Category Archives: The Program-Week 3

Rate-Your-Professor.comedy

IMG_0922We had a very nice visit from Saravanapriyan, who was here from the bay area visiting his parents.  Of course, Saravanapriyan  was instrumental in getting me connected with Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan, but when he was here, like so many in the Indian community, he asked how he could be of help in the workshop itself.  After some consideration, I asked him to please conduct some interviews with the students in Tamil language so that they would feel comfortable away from Alex’ and my prying ears.  The first round of interviews tended to be polite and full of some of the usual praise which one might expect, so I asked the guys to please do a second round of interviews with Saravanapriyan, in which they pointed out things about our teaching method, anecdotes about us personally and anything which they find amusing about being caged up with us.  The second session got lively very quickly, and I enjoyed watching Saravanapriyan laughing along with the gang as they chanted, mimicked Alex and me, and clearly had some enjoyable moments to relate.  Even though it was all in Tamil language, the tone of enjoyment was clear.  I still chuckle to myself when I think back on that afternoon’s interviews.

At first, my intention was to somehow edit this concept into a prose piece, but the snippets and thoughts as translated by Saravanapriyan really do stand alone, so I’ve decided to leave them unedited for your enjoyment.  I’ll add clarification in parentheses for those of you for whom some concepts may be foreign or some arcane violin maker practice.

Tomorrow is their graduation ceremony.  They will receive a certificate of completion of the course along with some tools which will help them continue working in their “new” European repair manner.  We wish them all the best.  Here are their ratings of us, verbatim.

Individual Interview collection from four of the students (transcribed from recording):

Venkopa

  • Eye-opener into the authentic European style violin repair and restoration.
  • Highly beneficial insight into subtleties of violin repair.
  • Amazed at the technique by which sound post is cut and fit to match the surface curvature.
  • Learnt several concepts in customizing violin set-up and improving tonal quality.
  • Our future repair work in India will tremendously improve after this workshop and we will have 100% customer satisfaction.
  • Very thankful to G.J.R. Krishnan and Lalgudi Trust in funding and organizing this workshop and opening the doors to violin restoration craftsmen.
  • Very thankful also to Saravanapriyan in connecting Jim with GJR Krishnan for this violin restoration workshop.
  • Can never escape from Alex’s wrath!  She looks for 100% perfection.
  • Alex is a very good assistant to Jim and highly talented.
  • Jim is highly encouraging, yet strict in imparting the techniques.
  • Dream come true, never imagined we would be working together with a master luthier such as Jim Wimmer.
  • Very interested in learning to make the violin from scratch.

Venkatraman

  • Learnt technical depth for professional violin repair / restoration.
  • Very logical approach to Jim’s instruction method.
  • Very fortunate to be part of this workshop.
  • Very technical and scientific approach to violin restoration.
  • Learnt so much about the right tools to be used in violin restoration. Never seen the sound post tool ever before!
  • Amazed to see the cut business card technique will come in handy in fitting the sound post!  (The cut business card is a simple aid for measuring and making readily visible the position of the sound post.)
  • Willing to learn European violin crafting by hand and establish Jim’s field office in India and manufacture great violins.
  • Memorable experience.
  • Very thankful to G.J.R. Krishnan in organizing this workshop.
  • Very thankful also to Saravanapriyan in connecting Jim with GJR Krishnan and making this workshop possible.
  • Jim is a nice guru, very patient with us and takes time to share and explain several difficult concepts.
  • Alex is very enthusiastic.
  • Amazed to note that both Jim and Alex are like Indians and freely mingle with us. (I like this one!)
  • Jim is open-hearted and very positive.
  • Surprised to know that Jim is vegetarian. Amazed to see two Americans eating with their hands from banana leaf. Their motivation for learning Tamil is heartening.  Both Alex and Jim will start speaking Tamil very fluently by the time they leave for the US!
  • We learnt how to handle and sharpen tools, working with bench grinder and water stones, bridge work, sound post, fingerboard dressing.
  • Took 1.5 days to set the bridge and it was very frustrating but at the end very rewarding!
  • Very delighted to hear Jim and Alex play their folk fiddle tunes. My favourite is the “Old Granny on the Treadmill.”  Jim showed with his playing variations, the energetic granny becoming a tired one after running on the treadmill!  (This appreciation of our fiddle music and other traditions is completely new for me.  When I first came to India, no one was interested in hearing me play anything but Indian scales and sounds on the violin.  The advent of the internet, with youtube, etc. has changed that aesthetic forever.)

