Violin Making Schools in Britain

Britain has an incredibly vibrant culture for violin making, and its schools enjoy an enviable reputation attracting students from all over the world. Over the years different institutions have come and gone, but Newark College of Violin Making in Nottinghamshire, South Thames College in London, Glasgow Clyde College and West Dean College in West Sussex provide contrasting opportunities for anyone interested in pursuing the craft to professional level.

Numerous courses in instrument making and repair have existed over the last century or so starting with the National School for Musical Trades that began violin making classes more than a century ago in 1916, enjoying it’s heyday under William Luff as part of the London College of Furniture (you can watch it in action in 1935 right here). Today, Newark’s School of Musical Crafts is one of the largest centres for training musical instrument makers anywhere in Europe with around 120 violin makers enrolled in the course from all around the world. South Thames CollegeGlasgow Clyde and West Dean College are much smaller but no less important organisations. South Thames focusses on repair of instruments with a specialist violin department and is a good choice for part-time students, or those who want to be around London. West Dean’s small full-time courses in instrument making have a focus on early instruments – the viola da gamba in particular, which leads to different perspectives on how to approach stringed instrument making in general. Graduates from all courses find their way into the trade, or make successful careers of their own as musical instrument makers.

Can I become a violin maker? All instrument making schools welcome a diverse array of students, from school-leavers right the way through to retirement age, and comprising students from all over the world. If you are planning to study in the UK from overseas, it is best to check directly with each college about it’s ability to take international students, but all have a strong history of welcoming people from around the world and you should have no problem getting onto the course of your choice. The mixture of age and experience provides a very special learning environment. Although playing a musical instrument is desirable, surprising numbers of students and professional instrument makers don’t play the instrument that they make, and some don’t play an instrument at all, as the craft of instrument making has it’s own fascination and challenges separate to the skills of music making. In times past, a high level of woodworking skills was necessary to get onto any of the courses, but in recent years woodwork and other practical craft-skills have disappeared from secondary-school curriculums. If you are interested in applying for a course in violin making it is essential to ensure that you have the manual dexterity to use tools properly (many people don’t), so take a short course for a week or so as part of your journey towards applying. West Dean (see the short courses here), and the Violin Workshop in Cambridge offer a host of week and weekend courses, or speaking to a local violin shop and asking for advice and a little bit of work experience can be invaluable. The basic rule – don’t be put off if you don’t have tool experience, but be realistic about your prospects if working with tools doesn’t come naturally to you when you try. Lastly the British Violin Making Association holds a maker’s day every spring. Come along to meet other professional makers and see if you fit in.

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Newark School of Violin Making – a view of the bell tower that echoes the rooftops of Cremona.

Newark School of Violin Making sits amongst various schools of guitar making, piano tuning and restoration and woodwind making and repair. The prospectus can be found here. It is by far the largest school in Britain, with more than 100 students studying violin making at any time. Newark is a small market town right in the centre of England, so the vast number of student and professional makers in a small area allows for an incredibly focussed three years of study.

In 2015 to celebrate Yehudi Menuhin’s centenary year, given that he helped to found Newark (and West Dean) I asked a team of students at Newark to make a copy of Menuhin’s celebrated “Lord Wilton” Guarneri, and challenged them to make a video of the process. If you want a sense of what violin making involves, and whether you could do it, the next ten minutes spent on YouTube could change your life completely.

 

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Sadiq Khan (Mayor of London) looks tempted to join the course at South Thames College.

South Thames College in London, (formerly known as Merton College) has run violin making and repair courses for years within a broader Musical Instrument Technology department that encompasses guitar and woodwind making and repair. The mix of full-time and part-time places gives the course a disproportionate intake of mature students, and it’s geographical location in South London means that people who want, or need, to be study in easy reach of central London find it a particularly good place to study. The focus tends towards repair rather than making instruments, and it has a significant reputation amongst the London repair and restoration workshops, with several alumni who have gained experience in the trade starting their own businesses. Find the website here.

