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Making beautiful music possible Instruments: The Chicago School of Violin Making teaches a 500-year-old craft that some may make an art.


SKOKIE, Ill. -- Beneath the warm light of an arm lamp, Ron Mielzynski runs his fingers over an unvarnished violin belly.

"See that?" he says, pointing to something invisible to the untrained eye. "Bumps. It needs to be smoother."

He picks up a hand-held metal scraper and slowly shaves fractions of millimeters from the naked wood until the shape is a smooth arch, a process that will take hours.

Beneath Mielzynski's stool, the ground is covered with curls of spruce and maple. He works steadily in the low light of the large workroom with 31 other students, all quietly learning the 500-year-old craft of violin-making.

"The making of a violin is the most perfect thing in detail-oriented work," says Mielzynski, 30. "It's not really work. It's enjoyable."

For 23 years, the Chicago School of Violin Making, one of only a handful of such schools in the world, has been graduating makers of violins, violas and cellos. Students come from around the globe -- Bulgaria, France, Russia, Japan -- to study under Tschu Ho Lee, director of the school and a master of the craft.

Lee, 66, a native of Korea, opened the school in 1975 with Kenneth Warren of the Kenneth Warren & Son Ltd. violin-making and repair shop. While serving in the South Korean military orchestra during the Korean War, Lee began repairing instruments.

"I would open the instrument and try to figure it out," says Lee, a soft-spoken man wrapped in a long, pin-striped smock. "It's a wooden box, and such a nice beautiful sound you can make. It's fascinating. Why so small a box and so big, so beautiful a sound?"

Over a 3 1/2 -year program, students of the Chicago school learn to make those small boxes that produce such beautiful sounds. They are required to build seven instruments -- six if they undertake the construction of a cello -- before graduation.

Though the school is internationally heralded, few outside the field have heard of it. Even next-door neighbors aren't sure what goes on inside the one-story brick building that sits across from an elevated-train repair yard.

"It's some sort of a shop, isn't it?" one area worker guesses.

Inside, on the walls in a hall are pictures of what amounts to the violin hall of fame: graceful bodies from the hands of 17th- and 18th-century European masters Stradivari, Guarneri, Montagnana.

A small photo of a Guarneri is tacked above the workbench of second-semester student Eric Skinner, 34, a North Carolina native who has completed his first violin body.

"Didn't quite get it," he says. "But it was a wonderful moment to finally have it in my hands."

Experienced violin makers can build a violin in about 120 hours; a cello takes at least 200 hours. Recognized masters such as Lee can command $12,000 to $15,000 for a violin. Factory-made instruments, or those produced in a workshop by more than one maker, are significantly less expensive -- less than $1,000. A serious student or professional nearly always chooses an instrument built by one expert maker.

Not all of these students will become fine enough craftsmen to command such prices, says teacher Rebecca Elliott, 42.

After a tuition investment of $2,620 per semester, most students can look forward to another three to five years of informal apprenticeship in a repair shop, working for perhaps $8 an hour. The school attracts students of all ages, from recent high school graduates through retirees, and classes are full through the year 2000.

Students at the Chicago school learn basic repair techniques as well as building, but "one of the difficulties in this field is that after 3 1/2 years you are still not considered a trained repair person," Elliott says. It may take two decades before a craftsman is qualified to work on the rarest instruments.

That long road doesn't seem to bother third-semester student Luke Degner, 19, of Chicago.

"This is pretty much a dream come true," he says. In the school's varnishing room, more than 30 violins stained in colors from red to butterscotch dangle on hooks. He reaches for one -- his first.

"It's not bad for a first one. It's not perfect," he says, pointing out varnishing flaws.

Students keep their first instrument. The school sells the others for as much as $2,500 to help defray operating costs.

Lee's approach to building instruments is in the manner of the old Italian masters: Students build from the inside out. They whittle down the six interior blocks that support the body and then shape the ribs, the thin strips of wood used as the sides. When the interior form is complete, students begin to carve the front and back plates into arches, using increasingly finer tools until the plates are 3 millimeters thick.

With its dual emphasis on beauty and precision, the profession of violin-making falls somewhere between art and craft.

"The violin is the closest any human instrument comes to a human voice," says Paul C. Becker, owner of a shop in Chicago that makes and repairs fine violins. "In order to transform a piece of wood into something that sounds like a human voice, you'd better pay attention to every detail."

The curve of the scroll at the end of the neck, the cut of the double F holes, the line of the inlaid edging: These are all the fingerprints of a violin-maker.

"Even a sloppy cut sounds OK, I'm sure," says Lee of the curvy F holes. "But a beautiful line makes a musician more comfortable."

At the beginner's level, however, students work mostly by the book. "We are technicians," Lee says. "It's an art, maybe later. But what we do is technical."

Unlike other violin-making schools, the Chicago school has no entrance requirements. As a result, many students, like Jessie Gilbert, have never so much as whittled a block of wood.

Gilbert, 50, a mother of three from Chicago, is trained as a child therapist. She took up the violin less than 10 years ago -- "a typical midlife crisis" -- and that sparked an interest in how the instrument was made.

At first she couldn't even think about completing an instrument. "I didn't think I'd ever get there," says Gilbert, a first-semester student. "As you come along, you get to love the instrument more and more. It isn't hobby school, it's very intense."

Other students come to the school with no musical past. But they all must learn to play.

It is Daria Horodyskyj's job to teach them. A concert violinist, she gives biweekly violin lessons at the school.

"I knew students who couldn't play well but who made violins beautifully," she says. "They felt the soul of the instrument." Still, she insists that everyone try.

Lee includes the lessons so students can understand what a customer wants. "I can give them the measurements, but I cannot teach them the feeling of playing," he says. "That you have to know."

Igor Gersh knows the feeling well. A concert viola player &L; originally from eastern Russia, Gersh, 43, is a member of Chicago's Ars Viva ensemble. He is also a student at the #F violin-making school.

"It helps me as a musician to understand the instrument," he says, picking up one of the three scrolls he is carving. "I build instruments from the outside, but I feel them from the inside."

He looks forward to playing a viola made by his own hands. "I don't expect a Stradivarius sound, but it's kind of exciting," Gersh says. "You put your soul into the instrument when you make it. You feel yourself as a creator."

Pub Date: 12/21/98

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