Anbarasha

  • Never dreamt of learning European violin restoration.
  • Never been so happy in my life.
  • Seems like I am learning the right method for the first time in my life.
  • Was in a delusion all these years that current repair practices in India are very good but Jim’s method is the best!
  • Can we have Jim and Alex settle down in Chennai, please? We would love to be with them full time and learn more!
  • Willing to learn European violin crafting by hand and look forward to the next workshop.
  • Jim is like a God to me, truly grateful for all his teaching.
  • Learnt so much about the anatomy of the violin.
  • Jim and Alex are very jovial but yet at the same time are serious when it comes to the work.
  • My existence is justified by attending and learning in this workshop.
  • Love the way they speak Tamil.
  • Great cultural exchange.
  • Need a longer time-frame for workshop.
  • We would love to have this educative workshop at least once a year.
  • (Alex and I had the most trouble in pronouncing his name – variations ranged from “Embarass“, “Ambarush”, “Ambress”, “Empress” and so on. Sounded very similar to Steve Martin’s various attempts at saying “Hamburger” in the movie “The Pink Panther”.)

Murali

  • Had to translate from Malayalam with some difficulty.
  • My experience [30 years] is more than Alex’s age, yet she knows more about effective ways of violin repair and restoration than what I know so far. By participating and learning in this workshop, I am confident that I will be able to improve my repair skills very fast.

Group Interview Snippets (transcribed from recording):

  • How Jim asks not to do certain things: “Never…Never…Never…Ever…Never…Ever…” in a rhythmic and marching tone (Everyone chants in unison.)  And also “Don’t…do…like…this…” (emphasizing.)
  • If someone puts tools one over the other, Jim pretends to cry.
  • Enjoyed Jim’s story about his master in Germany about how if someone placed tools on top of each other he would have to buy beer for everyone in the shop.
  • It appeared as if someone tried to tighten a bolt with a vernier calliper when they were trying to measure it, and Jim got flustered.
  • Jim and Alex playing fiddle and dancing and marching along in the room is a favorite. The boys have requested an encore!
  • “Don’t disturb this is my tea time” Jim says and plays on his fiddle.
  • Jim and Alex talk in Italian secretly if they are discussing something about the boys. If they ask Alex what they discussed about, Alex would say “oh.. only about something back in the US” (Actually, Alex is usually just reminding me in Italian that it is time to ring the lunch bell.  But we can let them sweat it.)
  • Jim is a great entertainer. His histrionics are awesome.
  • Jim’s rapid change in facial expression to depict different emotions is similar to that of the legendary Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan! Jim is also a Navarasa Nayagan! He can surely find a place in Kollywood (Tamil Cinema) (The “Navarasa” are the 9 emotions of human experience as expressed in the human face, used to depict these emotions in the Bharatiya Natyam classical dance of S. India, a beautiful and complex art form.)
  • “This is Kung Fu Stance,” says Jim while he sharpens at the grinder when he places his feet wide apart, but technically he would say this is better for the back.
  • After sharpening he would swish the knife around and say “I am the Samurai”and pretend to slice his head off at his neck.
  • Jim is like a child, very playful, funny and greatly entertaining.  If Anbarasu is the class comedian, Jim is the clown!
  • Alex’s face is like a frozen picture, calm and composed when she tries to scold us for doing something wrong, “poker face”.  Jim is the total opposite – his face depicts all the emotions so quickly!
  • Alex will keep saying “Konjam.. Konjam..” (Tamil for “a little bit”) but will keep saying this for several hours until the work is perfect.
  • Alex is the epitome of the bad cop (she is very strict).  We haven’t been able to appease her with little treats to get her to be lenient (such as fetching her tea.)
  • Anbarasu mimics Alex’s “Thank you.. Thank you..” Whenever some help Alex with something she says “Thank you.. Thank you..”  (Anbarasu tried this with his assistant in his shop. He asked for a hammer and after he got it from his assistant, he said “thank you.. thank you..” and his assistant was totally stunned and stupefied.)
  • Jim is a very kind and compassionate person. We love him!
  • We all love Alex’s and Jim’s smiles.  We will all be missing them sorely!

Alex and I can certainly assure these guys that we will soon be sorely missing them as well after tomorrow.  We’ve already resolved to visit each and every one of them in their own shop setting and will certainly be blogging about our experiences with them there.  They have all really risen to the occasion and have somehow managed to assimilate a mind boggling amount of new information in a very short time.  We wish them all the very best with their future endeavours!

