Category Archives: The Program-Week 2

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Now, a word from our assistant, Alex Armanino:

Jim and I have developed a dynamic of teaching that we like to call, “Good Cop, Bad Cop.”  Can you guess which of us is which?  I’ll give you a hint–guess again…

Jim always maintains a jovial demeanour with his students, as he does with just about everyone he meets.  He leads by example, and if ever a student is not accomplishing his work properly, he swoops in to save the day, with a tranquil, “Let me help you with that.”  Even during times of frustration, a great example of which was regaled in the post Kali Ma, Jim remains calm, cool, and collected, exuding the philosophy, “why worry?”

I, on the other hand, am not so easy going or easy to please.  It is expected that each student reaches perfection, and for me this is the essential goal.  The group is quite a mixed bag, and of course it goes without saying that everyone works at their own pace.  Several of the students are experienced instrument repairers while others have never held a carving knife before.  Whatever the case, I treat each student with the same expectation that they are capable of accomplishing their work beautifully and independently.  In my life, my favorite teachers are generally the toughest and most strict.  Upon handing in essays in grammar school, my best teacher wouldn’t simply collect the work and pat me on the back to commend me for just doing the work, but would read all of it and would ask me very critical questions, looking for areas of improvement.  I’ve found this to be an effective tactic for coming to realize ones own mistakes.  It is my belief that proficiency can only be acquired when the work has been  recognized and accomplished on ones own.  This is what I expect from the students, and if ever I see someone cutting corners I can be tough.

Students have often come to me with their chins up to proudly display their work for my inspection.  But if it is not perfect I will explain to the student why it is not up to my standard and instruct him to carry on. Looking sad and dejected, he will return to his seat and quietly continue his task.  The less inclined student will come back moments later to tell me that the problem has been fixed when, more times than not, it will look exactly the same.  This is when I become strict and will hover over the student and observe him at work, giving criticism all the while.  This approach gets fine results, but has caused a phenomenon in the studio.  A slight schism has occurred in which certain students gravitate towards the larger room lined with tables, where I hop around from student to student, and others retreat to the main room, where Jim works at the bench.  It has also caused them to play mommy and daddy with us; if I disapprove, the student will rush to Jim looking for his confirmation instead.  It’s made clear when someone has won the game.  Jim rings the bell, announces the success of the craftsman and everybody claps triumphantly for their collogue–and this causes me to re-evaluate my teaching methods.

What makes Jim a great teacher, and a wonderful person to be around, is that he is an honest and tough critic, expecting the same level of work out of his students that he acquires in his own work.  He is an experienced teacher, possessing the ability to give encouragement when needed, or put naysayers in their place by allocating them to the more menial tasks.  But at the end of the day, he’s always going to be there to ease your mind about any problems or misunderstandings you might have had and give you a comforting morale booster.  Each day I work with Jim and his fantastic students gives me such pleasure, and makes me tremendously aware of all I still have to learn from him.

Meet our Students

Now that the first days of the class have waned, the regular onlookers have begun to thin out, and we are more able to recognize who is actually here for the full 21 days, we are finally able to introduce the students.  Here they are–our new family.

Close up-AnandaAnandnadh is the first of the students I met.  He comes all the way from the city of Cochin in Kerala.  A long time student of Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan, he studied in the traditional Gurukulam system of attaining his skills on the violin.  This means that he left his home to come live in the home of his Guru and performed daily tasks like any family member for the entire duration of his studies.  He has returned to live there now as a welcome family member for the duration of our violin repair course and has proven invaluable to us because of his wonderful spirit of helpfulness. He is a beautiful violinist in the Carnatic style of classical music.  He is possessed of a tranquil spirit which is an inspiration to anyone lucky enough to be in his presence.

