How I learned patience, perseverance, and gratitude (whittle by whittle) at Utah’s Violin Making School of America
By Jenelle Steele
When it came to patience, I thought I had plenty of practice. I had played cello for 20 years; thrown and arranged 2,400 ceramic cups for an art installation; worked as a glass tile mosaic artist for two years; taken classes in Buddhism; and most pertinently, waited tables.
So when I decided to pursue violin making and restoration, I thought it would be just another exercise in patience. What I had not anticipated was the degree of perseverance required. Making my first two instruments during the first year of school—and not being able to hear them for another year—made me revise my definitions of humility, tenacity, and patience.
I varnished and set up one of my first violins with nervous anticipation.
After making a big move from New York City, I began my violin-making journey in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the Violin Making School of America. Just like being a kid again, I biked to classes and even had the first-day jitters. Walking in the door felt like stepping back into a time when people valued handmade objects, wore flannel clothing, and participated in poetic traditions like “wood trips.”
These were my people.
On the first day, we jumped right in. We learned about the bandsaw and started filing metal templates for the inside mold and outline of the instruments. I had used a bandsaw in sculpture class, but hand filing was different. Almost immediately, blisters formed on my hands when I attempted to file giant chunks of metal off of my rough templates. When the file refused to take off the desired amount of metal, I pushed harder. This, I now know, is precisely the wrong way to use a file.
After laboring for a couple of hours, I stopped to give my hands a rest and showed my templates to the head instructor, Charles Woolf. These templates seemed to be taking an exorbitantly long time, I told him. Instead of assuring me I was nearly done, he smiled and said each step takes time, but the templates still had a few “kinks and lumps” and the outlines were a pencil-line thickness too wide here or there. I went back to my desk and squinted, trying to see the slight bumps in the curve. Not only had I never realized that curves could have lumps, but I could barely see these so-called lumps. I also hadn’t considered a pencil-line thickness as a noteworthy measurement. Disappointed, I went back to filing at the elusive lumps. After another day, I tried prepping some of my new tools. It took about half a day to flatten the sole of my block plane, and I soon discovered that, to work properly, nearly every new tool needed to be altered. With each step I took, there were exponentially more in-between steps. It was difficult to gauge the pace of the work and all the tools felt foreign in my hands. Everything felt like I was forcing it, pushing way too hard.
Your instrument is just a baby. You do not expect a baby to run a marathon the first day it is born.
Later that first week, we compared slides of various historic violins. Woolf displayed an image of a Nicolò Amati violin f-hole to show the characteristics of the wings, stems, eyes, and curves, and how they all worked together. I scribbled in my notebook, trying to capture everything he said. I wasn’t really grasping any of it, but thought it might come in handy later. At one point, he told us to prepare for the next slide. Up popped a picture of another f-hole, probably of a Brescian maker, and the whole room erupted in laughter and chatter. What was so funny or crazy about this picture? It just looked like an f-hole to me!
Doubt crept in; any confidence I had in my knowledge and abilities melted away. I was worried that I might never see what everyone else seemed to see, as if I were color blind and trying to see a rainbow. Could everyone else really grasp the humor in that f-hole? Had I picked the right profession? What was I doing?
Back in the workshop, I started working on the corner and end blocks of the violins, and it hit me. I was touching something that would eventually become the instrument—I was making an instrument! I was doing what I had only dreamt of for years. This was my path and my doubt dissolved . . . for the moment.
Every step of the process was difficult, and doubt would return, but the satisfaction of seeing the instrument come together helped keep me focused. It did not take long before my ego was completely squashed, and this made it easier to continue; it opened me up to learning as much as I could with nothing to lose.
After a year, I had two violins in the white and was elated. It took another year before I could varnish and set-up my first instruments, but in the meantime I made a fractional violin, another full-sized violin, and a cello. Throughout the process, I learned from endless mistakes and narrowly escaped disasters. I figured out how not to hold a knife, became more efficient with my tools, and grew accustomed to measuring in millimeters—the basics. I got faster at each step, my eyes started picking out bumps in curves. I started laughing at certain f-holes. During my third year, I moved upstairs, where I learned from instructor Sanghoon Lee how to varnish and set up the instruments. This was a new chapter of experimentation and skill-building. I varnished and set up one of my first violins with nervous anticipation of how it would sound.
A friend played it and, at first, I was just happy it made a sound. I soon became critical of it, however, and expressed that to my teacher. Lee reassured me, saying, “Your instrument is just a baby. You do not expect a baby to run a marathon the first day it is born.”
With more forgiving ears, I played the violin and loved it. It was mine.