When First Upon this Country…

So, dear readers, we have now officially completed our first course in violin repair.  The students have been extremely diligent, often giving up their family life and putting their professional lives on hold to participate for 21 days.  To do so, they had to think outside the box and understand that they had a serious opportunity to grasp a new conceptualization of how to approach their work.  A certain sadness was in the air as they left yesterday, even though we will be meeting again on Thursday for a little graduation ceremony with all the patrons of this fine program.  We’ve worked closely together under tight and hot circumstances for the entire time with no sign of tension, humor prevailing the all the while.  Not unlike the crew of a small submarine, never seeing the light of day, all functioning as one.  Our students are our brothers…

The patrons of the program have been exceedingly kind and supportive, yet wish to remain largely anonymous in their magnanimity.  To them we owe a great debt of gratitude!  Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan has been a most incredibly gracious host, being the one whose vision spearheaded this effort in the first place.  He is a grand violinist and no less a grand thinker about the future of all the violinistic arts in India, and has given selflessly in so many ways to make this program a success.  He and the Lalgudi Trust have put Alex and me up in positively royal accomodations and have seen to it that we lack nothing in comforts.  He has seen to it that I was interviewed and published in every national newspaper in this great huge country, with a live radio interview thrown in for good measure.

It was not always this way with India and me.  There have been times in the past when it was downright difficult and lonely.  As I lay in bed in our fine hotel late one night, enjoying all the comforts afforded me so graciously, I couldn’t help but muse upon my first night ever in India, an unforgettable night:

The year was 1979, I had just finished a month long vacation with Peggy in Sri Lanka.  Her work required her to return to San Francisco, leaving me to embark on the grandest adventure of my life–a year of travel in the Indian Subcontinent before returning to Germany to commence with my apprenticeship in violin making.  Fall season was upon me, and time was pressing to be getting along to the Himalaya of Nepal, because trekking for normal mortals at those high altitudes occurs only in a small window of time between monsoon and the advent of hot season.  I met up with a German fellow and we agreed to take every next available ongoing public transportation directly to Kathmandu–a journey of 8 days by train, ship, bus and taxi.  We obtained our Nepal visas in Colombo (the consulate consisted of a gentleman sitting at a card table in a sporting goods strore!), and boarded a train to Talaimannar, where we had tickets for the ferry to cross over to India.

Upon arrival in Talaimannar, we were dismayed to find that an impossible throng of pilgrims and travelers were blocking our access to even come near the ferry.  The crowd literally covered the hillsides in every direction, like millions of ants covering everything.  We had no idea how to proceed when we came upon a group of budget travelers like ourselves who found themselves in the same dilemma.  While pondering the problem, a gentleman appeared as if by magic who proclaimed it atrocious that we should be treated this way and insisted that we follow him.  A thaumaturge who parted the crowd as Moses parted  the Dead Sea, he led us to a large closed gate, which opened occasionally to let passengers with valid tickets through before closing again.  We waited anxiously while he knocked on the door, and suddenly the door opened and a swarm of a half dozen police officers pounced on the poor fellow, knocking him to the ground and beating him viciously with batons.  Somehow, in an instant, he managed to get to his feet and ran away up the hillside, pursued by his attackers all swinging their clubs ferociously.  We never had a chance to thank him for his kindness.  Then the gate opened and a smiling gentleman ushered us onto the waiting ferry for the journey across the Straits to Rameswaram, South India.  Still shocked by the incident with the police, we set sail.

As the ship pulled up offshore, I had no idea what awaited me in India, but onshore I could see nothing but dense jungle and what appeared to be immense towers looming high into the sky, covered with exotic carvings of fantastic figures.  I had no idea that I was looking at some of the most incredible temple sites of S. Indian Dravidian culture, older than dust, inspired by devotion beyond my ken.  I found it odd that we were not pulling into a port, but rather remaining offshore in deeper water, and soon a flotilla of small dugout canoes came pouring forth from the jungle lined shore to receive us.  Like a Tarzan movie.  A large netlike rope ladder type affair was hung over the side of the ship and we had to climb overboard and into the waiting canoes, precariously balancing baggage and fiddle before dropping them to the waiting hands of the oarsmen, who then paddled us to the customs zone.  There, I fell prey to the oldest scam in the book–the bank wouldn’t cash a travelers check, or cash dollars for that matter.  Seems there was a “problem” with international currency exchanges that day.  Of course the bank was in cahoots with a hotel and taxi driver to extort poor exchange rates and exorbitant fees from the unwary traveler who didn’t have the 10 rupees (25 cents) to pay departure tax from the customs zone.  So I was stuck and couldn’t exit for lack of a quarter.  At some point my German friend had noticed my absence and came back to look for me, paid the quarter and busted me out of my prison, but by then everybody had left the ferry and filled the entire town.  Not a room left in the territory!  We went from hotel to hotel–no luck!  Finally, a hotelier took pity on me and offered to store my back pack for a small fee and allowed me to sleep in the hallway of his hotel.  I spent my first night in India huddled against the wall of the walkway, hugging my violin close like my baby, trying to get some well needed sleep, while shadowy figures stepped over me and around me the entire night.

