Violins are made to be repaired. Their tops aren’t flush to their sides, like a guitar’s. Instead, those tops are designed to be removed, so violins can be tended to over multi-hundred-year lifespans.
For violinists in smaller cities, the regular repair and restoration that keeps their instruments playing requires travel to a metropolitan hub – Charlotte, say, or Atlanta. That’s where the restorers and builders who keep their weather-sensitive instruments playable can usually be found. Raleigh’s violinists have no such hurdle.
“Normally you have to ship it somewhere or you make a special trip,” says Karen Galvin, violinist with the North Carolina Symphony and co-founder of New Music Raleigh. “But the ability to actually take your fiddle to the shop … luxury is the word.” Galvin says she can realize that her violin needs work in the morning, and have it fixed by lunchtime. That’s because Raleigh is home to not one but two violin shops – a true rarity in a city of our size. Then again, our capital city, Galvin points out, is not a small one, culturally speaking.
Indeed, Galvin and her fellow fiddlers have choices: There’s John Montgomery of Montgomery
Violins, Jerry Pasewicz of Triangle Strings, and their workshops full of capable luthiers and restorers.
Players of other instruments also have an outsized variety of specialized repairers here. Guru Guitars on Hillsborough Street is a nexus of locally built guitars, amps, and effects pedals – including those handmade by Richard Flickinger of Flickinger Tone Boxes. Yontz Sucre of Mad Science Works fixes amplifiers, and Marsh Woodwinds and Flying Squirrel Music both repair woodwind instruments.
These craftspeople are essential to a healthy, varied music scene. Sally Mullikin of Triangle Strings says she recognizes her customers (and their instruments) when she goes to the symphony, while Flickinger is excited when his pedals help local rockers find their tone – and better express themselves.
Regardless of instrument or genre, each of these craftspeople works on one part of a larger musical ecosystem. And when every element in the system aligns, a player can find his or her best sound.
Montgomery breaks down his system with clear-headed practicality: for a violin, that system includes the instrument, the bow, the room, and the player. “You might say the most singular thing is the human, but that’s the most varying piece of the whole part – not only day to day, but as people age and grow,” Montgomery says. “You want to think of it as a system, rather than isolate the instrument.”
Yet these instrument-makers can be viewed as part of the ecosystem, too, and their work often reflects their personality and creativity as strongly as an instrument reflects its player’s. Eugene Reinert of Guru Guitars, for instance, winds pickups – the parts of an electric guitar that “pick up” the strings’ vibration so they can be amplified – on his mother’s old Singer sewing machine. By the nature of his process, no two of his pickups are alike.
“Because I’m doing it by hand and because I don’t have a computer that’s testing every nuance, each one is going to have its own character,” he says, sitting in his store’s lesson room between students. It’s about the size of a walk-in closet, but, like Raleigh, it’s big enough.
“I don’t say mine are better than anyone else’s,” Reinert says. “I say that mine are unique.”
To meet John Montgomery, 61, you may not guess he’s responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the Library of Congress’s priceless collection of historic violins. He’s capable, sure, and he’s a respected violin luthier with three-plus decades’ experience in Raleigh alone, but he’s a disarming fellow – confident in his expertise, but not interested in making a big deal of it.
Besides that, he’s not even completely sure why, of all the luthiers of his caliber, they picked him.
“They did try me out. They had me work on something and they liked what they saw,” Montgomery says, sitting in his airy, well-lit workshop while an NPR talk show prattles quietly in the background. “I must have had good references, and I’m thinking I had a background check as well, like all government workers.” He has a sly smile on his face, like an ex-hippie having an ironic last laugh.
As with many folks of his generation, conventional career paths never held any appeal to Montgomery. His search for alternatives led him to the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, which he graduated from in 1980. His like-minded classmates ended up all over the U.S., while Montgomery came to Raleigh in 1982. Today, they all continue the American tradition of violin making – one based on, and strengthened by, cooperation and communication.
“Our colleagues in Europe don’t find the conversation to be free-flowing, and here we do,” he says, working on a violin as he talks. “They always talk about, ‘What is the secret of Stradivarius?’ and we all laugh. There’s no secrets.” Instead, Montgomery says he and his colleagues tell each other everything they know, which leads to better-made instruments, he says, and a stronger American tradition.
Montgomery’s even part of a group that has together written a book on the history of violin making in America from the 18th century through 1950. Due out sometime this year, the title, appropriately enough, is The American Violin.
North Carolina Symphony violinist and assistant concertmaster Rebekah Binford’s primary violin may be a Sanctus Seraphin, an Italian instrument older than the United States, but she has an American instrument too – a bench copy made by Montgomery. It was his idea, she says, to effectively clone hers. He studied her original closely and reproduced it, bruises and all. They have distinct personalities and slightly different finishes, but are identical to the untrained eye.
“You know how artists will copy a famous painter’s painting in order to learn?” Binford says. “John has done very much the same thing.” Her own violin is famous for its deep, practically holographic varnish. So he made a copy as exactly as he could, and then he made two more without the age marks – his own versions.
“He’s learning about and improving his knowledge of how to stain and varnish the instrument,” Binford says. True to the American tradition, anything he learns he passes on to his peers.
“We taught each other while we were in the school,” Montgomery says. “And we’ve continued teaching each other since we’ve been out.”
Hill, C (2015, February 27). Excerpt. "Making Music: Raleigh's Instrument Restorers Keep the Town in Tune. Walter Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.waltermagazine.com.