For some, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony might smell like the air after a spring shower. For people in Seattle, it smells like Teen Spirit. For Julia Felix, it is the familiar smell of spruce and maple. She carves the soft wood with gentle care and hopes that she can bring the joy of music to the world someday. No, she is not a musician, at least not a professional one. She is a luthier in the making.
She is one of the many proud craftperson who are at the North Bennet Street School to study for careers in bookbinding, cabinet and furniture making, carpentry, jewelry making and repair, locksmithing and security technology, piano technology, preservation carpentry and violin making and repair. Ms. Felix is a second year student of the violin making program.
The air in the school is filled with the smell of freshly carved wood, sounds of sawmills mix with a piano being tuned, and with the chatter of students demonstrating their work to all who come during the annual open house.
In classroom 265N, Ms. Felix is busy working on a brand new viola. She just finished carving the neck and the scroll. Luthiers, or makers of string instruments, use spruce because it is easier to work with. The designs are from the 17th and 18th century. A typical violin made today at the school follows the designs by Antonio Stradivari and “del Gesu” Guarneri.
For a master violin maker, it takes about 2-3 month of meticulous work to produce a violin. For Ms. Felix, it took 1 year, as a freshman. However, she is happy to show off her labor of love. She chose to study violin making because “I love to work with my hands and the smaller and more intricate the work is, the better it feels when I am finished.”
Nancy Jenner, the Director of Communications for the school, agrees. “We have a highly diverse student population, but what brings our community together is the pride in craftsmanship.” Students come from all walks of life and their ages range from 18 to 70. “We have kids joining us right out of high-school. We have others that are older and are exploring different careers than the one they have. We also have second career people in our full-time program, who are have finished their careers but are not ready to retire.” The school maintains a job placement service for graduates. “We are committed to be a career school and most of our graduates will have jobs right after finishing school.” The placement not just a benefit, but “it is required by our accrediting institution.” she explained, and “most will find employment and enjoy their occupation.”
Teachers are another great connection for the students. Not just for their technical knowledge, but for their engagement with the national associations and guilds. Roman Barnas, master violin maker, said that graduates can easily comply with the otherwise strict requirements to be a member of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers. “Schooling counts towards the time requirement. It is 10 years in the field, be at least 30 years old and have at least one recommendation.” he offered.
Back in the classroom, Ms. Felix is also positive about her prospects in the future. She said that she is “planning on moving to the west coast and while there is a university or a school with a music department in the area, I am pretty much guaranteed a job.” She is also quite happy “not working for someone else” and self-employment is not just a dream, but a necessity. A typical violin can be sold around ten thousands dollars and the average violin maker can make about 8-10 violins or violas a year. It does not allow for a large staff or a factory size office.
When asked how much she would sell her first year violin, she referred to her classmate who sold one for four thousand dollars. She would be happy to sell hers for the same amount. Mr. Barnas added that “graduates are able to sell a violin for twice as much. The rate for a violin is in the ten to twelve thousand range.”
The school is holding an open house on Nov. 14. and 15. This is the only time during the year it is open to the public, hours are 10 a.m to 2 p.m. on both days. Demonstrations of the various programs are held at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m on both days. Open House at NBSS.edu