Category Archives: The Program 2015

The Proof is in the Pudding

By now, Alex and I have hammered and hammered and hammered home time and again the point that the violin needs to be glued up with hide glue, the reason being that we need to be able to dismantle the instrument completely without damage. This topic is even repeated in the multiple newspaper articles which have been appearing regarding our work. We never grow tired of singing the praises of the miracle substance hide glue. Nor do we grow weary of trumpeting this message to the public.

Just this morning, we arrived early in the workshop and decided to interrupt the tranquility of the neighborhood by playing a few happy tunes on the fiddles for one of the guys in the course who seems to mightily enjoy our music. Somewhere in the middle of the second tune, Alex suddenly stopped playing and began making the strangest faces. I couldn’t figure out what had happened… Was she suffering the onset of some mysterious ailment? Was an invader climbing through the window? I looked behind me to make sure my back was safe. What happened??? Then she showed me that her violin (which by the way she made herself) had decided that it had just had enough of this dreadful cyclone monsoon humid weather, and the ebony fingerboard quite simply fell off into the palm of her left hand during the tune. No damage of course, just a parting of ways without acrimony. We all enjoyed a wonderfully mirthful moment about the incident, then immediately re-glued the fingerboard back onto the neck in its proper position, enjoying the hilarity of this teachable moment. By evening time, the instrument was ready to go again, even though the drying time of the glue is prolonged considerably by the humid conditions.

We were in the violin workshop, with the glue pot handy, so our journey to get the repair taken care of was short. The service personnel were polite and very friendly, and more than pleased to attend to this small job immediately. And of course, the cost of repair was modest.

The Chennai violinist might have to suffer the inconvenience of traveling across town to enjoy the same level of service. The less fortunate violinist might even need to make a trip of several hours to get this small issue of maintenance taken care of. Violinists in the West understand this. It is our job to bring this understanding to the violinists of India.

A Big Day for Violin Wise

Yesterday was a banner day for Violin Wise and the course participants. Two of the participants presented Mr. Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan with the violins which they had repaired and set up by themselves, a donation from us to the Lalgudi Trust to be put to use by deserving violin students. He delighted us by drawing a bow over the strings and giving these instruments his stamp of approval.

Two years back, during our three week course, we were unable to get around to making such a donation. We were inundated with violins which belonged to outside customers and the course participants couldn’t really stick with any one violin in particular in the course of getting repairs accomplished. Alex or I often had to take the instrument away from the student and speed the process with our own hand in order to get it delivered and out the door in time.

This time, I brought along ample numbers of broken violins which had languished in my shop in California, violins which I could never find time to repair, given my busy schedule. Thus, we were able to use these instruments as didactic objects without the pressures of delivery deadlines. A wonderfully tranquil atmosphere ensued in the shop, as if we were all tucked away from the hectic world, left to hum a happy tune and work at our own pace. The students even seem to have gotten used to our applications of spit and animal glue. In this setting, they have accomplished a tremendous amount. With the fine assistance of Alex, they have learned some dauntingly complex restoration techniques. It is humbling to see my own hand reflected in their work.

Tomorrow will be the last day of our course. They will go back to their normal work environs, now better equipped to face the great tsunami of violin repair awaiting them. They have assimilated well the philosophy of approaching the violin without doing harm and leaving it in better condition than they found it. I’ll be like a proud papa, turning them loose in India. And, we’ll hope to see them next time. For after all, we will be back, thanks to Mr. Krishnan and the Lalgudi Trust.

The Mysterious Tamil Language

While enrolled at the University of California in the early 1970s, I was very fortunate to have been accepted as a participant in the Education Abroad Program and spent a year at Georg-August Universitaet in Goettingen Germany. Even though I was not particularly academically inclined and more prone to party and travel with my new-found friends there, I did manage to return home with good fluency in the German language and many fond memories. The experience changed my life forever and I have remained an inveterate traveler and collector of foreign languages ever since. They are a lovely souvenir of our travels and don’t require a great deal of baggage space to bring home.