Close up-Anburous

Anbarash is from Chennai and works as a professional musical instrument repairman.  He is our class comedian and is extremely devoted to his work, in our studio and his own workshop.  While attending this course full time, he also finds time to meet with his customers every day by sacrificing his lunch break, but he is still always on time for class.  His smile lights up the workshop on the darkest of monsoon days.  He pays great personal attention to seeing to it that I am happy and don’t have to lift a finger to fetch a tool or a cup of tea.  He finishes the day by telling me that every day in the class is a better day.  In short, a beautiful soul…  

Close up-NatarajNatarajan comes from a family line of makers of the traditional South Indian Veena and resides in Chennai.  He brings wonderful hand made custom luthier’s tools to the class along with some of his instruments and carvings for our enjoyment.  Many of these tools were made by his father and are still useful in Natarajan’s able hands.  He speaks no English, but we manage to communicate on an instinctual level about the luthier’s skills that we both bring to bear on the tasks at hand. He has a keen eye for spotting the slightest irregularities in my work and getting me to correct them with his smile and the twinkle in that eagle eye of his.  It is because of gentle people like him that we put such effort into learning Tamil language.

Close up-Sangeetha

Sangeetha hails from Chennai, comes from a family line of violinists, and has never studied woodworking at all.  She braves the sharp tools required for our work and shows great dedication to learning these exacting tasks with patience and humor.  She makes certain that I ring the bell in a timely  manner for lunch break and tea time with gentle reminders, so that all may take a well deserved rest.  Fortunately for her, and unfortunately for the rest of us, she landed a good job in her field of expertise and has now had to suddenly leave the program.  We will miss her greatly, but she remains a member of our team in our hearts.  Happily, she will rejoin us in the festivities on the final day of the course.Close up-Venkopba

Venkoba is the head of his own musical instrument factory in Chennai, producing primarily electric violins and guitars.  He brings a great deal of knowledge in production methods to our class and is the most likely student to gently challenge my traditional old world methods.  A veritable magician who can pull pegs, nut blanks, and other ebony products and helpful tools from his pockets in our hour of greatest need.  He is quick to understand the principles and theories of violin tone and customer relations.  Venkoba makes me think…


Venkataraman is also engaged in the stringed instrument repair profession in Chennai.  Pressing on in the course despite suffering a fractured wrist at it’s outset, he also brings a deeper understanding of production methods to our group.  During our breaks, Venkataraman regales me with tales of the great Carnatic composer Sri Tyagaraja and his relationship to the family line of Lalgudi G. Jayaraman.  His interest in music knows no bounds and I’m delighted with his curiosity about our fiddle playing.  He is as inquisitive of our strange western styles of music as he is interested to educate us about the deep philosophies of the Indian music and anecdotes.

Close up-MuraliE.D. Murali also hails from Cochin in Kerala.  A carpenter by trade, he has become devoted to violin making and has already made quite a few instruments.  Largely self trained in the luthier’s art, he nonetheless brings a great deal of innovation and skill to our group.  Deft of hand and quick to understand the aesthetics involved in the non-invasive conservator’s method of repair, he is a valuable member of our team and is already proving, able and willing to help out the other students when I might be otherwise engaged.  I am pleased to learn that he and Anandnadh are already planning a collaborative effort in their home town.  I’m certain they will be of great benefit to their musical communities.

Close up-Kannan

Kannan, our videographer, is a master of fading into the woodwork and making himself invisible, all the while weaving his way through our lives with his cables, camera, and giant tripod. He is literally the light of our lives, since the illumination from his camera gives us the best view of our work of any lamp in the room, and it is sorely missed when he turns it off.  He has a great sense of humour and has mastered the tricky art of inserting  “cool, dude!” into his English.  I can’t wait to see what sort of documentary might come of his work.

