Anyone who visits my home country, Australia, will be astonished by the huge distances between the towns and cities. Australia does have a relatively low population. For example, the island state where I live now, Tasmania, is about eight times larger than Cyprus, yet has only a third of Cyprus’ population. Tasmania has massive areas of wilderness containing ancient forests, and it’s temperate climate supports much agriculture. I wonder if the vast distances between the communities promotes some of the unique and self-reliant attitudes that seem to flourish here. People are willing to make the best of whatever resources they have.
When I first started building mandolins and guitars around 20 years ago, I lived in a small country town called Portland in Victoria. I immediately became one of those ‘local’ resources for instrument repair. This may explain why all sorts of instruments came my way. What was surprising to me, was the number of violins that turned up at my door – when I was neither skilled nor experienced with repairing these instruments.
The story of one of these violins is worth relating.
A young girl visited, carrying a tattered old box containing an equally hammered looking violin. The body of this instrument was blackened with age, worm holes were in the neck, and the gut strings were disintegrating. It had no Maker’s mark inside. Although the instrument had not been played for a very long time, it had become her family “air loom” from a great aunt. The young girl was determined to get it repaired. She wanted to start her career as a violin player. I agreed to investigate possibilities for her.
Fortunately, I knew I could call upon the knowledge of a retired violin maker who visited our town occasionally. His advice was to burn it! However, when he understood the sentimental value of her instrument, he kindly helped me with some of the difficult repairs – such as setting a new sound post and re-tapering the tuners.
When the day arrived to string it, I borrowed another violin so I could compare the setup and sound. Even though my “ear” was barely educated to violins, I could hear this instrument’s beautiful sound. Immediately, I took it to my friend Greg, who can make a violin “sing”. He corrected my way of winding the new strings onto the tuning pegs. And then, as he played it, a small smile slowly spread across his face, while I experienced one of those inexplicable musical moments where all my hair stands on end. When he finally stopped playing I asked him what he thought. He smiled, “It’s quite good “.
When we compared it with Greg’s own violin, it became obvious that the girl’s old instrument was, indeed, very special.