The song goes: “When first unto this country, a stranger I came…”   Well, I’m no longer a stranger.  India has transformed me with it’s curious process of making us it’s own, pulling us in with an acceptance of our own strangeness that is amazing to experience.  India has shown me her secrets;  in return, I’ve given freely of my own.  My eternal gratitude to all the fine artists and musicians of this great country for a wonderful and rich life!  Namaskaram, Namaskaram!

The Tranquil Mind of the Violin Maker

As the end of our course draws near, I’m really quite proud of our team of students. The level of workmanship has risen considerably in our short 3 weeks together, and when we are overwhelmed with customers and curiosity seekers bringing instruments for repair, they all pull together to see to it that everything gets done. So many of the things that I’ve taught them with difficulty have now become routine for them, freeing me up to tackle some more difficult repairs, such as broken edges on the violin. The students take it upon themselves to come by my bench, which is a swirling whirlwind of activity, and look to see what is undone and whether they can take it to their work station to help finish it.

We are visited daily by swarms of musicians and well wishers, especially since the program has begun getting very visible coverage in national newspapers. Despite our resolve to take on no more repairs at this point, the requests to do so keep pouring in, so the place at times resembles more of a TV show hospital emergency room triage center than the tranquil confines of a violin shop, usually so cozily tucked away from the prying eyes of the curious. Nonetheless, the work must go on, as the clock is relentlessly ticking–I focus on the planing of a fingerboard, the setting of a new nut as the crowd hums around me, chatting, asking questions, playing instruments. I live with a microphone on my workbench and a video camera focused on me at all times, forgetful that our videographer, Kannan, keeps a sharp eye on me at all times. At lunchtime Alex, looking slightly unnerved by it all, asks me how I do it. “It’s easy,’ I reply. “All you have to do is get them started playing an instrument or chatting with each other, then quickly get back to your work before they notice you’re not quite there…They’ll carry on with the party by their own momentum and you can work with a quiet mind in the middle of the din.” She simply stares at me in amazement. “It’s easy,” I repeat, trying to convince myself.

Later on, I share a quiet moment with Venkat and we have a chuckle about the Kali moment and the bow tools. He feels that I demonstrated a very important aspect of the teacher and shares a parable with me:

Long ago in a village in the distant countryside, there dwelled a dangerously vicious cobra snake in the corner of the village that was wreaking a terrible demise upon all who dared go near the area. One day a saint came wandering through the village and the villagers immediately fell upon him with their pleas to subdue this horrible serpent. The saint of course agreed to do so and immediately sought out the cobra, admonishing it to please understand that all life is precious including it’s own and that it was causing much sadness and fear, and to please reconsider it’s ways. The snake agreed to do it’s best and the saint went on his way, begging alms through the countryside. Sometime later, his path took him through the same village, and near the first huts he heard a pitiful moaning coming from the bushes. Being a man of compassion, he sought out the source of the pitiful sounds, only to locate the same cobra, horribly suffering from multiple injuries. “What has happened to you?” The snake replied, “I’ve been as good as my word to you and have done no harm and only tried to go about my business as innocently as possible. Now look at my condition…the tiniest children strike me with sticks, beat me with stones and allow the village dogs to drag me by the tail, all because of you and your fine advice!” “You’re a fool,’ replied the saint. ‘I didn’t advise you not to hiss and make yourself look dangerous…”

Fortunately, I didn’t have to do much didactic hissing during our course, but there were times when I did seem to coil, ready for the strike!

The Mysterious Scraper

IMG_0911I can remember my excitement well, when 33 years ago my own mentor in Germany took the time to carefully show me how to sharpen the cabinet scraper in the violin maker manner.  I had already heard about this tool previous to commencing on my apprenticeship journey–I had heard woodworkers wondering how the violin makers approached this tool, so useful for so many applications.  Learning to sharpen the scraper and use it properly seemed like the ultimate initiation into the arcane and mysterious world of the violin maker.  Nowadays, when woodworkers visit my shop in Santa Barbara, the scraper and it’s sharpening are one of the first things they enquire about.  Ahhh, but we generally don’t have the time to go into long-winded explanations of the how to, so it usually remains a secret.  Except, of course, for a little razzamatazz demonstration of what it can do.  Just to rub it in, you understand…

The tool itself is simple–a flat piece of spring steel, 0.25 mm thick, sometimes thicker, depending on the intended work.  We grind and sharpen it much like any chisel or knife, yet due to the specific angle required, success does not always come easy to the student.

