Your first question for John Young is how he learned to make violins. Your second question is: wait, there’s a school for that? Then you realize: of course there is.
It’s a career choice that seems to fly directly in the face of guidance counselors everywhere – begging the question, what are you going to do with that? and answering it at the same time.
But this wasn’t a spur of the moment decision for John Young. It had been premeditated since he was a ten-year-old boy watching Mr. Rogers demonstrate an apparatus called a thickness caliper on an episode of his show. Once in high school, John expressed interest in attending trade school for the craft. His school counselor assured him there was no such a thing and yet, lo and behold, he found himself attending classes at the Violin Making School of America a few years later.
LEARNING TO STRING
Making a violin isn’t something one plunges into. As in the mastery of any craft, there is a gradual becoming where skills are learned, and then become tacit knowledge. “I went to a school for string instrument repair in Red Wing, Minnesota in 1988,” John starts. “Then I spent a year on my own, cutting wood in the Adirondack Park in Upstate New York. And then I came to the school out here in Salt Lake City in 1990 and graduated in 1993. I started making violins right after that.”
There are many violin makers in the world, but John has owned his own shop for over fifteen years, so his work has taken on a specific John-ness that is only achieved through the intimacy of repetition in craft, day in and day out.
“You can’t escape your own style. It’s funny how that is. But each violin maker’s violins are unique to (that particular maker)—always. It’s very weird. It’s every little idiosyncrasy that you do that makes it your own. But I have a depth of knowledge of wood. So I’m able to select wood that’s very close to what they used back in Cremona, where violins were perfected.”
ITALY & THE GOLDEN YEARS
The years were 1710 to 1720, and Cremona, Italy was the Silicon Valley of the violin. This time is known as the Golden Period of Stradivari—a craftsman so influential that modern makers look, even today, to his work when crafting their own.
“It’s the type of wood, the geometry, the proportion and design. Stradivari spent a lot of time making different models until he arrived at a few that he really liked. So we have violins from this town in Cremona, Italy that are really better than anything else that there is in the world.”
That bit—anything else there is in the world—should be stressed. There is an entire project called the Paris Experiment devoted to comparing modern violins with Stradivari’s output to see if the world’s finest violinists can distinguish the student’s from the master’s, as it were. Turns out, the students win, but they remain tight-lipped about which modern violin maker is their favorite… the community has that kind of camaraderie.
“They’re not telling you because it would be unfair for the rest of the violin makers, (but) this one modern violin is their favorite.”
John’s thinking is that because the Stradivarius’ are so rare, violinists have grown accustomed to more modern takes on the instrument. In other words, you like what you know.
“You always like your mama’s cooking,” he laughs. “You’re comfortable with the familiar. Nobody plays Stradivarius. There are 600 in the world and millions of violinists. So if you grow up playing (one) violin and that’s your sound, you go play a Strad and you have no idea what’s going on. There are actually some stories about great violinists that win competitions and the prize is getting to perform on a Stradivari for a few years. And these people are all excited. They get the violin, and then they just break down in tears because they can’t, they don’t know what to do with it. It’s so different.”
HOW TO MAKE A VIOLIN
John’s mission is to replicate the sound of the very best Cremonese instruments by understanding what wood and varnish they used. Working in his favor is modern technology—old violins can now be read for the frequency they produce and different ways they vibrate.
“Using the models Stradivari used, you can evolve to having your own model and your own idea of sound, because not everybody likes one thing—thank God, only one person would sell violins.”
Even so, the violin is not like the guitar in that its body shapes can change drastically and still remain the same instrument. The craft is still very traditional.
The world of violin playing and making doesn’t lend itself to being experimental. “You can’t deviate from the norm very much. There’s a sound that everybody likes—this great old Italian sound and you have to stay in the realm of that world to recreate that sound.”
In creating a Cremonese-like instrument, wood choice and density are crucial decisions to nail. Spruce violins with maple backs seem to be the favorite and, even if it isn’t from Italy, the older the wood the better.
“The wood changes as it ages,” John explains. “If it cycles through being hot, being cold, being dry, being wet, that helps stabilize the wood because each time it does it will move less. So, over time, it becomes more stable.”
In Stradavari’s time, Italian violin makers would visit the local apothecary for varnish. This, too, is emulated. The ideal varnish is something that allows the instrument to move, expand and contract.”
“There’s a very specific way that I prepare the wood before I varnish – ways to darken the wood to accentuate its beauty, the figure in the wood. (The varnish) has to protect the wood for its life, so you want to have a coating on there that’s going to protect the wood from the elements and let it age okay. And then, since it’s an acoustical box, you want to make sure that you’re not going to inhibit any of the vibrations.”
The advent of technology has shifted the landscape of violin craft, like everything else, forever. Makers can now tune strings with their smartphone and CAT scan to analyze frequency thus allowing them to engineer precise sounds that appeal to more human sensibilities. There is always the risk that craft can be abandoned for assembly line in the name of efficiency, but this one has remained, remarkably, as hands-on as it was over 300 years ago. In fact, the additional quality-control afforded by the ever-new technology seems only to be enhancing the human touch.
“It’s still very hands on. I have a piece of metal in my hand that cuts the wood and that’s how I’m doing it still. The technique that I’m using is the same, I’m guessing that they used 300 years ago. I just have different tools that I can use to analyze things after the fact. But the actual construction method is almost exactly the same as it was. I plane down a piece of wood and I put it on a hot iron and bend it, with my hands.”
But John Young doesn’t only craft violins—he created the very future he envisioned for himself when he was a ten year old boy watching Mr. Rogers. It seems that we are always in awe of rockstars—people who started out small and pursued their passion despite everyone telling them how slim the success rate is. But rock-stardom is, if achieved, incredibly beneficial economically. It takes much more bravery to persevere for a passion that doesn’t necessarily offer summering in the Hamptons as a side benefit.
To this effect, we couldn’t help asking John, why violin making? His response was a sentiment that we, as a society, often don’t take seriously enough: “It’s just what I love to do.”
We heard all about John Young Violins while exploring the American West in the 2016 Lincoln MKX. > LINK for more details.