By Caeli Smith | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Violin maker Christopher Jacoby is editor of the Violin Society of America’s membership magazine, the Scroll, and workshop manager at Potter Violins, where he wields his pen, tools, and irreverent sense of humor in more or less equal measure. In 2018, along with Rozie DeLoach, shop owner of Caraway Strings in Dallas, Texas, and repair and restoration expert Jerry Lynn of JHL Violins, Jacoby also became a host of a new podcast, omo.
Named for Stradivari’s least-favorite son, the series spotlights the lives, pursuits, and concerns of violin makers, both contemporary and historical. Among the 30 episodes, listeners will find discussions about women at the bench, chemical safety, fakes and forgeries, North American–made instruments, and, in a recent episode, something called “Hot! Bow! Action!” Jacoby took time to talk with me about his life as a violin maker, how the podcast came about, and how he became something of an Instagram star.
You’ve written for Strings in the past, providing tips on instrument care and insight into the work of a luthier. Tell me about your education and what you’re doing now.
After high school I traveled around the country playing my violin. I thought I’d get signed, join a band, and go on tour. That didn’t pan out! I played a lot of gigs, on the street and in hot clubs in Salt Lake City. I wanted a deeper connection with the instrument, and I found violin making. I went to the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. I’ve had several jobs, and three years ago I accepted the position at Potter Violins in Maryland.
A lot of luthiers seem to come from a folk-music tradition. Is there a connection there?
At luthier get-togethers, we play a lot of Irish and bluegrass music. The two traditions go hand in hand: violin makers and atavists. It’s something you can do sitting on the side of a hill, if you have running water, but no electricity, or anything else.
You’re a superstar luthier on Instagram, with nearly 25,000 followers. How did you build your audience?
My wife, who’s an artist and a writer, had hundreds of Instagram followers, so I asked her to set up an account for me. I was one of the first instrument makers with a large following on Instagram. I try to post regularly, and to have a sense of humor, but I don’t boost my posts. I came up with hashtags in order to connect with craftspeople across disciplines. I created a network of people, with similar disciplines and interests, who do completely different things. The #whatsonyourbench hashtag has been taken over by all sorts of people—furniture restorers, for example, as well as luthiers.
Let’s talk about your podcast, “omo.” Tell me about the name.
Omo is an abbreviation of Omobono, the first name of the maker we refer to as Stradavari’s “least likely” son. As a kid, Omo ran off and lost a bunch of his family’s money. His name became a byword for screw-up, even though he went on to make really fine instruments.
You have two co-hosts on the podcasts, Jerry Lynn and Rozie DeLoach. How did the three of you decide to start a podcast?
We were at the Oberlin Restoration Workshop, having a conversation about how our field can feel very exclusive. It can be hard to be yourself, because violin making is such a dedicated, classical craft. We’re supposed to act a certain way. I have to cover my tattoos all the time! Not that being conservative in those ways is a bad thing—but if nobody feels like they’re good enough, there’s a problem. So, to us, the story of Omobono represents the idea that we’ve held, played, and worked on incredible instruments, and that we’re good enough to be part of the tribe.
There’s this idea that luthiers are a bit anti-social. You three smash that cliché on the podcast. Is this an unfounded stereotype?
It’s not unfounded! Some of it is generational. We’re at the end of the generation after the immigrants’ kids who started the big shops. It’s an old-world thing, left over from the European system. You started as an apprentice, then became a journeyman, then put in your masterwork, and finally received a certification. When someone refers to me as a “master violin maker,” I get defensive, because I’ve been yelled at by German luthiers for that. It’s a real certification that’s very hard to get. In my training, we were expected to have very crisp collars, wear nice shoes, and not to speak to clients in a familiar way. It was clear to me that American clients didn’t like it.
Who is the podcast for? Do you have a specific listener in mind?
At the beginning, it was sort of an inside joke. But it was also meant for the next generation of instrument makers; anyone who felt that they weren’t good enough. We wanted to create a community that makes the next generation feel welcome. Interestingly, 30 percent of our listenership is in France. They have a big tradition of violin making there, and the education is state-sponsored. Some of the best luthiers I know started very young in the French schools.
Does starting young as a violin maker give you an important head start?
When you’re young, you still have access to “slow time”—before the responsibilities of adulthood pile up. Someone with talent can do amazing things if they learn the discipline at a young age. I took slow time for granted when I was younger. Rozie and Jerry have helped me [approach adult work-life with humor] on the podcast. If you can’t laugh, you’re missing the most important thing about craft and expression.
Have you found any extra “slow time” during the pandemic?
Yes. It was the first time in a long time that I reorganized the shop and felt full of wonder at the tools I use to make these instruments that feed my family and pay the bills.
What has surprised you about putting the podcast together, and what have you learned?
When we started the podcast, it was a time when I needed to do something other than violin making. It’s very hard to create something that sounds the way we want it to. Jerry was furious at me for the first two episodes, because I would ramble and tell stories for three hours.
The show doesn’t hold everyone’s attention, but we have a very consistent listener base. Non-musicians are a minority, but they do tune in. The podcast seems to fill a wish for community. Our episodes get played at the violin-making schools in France and America. It’s still somewhat of an inside joke for luthiers, but it’s accessible to teachers and musicians as well.
It’s wonderful that you’ve made yourself so accessible, through omo and Instagram. Do aspiring violin makers contact you through these mediums?
Constantly. I work hard to be present for them. It’s somewhat the same as someone asking to spend time in my shop, or work with me. If someone is kind, and not pushy, I’ll bend over backwards for them. Entering this field can feel like trying to join an exclusive club. If somebody is stubborn, and loves what they’re doing, they can excel at it—but everyone needs a little help.