Several decades back, when it became clear to me that India was in dire need of proper violin repair and restoration techniques and we began formulating the idea for some sort of repair course in India, I believed that such a program would ultimately take place in Varanasi, in the north of India where Hindi is the main spoken language. Since Hindi is widely spoken in India, I undertook to learn this language as properly as possible, even resorting to taking lessons from a very skilled instructor from Varanasi. I figured that being able to speak Hindi would generate good will in general and perhaps be useful in teaching the exacting skills of the violin maker’s art.

Hindi is by no means an easy language, even though it is directly related to our European-based English, German, French, and Scandinavian languages via our common roots in Sanskrit, i.e. an Indo-European language. Because of this direct link to our linguistic cousins in India, I was able to cling to similarities with German, which aided my efforts greatly. The verb structures in German are notoriously terrifying for the novice student, as the speakers and authors of this language love to wax verbose, a single sentence often filling an entire page of a novel, with multiple themes weaving in and out of a complex web of story line, psychological pathos, amusing anecdotes, and perhaps even an order of coffee and cake to nourish the weary reader who will most certainly require some sustenance before finally approaching the longed-for period at the end of the ordeal, only to realize that all the verbs come piling up at the end of this gigantic treatise, like some horrific train wreck at the end of a long novel which explains all the action that went on before, leaving the poor reader to order up yet more coffee while reviewing the entire experience, desperately attempting to figure out what it was that actually happened in the last day or two while trekking through the vast Himalayan mountain range of one single, modest sentence in this lavish German language. As you can see from the previous sentence, this Germanic trait has affected my own writing style, much to the horror of those who would edit my literary ramblings.

Aside from the German verb structure being of such assistance to the student of the intricacies of Hindi, another such useful mnemonic device which can be of solace to us is the similar use in Hindi of the so-called extended adjective, which eliminates the need for many of those pesky verbs, most commonly used in literary works of the Romantic period German authors, but now largely having disappeared from common vernacular.  A typical example might go something like this, with Hindi word order and the extended adjective in parentheses:  (The on the road standing cigarette smoking newspaper reading tea sipping man) turned and away slowly sauntered.  Other than these two very important ports in the linguistic storm of these complex languages, there will be precious little for the adventurous language learner to cling to when it comes to languages of the Indian subcontinent.

So you see, with a little knowledge of archaic German, it’s really quite easy, isn’t it?  Let us now turn our attention to mysterious Tamil, the predominant language of Tamil Nadu in South India, where Alex and I are teaching our violin repair course.
Tamil is not a language for the novice or the faint of heart.  It is referred to as the oldest continually living language on earth, possibly older even than sanskrit, so it has had plenty of time to set traps for the unwary or over-confident language learner.  In fact, I have personal reasons to believe that its endless pitfalls may never be fully revealed.  Tamilians rightly believe that those who are not native born to this language cannot possibly ever learn it properly. At least not without a few extra lifetimes reincarnated into the mix.
First of all, Tamil effortlessly demonstrates a capacity to conceal the simplest message in an endless hailstorm of syllables, all lavishly spiced with vowels which are probably unnecessary, save to protect the native speaker from being overheard in casual conversation or to render invading armies helpless.  Add to this that the words are hopelessly long, far more devastatingly so than the aforementioned German extended adjectives.  A simple “howdy” requires at least 9 syllables (Ninggu yeppedi irikinggu!).  Therefore, velocity of speech is an absolute requirement if one is to arrive at the denouement of the simplest sentence before the sun goes down.  If confronted with a native speaker,  I generally hail a taxi in hopes of arriving at the end of “good morning” in time for dinner.  “Cabbie!  Step on it!  Hurry–follow that verb!”
The consonants provide seemingly endless speed bumps along the wild taxi ride.  Not only are there far more of them than any language should be allowed by law, but the ones that lurk in the most innocent word, for instance “banana” (valai maram), are possessed of hopelessly prickly pronunciations.  If engaged in the simple task of requesting a banana, I generally need to stuff a couple of pieces of buttered toast loaded with peanut butter and mango jam into my mouth, curl my tongue around it onto the back of my palate and timidly utter the “r,” only to find it gurgling past my weary mind again towards the end of the word.  The native speaker of Tamil finds this consonant game infinitely amusing, hailing his friends to join in the hilarity of the “valai maram” spectacle, and as soon as the struggle is over, another consonant is quickly located and hurled at the foreigner for the general amusement of the growing crowd of onlookers.
The only hope for the foreigner is to join the circus, embrace a vowel or two, and accept that this language makes you into a very fine stand-up comedian indeed.  The vision of “hello” (vanakkam) emitting from the foreigner’s mouth generates such waves of laughter that one might believe that Mr. Ed, the talking horse of TV fame just walked into the room and cracked a nice joke.  There is a wonderful woman who helps clean our shop, but I have only caught small glimpses of her face over the last two years.  The moment I utter the simplest Tamil consonant, she covers her face, shuddering with peals of laughter, and dashes from the room in order that we don’t think she is impolite for openly laughing at us.  I’m certain she could carry on polite conversations; just not with foreigners carrying on in her native tongue.
If violin making should ever prove inadequate as a profession, a great career awaits us as comedians in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the wonderful people here who have taught us a couple of words. I’m keeping a few good consonants in my bag of tricks for that occasion.   In the meantime, for serious business, like ordering dinner and a drink, I’ll stick to Hindi.  In comparison, it feels like my mother tongue.