Venkoba, in particular, noticed early on that I had a little stack of scrapers under my bench and began peppering me with questions about it.  However, we didn’t yet have a bench grinder set up, so I kept putting him off, telling him to take things one step at a time.  The day the grinder arrived, he was over the top happy, but alas, we were still busy with bridges and soundpost work.  Still sharpening knives and chisels before spending so much time to re-adjust the grinder for scrapers.  He patiently waited for everyone to sharpen all their tools.  Then the incidence of poor quality ebony in the fingerboards we were working just became overwhelming, so it was time to roll out the secret weapon, the one that can cut it without tearing out wood chunks.

In all the time of this class, I don’t believe that I ever had the undivided attention of the students like on this day.  They fired questions in rapid succession, mostly along the lines of “can we use it already?”   I drew the steel across the blade to bend it to a right angle and dark shadows of confusion formed on their faces, for after all, I had taught them that we don’t touch metal to the keen edge of our tools.  But when they saw the large shaving come from a particularly difficult fingerboard, jubilation broke out, like viewing a miracle!

IMG_0905

Later, Venkoba offered to let me try his scraper, which he had just finished sharpening.  It worked just fine, and a few minutes later, I caught him sitting in his chair alone, staring down at his scraper which he was holding in both hands like a cherished family heirloom, grinning from ear to ear like a kid who just got his first shiny red bicycle for Christmas.  These are the moments that make teaching here so wonderful.  What a great little way to change someone’s life forever…  I’ll always remember his face in that precious moment.

Turns out, he had spent over 5 years trying to solve this one, plumbing the depths  of Youtube and pestering violin shops in Singapore for the answers.  So satisfying to give it to him in his own neighborhood.  It makes me feel at home here…

Spit and Animal Glue

We’ve had quite the extensive conversations about the use of hide glue in violin repair.  To the Western trained maker, it is the only glue to be used on violins because it allows us to dismantle the instrument completely with minimal damage and is the only time tested glue for the instrument, known to solidly hold the joinery for hundreds of years.  It is the safety valve of the violin, releasing a joint instead of being glued so solidly that the instrument cracks when subjected to changes in humidity.  Truly a multiple use wonder substance.  Alas, the traditional Indian repairman does not appreciate these fine attributes and has a tendency to use a white Elmer’s type glue called Fevicol, a substance that should not be found on any part of the violin whatsoever.  A good deal of our work has had to do with undoing this gummy substance and clean up the mess before proceeding with our work.  “But sir, animal glue will fall apart the second the customer walks out the front door”  is the usual refrain.  We go round and round about this.  Finally, I ask Krishna to bring his violin which I made for him 10 years back.  “All animal glue” I say, now nervous about how this violin has fared in this climate.  When we take it for inspection, (drum roll) Lo and Behold, not a single problem has it ever seen, not the tiniest joint has come open.  Sigh of relief, point made… The students now enjoy cooking up a little pot of this wonder substance and are greatly enjoying seeing how it can benefit their work.

Now, spit is another matter.  While demonstrating the cutting of a sound post, I point out that wetting the end grain makes it easier to cut.  So, for the sake of expediency, I touch it to my tongue.  A shudder ripples through the crowd and looks of horror abound.  Oops, I forgot–the breath and contact with the mouth are considered impure and to be avoided at all costs.  Probably why there’s no kissing in Bollywood films.  The entire class can share two water glasses, because nobody touches it with the lips; we pour it into the mouth with no contact with the glass.  But I shouldn’t touch my tongue to a sound post?  I remind them that I am but an impure foreigner with nasty habits and that this is the way I get the job done most efficiently.  Why, everybody in the West does it this way, I assure them.  In particular, cutting bridge feet, especially ‘cello bridges, this is most helpful.  They seem OK with my filthy ways, indeed it seems to be entertaining for them to observe my taboo practices.  “Our customers will run away if they know we were spitting on their violin while working on it,” they moan.  They’re not getting over this one so quickly as the hide glue issue, so I assure them that they can use water and a brush, but it will take much longer.  The relief is tangible throughout the entire classroom.  But old work habits die hard–I walk by Anabarush’s work station and see that he has nicked the violin with sandpaper while dressing the fingerboard, so without thinking I wet my finger with good ol’ slobber and rub it on the area to see if a coat of varnish will easily hide the scuff mark.  “Please, sir, not spit…” he moans.

Good thing I knew this at my surprise birthday party and fanned out the candles with my hand.  Otherwise, I certainly would have had a lot more cake to eat…