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Prier students learn art, craft of making violins
And the jobs are not scarce for graduates, head instructor says

They come to the violin school from Asia, Europe and all over the United States. They come because they love the craft. They hope that someone, someday, will play their creations. They also hope to make a living doing what they love.

The students at the Violin Making School of America go to school for three to four years -- and pay $9,000 a year in tuition. When it is over, will they find work?Definitely, says Charles Woolf, head instructor. Three of this year's five graduates were hired by shops on the East Coast. One went home to Korea, where violin-making is booming. Another is working in the shop above the school: for Peter Prier & Sons Violins.

Recently, a first-year student named Kevin Hindes talked about his future as he sat at a workbench in the storefront school on Salt Lake's 200 South. He believes new graduates would have a hard time supporting a family.

School doesn't prepare you to start your own shop right away, Hindes says. He'd have to work for someone else, first, learning repair. Woolf estimates that those jobs pay about $10 an hour.

At this point, Hindes is not sure he wants to own a shop, anyway -- to be a manager, do accounting. He is only sure that he could be happy carving, varnishing, crafting and repairing.

A few years ago, when Hindes worked for a computer company in Silicon Valley, he took up the violin. When his instrument needed to be fixed, he entered a violin shop for the first time. He realized he preferred it to his office.

In Salt Lake's violin schoolroom, the atmosphere is definitely pleasant. The air smells faintly of wood and varnish. Workers, tools in hand, carve carefully, reverently.

"Violin-making is a step beyond precision. It is challenging to say the least," Hindes says. It satisfies in way that other work does not.

In the adjoining room, Diana Richard is beginning to carve out a top. She talks about spruce, about how light and flexible it is. She is careful not to carve too much. Measurement is critical. If the top is carved too thin, the sound will be too bright. Too thick, the sound is wooden.

Richard came to Salt Lake City after retiring from the Air Force, having read about the school in a magazine for violinists. She'd never worked with wood before, but she had sewn and tailored her own clothes. She knew something of construction. She passed the admission test -- though she said planing is more difficult than it looks.

Richard says she has read about people like herself, one of a growing number of retirees who can afford to take up a creative new career. She can't predict where the future will take her, what the market will be for people who know how to carve a violin.

In that sense, she is like many of Prier's previous graduates. Take Wei Liu, for example.

In 1996, when he graduated, he went to work in Prier's repair shop. In 1998, he joined the Riverton Music shop. Meanwhile, back in his native China, his mother had a chance to buy into a violin factory.

Now Liu is part of a family business. In the United States, a factory-made instrument would be made by machine. That's not necessarily so in Asia. The Liu factory consists of an assembly line where a series of workers each do one part -- by hand. Lui goes home for several months each year to train the workers.

He says the quality of the instruments is improving. "More control in the graduation. More control on the woodworking. They also use real violin varnish, now." He is proud of the product.

He sells the Chinese violins through Riverton Music and soon plans to wholesale throughout the United States.

"The price is cheaper than German instruments -- $700 to $900 for a student violin -- and the workmanship is better," he said.

He would never have envisioned this career when he first went to school to learn to make violins. Now he is a distributor. He credits Prier's school with teaching him about quality -- a concept he has exported to a fledgling industry, half a world away.