On Saturday I met a ranking member of an elusive, secret society: the luthiers. In layman’s terms, that means Gary Garavaglia is a violin maker, but in the world of string instruments, he’s a master.
I toured Garavaglia’s dusty workshop in the back of William Harris Lee Violin & Co. in Chicago for about 30 minutes, and much of that time was spent watching Garavaglia gently sand a ten-inch piece of Ebony wood backward and forward. It will eventually become the fingerboard to one of his masterpieces. And just when I figured he must be done, he stroked it more and more. One violin takes him about 250 hours to make, he explained, and the materials alone can cost $2,500.
Garavaglia, tall, lean, with short white hair and glasses that lingered on the tip of his nose, was kind and so unassuming. He never let on that he’s one of the most famous living luthiers in the world. Kayla, my tour guide gushed that he had, yet again, won the prestigious “Silver in Tone,” the highest award for tone quality at the Violin Society of America’s 2014 Convention and Competition. He received it for his “quartet” of four instruments: two violins, a viola, and a cello.
I found it fascinating how Garavaglia discussed the intricacies of violin making while never lifting his eyes off that small piece of dark wood. Gingerly sanding and then clearing the dust, sanding and clearing the dust.
My eight-year-old daughter decided in July that she wanted to learn how to play the violin. She had sat in the front row of her big sister’s piano recital and fell in love with the violin numbers. Her newfound passion put us in hot pursuit of a quarter-size violin to rent, which brought us to the downtown offices of William Harris Lee Violin & Co.
While there, two things became clear to me:
1) I’m a grown woman and Santa’s workshop display at a local museum was the closest I’d ever come to being inside a real woodshop. I remember my older brothers talking about woodshop class in high school, but those classes were being phased out by the time I got to high school. (Those classes seemed mostly for boys, anyway.) As I watched Garavaglia work, I wondered who will take his place when he retires considering so few high schools offer woodworking class nowadays?
2) I am rubbing pennies together to afford the $28 per month violin rental, plus the $30 per half-hour weekly lesson. What would become of my daughter’s dream if I were a single mom living off my part-time teaching salary? Like most urban schools, her public elementary school does not offer any music classes.
Garavaglia took woodshop class in high school, and worked in cabinetry for a time. Later, he attended a trade school in Chicago in the 1970s that trained him to handcraft fine violins, violas, cellos, and basses from blocks of wood. He said he studied 40 hours a week, for three and a half years to become a luthier. From the scroll and pegs, to the neck and fingerboard, right down to the bridge and the tail piece—each part of of his instruments cut and hand chiseled from Maple, Oak, Spruce and Ebony. The sound that resonates from the f-holes of one of Garavaglia’s violins is much more distinct than those manufactured on a Chinese assembly line.
Instrument-making programs like the one Gary attended still exist, but they are much more obscure. Could it be that the decline in publically funded music education has lessened the demand for instrument-making schools? What would happen if my daughter and every other third grader in America suddenly started receiving instrument playing instruction in public school? What if one percent of all those third grades went on to play music professionally?
If it takes Garavaglia 250 hours to handcraft one fine violin, then we’d need a whole lot more Garavaglias!
Educators know that playing an instrument—especially a stringed instrument like the violin—improves brain function in children. We also know this is true for children who study a second language. Classes like woodworking, which involves concrete skills of measurement and accuracy while also tapping into students’ creativity and artistry, are also brain enhancers. Yet the need for such educational opportunities is often lost on policymakers who lately only seem laser-focused on academic college-readiness and streamlining school budgets.
So let’s talk college and economics. One way to pull the American economy out of its lingering stagnation is to invest in music, second language, and trade-based programs like woodworking in elementary and high school. Manufacturing is not the only reason why the demand for luthiers has fallen; schools have stopped teaching kids how to play instruments, thereby starving the flow of customers needing to buy quality violins. The economy usually makes room for highly skilled musicians, bi-lingual professionals, and experts in the trades.
In terms of college readiness, numerous research study show that students who play an instrument or speak multiple languages have increased brain activity that increases memory, processing speed, problem solving, and concentration—all qualities vital for college success.
Upon my daughter and my departure, Gary gave my daughter a souvenir: a handcraved wooden silhouette of a violin scroll and neck. (She was so excited that took that piece of wood to bed and slept with it.)
In that moment, I realized I was standing next to two pegs on the violin life cycle—the master luthier and the novice player of strings. I sensed that they needed each other if classical music or any other type of violin playing is going to survive. But the violin has four pegs, which meant that two were missing! The high school wood shop teacher got laid off 20 years ago, and the elementary music teacher can only find steady work in the wealthy suburbs.
More photos and updates added 10/2/14.
The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.