The “A” Team

Today is Thanksgiving, a major holiday in the USA. We celebrated with another busy day in the workshop, teaching as much as possible to the course participants. We’ve been at it now for nearly two weeks, and put in long days and often long evenings, since we are frequently interviewed after hours by reporters and photographers. Then blogging about the experience if there is any time left and the house computer is willing. It is often cranky, and the internet can sometimes be down for several days. The incessant rains seem to creep in everywhere, making everything malfunction. Quite the different experience from the reclusive life of the violin maker tucked away on the hill in California.

Mr. Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan has made some very astute choices in the selection of this year’s course participants. At first I was skeptical of the two young gentlemen, Aryan (left) and Nagaraj (right), who came to us from a piano store, of all things. However, as it turns out, they both trained for two years in Mumbai (Bombay) in a program presented by none other than the venerable Steinway firm, and they bring considerable technical handwork skills and conceptual abilities to bear on our projects. They speak outstanding English and shriek with laughter together with us when we make feeble attempts to learn Tamil from them. They have a great sense of humor, and when I take revenge for the Tamil teasing by having them pronounce the names of the important violin makers and bow makers of Italy, France, and Germany, they squirm and howl good naturedly, rolling their eyes with the difficulty of the task. Fair is fair; we all guffaw as one unit.

Then there is Ranjit, who has traveled all the way from Malappuram in Kerala to join us. A carpenter by trade, he has already made a very passable violin without any formal training or other input. He also brings quite a pallet of skills with hand tools along and has no problem adapting immediately to the problem solving and focus specific to our craft. He works precisely and swiftly, and it is often difficult to keep ahead of him and keep him busy. He always arrives in the morning before us, even though he has a lengthy walk across town. He loves our fiddling, so of course that makes him irresistible as an esteemed colleague!

Finally, there is Anbarasu, our only returnee from the first course two years ago. He runs his own shop in Chennai, yet finds time to enjoy our teaching. He gives us the opportunity to check his progress after the intensive course held in 2013, and he doesn’t disappoint. His sweet nature is infectious, and he tells me I should be a film actor because of the facial expressions I make in an effort to overcome our language barrier. He has spent his whole life sitting on the floor while working, quite common in India, and it is amazing what he can do down there, holding the work piece with his feet.

All of these gentlemen prove to be a tremendous resource for us, as it is impossible to remember every last little item that we need to bring from the US in order to make this course a success. They all know how to find materials and supplies that we didn’t even know existed in India, and if those don’t exist, these guys know how to improvise them into existence. We never cease to be amazed at their resourcefulness.

The record rainfall and flooding, along with personal difficulties, have cut our numbers down to these four, but they are the Fabulous Four. Together, they have accomplished as much in these two weeks as many established shops in the US might accomplish in a similar time frame, with Alex doing a stellar job of carrying half the teaching load. When the visitors have all gone, and everyone is concentrated on their own project, the productivity arising from the tranquility is nothing short of astonishing. Awesome job, dudes! My hat’s off to you all!

