When I was a kid I wanted to become a luthier (a maker of stringed instruments). I loved the idea of working with wood and transforming it into something beautiful, tactile and functional. I put this somewhat romantic idea down when I passed A levels in science and opted for a degree in biochemistry. Many years down the line, 1999 ish, I attended yoga classes in Cambridge. No one ever talked to each other at these classes; we just arrived focussed on the breathing, stretching and strengthening exercises and then buggered off to the mayhem of home.
One day the teacher announced she was leaving and by way of farewell we took her out for a drink. I found myself sitting opposite Jonathan Woolston, a luthier. A few weeks later I went to visit him at his family home. A table tennis table occupied the greater part of his back room and on it, on its side, was a violin. ‘That one’s for sale’ Jonathan jokingly said as I picked it up. ‘You just sold it!’ I responded, astonishing myself as much as him. That was the biggest impulse purchase I have ever made, but my god was it was a good one. My children were still small; I had no idea whether either would have an interest in music let alone play the violin. I was a cellist! But now I was also the proud owner of Jonathan’s 5th violin. He had made it 20 years earlier but had left it ‘in the white’ unvarnished, as his mother had liked it that way. He had given the instrument to her and it had hung on her wall for many years and had only recently made its way back to him, to finish, after she had died.
In time I took up the violin myself. By now, my son Fabian, was playing and he quickly progressed to the full sized Woolston instrument which we had to share. In 2010, I found myself between jobs and so for 6 months I played intensively. By the time summer arrived, I decided I needed an instrument of my own. My father suggested that I sell a pair of leather bound horn duet manuscripts that I had inherited from my grandmother, and use the proceeds to purchase another violin. Mine, like Fabian’s is a model of the Guarneri del Gesu ‘Lord Wilton’ made in Cremona in 1742. The original was owned and played by Yehudi Menhuin from 1978 until he died in 1999 when it was sold for a mere $6million. Fortunately, copies made today have a more affordable price tag.
Returning to its maker
Once in a while, I take my fiddle back to its maker. This tends to happen at the time of year when I put the heating on and again at the other end of the year, when I turn the heating off. It is at these times, with changes in temperature and humidity that the instrument needs the TLC that only Jonathan can supply. This year I went to see him at the beginning of April and I decided to bring a picnic lunch with me. This I purchased at the truly fabulous Alamin shop on Mill Road. I bought samosa’s, rice and a spinach curry, oranges and chocolates for afters. Quite a feast. After lunch, while Jonathan worked, I took some photos of his studio.
In his penultimate year at school, my son had to undertake an ‘extended’ project. Being a practical and creative lad, he decided he wanted to make a violin. Jonathan recommended that Fabian talk to Chris Beament, who runs the Cambridge Violin Workshop, located a few minutes away from Fabian’s VIth form college. Just over a year later, Fabian completed his first violin, and the price tag? It’s priceless needless to say!