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Sharing the knowledge

Ariane Todes is impressed by the openness of luthiers at the makers' workshops in Oberlin

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

String players might know the sleepy little university town of Oberlin, Ohio, for its conservatoire. Little do they know that during the summer months, some of the top violin and bow makers around the country, and the world, migrate with their workbenches to the art studios there, with one main aspiration: knowledge. And I’m just back from my trip there with the same objective, for an article for our November issue.

The principle is simple – put people who know something about something in violin or bow making in a room together, give them a project to work on, and watch how the overall knowledge of the system increases exponentially, whether it’s relatively novice makers or senior members of the community discovering new ways to hold a gouge or learning about modal analysis. It’s not surprising that this hotbed of research and sharing has been widely credited for the healthy state of violin making today.

There are sessions to attend (a particularly popular one being the slideshow of CT scans of top instruments showing enough intimate detail to have the crowd salivating), alongside the group project of working on copies of the ‘Betts’ Stradivari or a Tourte bow. The most heated and revelatory discussions often seemed to happen over breakfast, at the communal cooking sessions, or during a 1am break outside the studio. Many times I felt truly awed by the profundity of violin geekdom here, and by the way each luthier has their very own specific emphasis in their work and their obsession for instruments, be it acoustical measurement, purfling, wood density, varnish, or finding the perfect stones with which to antique instruments. 

One of the questions we debated over breakfast was how today’s violin makers can market themselves to get beyond the popular appeal of Stradivari and his friends. As I left, my mind buzzing with new information about violin making and a renewed sense of respect for the commitment of these makers, I wondered whether the answer is right there in Oberlin. If players could see and experience first hand some of the passion and expertise that goes into creating instruments, and learn the fundamentals of what luthiers try to achieve, whether acoustically, technically or aesthetically, would they be more likely to believe in the possibilities of modern instruments? 

Oberlin’s success lies in opening up a circle of knowledge where once people would have been excluded and secrets kept. For all the conventions and makers’ days I’ve been to, I’ve never yet come across a place where players are truly included in this circle and I wonder if this could ever be practical. Maybe it’s time that players did know about what goes on in Oberlin after all. 

Find out more about the Oberlin workshops in the November 2012 issue of The Strad, available to download here.

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