It is my personal desire that they each become a teacher of our art to future generations, a monumental and ever so necessary task.

Chennai, Friday the Thirteenth

We arrived in Chennai in the early morning, welcomed by the greatest flooding in this city since 1975. Laden with baggage full of chisels, gouges, glue pots, clamps and other unspeakably heavy tools of the trade, we made our way through small glades of potted plants which had been carefully placed to capture the bounty of the leaking roof in the airport hallways, casually strolling past bored customs officers to the outside, where a fearless driver was patiently awaiting our arrival. Braving the torrential rainfall brought on by the cyclonic storm pounding the coast, the sparse traffic of that early hour was more reminiscent of the gondolas and boat traffic of Venice than that of rush hour Chennai. Blinding waterfalls from the overpasses cascaded down on the car, making a joke of visibility out the front windshield. Trick rider motorcyclists plowed past us like speedboats, holding their feet up on the handlebars to avoid personal contact with the floodwaters. Welcome to India; it never comes up short on adventure!

We had planned four days to leisurely get over jet lag, looking forward to strolling the exotic boulevard of Pondi Bazaar, enjoying the fine cuisine and checking out the silk shops. Instead, we found ourselves stranded in the hotel. Nobody in Chennai goes anywhere during this type of flooding. Seems it is reasonably common, since Chennai is the only major city in India which is exactly at sea level and enjoys no drainage factor whatsoever. Today’s morning newspaper reported of vipers, cobras and leeches in abundance in the waters of the city, along with copious unpleasant water soluble particulate matter, the exact nature of which I will leave to the imagination. Suffice it to say that the locals strongly recommend thoroughly washing your feet after crossing the road. Another 3 days of this and the rain is supposed to subside, leaving us with 90 degree heat and suffocating humidity.

Day four and the workshop was scheduled to commence. By now only violin makers and anybody else who happened to be consumed by insanity were venturing out into the weather. Thus it came to pass that we actually found ourselves in the company of four (out of 10) very pleasant intrepid participants and a great deal was accomplished, interrupted only by the occasional power outage and the concussive explosion of a transformer on the power pole just outside the window, accompanied by sparks showering down into the tranquil waters of the street below. Happy Diwali!

Why Hide Glue?

This is far and away the most common question posed by my colleagues in India. Allow me to
preface this long and somewhat technical article with a comparison of your violin to your car. If you take your prized automobile to the shop to have the oil changed and new spark plugs installed along with a tune up, think how upset you might be to discover that the hood (British English: “Bonnet”) been judiciously welded shut to keep it from opening so easily. I think the owner might agree with me that this might lead to a far more extensive and costly repair the next time your vehicle needs an oil change. The violin family instruments also require access to the interior of the instrument in order to carry out various repairs.

During the first course of instruction in Chennai, I insisted that we would be exclusively using hide glue, also known as “animal glue,” or in Hindi “sarres.” This announcement caused quite a controversy, with the professional instrument repair persons among the participants complaining loudly that our work would fall apart before the clients were out the door. They felt that their good work would be rejected by their clients if it became known that hide glue had been used in their instruments. My response to that was: “You’ll just have to educate them.” And the entire violin playing population of India, as well… big job! For this reason, it is our hope that every player of violin, viola, or cello in India will read this and carefully consider the implications for their own instrument. It may help the player preserve the beauty and integrity of their violin and pass it on to their heirs in reasonably preserved condition. After all, your violin will long outlive you, as long as it is well cared for during your short tenure as caretaker.

It is largely true that imperfect joinery in our woodworking project can cause hide glue to fail, in particular in violin family instruments because they are subjected to prolonged vibrational stresses, often at the hands of muscular, vigorous players. It’s amazing to me that some players don’t just break the instrument in half from the force of their bowing. Hide glue bonds best when the wood joinery fits together perfectly. That is the reason the main focus of our first course in Chennai was not only on issues of set up and adjusting the instrument for ease of playing and maximum tone production, but also sharpening our tools to a razor keen edge and practicing cutting wood to the perfection required of our trade. India has a magnificent tradition of fine art carving in wood, and our students demonstrated all the patience of that grand tradition when we called upon them to cut a new sound post into an instrument. They spent the better part of one week cutting away at the end of a piece of 6 mm spruce soundpost dowel with a knife (no files, no sandpaper) until it fit perfectly to the interior of the violin in the proper position for tone production. This same fastidious approach applies to every glue joint in the entire violin.

