I started playing violin when I was seven years old. I had decided I wanted to play this very specific instrument much to the chagrin of the adults around me. We had an amazing piano teacher who lived in the community…didn’t I want to play piano? I don’t know if it was because I was taken with the violin or a mix of stubbornness played a role but I stuck to my guns about the violin. I have a clear memory of my grandpa sitting me down in front of the television and putting a tape in of a piano solo in front of an orchestra. His intent was to get me hooked on the idea of playing the piano but I kept saying…yes, this is what I was talking about, the first person behind the piano is what I want to do.
So my parents leapt into the world of violin. They found a fantastic teacher for me in Corvallis, a 30 min drive away, and found a place to rent a smaller size violin. My mom even started taking violin with me, a requirement of the teacher for very beginning small children. My mom didn’t stay on it for very long but I kept it up. I was with Peg for a year and a little bit of time before it was time I go to a more serious teacher. My parents decided on Aida, she seemed like the best fit for us and when it came time to actually buy a violin when I was in high school, we went through that crazy process.
Buying a violin is a process. You try them out, you borrow a few of them at a time to do so. And violins are not cheap. A “cheap” violin starts at 1,000 bucks and just goes up and up depending on age (they get better with age) and sound quality, the maker of the violin, and the qualities you are looking for. We spent weeks driving back and forth with violins to try. My mom says that her prayer life shot through the roof as her car was full of multi thousand dollar instruments. Finally, we picked the one. I was going to Corvallis a few times a week at this point with lessons and symphony. I didn’t really love practicing (many battles over whether or not I should be doing this) but in some sense the violin was a part of me that I couldn’t let go.
I had to let go near the end of high school when my teacher unexpectedly dropped me as a student. It was heartbreaking since she had been a major part of my life for 10 or so years. She knew me as I grew up more than I thought about on a daily basis and now that relationship was gone. I didn’t know at the time what all she was going through but as a teen I was hurt by the process. I stayed in symphony but my drive, what I had left for the instrument, lacked. In college I rarely played although I taught lessons to little kids off and on. When I went to grad school, I left my instrument.
I came back to my violin off and on as an adult in my career but really returned to it when I joined an orchestra about five years ago. I had this epiphany that no one cared anymore if I didn’t quite get all the notes. All of the pressure I felt as a kid…well, I didn’t need to feel that anymore. I could just enjoy playing and feeling the strings under my fingers again. This is when I fell in love with my instrument again. I took my violin to a shop to get it assessed, perked up a bit, and appraised. My violin is over a hundred years old and was an original maker. The value of it has really gone up. The sound quality is still lovely and only grows in time. I looked in awe as they told me about its history. I played for fun and to reconnect and reclaim.
And then I moved to Berlin. It was a hard decision for me but I left my instruments at my parents house because they were too precious to move and risk in the move. I thought I was returning in just a year so no big deal. In my first year in Berlin, I bought a guitar while here. It is German made and not available in the US. It is sweet and I love playing it. I bought it from a shop in our neighborhood. I play it often and sing along. It is good for me to play. It was 230 Euros well spent in my first years.
But now, I have been here 2.5 years and due to the pandemic we aren’t sure what that does to our timeline of moving back in the next year or so. A dear 6 year old friend that I have has just started playing violin and when I saw a recent pic of her with her little rented instrument, my heart leapt! I told her I would love to play with her sometime and we all rejoiced BUT I don’t have a violin here. I am sure I could rent but then I started yearning for that instrument in my hand again. What if I did the same thing as my guitar? Bought an instrument unique to this place and time? Something that would always remind me of this time of my life PLUS this is the heart of violin making, Germany, and the heart of such wonderful and inventive music.
I started to look into it. Now, dear reader, you should know that a decent cheap violin is at least 1000 euros. So, knowing this, it probably will not happen but a girl can dream. I started to look up violin makers in the area. In Berlin, there are so many! But there is one just a walk away, half an hour or so, in the neighboring hood. I sent him an email and even though he builds violins, the starting price is 6000 euros BUT he would be ok if I came to the workshop to see what he does. I leapt at the chance. I have never seen a violin built and seeing a workshop sounds amazing. I can’t buy one of his violins, not on a student nanny salary, but I wanted to learn and see.
I climbed the steps to Mathias’ workshop yesterday late afternoon and when I walked in I gasped at what lay before me…
His work is stunning. These two violins are beautiful with warm colors and tones. They are each 9000 euros to buy and specially made for classical players. They are light to pick up and I was too bashful to play but I asked question after question after question…
Do you play yourself?
Mathias: A little but I am more into the art of building them. I know what will sound the best for the player.
How did you learn how to build these amazing instruments?
M: I went to a special school in Milan for four years to do just this.
Do you have many customers? It seems like Berlin has many violin builders.
M: Berlin has so many people building…maybe too many. But they are amazing craftspeople. I have enough customers to live and my customers are amazing and wonderful people. They are violin artists, so how can that be bad? They are creating beauty around us.
He then showed me his tools and how he hand carves every notch and curve. I wandered around in awe asking about every step. He was gracious with his time and skills. I completely nerded out and remembered how in love I am with this finicky instrument.
I got to hold each piece in my hand and think about the many hours that went into the wood, the inlay, the carving, the curvature, the tone that would eventually come out of these pieces and how they would be played. He even told me about choosing varnish, how to make the bridge, and how to continuously work with the wood at each step.
I was only in the shop for 20 minutes or so but I am grateful that I know more. Who knows what will happen next. We shall see. He did say I could come back anytime to just play. If I get over my bashfulness about it then I just might.
As I was leaving I said, “Thank you so much for this. Someday I will come and play but the violin shows all of my vulnerability.”
He smiled and replied, “It shows all parts of us which is why I haven’t decided to play. It is the instrument I create for others to create such beauty.”