Kali Ma

Kali MaWe are already reaching the mid point of our violin repair course.  Madhyama in Sanskrit means the middle. In the ancient Indian raga system the fourth is named ma, from madhyama, the point from whence, depending on whether it is played as natural or sharp, all seven notes of the musical scale are mathematically calculated out in all possible permutations of the notes without omitting any of the sapta swara, the seven notes with which we sing our joy.  Madhya Vanakkam–mid-day greetings to you.  The list is possibly endless, if I know India.  Now, I’m treading on thin academic ice here, but I suspect that ma is also the root of the word for mother, as in Kali Ma.  Kali, as you may know, is the ferocious goddess with black skin, destroyer of vast armies with one terrible swipe of her fearsome hooked sword, her neck adorned with a garland of bloodied human heads, her waist graced with a gruesome hula skirt of severed arms.  Kali has visited us today as we approach madhyama in our little violin repair course.

It all started out so nicely.  We’ve all learned how to cut beautiful soundposts, so pristine I can stand back and allow illustrious musical guests to peer into the mysterious interior of the violin and marvel at the perfection of the student’s work.  I stand back with pride as the guest inspects the perfection of the newly carved bridge feet, resting on the top of the violin as if one with the instrument itself, cut with only a knife and chisel, the tranquility and focus of the student’s mind on display for all to see who shall ever inspect this bridge.  We have proceeded to the dressing of the fingerboard surface, flawless in its long, concave polished surface, impeccable in the woodworking skills required to allow the player to glide seamlessly along it’s length, gamakam (the “oscillations” in Indian music) rippling forth with the ease of the mother Ganges River as she effortlessly descends from her source at Gangotri in the Himalaya, dancing and cascading through pastoral scenes on the long path to the Bay of Bengal.  The teacher stands back with satisfaction; the smile of the benevolent Lord Buddha graces his face.

Now we shall proceed to the sharpening of the scraper, a simple flat piece of spring steel, .02 mm thick which, when sharpened to a keen razor’s edge, may be flexed into various shapes and will peel shavings from wood surfaces with astonishing rapidity.  The students have already learned how to grind the tools on the bench grinder, attaining the tubular bevel on the edge, reminiscent of the tubular wave on the ocean known as the “banzai pipeline.”
I proceed to the grinder, with mind sharpened for the task, for our grinder is a little wobbly and I must make up for it with strong focus.

At the grinder, I’m greeted by two students, whose enthusiasm for the grinder and sharpening is boundless, and whose identities shall be protected here.  They proudly show me how they have taken the tools without my permission which, at great effort, I’ve had custom made for bow rehairing  and they have now reground into tiny chisels.  My face immediately distorts into the mien of Kali, blood stained teeth gnashing.  “How many times have I told you not to touch the tools or work pieces of others without permission?!?” issues forth from the face of Kali, now terrible to behold.  The chakra weapon which spins on her finger and can behead entire regiments is poised for action.  “Now we haven’t enough of these tools to go around for all the students to learn bow rehairing,” the awesome hook sword in one of her multiple hands raised in readiness…”These are now useless to us–what were you thinking?”  Kali casts the ruined tools aside and they bounce away into the next room, clattering against the wall.  Kali looms, ready to sink her already bloody teeth into the students’ tender necks.  By now, the two culprits are cowering, heads hanging, ready for impending doom, which will certainly be their fate.  I turn and skulk back to my bench.  In my mind the words of the Dalai Lama begin to resonate–“If the problem can’t be fixed, why worry? If the problem can be fixed, why worry?”  By the time I reach my bench, I’m chuckling about the incident, my fine mood restored by the sunlight beaming through the window, illuminating the large portrait of Krishna’s father, Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, who smiles upon us daily.  I remember fondly the words of Mr. V.K.Venkataramanujam during my violin lessons after yelling at me for the crime of playing too many wrong notes–“To be a kind and loving teacher, we must occasionally be a shouting man…”

After the lunch break, the two culprits approach me, beaming smiles all around.  They’ve sacrificed their lunch break and restored the tools to their original condition, with the whole class pulling together to help them.  We are one big happy family here again…  “Why worry….?”