It is true that hide glue can fail if subjected to radical humidity change, in particular if the unvarnished project is exposed to dry conditions and the wood shrinks away from the joint. This can be handily re-glued and the wood typically becomes more stable once varnished, largely eliminating the problem. This characteristic also allows your violin to open a seam rather than crack a plate, literally the safety valve of your violin. Fortunately, I saw little of this type of damage in India, since it is exposure to very dry conditions which causes most cracks in the plates, with the exception of accidents. If the violin is dropped or otherwise suffers a shock, it is much more likely to simply come apart without damage when joined with hide glue, allowing an easy re-gluing. I experienced this first hand when our friend dropped my violin on the asphalt road in Mahaballipuram and the neck popped out of the body without even the most minuscule splintering of the wood. While it looked broken to the untrained observer, it took me longer to calm our friend’s frayed nerves than it did to re-assemble the violin, about 15 minutes. Synthetic resin glues will not function in this manner. After all, they famously proclaim on
the container that the workpiece will never come unglued. So breakage is often the result
in such a situation, and a very costly and time consuming repair is often necessary.

Players frequently travel great distances in the course of performing, so the violin is also routinely exposed to radical changes in climate and humidity. The varnish is the main defense against the wood in your violin shrinking or expanding too quickly. Nonetheless, violinists have often had the traumatic experience of discovering an area of their instrument coming open, resulting in an irritating rattling noise emitting from their beloved instrument alongside the glorious tone to which they are accustomed. Perhaps the fingerboard might fall off during the concert. The neck might even separate from the body. Never fear! The violin is supposed to do exactly that when subjected to these stresses. A common mistake under such circumstances is to panic and resort to a quick fix with a synthetic resin glue or some other objectionable adhesive, generally resulting in more damage to the instrument when the job needs to be redone later by a professional violin restorer. A better course of action in an emergency situation would be to borrow an instrument if possible, or struggle through the performance and bring the violin to a professional shop as soon as possible for proper reassembly. Such small problems, however traumatic they may seem at the time, are routine maintenance issues for the skilled violin technician and usually not so costly.

We need to be able to dismantle the instrument entirely with minimal harm during the course of many repairs, since we don’t have the convenience of just reaching our hand and tools into the body through the sound holes like our fortunate colleagues in the guitar industry. If necessary, I could dismantle my own violin completely and cleanly in approximately 15-20 minutes. If a synthetic resin glue like Fevicol or Titebond aliphatic resin glue is used, the glue bond is literally stronger than the wood itself, so the likelihood becomes greater of causing more damage to the violin during repair, resulting in unexpected higher cost to the client and unlimited possibilities for aggravation to the repair technician. Unfortunately, with hide glue the instrument can indeed come apart a bit here and there, much to the dismay of the player. This is not a capitalist ploy to keep you returning to the repair shop. Rather, it is the “safety valve” effect of the hide glue releasing the joint when the wood shrinks and expands.

Hide glue is the only truly time tested glue for violin family instruments. There are numerous examples of hide glue joinery in instruments that are hundreds of years old, yet never failed… yes, even in the harsh, humid climate of South India. Glue joint failure is not uncommon in violins repaired with synthetic resin glues, but cleaning this substance out of cracks or the joinery can be a difficult time consuming process, often requiring cutting or patiently picking it out, possibly resulting in further damage. Hide glue is easily cleaned out of old repairs using nothing but water. It will not bond to synthetic resin glue, so the cleaning process during repair is of utmost importance. Hide glue will bond to old hide glue, a very useful characteristic. Furthermore, hide glue literally pulls the wood parts more tightly together as it dries, leaving very little of the protein bond in the joint, resulting in the near invisible joinery that we admire in classic violin making and restoration. Furthermore, this characteristic allows us to assemble many projects without clamping. Some violin makers join the plates (center joint) on their top and back plates by simply rubbing the two pieces together until they feel the glue start to set, then carefully set the piece aside without clamps until dry. This joint can withstand all the stress of string tension and bow pressure of the player without failure, even though carved out to a thickness of as little as 3 mm.

