Blindsided

Dear readers, we have been unable to blog for close to 10 days now, and with good reason. It’s a good tale and will probably be slightly long. I hope you don’t mind my prolonged ramblings in the telling of it.

December 2 was the day we presented the certificates of completion to our four course participants, all of whom learned our exacting tasks in the highest professional manner. They worked tirelessly in the morning to finish up their projects in time for lunch, then celebrated their graduation with tea and dividing up the precious tools which had been donated in the USA for the benefit of the Violin Wise program.

Our stay here has been characterized primarily by rainfall, and on this morning the rain was particularly ferocious, due to two cyclones which struck the area in rapid succession. The rainfall in November 2015 has been 10 times the normal monsoon rainfall which we experienced in 2013, and on the day of our closing ceremony the individual raindrops felt like tea cup sized water balloons bombarding our bodies, drenching us in a matter of seconds. The roads were already flooding, with water up to the bottom of the chassis of the car. The students arrived late, drenched to the skin, and we provided them with a couple of dry rock and roll t-shirts left over as gifts from my interview on the Chennai Live radio station. After the ceremony, we all parted ways quickly, as the rain was pouring in earnest.

Alex and I were resting afterward in the hotel, lamenting that the rainfall would probably restrict our freedom of movement during our upcoming travel time. Little did we know…

As I turned away from the window where we had been observing the increasing water levels in the intersection below, I was stricken with a sudden loss of vision in my left eye. Nearly totally blind, the TV looked like a smudge of dim light, no detail to be seen, blocked by murky color and floaters which resembled seaweed surging back and forth in a muddy tidal pool. After waiting several hours to see if this condition would pass, not wanting to cause undue concern to our friends, we decided I should call Krishnan for advice. In the meantime, the unrelenting rain had caused such flooding throughout the city that most ambulance services were not venturing out into the storm and normal auto traffic was unwise at best. He and his wife sprang into immediate action, calling all their connections into play, and after considerable cajoling and begging, managed to arrange for a special government ambulance to pick me up and deliver me to the emergency room at Sankara Netralaya eye clinic, one of the very finest in the country.

After hurriedly packing some belongings, we discovered that the ambulance would not come to the doorway of the hotel, the rising floodwaters being already too deep. Instead, they had parked on an overpass above the intersection and were waiting for us, 60 feet above the torrent. In the trepidation of the moment, Alex and I were prepared to wade through the water, but the hotel staff wouldn’t hear of it and they commandeered a very brave driver to transport us the 300 meters to the overpass. When we entered the floodwaters, I was shocked to see how deep the water had become, often submerging the front of the van and lapping at the base of the windshield. Those were the longest 300 meters of my life, witnessed by an elderly gentleman who laughed insanely from his porch at the sight of us plowing through the storm. I will forever be convinced that cars for the Indian market are mysteriously designed to function underwater.

The interior of the ambulance was sparse; a couple of benches and a litter to carry the injured. The young paramedic was dressed in blue jeans and t-shirt, and regaled us with tales of the emergencies of that day; a heart attack due to flood-related stress; a young man of 20 who was cavorting on his bicycle when hit by a car and pinned under water; a poisoning due to stretching the evening’s alcohol supply with liquid bleach. He also worked part-time as an extra and voice-over artist in the movies. My attention was diverted from my newly blind eye by fighting off motion sickness due to the stifling tropical humid air in the vehicle and the violent jolts from the rain-damaged roads. The young paramedic excitedly proclaimed: “Sir, you are my first American.” I proclaimed, with considerably less enthusiasm, “you are my first ambulance ride, and in a flood in India, no less!”

Nearly midnight, the emergency room was deserted, no one able to make it through the storm, and Alex and I were immediately ushered into an office for the most thorough and grueling examination I’ve ever experienced, by the kindest doctors imaginable. At some point I heard Alex gasp and writhe uncomfortably in her chair. “I do teeth, vomit, diarrhea; gross-no problem OK, but Dude… I don’t do eyes!” I inquired with her if she’d like me to hold her hand to help her make it through the ordeal. Meanwhile, in true Indian fashion, we were offered to take a break for tea at midnight.

