Advice for New Violin Professionals

Posing in my first shop...

Posing in my first shop…

There are many types of people and personalities and in the fiddle business there are two main camps on either end of the broad spectrum. Most folks new to the business find themselves somewhere along this continuum, usually closer to one extreme or the other. The first extreme is the ego-inflated hot-shot who thinks he or she knows it all, despite just having started in the business. Even if this type happens to be filled with real natural talent to back up such an attitude, it will be difficult for such a person to expand and grow as a craftsman. He or she is often prone to sloppy, rushed work and is nearly impossible to train effectively. However, if you can get through to such a person, get them to slow down and listen, they can go on to have a good career because one needs a decent self-image and a fair share of ambition to make it in the fiddle biz. The second, more common type is the person who too timid, overly careful and fearful. These folks tend to have the ability to be really good craftsmen, but often get in their own way by holding themselves to unreasonable standards, many times unexamined. This “violin school mentality” can seriously set you back if you let it. After being made to take two weeks making and fitting a bass bar, for example, it can be difficult to understand what is acceptable time-wise and craft-wise. The ability to find your style and preference of work, to understand what level of work is required and in what amount of time, and how to best achieve that goal, is one of the harder things to master in the world of lutherie. You must find a way of gaining confidence evenhandedly, realizing that you are not out to impress others in the field, but yourself and, most importantly, your customers.

If someone stepped on my Strad, I would probably send it to John Becker in Chicago because I know from personal experience that the level of work coming out of his shop is some of the best in the world. A Stradivari is a rare and valuable item, an object of great musical and historical significance, therefore I would be willing to pay the hefty repair bill. Hopefully this hypothetical violin would have been heavily insured, so the work would be the responsibility of my insurance company – but you get the point!
Folks who work at the highest levels of restoration have years and years of experience and only through continuous hard work, practice and holding themselves to the highest standards, have they reached the level of craftsmanship they represent. It’s ok if you want to be like this one day, but it’s going to take a shitload of work. Not everyone will have the chops to work at such a level or the constitution, but the example is there if you choose to follow that path. And realize that such a journey will involve its fair share of fuck-ups, setbacks, and hard lessons.

Every craftsman (or woman) must always endeavor to work at the best of their abilities, without a doubt. However, there are complications to this simple concept. Those new to the field, luthiers who may be fresh out of violin making school and working at their first job for example, face the prospect of having to learn while they earn. Being allowed to work at the best of your ability, to actually complete repairs and get them out the door is difficult when ones abilities are still developing. The advantage to a shop with a decent boss is that this is fundamentally understood and you will be given work commensurate to your abilities. A good shop foreman, more experienced colleague, or owner will guide you and train you, keeping you on track and working at the best of your current powers. Without tackling new challenges and completing work you may be uncomfortable with, you will never improve. All the while, customer work must be completed well, within the deadlines and shop-owned or consigned inventory must be set-up and restored for sale – this is how a shop makes its money, after all.

A good craftsman gets the job done right in the right amount of time for the job. The old Bein & Fushi workshop, when it was still in-house, used a “unit” system. A neck-set, for example, should take six “units” to complete correctly. A “unit” represented an hour. The repair needed to be done correctly, in a timely manner. This is the goal, but it takes years of practice. At B&F at the time, if you couldn’t hack it, you were out. You must remember that if you are working for someone, your goal is not to be a “Grande Artiste”, but to make the shop money by doing timely, solid work. This concept is at the heart of what it means to be a craftsman.

One problem is that not everyone gets to work for a rational, talented shop-owner. In some shops, the employees are given very little guidance and rely on one another and the more senior members. Some shop-owners put all the emphasis on irrational, unnecessary things – they are obsessed with seemingly bizarre pet-peeves. The way you learn something in the back room of a violin shop may not reflect current repair practices or industry standards. Some shops have such an insular, unhealthy atmosphere that it may be difficult to learn anything at all.

However, the goal must be to grow at every opportunity. You may have to learn mainly negative lessons, but there is usually something to practice at and improve on, if you are allowed to do so, like rehairing or cutting and fitting bridges. It is important to realize that you are really responsible for your own education – it’s not a perfect world or business and you have to make your own opportunities. You can always supplement your on-the-job learning with visits to workshops as well as conferences and by reading articles or publications. You are not owed anything just because you graduated from or attended a violin making school.

When I spoke about people who are working at a very high level I mentioned the concept of constitution. You see, it’s not enough to have the ability to do something, you have to have the follow-through to get it done. In order to succeed in this business, you have to not only strive to be the best you can be as a worker, you have to realize that this is a service industry and you have to deliver. Time equals money and if you get caught up spending hours and hours on something that should take 45 minutes, you might go broke. That’s why the real test of the fiddle biz is working for yourself. The final destination for most who do well is self-employment. Gone are the days of the large shops and a prospect of lifetime employment. Having your own repair business, for example, whether you are contracting work for shops or dealing directly with musicians is a challenging and potentially amazing way to live, but look out for perfectionism. The challenge of working at your best, but knowing you could do better, while still finishing the work and therefor getting paid can be difficult to manage. You need to be able to continue to grow and evolve as a craftsman, but you also need to pay the rent! Do the best you can, stand behind your work, and always strive to improve.

You see, there is a spectrum of repairmen. There is no one right way or single perfect example. You have to be the type of worker that best fits your abilities and personality. On one end of the spectrum are those who are working at the highest levels of repair and restoration, who are working on extraordinarily valuable instruments. These workers strive for a level of perfection that is hard to believe. They use surgical microscopes to fill and touch up cracks and may reject a bridge for having the minutest amount of knife chatter in one of the kidneys. Something a fraction of a millimeter off may as well be off by a mile. They usually contract work from those who own or sell the worlds most expensive instruments. If this is how you want to work, power to you, but it is only one way.

Other people in the business are mainly in the “educational” category. They may have a large rental pool and sell less expensive imported instruments. These instruments and bows all need to maintained and set-up properly – a monumental task. Helping new players and youngsters learn to play a stringed-instrument is a vital and important task. Plenty of successful people in the field started out working on rental violins and bows – don’t look down on it. This is a great way to just become more comfortable working with instruments and bows and to practice basic set-up and repairs.

Another category of craftsman sits in the shop day after day seeing to the real needs of her clients – usually working professional musicians and students. Oftentimes found in large urban centers, these are often “one-person” shops that usually specialize in something like bows or cello-work. Such a worker is capable of doing restorations, set-up, simple repairs as well as adjustments. Many of them supplement their income with sales. They can become very knowledgeable of their specialty due to extensive experience day in and day out as well as constant contact with amazing musicians.

At the end of the day, you define yourself in this field – not your colleagues or bosses. There are many ways to make a living. If you decide to work for yourself, you have the opportunity to make more money, but remember that you are nothing without your customers. Once you build a solid customer base by giving high quality service over and over again, which takes years and years, you will be secure from professional slings and arrows, but you must always strive to evolve. Don’t take yourself too seriously, but always seek to be the best you can be at that moment. Do not allow fear to slow you down, but never let ego allow you to push bad work out the door or talk down to those who are seeking your help.

Oh, and please try to be honest! Good luck out there.