When Wood Sings

Juan Mijares is not in it for the money. Granted, most people looking to make money don’t go into the violin-making business in the first place. But even within the profession, there are those who maximize their profit by churning out instruments as often as possible, and then there are violin-makers like Juan—those who earn the noble title of “luthier.” Juan makes his instruments almost entirely by hand, from timber to varnish. He makes violins, violas and cellos the same way craftsmen have been making them for four centuries.

In an alley just off Tejon St., Juan’s short but stately shop is tucked snugly between two monolithic cement buildings. The shop is held together by old stucco walls and a decaying wood-shingled roof. Curvy wrought iron bars cover the windows and two overgrown bushes flank the door. A wooden sign hangs off the front of the roof by a rusty chain. It reads, “J. Mijares: Luthier.” The building fits the craft. It’s as if a little slice of 17th century Italy has been lifted from its home and plopped down in 21st century Colorado Springs.

This story begins where Juan’s shop invites us to begin: in 1644, in an Italian town called Cremona, where a soon-to-be-artisan named Antonio Stradivari was born. Stradivari went on to build hundreds of violins that, to this day, are considered the finest violins around. It’s hard to convey the significance of Stradivari to the history of violin-making, but here are a few attempts: 1. The violin-making industry magazine is called The Strad, and every self-respecting luthier—Juan included—has a stack of the magazines in a drawer. 2. A Stradivarius rumored to have belonged to Napoleon was recently sold for $3,600,000. 3. Many scientists have spent countless hours and dollars trying to figure out precisely what secret ingredient Stradivari used for his varnish. Their best guesses include volcanic ash, fungi and eggs. 4. Talking about violin-making without talking about Stradivari would be like talking about Christianity without talking about Christ. 5. As violin-historian David Schoenbaum has written, “All roads lead to Antonio.”

I’m beginning with the primacy of Stradivari (or Stradivarius, his Latinized name) because luthiers love to trace their lineages back as far as possible to as prestigious a name as they can find. I’ve read many luthiers’ online profiles claiming that their teachers’ teachers’ teachers were directly related to Stradivari—the most prestigious name of them all. Juan seems more interested in making good violins than in luthier-fame, so he doesn’t flaunt his teachers’ history. But I was curious, so I’ve done him the favor and traced his lineage, if a bit circuitously, back to Stradivari himself. 

* * *

Juan got his start because he wanted to play guitar in high school. When he realized that he wouldn’t be able to buy one any time soon, he told me he then thought, “Alright, I’ll make my own.” And so at a moment when most high-schoolers would have whined and moved on, Juan instead unknowingly set off on the long, difficult path of becoming a luthier. But unlike the masters of yore, Juan couldn’t turn to some wizened old luthier for instruction. So instead he went to the hardware store, got some cheap wood and learned how to make a guitar from a few books that “were actually pretty good.” Juan still has that guitar, and he plays it from time to time.

While in high school, Juan wanted to move on to making a violin, but violin-making is much harder than guitar-making, and there were very few books on violin-making because the trade is, according to Juan, “very much a secrecy type of thing.” “No one,” he said, “wants to teach anybody. They want to keep their secrets and they don’t want competition.” Luckily, Juan heard about a program in Utah so small that it was “more like an apprenticeship than a school.”

Peter Paul Prier, born in 1942 in what was then Germany (and is now Poland), ran that little program out of a shop in Salt Lake City. He called it “The Violin Making School of America.” Prier was one of the few people who was willing to teach the craft to outsiders, but even he was strict: He received a hundred applicants per year and took about five. (Technically, it’s easier to get into Harvard.) Even once applicants were accepted to Prier’s program, most didn’t last. Prier said in a 1985 interview with The Strad that for a long time his school had a drop-out rate of “about eighty percent.” Juan was one of the few who got in and one of even fewer who got out.

Juan said that Prier opened the program because “he thought that the more people who would be sharing knowledge, the better the violin-making would get.” By that metric, Prier seems to have succeeded: Among the contemporary American luthiers to have been taught by Prier are David Gusset, Guy Rabut, Jim McKean and Sam Zygmuntowicz. Those names almost certainly mean nothing to you, but trust me—they’re at the top of the game. Dozens of Prier’s students came from abroad to study with him and, Juan said, “have taken this back to their countries and adapted it, which no one else wanted to happen. Everyone else was too secretive.”

While Prier broke the mold by opening a relatively accessible school in the United States, he himself was trained at the prestigious Mittenwald School of Violin Making in a small German town of the same name. The school traces its roots back through 36 wizened teachers all the way to someone named Mathias Klotz. Klotz founded the school in 1697 after having trained in Padua, Italy under one of the first Italian masters, Nicolò Amati. He brought Amati’s lessons back to Germany and began to develop what would become a well-regarded German tradition of violin-making. I’m telling you all this in part because it’s cool, but also because the inside label on at least one of Antonio Stradivari’s violin reads, “Alumnus Nicolais Amati”—student of Nicolò Amati. See? All roads lead to Antonio. All of them.