It was determined that I had suffered a hemorrhage in the retina and the vitreous was clouded by the blood. Nothing horribly serious, but the source could not be located. Since the storm had so completely flooded the city and no cars were available, it was decided that we be admitted to the hospital and were given a room for the night, and that I would confer with the senior doctor the next day for more tests. After a stop at the dilation station, Dr. Ekta Rishi, a truly saintly and calming doctor, decided that no medicines were indicated and I needed rest more than anything. Would I like to remain admitted to the hospital or return to the hotel? Longing for the familiarity of tropically clammy sheets and non-drying towels in my room, I chose the hotel.

The hospital kindly arranged to have us transported by a sturdy jeep-like vehicle and intrepid driver back to the hotel safely, but the waters had deepened alarmingly in the entire neighborhood. A crowd of concerned hotel guests were mobbing the reception desk, desperately seeking the quickest way out of town. As for Alex and me, we retired to our rooms, exhausted from the adventure and grateful for the fact that the hotel had an emergency generator so we could check the news of the storm and maybe take in a kung fu movie on the violence channel. In the meantime, the authorities had shut off power to 70% of Chennai, India’s fourth largest metropolis, in order to avoid electrocutions among the populace, who were wading through the floodwaters in hopes of connecting with family and flooded businesses. Before retiring to bed, I stared in wonder from my eighth floor window over the city, shrouded in darkness, all traffic vanished, deathly silent.

The next morning we learned that the basement of the hotel had flooded in heavy rains during the night, knocking out the generator, and with it all refrigeration, air conditioning, elevators, and lighting. In order to avoid dam burst, water had been released from several lakes around the town, adding to the severity of our situation. We were effectively marooned in one of the worst areas of Chennai’s most serious flooding in 100 years. The general manager gathered the hotel guests together and informed us that for next 48 to 72 hours, we would need to ration food and water. Please, no showers, no flushing toilets. Cars could not escape our situation and the guests were quiet, amiable, and orderly, but nonetheless anxious to find a way out of the city. We could not brave the floodwaters and wade around town, as the current had concocted a virulent cocktail of sewage, trash, and rainwater. The last time we ventured out during a minor flood, I immediately contracted a fever and suspicious looking itchy spots on my upper body.

Alex and I decided to take the fiddles downstairs and play for everybody–a true captive audience! Our efforts were exceedingly well received, and Venkat, the general manager thanked us profusely for helping keep the crowd happy and diverted from their woes, giving us carte blanche to play anywhere, anytime we wished. Wealthy businessmen proclaimed to us that they needed to stop their incessant chasing of wealth, that the situation had taught them to live life more completely. Smiles all around, many were the compliments we received in the next few days. I can safely say that Alex and I are now world famous in the lobby of our hotel!

As the rains subsided, most of the hotel guests were able to slowly make their way by car to Bangalore and catch flights to their destinations, leaving Alex and me like the last ghosts to inhabit the deserted hotel, along with a skeleton crew of staff. We dined alone in the once bustling dining hall, the once varied menu reduced to basic meals, nonetheless sumptuous, a tribute to the fine chefs in this place. We all became like family, locked away from the world, all efforts at outside communication useless, honing our skills in the inscrutable Tamil language.

At some point the hotel was able to bring in a bus with a mobile generator, and after five days of groping our way up the stairs in darkness and leaving our rooms open for lack of electronic locks, light was restored in the lobby. The meat stocks in the submerged basement began their inexorable process of mortification, the stench intertwining with the diesel fumes from the generator, creating a dance of putrefaction and breathlessness all the way up the staircase and permeating the lobby and halls of the hotel. Some respite could be found in the room, but the air was stifling with no air conditioning, and opening the windows invited swarms of mosquitoes to invade.

In the meantime the waters have receded and we have been able to make some very welcome forays around the devastated city. The death toll is now above 450 and the damage is unbelievable, Chennai’s citizenry now left to face a strong wave of diseases–cholera, typhoid, malaria, dengue fever, and chikungunya. We are fortunate to be able to bathe in deet-based mosquito repellent and the mere name of that last disease compels me to do so frequently.

Tomorrow we will be able to depart, as the airport is no longer under water and is slowly returning to normal, but our hearts go out to all who will remain here, their stories countless and largely untold, their suffering immense. Alex and I will return, for our work here is important and our family here will greet us with open arms. In the meantime, Chennai, we wish you a very speedy recovery!

Oh, and by the way, my eyesight, which was to take up to a month of rest to recover, has now returned to normal.

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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.