Hide glue can even be used as a sealer on wood to prevent stain and varnish from inappropriately penetrating the wood and causing uncontrollable negative visual effects. A refined cousin of hide glue, gelatin, is commonly used as a sealer coat on the entire instrument before application of varnish. It’s the one I use on my instruments. This is a closely guarded ancient secret, so please keep it to yourself.

As a vegetarian myself, I’ll admit that I don’t much care to think about the processes involved in the manufacture of hide glue, which involves rendering tissues from dead animals. If not somehow kept perfectly dry, the sub-tropical climate of South India can soon make your supply of hide glue reek horribly of putrefaction, at which point it might be better discarded and a fresh supply procured. However, despite the fact that hide glue has fallen out of favor with many woodworkers in modern times, it stands out as a miraculous substance with many applications, a boon to all of violin making and restoration. I and most of my colleagues in the trade use it exclusively. In our violin specific application in the adverse climate of India, I nonetheless believe that it is worth overlooking some of the perceived shortcomings of hide glue in order to
ensure the preservation of violin family instruments for future generations to enjoy.

Many more are the uses of this wonder substance passed down to us from antiquity, too many to list here. I have even on occasion made jokes about the violin maker being able to eat hide glue for protein source if overtaken by tough financial times. That is, until I heard tales of one of my highly regarded colleagues from the Polish tradition, who cleans off the squeeze-out from his violin joinery by lapping up the excess glue with his tongue, much to the amusement of his co-workers. Given my personal dietary inclinations, I’ll not be testing this application any time soon, thanks.

The Unknown Fiddler of Madras

A few years back, I enquired with a friend how it was going with his violin lessons on Skype with Kala Ramnath. He misunderstood my question and related to me that he had just delivered a talk at an ethnomusicology conference on the Carnatic compositions called “Nottuswara.” He explained that Mutthuswami Dikshitar, one of the now immortal “trinity” of Carnatic composers in the early nineteenth century, had taken interest in melodies played by the British regimental bands in Madras and had written Sanskrit devotional text to several dozen of these tunes, creating these wonderful gems of Carnatic music for the benefit of the beginning student. None of the patient souls who had taught me Carnatic music on the violin had ever mentioned these melodies to me, probably because I was so young and bull-headed about wanting to tackle major compositions like “Najeevadhara” right from the beginning.

My interest piqued, I researched the subject on youtube, Wikipedia, and other sources and delighted in finding a couple of fiddle tunes which are commonly played in contemporary Irish traditional pub sessions and sung by large groups of children as well as major concert artists in South Indian devotional concert settings. It has always been personally fascinating to follow the peregrinations of the violin from it’s origin in 16th century Italy through myriad cultures around the planet, establishing itself as a mainstay of various popular and folk music traditions wherever it traveled. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that Mutthuswami Dikshitar’s brother Baluswamy was given a violin from the regimental band, and furthermore was provided with an instructor on the instrument who, it is now generally accepted, was an Irish fiddler with whom Baluswamy studied for three years! During this period he began developing his skills and conceptualization of playing Carnatic music on the fiddle. This happy meeting in cultural curiosity of two entirely different rich cultures around 200 years ago was the seminal point from whence the violin rose to predominant status as the ubiquitous accompaniment instrument of South Indian classical music as well as coming into it’s own right in all of India as a virtuoso solo instrument. It’s place in Indian classical music is secure.

When the violin first appeared on the scene in 16th century Italy, it was decried as a brash and rude instrument, suitable at best as the tool of the impoverished street minstrel and not at all appropriate for the courtly settings of the day. Of course, it has since distanced itself in western classical music from these humble roots and, along with the pianoforte, has been an indispensable vehicle of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and so many other major composers of this
magnificent tradition, and as such has been welcomed into the finest concert halls and royal palaces around the world. However, those of us who play it as the fiddle still tend to be relegated to it’s original 16th century reputation, a distinction which we wear with a curious pride.