The thread connecting Juan to that venerable tradition is not just nominal—he preserves old methods at almost every step of the process. Juan told me about a test that teachers used to administer at Mittenwald, wherein students have to make a violin using “just a pile of wood and a knife.” Peter Prier likely did it himself while at Mittenwald. Juan described it as being “like a torture test.” To my layman’s eyes, though, Juan’s own techniques don’t seem too far from such torture. Sure, Juan has a few different knives and gouges—but that’s the biggest difference. He has only one machine to aid him: a band saw, which is only used for cutting a rough outline of the initial shape of an instrument. Juan also showed me what is arguably a second machine: a small aluminum cylinder that gets so hot it can bend strips of wood to create the curves of a violin’s ribs. Juan only showed me that machine after I asked, and even then he seemed guilty about having it. “Way back when,” he said wistfully, “people used to just heat up coals and put them in a metal tube. Worked just as well, I’m sure.”

Juan has occasionally driven into the woods and cut down the wood for his violins himself. Usually, though, he has “a guy”—someone in the Pikes Peak region who specializes in finding the highest quality spruce and maple trees around. This guy’s business card is a little violin-shaped piece of spruce. I don’t mean to belittle the wood guy, though. The wood has always been an integral part of great violins. In fact, some luthiers suspect Stradivari’s violins are near-perfect because the trees he used were growing in unusual conditions, resulting in tree-rings ten times tighter than those of average trees. Legend has it that Nicolò Amati (Klotz’s teacher) would walk through the woods during thunderstorms, on the lookout for trees getting hit by lightning. He could allegedly tell how good the wood would be by the sound the tree made as it hit the ground. Allegedly.

All this talk of wood is not to say that the wood-specialist brings Juan anything close to a violin. Juan begins with just a few oblong slabs of wood and whittles away from there. He was glad to walk me through the process: Two slabs of spruce must be precisely aligned, smoothed and glued to become the belly of the violin—which alone takes weeks of work. Two slabs of maple undergo a similarly laborious process to create the back. Then there’s the carving and slow, slow chiseling of the belly and back to get them to just the right contour and thickness. The belly and back are conjoined with ribs that are bent using a mold and the aforementioned aluminum cylinder. At this point in the process, Juan has been working for months.

Juan actually tries to align these steps to specific times of the year. He begins in the fall and builds through the winter so that, come summer, he can do the varnish. The entire operation centers around the timing of the varnish because the summer is the best time of year to let the varnish dry. Juan explained that Stradivari had a few specific weeks every year that he considered ideal for varnishing. It would take him several weeks to apply a coat, let it dry in direct sunlight, apply another coat, and so on. At this point, I was imagining three freshly varnished violins sunbathing behind Juan’s shop. But when I asked to see them, he took me to his office and opened what looked like a metal cabinet to reveal three violins glistening under humming, blue UV lights. Juan didn’t seem the least bit ashamed about this bit of technology. He said that he can use this “lightbox” to do in 48 hours what would take a week outside. There are three coats—a golden color, then a light brown color and last, a darker reddish orange color—so the lightbox saves a lot of time. Though he’s a purist, Juan admitted that “this works even better than direct sunlight.” Ultimately, like any good craftsman, he’s a pragmatist.

There are lots of other parts involved in violin-making (70, actually), and a strangely large number of them have bodily names: the ear, neck, waist, tail and, of course, f-holes. (Kidding. Those are just the fancy holes on the front that look like the letter “f.”) I chuckled impolitely as Juan listed the body parts of the violin, so he entertained me and pulled out an old drawing of an anthropomorphized cello in which the cello is a woman whom/which a man plays lovingly. “Not exactly appropriate,” Juan admitted, “but it’s true that the instrument has a beautiful human form to it.”

It is true, and the more you think about it, the less weird the bodily associations seem. When Juan holds a nice violin, he holds it as a parent holds their child: confidently, but with the kind of extreme care that makes you deeply afraid to drop it. In fact, the child/violin parallel played out strangely explicitly when a customer came in and interrupted my lesson in the violin-making process. The customer was looking for a new violin, and when Juan mentioned the price of one, the customer whisper-shouted to me, “Holy crap, this thing costs more than, like, my child.” “True,” I said, “but Juan probably put more work into that than most people put into their children.” (My roommate, who plays the cello, said that for the luthier, the violin is surely like a child. But for the person who plays the instrument, he said, it’s much more like a lover. I asked to see his cello. He refused.) 

