Sunday, November 1, 2015

Paul Spencer, traditional violin maker

Many Salt Lake City residents probably take this for granted, and even more might not even realize it exists, but our downtown is home to a world class violin making school.  As there are only three such schools in the country, this is definitely a big deal.  Established in 1972, the Violin Making School of America attracts students from around the globe.  The program takes 3-5 years to complete, and focuses on traditional techniques with an almost complete emphasis on hand tool use: no sandpaper allowed!  I've been lucky to know a number of students during my dozen years in Salt Lake, and I'd like to introduce Paul Spencer, a recent graduate, who is doing amazing work and has a serious dedication to his craft.

Paul grew up "back East", as the expression goes, and he and I actually attended the same school (Vassar College), albeit at different times.  After graduation, he found himself working in an office in New York City specializing in Italian translation.  He eventually found himself ready for a change, and he thought back to a rather seminal experience he'd had years ago.  A violin player himself, he had visited a shop to pick up a violin, and the visit made a huge impression.  He remembered seeing people doing precise work and a quiet, unhurried pace, and making beautiful things.  Having built a violin from a kit back in high school, he was able to imagine such a future for himself.  The rest, as they say, was history.  He moved to Utah, spent four years at the VMSA, and began his official journey as a luthier.  During this time, he also began working for John Moroz, a violin maker of some renown and himself a former student at the VMSA.  Paul credits John for teaching him everything he knows about the repair and setup of instruments to enable them to perform at their best.

Paul's ultimate goal is to be an independent maker who sells directly to musicians or through shops that specialize in fine instruments.  He humbly notes that it is a lofty goal, because the standards are very high, but he is definitely making great progress: the instrument shown in these photos has recently been on "on trial" with a local violinist, and it appears to be her favorite of a number that she has tried.  My fingers are crossed that she chooses it, because it would be a great milestone for Paul. Speaking for myself, I've played it, and I'm blown away with it.

Paul's next career move may include spending a few years in a large, high end shop, probably in a major city, where he'll gain some experience with extremely rare and valuable instruments and continue to hone his skills.  While I am impressed by how skilled he already is, he is pretty modest and pointed out that it takes a long time to fully develop one's skills.  To make the leap to working on his own and being taken seriously, he figures he'll need one more stage of apprenticeship, so to speak.  He says that it isn't uncommon for people to spend 4-7 years in such a role.  I'll be curious to see what his future holds;  I'm sure he'll ultimately enjoy a great deal of success on account of his dedication to crafting such beautiful instruments.

Here's a small gallery of additional photos: 

Despite its "antiqued" appearance, this is a new instrument.
This type of finish is quite popular among modern makers.

The body of the violin consists of thin wooden strips that 
are built around a "mold" (the perforated piece of wood in
the center).  Once the body (aka "rib structure" is complete, 
the mold is removed.

Reflecting, I would hope, on a job well done.
The tools of the trade...
Traditional makers use pretty much exclusively hand tools. Dang!
Hi Peachy!  Every shop needs a mascot, right?