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West Dean College, set in glorious grounds in West Sussex provides a host of specialist full-time courses including instrument making.

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A pochette loosely based on Stradivari’s own drawings – a collaborative project by West Dean Students for their annual charity raffle.

West Dean College in West Sussex is run by the private Edward James Foundation, and the college is a stately home in the middle of some of Britain’s most spectacular scenery. The workshop for it’s full time course only has room for nine students. When it started in the early 1980s it focussed on early instrument making because of the heavy demand from the emerging early music scene. Now it uses viol making as a way of training students with tool skills, and enabling them a versatility and range of skills that they can bring into their chosen direction, whether it is to remain in early strings, or to develop violin or guitar making skills. The mix of students within the college can provide a different kind of stimulation from being shackled with 120 prospective violin makers. The college includes departments that make, restore and conserve clocks, furniture and books, providing training for conservators in museums and libraries all over the world, as well as fine art department and countless short courses. Fees are the highest at West Dean, but you get a lot for your money, and the Foundation employs its own fundraisers to help to find bursaries and scholarships to make things a little cheaper. Top tip: worry about the fees after you’ve passed the interview! Find the prospectus here.

 

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Glasgow Clyde College (familiar to many in the trade as Anniesland) was established in 1989 and is now Scotland’s established institution of musical instrument making and repair. The course that has a capacity of about 30 students lasts for two years up to NQ level, and has produced an enviable number of Scotland’s violin and guitar makers and repairers. Given the length of the course, many students will find they need more learning time, and use it as a stepping stone towards Newark or other schools, and it provides a particularly useful foundation course for anyone who wants to explore violin and guitar making before becoming deeply committed. At the same time, the quality of work and a strict ethos for tools skills and high standards of output means that various aspiring makers who have trained elsewhere make their way to Glasgow to refine their work, especially in guitar making. Violin making runs side-by-side with guitar making and there are fewer students who follow that path, but it is nevertheless a hugely important contributor to violin making in Scotland and beyond. Further information is on their website here. You can watch a time-lapse video of guitar making in the college below.

 

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If you think instrument making might be a good idea the starting point is to sound out a local instrument maker first. For some people the process of learning to make instruments is reward enough, giving them the confidence to spread their wings in the wider world afterwards and a hobby for years to come. Others embark on a life-long obsession and a successful career. Tool skills are critical, and it is good to know that you have the ability to handle a plane or a chisel properly before you get too committed. There are fabulous residential courses at the Cambridge Violin Making Workshop for amateur makers, and West Dean also offers a huge array of craft courses that will be useful to develop a bit of experience before you make a big commitment – see their website here. A friendly violin maker can probably guide you (and they do tend to be friendly). Students range enormously from school leavers to people looking for a career change all the way through to retirement projects. Musical ability is not a prerequisite for being a musical instrument maker. If for whatever inexplicable reason, you are drawn to the romance of being a violin maker … the opportunities are waiting for you.

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The behemoth that was 41 Commercial Road, purpose-built for the London College of Furniture which produced outstanding craftsmen and women until it was sold in 2015. Probably the ugliest building and the most polluted road in London: My life for three wonderful years…

IN MEMORIAM

London College of Furniture ran a fabulous course in instrument making that had it’s origins in the Northern Polytechnic Institute that developed around the time of the First World War. In its heyday it produced an incredibly vibrant variety of makers and restorers, but as it merged into City Polytechnic, then London Guildhall University and finally London Metropolitan University the lack of any mandate to secure the future of a specialist institution led to it’s demise. In 2015 it took its last students. Leeds College of Music also ran a good course which ended in around 2000. The Welsh School of Violin Making was founded shortly after Newark and was killed off in the mid-1990s. Over the years I have met and worked with phenomenal makers and restorers who were trained at either of these. They all made a huge contribution to our rich cultural tapestry, drawing students to study in the UK from all over the world and their graduates have made an enormous impact on musical life everywhere.

