(What I learned about craftsmanship in) The Violin Maker (review: 4/5)

Stradivarius: legendary quality, mystery. It’s upper-crust and exotic. How did Stradivari make such wonderful instruments? What sort of alchemy was involved, and why haven’t we solved it yet? John Marchese’s book The Violin Maker: Finding a Centuries-Old Tradition in a Brooklyn Workshop talks about the mysteries and realities of violin-making. His book follows the work of violin maker Sam Zygmuntowicz as he works on a violin for Gene Drucker of the Emerson String Quartet.
There’s a good bit about the history of violin making, and the experience of playing and hearing a fine instrument, but the bulk of the book is about Edward Heron-Allen‘s challenge: “Given: A log of wood. Make a violin.”

It’s those bits about craftsmanship really got my attention. For all the magic and mythology about great violins, it boils down pretty easily. Zygmuntowicz:

It’s a very foreign idea that violin making is not all that mysterious, but it is one of those things where the basic way it works best was stumbled onto a long time ago. The requirements haven’t changed, and therefore the results haven’t changed and therefore it’s a very complex custom that is only learned through long application and a great deal of knowledge. It’s not arcane knowledge; it’s something any guy can learn—if you spend thirty years doing it.

You could probably say the same for writing, drawing, sculpting, cooking, building relationships, any number of things. The not-so-secret is good old-fashioned hard work, deliberate attention. If only there were shortcuts! In one passage Marchese talks about a day with Zygmuntowicz near the end of the violin making process:

I spent a whole afternoon watching him work on the final thickness graduation of the violin top with a scraper that removed wood not in pieces, not even in shavings, but in grains. He’d weighed the piece before he started, scraped and scraped for several hours and weighed it again when he was finished. The sum difference in his day’s work was three grams.

Three grams! For reference, 3 grams, give or take a few tenths, is about the weight of a U.S. penny. Metaphorically speaking, I don’t know that I’ve ever paid 3 grams/day worth of attention to any one thing. But the heart of craftsmanship is right there in the attention to detail. Quoting Zygmuntowicz again:

If there’s anything I can measure, I measure it, on the theory that it will become interesting in later years. I’ll make some varnish notes, and some evaluations of the sound, and if I can I’ll follow up and see how the sound might have changed over time… Some guys take two measurements and that’s it. I think I’m kind of a maniac.

It’s a work technique. Not a particularly efficient one, but we’re not judged on high efficiency—which is a very good thing. I wouldn’t survive, or I’d certainly have to alter my work style, if I had to be more efficient.

But it’s all part of a process of becoming—I don’t know what you call it—I guess a more subtle worker. The thing is that you start to care more and more about less and less.

Another spot I loved was Marchese quoting Sir James Beament discussing rare, expensive violins versus work-a-day models: “They do not make any different sound, and no audience can tell what instrument is being played. But if a player thinks he plays better on such an instrument, he will… Audiences are even more susceptible to suggestion than players.”

I went to a photography lecture a couple weeks ago, and in the Q&A session were the inevitable questions about gear. What camera? What lense? What film? What paper? There’s no shame in wanting to use better equipment so you can work better, but it’s dangerous to give in to the lazy thought that equipment trumps the process of attentive labor and the work ethic that drives it (rolls of film shot, hours in the studio, drafts revised, face-time with customers).

Lastly, I liked Zygmuntowicz’ comments on how originality and style develop over time: “When people talk about personal style a lot of what they’re talking about is slipping away from the original—people were trying to do it just like the original but they didn’t.”