Sound Fundamentals

At the Stradivarius of violin-making schools, craft is art.

April 16, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SALT LAKE CITY - Using the bold strokes of a plane and the surgical precision of a finger file, Ryosuke Kanazawa is making beautiful music.

Just two weeks ago, the thin sheet of wood before him was a solid slab of maple. By late spring it will be part of a violin, his fourth in two years.

At workbenches around him, other apprentices struggle to make chunks of wood resemble the posters on the walls.

Stradivari. Guarneri. Amati. Their works are masterpieces.

Kanazawa. Hardaker. Larson. They are works in progress.

It will take each of the students four years to complete their training and graduate from the Violin Making School of America, the oldest of three such academies in the country.

Tacked to a board near their workbenches is a timetable and the tedious steps to building a violin, from outlining the front and back to carving the scrolls to attaching the neck to the body. From upstairs drifts the sweet smell of success: varnish, the final step.

Kanazawa, a 29-year-old from Japan, could have attended a violin school in his native country but chose instead this downtown storefront based on its reputation and that of the founder, Peter Prier.

A graduate of a guitar-making school in Phoenix, Kanazawa was not prepared for the challenges of building a smaller instrument.

"My first year, yeah, I really did want to quit because nothing goes right," says Kanazawa. "But this is the best place in the world and I know where I'm going. I started this and I'm going to finish. Another year-and-a-half and I'm home."

Prier's students come from all over the world to the United States, just as he did more than four decades ago. Nearly 200 of them have been awarded certificates in their craft; many are now teaching others.

"There was a day in this country when you had to wait and be trained in the tradition in Europe. That was where you got the good violins or got them repaired," says Amos Hargrave, an award-winning violin-maker taught by Prier in the mid-1970s.

"Now someone from Gainesville, Fla., or Birmingham, Ala., can attend a school that's only a car drive away. In places like Charlotte, N.C., you'll find three, four, five well-trained luthiers. It would be hard to find anyone in the United States more responsible for that than Peter Prier."

Prier, a native of Germany and graduate of the Violin Making School of Bavaria, came to the United States in 1960 to be a violin repairman and restorer at the Pearce Music Co. Flying into Salt Lake, he was taken by the towering Wasatch Mountains to the east of town, which reminded him of home.

"I figured five years, but it's been 42 now," says Prier, 60, who in his apron and fringe of silver hair bears a striking resemblance to another famous woodworker, Gepetto.

In 1968, four musicians urged him to expand his shop into a violin-making school, but Prier didn't have the tools or a supply of seasoned spruce and maple.

For three years he collected both. Then an impulse real estate transaction born of desperation pushed him into his teaching career.

"The bank bought the building I was in, so there was nothing for me to do but get in the car and go," Prier says. "I saw a man pasting a `For Sale' sign on the window right here and I jumped out of the car and said `I'll buy it.' "

He reopened his shop in the former deli in late 1971 and took on his first students in September 1972.

"Within a year, we had 60 applications, but we took only 12. Even now, after 30 years, we still take only 19 students," he says.

When the bar next door closed in 1978, Prier bought it and punched through the wall to create more workshop space. Then he bought the adjacent apartment building so his students would have a place to live.

Of the 340 freshmen who have entered the program, 198 finished. Graduates have won more than a dozen gold medals in international competition for their mastering of workmanship and tone.

"I should be humble, but this is the best school in the whole world," says Prier.

The school has turned out 1,382 instruments, the majority of them violins but also some violas, cellos and basses. The students get to keep two and Prier sells the rest to help cover the school's expenses.

"They sell like hotcakes," says Prier of the instruments, which go for $850 to $3,500. "There are people standing in line for them."

That said, Prier will not pressure his students into cranking out violins like an assembly line.

"It takes at least 210 hours. You can make one in 30 hours but then you should step on it and throw it into the garbage can," he says, waving his hand.

His students study acoustical physics, sculpture and the history of Western music, as well as the history of violin-making. They must each take a music lesson each week and perform in an orchestra or quartet.

"Although it's a tough curriculum, he's always saying, `Yes, you can' and `Yes, it's possible,'" says Hargrave. "He is a man of tremendous energy and will."

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