Benjamin Hebbert’s training as an instrument maker was at the former London College of Furniture in it’s brief existence as London Guildhall University and he taught as a visiting lecturer when it was London Metropolitan University. He was on the full time staff at West Dean College sometime around 2010 and has been a regular visiting lecturer since then. Somehow he became trade examiner at South Thames College. In his spare time he likes to cause trouble with the students at Newark when the opportunity arises.

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1998: A Tribute to Neil Ertz

neil_ertzNeil Értz (1966-2016) was one of Britain’s best loved violin makers. I had the pleasure of selling a few of his instruments and chatting to him frequently about the new instruments that he was making, and the greater pleasure of counting him amongst my friends. A 1998 copy of Guarneri’s 1742 ‘Lord Wilton’ allows a moment of reflection about the tremendous contribution he made to violin making across the world. 

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1744 ‘Ole Bull’ once considered by many to be too outlandish to be part of the Cremonese tradition

Looking back with what I know now, 1998 was one of the great turning points in modern violin making. I was a student learning instrument making at the time, so even if I had made it to New York for the Guarneri Exhibition, I don’t think I knew enough for it to make any profound impact on me. In the workshop we talked about Guarneri being a rougher kind of Strad, laughed at his anomalies and there the conversation stopped. If we were a little more informed we would have commented upon the elements that contrasted against our expected idea of Stradivari and the other Cremonese makers, but the very limited conversation that we enjoyed was one that echoed across the world of violin making. From Vuillaume up to the modern time, people tried to tidy up del Gesu’s work, applying his design forms within a framework that spoke as much for 20th century ideals of ‘honest craftsmanship’ as it did for an awareness of the more refined masterpieces of the past. Understanding of Guarneri’s masterpieces was so much in it’s infancy 30 years ago that at the time, the 1744 Ole Bull violin by del Gesu was still regarded by many as a fake, being too provocatively preposterous to conceivably exist within the spectrum of Classical Cremonese work. It is now one of the most celebrated examples in the world. Clean copies by makers such as William Luff or David Rubio that were once much respected in the top rank of English making now feel lacklustre and stilted by comparison to a better understanding of what del Gesu’s work really looks like, and the liberties which that gives to looking back on Stradivari and understanding the imperfections that give his violins their character.

Aside from the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the catalogue that followed can be counted as the most important book ever written on violin making. For the first time it included precise technical drawings of all of the instruments in the exhibition along with full-sized and painstakingly accurate colour photographs by Stewart Pollens. Whilst many more recent books have photographs of rival quality to these, they broke new ground, and later books lack the technical detail of technical drawings and measurements vital for violin making. Meanwhile, the collection of essays that filled the catalogue were the fruits of years of experimenting, analysis and research that finally gave us a profound insight into the Cremonese system of making. Roger Hargrave’s analysis was unrivalled in detail and insight. It allowed us to rethink the observations made in Simone Sacconi’s Secrets of Stradivari, going wider and further in its compelling arguments for how the great makers of the past made their instruments. It didn’t answer every question, but where it didn’t, it can be clearly seen as the springboard to further research and one of the most significant waypoints in the process of reclaiming the Cremonese tradition after many centuries of loss. Roger is quite adamant about one thing though. He couldn’t have achieved all that without the help of an unsung hero of the del Gesu story. The endless enthusiasm of the cheeky young Scot who came to work with him, Neil Értz.

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Neil’s 1998 copy of Yehudi Menuhin’s 1742 ‘Lord Wilton’ epitomises the renaissance in violin making that was taking place. Two years before he had been on a secret mission with a couple of colleagues (he told me it was secret, so it must have been) [Editor’s note: He told everyone it was secret, so it really was] to take plaster casts off this iconic instrument. At the time he didn’t care so much for the varnish, resulting in a good antiqued finish rather than a full-blown bench copy, but the woodwork beneath is startling: In the light of the research that he was working on with Roger for the 1998 exhibition, his violin is one of the most compelling and absorbing Guarneri copies I have seen.

