Making beautiful music possible Instruments: The Chicago School of Violin Making teaches a 500-year-old craft that some may make an art.

Sun Journal

December 21, 1998|By Eileen Finan | Eileen Finan,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SKOKIE, Ill. -- Beneath the warm light of an arm lamp, Ron Mielzynski runs his fingers over an unvarnished violin belly.

"See that?" he says, pointing to something invisible to the untrained eye. "Bumps. It needs to be smoother."

He picks up a hand-held metal scraper and slowly shaves fractions of millimeters from the naked wood until the shape is a smooth arch, a process that will take hours.

Beneath Mielzynski's stool, the ground is covered with curls of spruce and maple. He works steadily in the low light of the large workroom with 31 other students, all quietly learning the 500-year-old craft of violin-making.

"The making of a violin is the most perfect thing in detail-oriented work," says Mielzynski, 30. "It's not really work. It's enjoyable."

For 23 years, the Chicago School of Violin Making, one of only a handful of such schools in the world, has been graduating makers of violins, violas and cellos. Students come from around the globe -- Bulgaria, France, Russia, Japan -- to study under Tschu Ho Lee, director of the school and a master of the craft.

Lee, 66, a native of Korea, opened the school in 1975 with Kenneth Warren of the Kenneth Warren & Son Ltd. violin-making and repair shop. While serving in the South Korean military orchestra during the Korean War, Lee began repairing instruments.

"I would open the instrument and try to figure it out," says Lee, a soft-spoken man wrapped in a long, pin-striped smock. "It's a wooden box, and such a nice beautiful sound you can make. It's fascinating. Why so small a box and so big, so beautiful a sound?"

Over a 3 1/2 -year program, students of the Chicago school learn to make those small boxes that produce such beautiful sounds. They are required to build seven instruments -- six if they undertake the construction of a cello -- before graduation.

Though the school is internationally heralded, few outside the field have heard of it. Even next-door neighbors aren't sure what goes on inside the one-story brick building that sits across from an elevated-train repair yard.

"It's some sort of a shop, isn't it?" one area worker guesses.

Inside, on the walls in a hall are pictures of what amounts to the violin hall of fame: graceful bodies from the hands of 17th- and 18th-century European masters Stradivari, Guarneri, Montagnana.

A small photo of a Guarneri is tacked above the workbench of second-semester student Eric Skinner, 34, a North Carolina native who has completed his first violin body.

"Didn't quite get it," he says. "But it was a wonderful moment to finally have it in my hands."

Experienced violin makers can build a violin in about 120 hours; a cello takes at least 200 hours. Recognized masters such as Lee can command $12,000 to $15,000 for a violin. Factory-made instruments, or those produced in a workshop by more than one maker, are significantly less expensive -- less than $1,000. A serious student or professional nearly always chooses an instrument built by one expert maker.

Not all of these students will become fine enough craftsmen to command such prices, says teacher Rebecca Elliott, 42.

After a tuition investment of $2,620 per semester, most students can look forward to another three to five years of informal apprenticeship in a repair shop, working for perhaps $8 an hour. The school attracts students of all ages, from recent high school graduates through retirees, and classes are full through the year 2000.

Students at the Chicago school learn basic repair techniques as well as building, but "one of the difficulties in this field is that after 3 1/2 years you are still not considered a trained repair person," Elliott says. It may take two decades before a craftsman is qualified to work on the rarest instruments.

That long road doesn't seem to bother third-semester student Luke Degner, 19, of Chicago.

"This is pretty much a dream come true," he says. In the school's varnishing room, more than 30 violins stained in colors from red to butterscotch dangle on hooks. He reaches for one -- his first.

"It's not bad for a first one. It's not perfect," he says, pointing out varnishing flaws.

Students keep their first instrument. The school sells the others for as much as $2,500 to help defray operating costs.

Lee's approach to building instruments is in the manner of the old Italian masters: Students build from the inside out. They whittle down the six interior blocks that support the body and then shape the ribs, the thin strips of wood used as the sides. When the interior form is complete, students begin to carve the front and back plates into arches, using increasingly finer tools until the plates are 3 millimeters thick.

With its dual emphasis on beauty and precision, the profession of violin-making falls somewhere between art and craft.

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