By Patrick Sullivan | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine
A daunting task confronted luthier Christopher Germain two decades ago. After several years assisting the legendary violin maker and restorer Vahakn Nigogosian in putting on the Oberlin violin restoration workshop, Germain found himself stepping into his boss’ shoes.
It was big footwear to fill.
Known as “Nigo,” Nigogosian was, among his many other world-renowned talents, an educator who could hold the attention of anyone, anywhere. He founded the Ohio workshop in 1986 and died in 1997. “Nigo was the most dynamic person you could ever meet,” Germain says. “I’m not Nigo. And I didn’t feel I could continue the workshop the way he had it organized—the classic educational model of one teacher and a lot of students learning from that teacher. I knew something had to change.”
Germain was born and raised in St. Louis and studied journalism before graduating from the Chicago School of Violin Making in 1985. He quickly carved out a reputation as a talented restorer. But he was struck by the absence of a graduate program in violin making. “I knew there was nothing like that anywhere in the world,” he says. “Violin makers could go to school, but after that they were on their own.”
So Germain shifted Oberlin’s focus from restoration to making. And he moved to collaborative learning: The program still has staff members, but everyone is encouraged to share ideas. “We’ve got 60 teachers and 60 students,” Germain says. “Everyone learns from each other. In my mind that makes it a rich model with unlimited learning possibilities for everyone involved.”
Those changes have helped the summer workshops become a world-famous convergence of leading luthiers.
Oberlin College now hosts six Violin Society of America (VSA)–sponsored workshops covering everything from acoustics to bow making. Germain continues to lead the Violin Makers Workshop, which invites 60 makers from the U.S., Europe, and beyond to Ohio for two weeks of learning.
“Suddenly you see someone right next to you doing the same task in an entirely different way and it really opens your mind”
“It has unquestionably become the foremost forum in the world for contemporary luthiers to meet and share ideas,” says Robin Aitchison, a British cello maker who has attended Oberlin almost every year since 2003.
Then came the coronavirus. The pandemic halted this summer’s events—an apparent first in the workshops’ 30-plus year history. “Cancelling was a tough decision, but it was the only decision to make,” Germain says. “Given that there would be 60 of us working so closely together, there was no way to make sure everyone could stay healthy.” Germain and his fellow organizers considered moving the event online, but ultimately concluded that was impossible.
The reason goes to the heart of the changes Germain made in 1997: Hands-on collaboration is key. Often working 16-hour days, Oberlin participants get an intimate look at how other luthiers tackle every aspect of the craft. “You’ve done something over and over a certain way for years, and suddenly you see someone right next to you doing the same task in an entirely different way and it really opens your mind,” Germain says. “You ask, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”
Oberlin also has a strong social component. Attendees stay in on-campus housing together, and each night a different crew volunteers to cook dinner. “We compete in the kitchen, not the workshop,” Aitchison says—and such friendly interactions open the door to professional collaboration.
“The great strength of the program is people’s willingness to share knowledge,” Aitchison says. “We are in a trade that has historically held information and knowledge very closely and where people often work in relative isolation or within small circles of shared knowledge.”
Aitchison attributes Oberlin’s collaborative atmosphere to Germain, who he says has a “true genius” for encouraging skill-sharing. “Many makers, including me, owe our professional success to Christopher Germain and the Oberlin program,” Aitchison says.
Germain’s influence on the craft extends beyond Oberlin. While making award-winning violins, violas, and cellos in his Philadelphia studio, the 63-year-old luthier has served as president of both the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM) and the VSA.
He’s seen a wide range of techniques—and he’s been surprisingly successful at getting makers to share their professional skills at Oberlin. “Pretty much every year people show up and open some eyes with the knowledge they have,” Germain says.
One year, for example, French maker Frank Ravatin demonstrated how to make his varnish—a well-guarded secret for many luthiers. “He just said, ‘Here’s my varnish. Here’s how I make it and here’s how I apply it,’” Germain recalls. “I think people were stunned that someone so universally respected would be so open.”
Participation by luthiers from around the world is no accident. In Germain’s first year as director, he put considerable effort into inviting makers from many different countries. “I wanted to bring broad horizons to the workshop,” he says. “Inviting people from Germany and France and Italy and China makes it a fuller program with a greater diversity of opinions and techniques. If you look at a map of the world, pretty much every country where classical music is performed has had a person at the Oberlin workshop,” he notes.
Attendees have also become more diverse in other ways. “I’m a baby boomer, and I’m so happy to see an entirely new, younger generation coming along,” Germain says. “We’re seeing makers in their 20s and 30s doing great work.” More women have started participating as well, he notes. “It’s not at parity with male participants, but it’s much higher than in previous generations,” he says.
Oberlin’s future couldn’t have been brighter—until COVID-19 hit. For the luthiers who attend, the cancellation hit hard. “Many feel part of a family that transcends normal professional relationships,” said Aitchison. “We will be very pleased to see each other again when COVID-19 has passed.”
“The pandemic obviously will have a profound impact on our profession and the arts in general, on music performance, and the making of instruments,” Germain says. He hopes this is a brief, once-in-a-lifetime issue that can be resolved safely. “But that’s a question we still have to answer,” he says.