* * *

This customer (whose name I’ve forgotten and henceforth will be called Dan) derailed my interview and opened a whole new can of worms. Dan asked how I knew Juan, so I had to admit that I had met Juan neither because I wanted an instrument (I did rent a cello once, but the only sound I could elicit was a harrowing strangled-rodent-noise) nor because I was a curious journalist wandering the alleys of Colorado Springs. I actually met Juan as part of a philosophy class. My professor, Alberto Hernandez-Lemus, took us on a field trip to Juan’s shop. This was strange for a number of reasons, not least because one of the most wonderful things about philosophy is that no matter how much you pontificate about radical revolution, no one really expects you to get up out of your swiveling armchair. But we had been reading about alienation—the word Marx used for workers’ estrangement from the products they make. Alberto wanted us to see a living, breathing example of someone who is not alienated from his work, so he took us to Juan’s shop.

I hadn’t considered alienation to be part of this story until Dan walked in. The real story, I thought, was about Juan and his violins. But when Dan derailed my interview and started asking questions about how he might fix up his great-grandfather’s instrument, the joy in both his questions and Juan’s answers called to mind what Marx said about the modern worker: “The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself.” Watching Juan in his workshop, it’s immediately evident that he feels himself in his work. Not only in the sense of feeling like himself, but also in the sense of feeling his self in his work. When Juan calls himself a luthier, it doesn’t sound like he’s telling you his profession—because he’s not. He’s telling you who he is. Juan’s work is so deeply a part of who he is because the work doesn’t just serve to make money. It has intrinsic value, not just instrumental value. Looking over his shoulder, Dan and I both felt a strong yearning to be spending our lives working not for the money, but for the work. 

Juan made clear that Dan’s interest in the process is common among his customers. It seems that Juan’s customers are often people who are especially dissatisfied with the way we tend to consume the world around us (and can afford to act on that dissatisfaction). This dissatisfaction—the one that pulls people out of other music shops and toward Juan’s—is a contemporary iteration of alienation.

I don’t know if Juan has read Marx recently, but he doesn’t need to in order to understand alienation. He seems to have an uncommon intuitive understanding of how deeply alienation has affected us. It’s an intuition that has extended way beyond his profession—Juan has built two houses and four boats for his family. He even seemed sort of baffled by the fact that more people don’t try to make things themselves: “Birds build their own houses; rats build their own houses. Why can’t people build their own houses?” (He seemed to also be implying, “I build my own houses!”) So Juan clearly shares his customers’ dissatisfaction with consumerism. But unlike his customers, he’s also familiar with a certain pleasure that most of us (myself included) have more or less forgotten: the joy of putting so much care into some physical thing that it has a piece of you in it. 

This joy and the philosophy behind it seep into Juan’s interactions with customers. It’s there as he graciously explains the production process and it’s there as he encourages customers to try out whatever they want. Juan treats his customers less like potential sources of profit and much more like students or friends. As customers enter Juan’s shop, they leave the world in which people are instrumental and enter a world where nothing is instrumental—not even the instruments.

* * *

Toward the end of an afternoon I spent at Juan’s shop, we were flipping through an old issue of The Strad when Juan stopped at an advertisement that featured an especially beautiful violin. “They are beautiful, the way they age. Like this one here. The way the varnish and the patina changes over the years.” He pointed to certain violins hanging around the shop, showing me which were older. “And not only does it get more beautiful,” he said, “the instruments also produce better sound as they age, and even as people play them more. So you’ll hear stories of people today who play great old violins that have been played by the masters and they’ll say the instrument really knows what it’s doing. And it’s true, there are instruments that have been played so well for so long that they just talk back to you. They know what to do.” 

Seeing this entirely the wrong way, I said, “Oh, so like no matter how good you make your violin, it will never be as good as a Stradivarius? That’s pretty depressing.” Thankfully, Juan turned the realization on its head: “Yeah,” he said, “but isn’t it great how it’s the opposite of most things we use? Most things, you use them for a year and then they’re designed to be thrown away. But violins, they’ll just last forever.” 

The downside of violins’ durability and ever-increasing quality is that, as Juan knows well, “it’s really a terrible business model.” So although people need repairs—which is how Juan actually makes his living—“you give someone a violin and you’re giving a whole family a violin for generations. Not much profit there.” That drawback has led to a large number of relatively short-lived, cheap violins being produced globally. But Juan, as I’ve said, isn’t in it for the money. He’s in it “because three hundred years from now some kid is going to pick up his grandfather’s violin and start playing it, and that violin might just have my name in it.” 

There's something calming about knowing that Juan still spends endless hours making and perfecting his instruments. There is, after all, decay all around us: traditions disappearing, ecosystems collapsing, people doing that people-thing where they slowly get wrinkly and die. More simply, most things get worse with time. But rest assured that all the while, in an elegant merger of craft and craftsman, Juan and his violins will only be getting better with age.


Part of the Obvious issue