The fiddle is generally played for “fun” only, and even in concert situations is often played in association with songs about overindulgence in alcoholic beverages, brawling, murder, and other general mayhem. On the lighter side, it can be found providing accompaniment to humorous songs or children’s ditties about silly notions or barnyard animals, fully capable of imitating the sounds of donkeys braying, hens cackling, roosters crowing, song birds singing, dogs barking and yelping, and old crank up car engines being started or honking their horns. Hobos, cowboys, drinkers and gamblers are often the protagonist in the lilting melodies of our American tradition.

The fiddle’s domain has typically not been the previously mentioned concert halls or royal palaces, instead providing the main voice for barn dances, pub sessions, street minstrelsy, and late night aggravations to spouses and neighbors. Historically, the fiddle has often been banned from churches and religious gatherings, having the reputation of fostering lascivious behavior, and can still be occasionally escorted out the door in such settings today. During the course of 35 years of violin repair, I have witnessed, among others, fiddles that were victims of gunshot wounds, fiddles that were broken in half from being knocked out of the hands of the player by deliriously twirling dancers, along with cases smashed flat by dancers jumping up and down in their trance, unaware of what was underfoot. All in the name of fun. A fine reputation, indeed!

The English language has firmly cemented the fiddlers’ reputation in our culture. For instance, “fiddling around” and “fiddle-faddle” fondly refer to notions of silliness or wasting time. “Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the violin/ Mozart jumped over the moon…” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. So it comes as no surprise that the fiddler often will maintain a cool distance from the classical players who occasionally attempt to invoke jocularity by referring to their multi-million dollar Stradivarius or Guarnerius violin as a fiddle, and themselves as fiddlers. Since we don’t get to call ourselves violinists, we prefer to maintain the clear distinction between “fiddle” and “violin.” And we have to carry those hundreds, if not thousands of tunes in our heads, because the police have a bad habit of asking us to pack it up and move along…quickly.

So you see, fiddlers are not generally given credit for much of anything of earth shaking importance. Serendipity placed our “unknown fiddler of Madras” at the nexus of two great traditions and helped sow the seed of the magnificent Carnatic violin tradition, astonishing in it’s uniquely Indian approach to this iconic instrument of the West. During the course of researching this subject, I did come across one reference that claimed Baluswamy was introduced to the violin by a western classical violinist in a Maharaja’s palace, but far and away the most popular story of this event as related to me by violin aficionados in India was the tale of the meeting with the Irish fiddler. A fiddler myself, I’m going to run with that story.

When I first encountered Carnatic violinists in 1980, I was struck by the fact that they frequently referred to themselves with pride as fiddlers. They even called the music they played on the violin “Carnatic fiddling.” My own violin teacher in India often used this term to describe his playing and it made me feel like part of a grand, exclusive club of sorts. Nowadays “violin,” and “violinist” are used to describe the artist and instrument, and rightly so, since Carnatic violin playing is a mainstay of Indian classical music, and the term “fiddle” is becoming less common.

When Swami Ananda Nadayogi asked me during our workshop in Chennai to teach him an Irish tune, I remarked that the ornaments unique to this fiddle style usually present difficulties for the novice. He immediately demonstrated that he was already adept at these, having learned them from his guru, none other than Sri Lalgudi G. Jayaraman. Indeed, he could effortlessly play them in positions up and down the fingerboard where many fiddlers can only dream of going. I was stunned, since these ornaments are derived from bagpipe decorative technique, and I had hitherto only known them as unique to Irish and Scottish fiddling.

