Violin Wise: the Project and the History

Santa Barbara violin maker James Wimmer was selected to travel to Chennai, India in November, 2013 to teach European style violin repair and restoration to a class of 10 hand-picked craftsmen and musicians.  This is the first time in the history of the violin in the ancient tradition of South Indian Carnatic classical music that such a program has been undertaken.  The violin was introduced to India by the British around 1830 and has since become the overwhelmingly ubiquitous accompaniment and virtuoso solo instrument in South India. However, violin repair and maintenance has not kept pace with it’s tremendous popularity. This has led to a certain deterioration in the condition of the great body of antique violins left behind after the end of the British colonial period.

The program is funded by the Lalgudi Trust, founded by India’s legendary violinist Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, whom Yehudi Menuhin referred to as a world heritage violinist.  The program is also receiving generous support from corporate as well as private sponsors. Spearheading this effort are Mr. Jayaraman’s son Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and daughter Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, both of whom travel worldwide as solo performers and renowned ambassadors of Indian classical music.

James Wimmer trained in Germany and established his shop in Santa Barbara in 1986.  He has since made nearly 200 instruments, including violins, violas, cellos and baroque stringed instruments, and several years ago completed the Hubert Schwyzer quartet, a matched set of 2 violins, viola, and cello for Westmont College.  His clients include well known classical musicians as well as professional traditional musicians from many different styles.  His current assistant Alexandra Armanino will accompany him to India to aid in the program as assistant instructor.

The stories you read on this blog have been composed by Jim Wimmer himself, as he regales his time teaching in India.

Now to the Story of How this Came About…

In 1980, I had the opportunity to take a year away from everything.  I had spent the better part of the 70’s as a musician touring primarily Germany, with forays into France, Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland.  I figured I was good at traveling, so I ended up in Varanasi, India after 6 weeks trekking in the Annapurna range of the Nepal Himalaya.  I had no intention of staying in India.  My plan was to travel to the south and catch a ferry to Malaysia.  However, I had seen a musical instrument called sarod at a festival in Germany and decided I’d like to get one while in India.  At the time, sarods were difficult to come by, and the outlook was bleak for success when I was introduced to a young sarod player, Vikash Maharaj.  I asked him to play a bit, so I could hear again how the instrument sounds.  After an hour and a half, he wrapped up the private concert.   I was stunned by his astonishing agility with a huge coconut shell plectrum and the melodic voice of the sarod, so I asked if he would teach me a little.  His brother, Prakash soon produced a fine old sarod and I settled into 6 months in Varanasi.  Vikash and that old sarod are still two of my very best friends to this day.

Jim and Vikash Maharaj

Jim and Vikash Maharaj, 1980

At some point, I took a month or so to travel to South India to visit the ancient Dravidian temple sites of Mahaballipuram, where the earliest examples of India’s temple caves are located.  Along the way, I visited the giant Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur.  It was full moon festival time, a phantasmagoria of exotic sadhus and pilgrims, and walking around inside the temple was like traveling in a dream sequence full of painted elephants, guys with beards almost to the floor, everybody blowing on horns and striking bells.  Like nothing I had ever experienced.  There I came upon two boys playing violins in such an enchanting
way that I sat down for two hours to listen, determined to find out what this incredible violin style was called.  They informed me that this was Carnatic music and took me to visit their father, and together played violin trios all afternoon for me.  I was hooked.   When I returned to Varanasi, my friend introduced me to Mr. V.K. Venkataramanujam, violinist and professor of Carnatic music at Benares Hindu University.

Mr. Ramanujam didn’t seem too impressed that I wanted to learn from him.  When asked to play for him, I laid into “Fire on the Mountain,” my old show stopper from Germany.  It stopped the show, all right–halfway through, he told me to stop playing, then retuned my instrument so that “Fire on the Mountain” would no longer be possible.  I had stepped off into the deep end of the pool without even realizing it.  He announced that he would teach me 5 compositions in 5 weeks and that I should show up at his house 7 days a week at 7 a.m. for a two hour lesson.  The lesson never failed to be difficult and to help me along, Mr. Ramanujam would yell at me that I was ruining his mind when I played so many wrong notes.  We had a wonderful time, and after four weeks, I asked him how he knew I would learn 5 compositions.  His reply:  “It’s easy–if you don’t learn like this, you can go…”


