Language of heart and spirit: BYU professor-violin maker speaks through instruments



    Walter Whipple’s musical vitality is in his hands.

    Worn, experienced and etched with a few barely visible scars, his hands can bring small blocks of chopped spruce to life and make them sing.

    In a small workshop in the basement of his home in Provo, he cuts, scrapes and polishes out a total of five violins and violas a year. For Whipple, an assistant professor of German and Slavic languages at Brigham Young University, wood and music are the fluid that flows through a map of veins beneath his skin.

    Tucked under Whipple’s workbench is an old wooden tool box that he made for his father. Dated July 1955 in green marker, it signifies his first association with tools — the first he ever touched. These tools that made birdhouses for robins to sing from now fashion more tender musical instruments.

    The classical CDs of Handel, Brahms and Beethoven stacked on top of his black stereo communicate a passion for music that began with organ lessons at age 10 and a spot on the cello in the Otis E. Bell Junior High Orchestra at 13. Today, at 56, he is a professional organist and plays the cello with the Utah Valley Symphony.

    But crafting the instruments that resonate from the local classical FM station he listens to in his workshop isn’t a skill Whipple acquired while growing up in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Instead, it began as an interest he gained while teaching general music at Rockford College in Illinois.

    “At a violin repair workshop, I learned how to install pegs and fix bows. After that, I used to buy old-beat up violins for $20 to $50 a piece at garage sales so I could restore and re-sell them,” Whipple said. “Pretty soon, I even became the repair man for the local music teachers.”

    This interest elevated when Whipple traveled thousands of miles to pick up a cello he ordered from a small workshop near the Tatra Mountains in Southern Poland.

    “As I looked around the workshop, I was just utterly enchanted with the tools on the wall, the smell of varnish and the violins that were taking shape,” Whipple said. “I was intrigued and wanted to learn how to make them from scratch.”

    Franek Mardula, Poland’s master violinmaker, invited Whipple to live in his home and work in a shop that has produced instruments found in music chambers around the world. The 71-year-old master, who was once also a national ski champion, has left his house open since 1954 to anyone who wants to learn the intricate art of violins and violas.

    In 1983, Whipple took up that offer and left work on a one-year sabbatical to apprentice with the Polish violin maker in Zakopane, Poland.

    He soon found out that transforming spruce trees from mountains that line the Slovakian border into fine instruments wasn’t a task for everyone. Thirteen-hour workdays brought stiff shoulders, sore arms and callused hands. Whipple was working with a man who would say, “Ah, dog’s blood, it’s already time to quit working,” before he retired his tools at midnight.

    Mardula was pure inspiration. And like his student, he channeled all of his energy into his hands. He made one of his first violins while imprisoned in a Nazi camp in 1939 when Poland was under German occupation, Whipple said. Mardula used tools made from tin cans to form scraps of spruce into a violin, which he dedicated to his wife. A fellow prisoner walked from cell to cell with this violin, forcing tears as he played the national anthem:

    “Poland has not yet succumbed. As long as we remain, what the foe by force has seized, sword in hand we’ll gain.”

    Stories like these, coupled with Whipple’s love for learning, were incentives to work even harder. Although at 39 he was older than the typical violin-making student, Whipple was one of the most successful. Several hundreds of hours were spent fashioning his first violin. For six weeks, he worked on carving the neck, shaving thin layers of wood out of the violin’s belly with small finger planes and piecing the parts together with glue made from ground-up horse hooves.

    “Walter is a true Renaissance man. He’s not afraid to try different things and when he does he always masters them,” said his wife, Mary Whipple. “Even when he was three years old, he started plunking out pieces on the piano he learned from a movie about music his mom took him to.”

    Within 11 months, Whipple mastered and even exceeded the expectations of his musical mentor. While most apprentices only made one violin and viola, he left Mardula’s workshop with two violins, two violas and a cello. At the end of his stay, Whipple put away the small hammers and files that had become extensions of his hands and picked up his cello.

    “I toted my cello around and played mini-farewells with bits of Bach for my friends. There was crying and we said good-bye,” Whipple said. “It was truly difficult to leave because in a situation like that you don’t know if you’ll ever see them again.

    Six years later, Whipple did see the friends he left behind in Poland again when he returned to the country on a different mission. On July 2, 1990, Whipple and his family flew into Warsaw on a three-year assignment to help teach the gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was called by the LDS Church to serve as the first mission president in a country with 200 members.

    “I didn’t expect it. I was overwhelmed and surprised. It’s a quite a humbling thing to realize they want you to be the first person to open up a mission,” Whipple said.

    Although Whipple was a mission president first, he was still a musician and used music to reach out to the Polish members of the LDS Church. He played the organ in the Warsaw chapel, held musical firesides and never left the city without a viola or cello. “Music can communicate in a way that no other language can. It has the uncanny ability to raise people’s spirits and express emotion that no other way can,” Whipple said. “When I first went to Poland, I couldn’t speak to the people in Polish, but I could talk to them with my music. If you put a musical score in front of someone, it doesn’t matter what language they speak because it always comes out the same.”

    He was even asked by members of an international musical festival in Koszalin, Poland, to represent the United States on the organ.

    “Walter plays a mean organ and a fantastic cello,” said Marilyn Miner, president of the Utah Valley Symphony. “He is a very dedicated person, and whatever he is committed to he does well, which includes his job, home life, scouts, and music. It’s not a rare sight to see him rush into practice wearing a scout uniform. With his busy schedule, we are grateful to have any notes he can play for us.”

    These days, just like his mentor Mardula, Whipple keeps his shop open to everyone, including his BYU students and two-year-old grandson Payton.

    On Saturday afternoons when he hides away in his basement workshop, Whipple often works side by side with Payton, who lugs around the same toolbox he used almost 50 years ago. He guides his grandson’s small inexperienced hands with his own and shows him how to carve a rosetta into a Polish-style spoon rack. He tries to teach him everything his hands know so that his craft will not pass away with him. Like his grandpa and dad, Whipple is passing his talent and vitality onto the next generation.

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