By Cristina Schreil
Are you a teen who dreams of becoming a luthier? As with many hands-on, intensive crafts, it’s difficult to know what to expect without diving into a program. “Making a violin is an exceptional amount of work and quite an investment, especially the first time,” says luthier Julia Felix. “Kits and short workshops are too basic to help anyone understand what really goes into making a good violin.” These logistics can leave high schoolers feeling stalled. For teens, it can be daunting to determine now if it’s the right path—especially when the true start of that path may still be years away.
However, there are plenty of avenues for investigating the art of violin, viola, cello, bass, or bow making. At the very least, there are ways to better discern whether it might be the right craft for you. I spoke to Felix, who graduated from the North Bennet Street School, as well as R. Alex Wilson, from the Violin Making School of America, about what teens can do now to improve their chances of being successful later on.
Assess Your Strengths, Skillset & Interests
Felix’s advice is to take this time to self-analyze. “If you are thinking about lutherie, or any career, be really honest with yourself. What are you good at? What are you bad at? What do you like to spend your time on? What do you not like to spend your time on?” she says. Felix, who has a lot of experience in other crafts and art forms, adds that it can help to determine similarities in the activities you do—or don’t—like to do. “I think the best way to gauge if you would truly be interested is to look at what you like doing and compare it to the basic traits of a good luthier.”
Some questions she recommends asking yourself: Are you patient enough to spend two or three weeks on a single detail of something? Do you like constructing and understanding things? Do you pride yourself on a job well done? She recommends experimenting. Try any kind of complex art project, such as drawing, mosaics, murals, or sand painting. Assess your response to it. “If you are bored or frustrated with the project within a few hours, you can either try another medium, or you’ll know that being a luthier probably isn’t going to be as much fun as you thought.”
Remember that working as a luthier comprises myriad elements, tasks, and passions beyond making an instrument. “For me, violin making was a synthesis of two interests,” says Wilson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in music theory/composition and a master’s degree in ethnomusicology. “I also earned my living for many years as a woodworker. Violin making allowed me to bring together my love of music and woodworking into a challenging and fulfilling career.” Thus, the teen years can be a fruitful time to explore and build adjacent interests. Above all, get ready to commit. “Prepare yourself to be focused and disciplined with your learning when you show up for school,” Wilson says.
Hone Luthier-Adjacent Skills
“If you do decide to specialize in the field of violin making, it will benefit you in the long run if you have a well-rounded education and vocational experience,” adds Wilson. He says that gaining woodworking experience will, of course, be helpful. Hand planes, gouges, chisels, and knives are the standard tools of a luthier, so woodworking that focuses on these hand tools will be most beneficial.
Wilson adds that it’s also vital to be familiar with other things—a wide array of subjects and skills. “Geometry, acoustical science, painting, sculpture, metallurgy, history, literature, accounting, marketing, and customer service are just some examples of other subjects that are all beneficial for a violin maker to at least be familiar with,” he says. Wilson recommends listening to a lot of string repertoire and reading about the history and art of violin and bow making.
“Some questions Felix recommends asking yourself: Are you patient enough to spend two or three weeks on a single detail of something? Do you like constructing and understanding things?”
Felix also asserts that while it would be handy to have some woodworking experience under your belt, there are other ways to build skills that will directly tie into making. “When it came down to learned skills I felt I used in violin making, it was drawing and the detailed work I did in metalsmithing that really came in handy,” she explains. “Violin making involves a lot of copying—looking at shapes and trying to imitate them—and in my previous life, drawing classes really gave me a boost, I felt, compared to my classmates who hadn’t done much art in the past.” She added that her experience metalsmithing, also a detail-oriented craft, involved careful sawing and filing to exact lines. This eventually echoed the precision needed for violin making.
Gather Your Resources
In terms of thinking about your career path and looking for pre-college guidance, Wilson recommends gaining valuable field experience via an informational visit to a violin-making school, or visiting shops and makers. “Find a shop or a maker who is willing to let you visit, or perhaps even help them out a bit. But don’t expect that a violin maker will just let you hop right onto a workbench and get to it. Keep in mind that violin making requires many years of learning and development well into adult life. Successful violin makers tend to be very busy, focused, hard-working people, so they usually do not have lots of time to teach the newly aspiring,” he says. Wilson emphasizes that even if the tasks are small in comparison, such as helping someone clean up their workshop, or organize their string inventory, this can be pivotal. “A little time in a shop can help you start developing a sense of what it is like to be a violin maker,” he says.
Felix, however, cautions knocking down the door of your local luthier. “While we’re generally a friendly crowd and it’s certainly OK to talk to your local luthier or shop a bit, it’s something of a faux pas to bother well-established makers whom you’ve never met before.”
R. Alex Wilson recommends books that teens can dive into now. “Current trade publications are a great way to stay up to date with what is going on in the string world,” he says. “A precocious teenager could go ahead and start looking and reading!”
- The ‘Secrets’ of Stradivari by Simone F. Sacconi, translated by Andrew Dipper and Cristina Rivaroli. Eric Blot Edizioni (1979)
- The Violin Forms of Antonio Stradivari by Stewart Pollens. Peter Biddulph (1992)
- Antonio Stradivari, His Life and Work (1644–1737) by W. Henry Hill, et al. William E. Hill & Sons (1902)
- The Violin-Makers of the Guarneri Family (1626–1762) by W. Henry Hill et al. William E. Hill & Sons (1931)
- Giuseppi Guarneri del Gesù by Peter Biddulph. Peter Biddulph (1998)
- Antonio Stradivari, Volumes I–VIII. Edited by Jost Thöne and Jan Röhrmann. Jost Thöne Verlag (2010)
- Traité de Lutherie by Francois Denis. Francois Denis (2006): “For something more current that would be a productive challenge to work on alongside a high school geometry course, get your dividers and thinking cap out for a difficult but highly informative masterpiece on geometry and violin making,” says Wilson.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Strings magazine.