Violin making school: Making a living out of music


Every morning at school, Elizabeth Clark gets her cup of hot water to combat the chilly temperatures in her new workshop. BYU didn’t work for Clark; it just didn’t feel right. She remains a student, but chose a program that caters to her background. After only five months, Clark’s first two violins are halfway complete.

Clark is one of 24 students at the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. The school holds a program providing students the opportunity to make seven violins and a cello over the course of three years. Along the way, students learn techniques in woodwork, varnishing and even playing the violin. Students have the opportunity to meet famous composers from today and study the work of violin makers from the past. In the end, students are prepared to get a job to help them learn more about instrument repair.

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Sanghoon Lee teaches varnishing at the school. Lee aspires to rediscover the old secrets of varnishing that have been lost over time.
Clark started her education at BYU.  She began playing violin as a young child, but her dreams to become a music performance major never materialized. One day she was browsing through eBay for an old violin and read about the violin making school in Salt Lake City.

“It linked to the school’s website and I was sort of looking around and it really struck me,” Clark said.

Besides her love of music, Clark cited the lifestyle accompanying violin making as a reason to enjoy her new work. In violin making, quality trumps quantity, so meeting the deadline to pump out more products is less important.

“There’s an attitude of like, you don’t need to rush through anything,” she said. “Do everything at your own pace, but only perfection is accepted.”

Charles Woolf, the current owner of the school, is an alumnus as well. After graduating from the program, Woolf worked in a restoration shop in St. Louis for a few years. He gathered experience, then returned to the school as the head instructor.

Woolf oversees and instructs students as they work with the wood-shaping aspects of the violins. While some people look at the world and assume everyone needs a graduate degree to be successful, Woolf disagrees. He believes the skills he teaches will always be in demand.[easyembed field=”Photogallery”]

“When you have a skill of being able to fix someone’s violin and say ‘here’s the problem, let’s do this,’ they can’t outsource that,” he said.

Because of this demand, Woolf doesn’t even need to advertise his school’s services. Even without advertising, the school is full and maintains a waiting list for admission. While there is a demand for these services, instructors at the school acknowledge the shortcomings of the profession.

“You are poor for a while even if you’re very good at it,” said Sanghoon Lee, a varnishing instructor. “You are not doing this job to make money, you have to enjoy it.”

Lee, a native of Busan, South Korea, graduated from the school in 2004 and has taken over as an instructor. He struggled for a while to support a family with his profession, but with time he has become more renowned.

Lee recently won a silver medal in a competition for the tonal quality of a violin he created. While Lee said the tone and sound of a violin is important, he believes the aesthetic appeal resulting from proper varnish is equally important.

“It makes it attractive so people who play will want to hug it and play it,” Lee said.

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