So, dear “unknown fiddler,” our fiddling hats are off to you. Your accomplishment is mighty, indeed! I wish we could get to know your name, share a brew, a tune or two, and a few outlandish tales. Your influence is still with us, nearly 200 years later. Indian violinists are certainly not waxing jocular when they refer to you. We salute you with “Slainte’ (Irish: “cheers!”), the craic (Irish: “musical magic”) is just getting better and better.” Far better than you might have ever imagined. Alex and I, proud fiddlers ourselves, have arrived in Chennai to assure you that we will keep the instruments necessary to your legacy in India as intact as possible in order that your legend may thrive. Without you, we might not be enjoying the fine adventure of teaching the violin restorer’s art in India today. The blarney has long since departed, but we are happy to report that the fine piping ornaments and the fiddling spirit that you may well have imparted to Baluswamy still live on to lend Carnatic violin just a wee touch of those famous smiling eyes and your very charming Irish accent.

Dear India

Dear India,

It is with great pleasure that I write this letter to you.  Alex and I will admit it; we are positively beside ourselves with excitement!  We will be returning to India this year in November to continue our work in the “Violin Wise” program, teaching repair and restoration of violin family instruments.  During the first program in November 2013, our program participants demonstrated an impressive capacity to learn our exacting craft.  We came to feel like family with them and everyone who gave support to our effort, and we are looking forward to seeing our very extended Indian family again.

I would like to take this opportunity to once more express our gratitude to everyone who pulled together to help make this program happen, most notably  Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan, Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, and the Lalgudi Trust, along with our patrons who wish to remain anonymous.  Their assistance in providing the program participants with specialty tools of our trade was absolutely invaluable.  They also saw to it that we were received with utmost hospitality and very comfortable accommodations.  Because of the vision of the Lalgudi Trust,  this program took on a far grander scale than I had ever imagined possible, with their clear understanding that our craft is best learned in a focused environment over an extended period of time.  The Lalgudi Trust exists to help benefit all of Carnatic music, and it is deeply gratifying to be a small part of this great gift by the founder, the legendary Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, whose name will never fade from the hearts of those who love this music.  With the help of the Lalgudi Trust, we are able to disseminate our art in India, so that hopefully violinists may one day soon be able to access this style of repair without having to travel abroad.

This program would not have been possible without the participants, who on short notice carved out 3 weeks of their busy schedules to take on this very intense course, juggling their schedules to keep their professional lives up and running, or traveling great distances to learn from a couple of foreigners with whom they shared no language in common.  We all enjoyed wonderful, humorous, and often deeply moving moments together.  To them, our dear colleagues, we extend our thanks.

Noted architect Meera Natampally collaborated with architect student Alexandra Armanino to draw a blueprint of my bench in America and email the plans to India and create the most incredible workbench, central to our dream.  The help offered us by Mr. S. Shivkumar of K.S. Engineering Tools was indispensable, keeping us supplied with necessary power tools and custom made hand tools.  I’m certain we’ll be calling him again.

And of course Alex, who knows a great adventure when she sees one coming.  She worked hard and paid her own way to Chennai in order to work hard again, seeing to it that she made herself an integral part of this wonderful project.  When we return, I’m sure she’ll gladly show all of you the exquisite violin she’s made.

To so many others, who drove us around and helped us find things and enjoy your rich culture and cuisine, who offered a sweet smile while keeping me healthy, cleaning the shop, teaching us Tamil one word at a time, and not minding the strange noise that we make when we play the fiddles, we thank you.

So many great musicians coursed through the workshop that it was mind boggling.  Even though you may not realize it, for decades I’ve been listening to any recording I could find of you and it’s a personal thrill to meet you and become part of your musical community.

Special thanks to Mr. V. K. Venkataramanujam, who took me on in 1980 as a violin student despite his better judgement.

Last, but most certainly not least, I owe a debt of gratitude to our dear friend Dr. Saravanapriyan Sriraman, who has been tirelessly promoting Carnatic music in the San Francisco bay area.  When I grew tired after 25 years of trying to make this all happen, he refused to allow me to let go of the idea and kept alive the seed of this program which is now flourishing.   He is a fine violinist and I hope to see him performing in  the Music Academy one day.

Dear India, we can’t wait until we get to have another chat with you over a spicy tea and enjoy your company once more.  You have provided me with so many breathtaking adventures over the past 35 years.   I’ll arrive, hat in hand, ready to go once more.  Thank you all!

With love and devotion…