violin mold making,” Barnas says, comparing the process to learning how to drive. They’re “not really rushing into it, but trying to understand the small nuances. It can already be a couple months into the semester before somebody actually begins making a violin.” Students with slower paces or paltry woodworking knowledge get time to breathe. From there, students tackle all components of violin craftsmanship and make two in the first year.
“I think the best part about learning to make violins is that every little step, from beginning to varnish to setup, is different in its own way. Nothing is ever boring because as soon as you complete a task you get to move on to the next task,” Gerald says, describing the methodology of mastering scrolls, carving fingerboards, and setting necks. Paralleling other major programs, the second and third years cover varnish making, varnish application, and setup, and allow students to make larger instruments.
The semiannual enrollment means that every student is at a different level. Gerald says this leads to revelations—witnessing someone learn something he’s done ten times often sparks ideas. Barnas hovers, dispatching individual attention and demonstrating from his bench. When guest instructors show new techniques, Barnas says it’s easier for him as the only teacher to respond to them.
Students must complete six violins and a viola. The final hurdle is a graduation panel where judges—program advisers and high-profile guests—assess a final violin. Past judges have included advisers Benjamin Ruth, Andrew Ryan, Kevin Kelly, David Polstein, and Christopher Reuning, and guest examiners Samuel Zygmuntowicz and Joseph Grubaugh.
Aiming for a Successful Career Path
The school has an optional six-week business course, covering business plans, marketing, self-employment, and contracts. Career counselors coach students on interview skills, networking, and resumes. Barnas also offers tips throughout, and stresses that career paths for graduates vary.
“We get bits and pieces all throughout the education here about how to set up our own business or going to a shop afterward,” Gerald says. “It also depends on what the student wants to do. A lot of students want to go work in a shop, and a lot of students are more interested in working directly for themselves.”
Barnas says people still pondering violin making have many resources to help make up their minds about the career path. He suggests interviewing makers. “Probably talking to some other violin shops is a good thing as well,” he offers. Another tip: Attend the Violin Society of America’s exhibitions, which sometimes feature students or recent graduates.
When comparing programs, consider the instructors, Gerald says. “That’s who you’re going to be learning from. They not only have to be knowledgeable but they need to be personable as well.” His hunch that Barnas would be a stimulating teacher proved correct. “We try all the time to stump him with questions and so far, he seems to have all the answers for any little problem that comes up.”