Mr. Ramanujam, 1980

After returning to Germany for nearly four years, where I completed my apprenticeships in the violin shops of Wolfgang Uebel and Rainer Knobel, my wife Peggy and I returned to India and Nepal.  As a newly trained violin maker and repair person, I immediately ascertained that the violins played by my teacher and friends had seen some very bad repair work, often covered with a coat of brown house paint to hide the deeds of the butcher.  I had some bridges and soundposts along, with a small kit of tools, and Mr. Ramanujam immediately put me to work, sitting on the floor with his son Balaji, doing my best to get their instruments in shape.  All the while trying to teach young Balaji how to approach repair while holding the violins with our feet.  It wasn’t easy, but I got very used to sitting on the hard concrete floor, and ever since then I’ve sent the occasional box of broken violins to (now) Dr. V. Balaji, who would somehow repair them and give them to his violin students.  Mr. Ramanujam has passed on, but our friendship with his entire family has been rich and enduring, with Dr. Balaji encouraging me to continue to teach repair in India on a larger scale.

Over the years, efforts to get grants and the like never panned out, and this year I finally decided after almost 30 years to throw in the towel and maybe take a vacation in Hawaii instead.  My good friend and Carnatic violin teacher Dr. Saravanapriyan Sriraman would not hear of it and kept prodding me.  He took the matter into his own hands and contacted his own teacher in Chennai, Sri Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan about the idea, and before I knew it, I was once more dropping all my plans for the fall and headed to Chennai.

That’s the short story of how this all came about…

11 thoughts on “Violin Wise: the Project and the History

  1. willieswa

    This is inspiring– bridging the world with finer sounding instruments.The is a great gift for the West to bring East.

  2. Bella B Barrett

    I know you two are having a wonderfilled
    time, and I look forward to your posts!
    Congrats for making this happen, and Happy
    Birthday Mr. Jimmy!

  3. Shankar C

    I came to know about this workshop only after it got over. I am so passionate in repairing instruments. Being a western classical student myself in the Carnatic music capital, I have seen lot of amazing antique violins ruined here in Chennai. I request you to conduct the workshop once again during December 2014.
    I started learning Carnatic classical and got grasped in harmonious and grand sound of western classical music and started western classical. I follow the style of Mr.V.S.Narasimhan and I am practicing both Carnatic classical and western classical in western tuning.
    I once again am requesting this workshop to be conducted once more.

  4. Barbara Framm

    Hi Jim, I’m enjoying reading about your connection to India and Carnatic music. Will you perhaps be at Music Festival this winter (2014?). I’ll be there from Dec. 15- 30th. Would be great to see you there! Barbara

  5. Christine Venediger

    Dear Jim and Peggy,
    I have really enjoyed reading about your journey through life together following the sounds of the violin and the music in your hearts. I feel so fortunate to have heard you play when you invited me to stay with you in 2014 in your lovely home in Santa Barbara.
    Love and peace

  6. Jennifer Roig-Francolí

    I’m so delighted to know about this project! My baroque violin was made by James Wimmer, and it gives me delight and joy every time I play it. You are all so lucky to have such a wonderful maker there with you!! Namaste

  7. B.David Prakasa

    Let me have the email address of Lalgudi trust. I am a retired bank official. I teach violin. I set right minor violin problems. I think Lalgudi Trust will help me buy violin peg reamer and violin related repairing instruments in India.

    1. aarmanino Post author

      Hi David,

      So far, for teaching purposes we’ve had to rely on tools which we have brought in from the West in the hopes that the students will copy them or find an engineer or someone who is capable of such work. In particular, the peg shapers and reamers are the most difficult to copy. We’ve not yet had enough time to explore the companies that are importing supplies etc. from China–mostly Calcutta seems to be the center of such activity. You might search eBay for Chinese made tools–the peg tools from Germany are quite expensive. Lalgudi Trust won’t know about these things. If you have any more questions best to contact me.

      Jim Wimmer

  8. Rajagopal

    Dear James, considering the posture the carnatic violin players adopt, some of them develop shoulder and back pain. If we can have the extension of scroll, that would help overcome this problem. Are there such device available that can be fitted to extend the scroll?


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