I rarely get to see Guarneri copies that are as good. It takes a lot of experience of looking at del Gesu’s work, and reaching out further to his predecessors in the Guarneri family to understand how a consistent approach to making evolved in the workshop of Andrea Guarneri by the 1660s that developed a distinctive look separate from the Amatis and other dynasties of making. Yet beyond the varnish, it has it’s own irreverence. If Guarneri made a second instrument on the same form as the Lord Wilton at the same time, this is perhaps what Neil’s would be, with enough independence to let it stand out on it’s own without falling outside of the standards of the 1742 original. This was entirely Neil’s intention as with all his instruments: He was much more interested in calling it a violin ‘in the manner of Guarneri del Gesu, c.1742’, than acknowledging the a single prototype from which it was created.

It’s worth contrasting Neil’s violin with another from the same year by  Andreas Hellinge, which passed through our hands recently was a full bench copy, made when the original del Gesu was for sale in Zurich, with the intention of providing Menuhin with a memento of his last great violin. The philosophy of the precise copy is fundamentally different from Neil’s confidence in understanding del Gesu’s intentions to the point of producing a free interpretation. It is difficult to judge between the two, but the comparative outcomes prove to be totally fascinating in terms of beginning to understand and interpret masterpieces of the past.

Many times, I see violins by makers who are impressed by the aesthetic dynamism of a real del Gesu (or a photograph of one) and impose it on their Stradivarian ideals, producing a kind of hybrid instrument that is particular to violin making in our present generation, but even if they see a difference, they are seldom brave enough to go the full mile. When (you think) you know del Gesu’s works superficially, it’s all too easy to dismiss deep channelling in the corners as an exception amongst an inconsistent body of work. The hybrids that seem to be the majority of contemporary del Gesu copies that I see are sweet instruments, sometimes very beautiful indeed, but they have nothing of the sound qualities that differentiate a great del Gesu from a great Strad. It makes it all the more exciting when I see something so close to what the original should be.

ertz1998-detailNeil was always generous with his time and his knowledge. His constant posts on Maestronet were just one of the ways that he communicated far and wide about his continual developments about the violin, and after he passed away few of us could understand how he had made over 200 violins when he seemed to be always on the phone laughing and sharing with so many of his colleagues. He was always proud of this particular instrument and called this one a ‘really cool fiddle’ when I spoke to him about it on the Sunday before he died, and even though he also thought that he had come a long way over twenty years it was still one of the violins he was proud to have photographed on his website. It is just one example of very compelling contemporary making, and there is a good community of makers, many of whom have been inspired by Neil’s work, who have been making to this level over the last twenty years. Yet, because of the circumstances of it’s date, it epitomises this crucial moment in the modern history of violin making. I hope that Neil continues to inspire new generations of makers to look closer and revisit the old masters as he did in 1998.

In memoriam.

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My Fiddle: British Pathé 1935

Instrument making in London celebrates a centenary since the National School for the Music Trades was first established. A film by British Pathé sheds light on what the extraordinary institution once was.  

The National School for the Music Trades was established in 1916 at the Polytechnic Institute of North London, and survives today after a succession of institutional changes existing at one time or another as it moved to the East End to become part of the London College of Furniture, City Polytechnic, London Guildhall University, and most recently as part of the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design of London Metropolitan University. It’s fortunes have been mixed over the years, but an astonishing number of violin makers and restorers from around the world trained there at one time or another, and as a centre for learning to make instruments, it has been an extraordinary jewel in our cultural landscape.

British Pathé’s visit to the school in 1935 provides a charmingly nostalgic vignette of the violin workshop that would have been played in cinemas across the country. A beautiful moment worth sharing. The photograph (above) is of the violin workshop in the 1950s with William Luff as the teacher. The place has a special place in my heart – I spent three happy years training there and another three teaching part time.

Andrew Brown, a violinist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra could have probably done with a few lessons from there. It’s a wonder to think that a generation before the Voller brothers were living in Streatham producing extraordinarily sought-after violins: