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Violin Utopia in Oberlin

As some of the world's finest violin makers gather in the small university town of Oberlin, Ohio, to share their knowledge at the annual Violin Society of America workshops, here is an article I wrote about my June 2012 visit, originally published in the November 2012 issue of The Strad

If I were called on to construct a society, I think I might model it on the Violin Society of America’s (VSA) summer workshops in Oberlin. It would be a community where the drive was towards betterment, both for the individual and the group; where everyone was appreciated for the unique talent they brought to the collective good; resources and knowledge would be shared; everyone would take turns cooking; and it would be a whole lot of fun to live in. This was exactly the spirit I discovered on my visit to the violin making group this year, so it’s not surprising that the various workshops that happen in Oberlin across six weeks every summer have become a vital destination for some of today’s top makers.

If the words ‘collective’ and ‘sharing’ bring to mind some sort of 1960s hippy commune it’s not entirely inappropriate. Everyone has a stint in the kitchen (I was set to cooking duties early on) and the makers stay up into the small hours working, chatting, arguing, smoking and drinking hooch from plastic cups. There’s usually an ad hoc folk music session in some corner. But the intent is never less than absolutely serious and the intense work and knowledge-sharing that happen are widely acknowledged to have raised the standard of violin making around the world.

You wouldn’t know it to look at the place. Oberlin in June is a pretty, sleepy American town – the college and conservatoire are out of session. It centres on a large green, overlooking which are an old-fashioned drugstore, a bookshop and somewhat fusty clothes and artisanal shops. Make your way to the college’s sculpture studio and you enter a different world, one of palpable energy. Makers (this year there were 53) nab their favourite positions on the first afternoon and customise their personal workspaces. Across the corridor is a varnish room; upstairs the classroom where the nightly lectures are held; the corridor also marks the great divide with the bow makers’ workshop.

Even the most free-thinking group needs a leader and here it is Christopher Germain (often referred to as the ‘benign dictator’). He has run the violin making workshop since 1997: originally it came out of restoration workshops started in 1986 by Vahakn Nigogosian. Germain explains how the workshops’ philosophy was set by ‘Nigo’ right from the beginning: ‘His attitude was that knowledge should be accessible to everyone. He was an Armenian brought up in Istanbul: he felt persecuted so he wanted to feel other people weren’t held back as he was. He always had this open attitude.’

The structure allows for parallel ways of learning. Everyone works on their own instruments and has the chance to observe their peers at all stages, to discuss problems and approaches. Many are actively involved in a special project – this year, creating a copy of the ‘Betts’ Stradivari and varnishing one that was made last year, with everyone coming together to plan and watch the process at key stages. There are lectures after dinner – this year, for example, Steve Sirr had the collective jaw dropping with his scans of instruments from the Library of Congress, and there were sessions by George Stoppani and Sam Zygmuntowicz.

Much of the learning happens just by being together, picking up each other’s good habits. Luthier Marilyn Wallin explains: ‘I learn by watching others do things in their own ways. Watching Gudrun Kremeier carve a cello scroll, for example – her pegbox shape is so elegant. I’m going to go home and do it like that. A lot of learning here is by osmosis, watching people using their scrapers differently. I learnt long ago that the work I get done here is secondary to the observations I make.’

Jeff Phillips and Antoine Nédélec. Photo William Scott

Antoine Nédélec has attended the workshop only once before, and is now sharing varnish responsibilities in the group project. He observes that there’s naturally a certain amount of positive peer pressure: ‘Every violin maker is lonely. It’s not a profession where you see a lot of people. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at your work and thinking that everything you do is great. You come to a thing like this and suddenly there are 50 people and their violins around and you realise how your work really is and that you had better come up to scratch very quickly.’ But there is also something comforting, as Wallin admits: ‘Everyone who has been coming here for 26 years still has problems with certain things. It’s reassuring that everyone else at your level still has things they’re trying to figure out, and that they can help each other. I haven’t been in such a helpful environment since I was at school.’

The success of any group is down to the chemistry of its members, and Germain seems to have this selection down to a fine art. He explains: ‘If you put the right people and the right pieces together – like-minded people at the same level – then they realise that everybody benefits from the experience. It’s really like a brotherhood. It has to be the right mix to work properly. It’s like a think tank – everyone has a niche or speciality that we can draw on.’

It’s easy to forget as an outsider that everyone is effectively in competition. Germain is careful to draw boundaries in this regard, as Sam Zygmuntowicz says: ‘Chris has been very vigilant about commercial stuff coming in. It’s bad form to have a client show up here, or anything that smells too much like you’re trying to get any professional advantage. On the one hand we’re all friends, but on the other we’re competitors. We’re all in the same thing, so you have to create a safe space.’ Germain says of this: ‘Part of what I try to do here is to set a relaxed atmosphere, and even though we’re competitors, not to make it such a competitive atmosphere. The idea is that everyone contributes and we’re all better off for the experience.’ Testament to this generosity of spirit is the fact that while I’m there, it’s common for makers to rave about some aspect of a colleague’s work, in specific detail. So identifying excellence, appreciating it and modelling it is part of the learning curve.

Party time at Oberlin. Photo William Scott

With remarkable vision, certain infrastructures were created early on. The varnish cabinet and the desks were bought with money earned from selling the group’s instruments (they’re stored for the rest of the year in the school) and a database of instrument information was started, collecting drawings, scans, tracings and photos that participants have come across. This in itself may well turn into one of the world’s significant bodies of instrument data.

Another achievement that seems to have filtered into the wider lutherie world is how Oberlin has made acoustics more accessible, and vital, to makers. The subject gradually became more and more important until the point that it became its own session, run by Fan Tao. According to Germain, this wasn’t necessarily easy: ‘It used to be that there was a divide between people who were into acoustics and people who were “real violin makers”. People who focused on acoustics came from the realm of science; violin makers were from the realm of art, saying, “You can’t fuse science and art – they’re two separate disciplines.” The truth lies somewhere in between – it’s a science and an art, and if we take the best elements from both worlds we’ll be successful in our craft. People have been swayed by that argument here.’ Not everyone is convinced – while I’m there, there are heated 1am discussions about whether Stradivari would have cared about the science – but it’s all there for makers to make their own decisions.

We’ve talked in The Strad before about the current golden age of violin making, and Oberlin has played a significant part in this with its research, questing, sharing and inspiring. But what of the future? The workshop is almost bursting at the seams, and Germain admits that it can’t get any bigger. But the thing about a good idea, especially in the string world, is that people usually copy it, and similar workshops have started to happen around the world – Mittenwald, West Dean, Fertans, for starters. So, all it really takes to start a good society, and one that spreads, is a group of people with expertise, passion, ambition, humility and generosity – who don’t mind doing a bit of washing up.

Photos of Phillips and Nédélec, and of Oberlin party: William Scott

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