Jacob Brillhart launches live-streaming raffle

By Pat Moran

Jacob Brillhart is not content to fiddle while the COVID-19 pandemic burns. When he saw many of his musician friends unable to pay rent or buy groceries amid an onslaught of gig and tour cancellations, he decided to draw on his talents to help.

The 27-year-old Cape Breton–style fiddler and professional violin maker who studied under Roman Barnas in Boston teamed with Vermont nonprofit Seven Stars Arts Center for a unique fundraiser designed to bring musicians vital economic aid. At 5pm on March 25, Brillhart began crafting a violin valued at $10,000 from his workroom in a 170-year-old farmhouse in Chelsea, Vermont, live-streaming the process and selling raffle tickets, giving viewers a chance to win the instrument. Viewers who want to donate to musicians without participating in the raffle can do so through the Violin-Building Fundraiser for Musicians in Need’s donation portal link.

Musicians who’ve lost most of their income due to the pandemic can sign up on the project’s Google form to receive $250 aid packages on a first-come-first-served basis.

Days before the fundraiser’s launch, bow makers Eben Bodach-Turner and Evan Orman came onboard to craft a bow to complement the violin, which Brillhart is fashioning from his collection of aged European maple and spruce. The addition of the $5,000 bow brings the prize value to $15,000.

“It’s been cool how this project has snowballed,” Brillhart says. “Every hour it’s getting bigger with more awesome additions.”

Strings spoke with Brillhart the day before the fundraiser’s launch.

What gave you the idea for the fundraiser?


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As soon as this Coronavirus hit, everyone’s gigs were canceled, including mine. Luckily my full-time profession is not playing music, and therefore I was not as affected as other people were. A lot of my friends on Facebook were just devastated when months of gigs and tours were canceled. I was watching that happen on social media and feeling bad about it. I also saw other fundraisers that other people had gotten started to try to do something, and I wanted to come up with an idea that would be totally fresh and different, not just a donation for a prize, but something where people could feel really involved.

I was thinking if I was live-streaming this process of making a violin during this time period when everyone is feeling isolated and lonely, it will be a way for me to reach out and connect with a lot of people in a meaningful way. Hopefully it’s a way for people to enter each other’s homes in a meaningful virtual way.

How did the project come together?

Originally, I had the idea and I tried to make it happen and realized there were difficult laws about raffles. In the state of Vermont, you must be a nonprofit to hold a raffle. There’s another nonprofit that I called and said, “What do you think of this idea?” They were all for it, but the organization was putting the pieces back together after months of shows had been canceled. So, [the project] kind of sat there for a couple of days and I felt depressed that it wasn’t going to happen. [Finally] I felt like there were no reservations anymore. This was something I had to do.

So, I got in touch with a buddy of mine Emerson Gale. He’s a music teacher and the director of a music center here in Vermont, Seven Stars Arts Center. He was just thrilled. From the first moment I called him, it’s just been this crazy marathon of setting up the platforms, calling potential media partners, and trying to spread the word.

You’re going to be working from 7:00am to 11:00pm, building the violin. Why did you choose the breakneck pace and long hours?

One reason is that this is an urgent situation. There is an immediacy. People need money right now to pay bills, so the faster I can make this violin and get it done, the faster it we’ll have our funding for musicians in need.

Also, I am donating my time to this 100%. I can afford to take time to do something like this, but there’s also only so much time. Packing it into a narrow timeframe makes it more financially OK on my end. It also helps make the project more exciting. People can tune in at any time they’re awake, and they might feel more connected to it, and more involved with it.

Also, the last thing is that I’ll be making this violin as a Guarneri del Gesù model violin. He was one of the two most famous violin makers ever. He is equaled only by Antonio Stradivari. Guarneri was working in poverty a lot of times. He was tremendously in debt for much of his life. You can see this strain reflected in his work, which is beautiful because each violin is a little different. Each violin is a product of the hard times he was passing through. So that attitude is reflected in our current situation. I wanted to reflect that within the violin.

How are the funds being distributed?

When we launch the project, musicians will be able to submit a Google form. Anyone will be able to submit. There’s some information they’ll have to give—their name, their email, PayPal, and website. There are [also] a couple of things they’ll have to submit to prove that they are professional musicians and have lost income to the pandemic.

Then Seven Stars, the nonprofit that has volunteered to help me, will be going through the submissions from those vetted individuals as they come in. As we raise the money, we will be distributing $250 packages to musicians. It’s enough money to help people pay immediate bills or buy groceries. It’s not so much money that we’re only going to be able to help a couple of people. Hopefully we’ll give a lot of people a meaningful amount of money, as opposed to just a couple of people a very large amount of money. The more money we make, the more people we’ll be able to help.

For more information about the project and how to help, visit the Seven Stars Art Center website.

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