Reputed English luthier Robert Thornhill is on holiday in India. He spoke with me about his profession when he visited Goa.
Welcome to Goa, Mr. Thornhill. Tell us a little about your career path.
After school, I went to the London College of Furniture, and was trained in furniture-making, going towards an industrial placement.After leaving there (four years of college), I worked in industry, making mass-produced furniture. I then realized that I didn’t want to do that. I preferred craftsmanship, using my hands, and I got a job teaching at my old college. I did that for 26 years, teaching hand-craft skills to young people who also wanted to go into the furniture business. I played the violin; I began at age 12. I suppose the two ideas of playing the violin and working with wood and making violins didn’t converge until I was about forty; quite late. Then I went to evening classes for a year; I learnt from a man who himself had trained at a very good college in England (Newark College). He then stopped teaching. So I found another set of courses, summer schools in Cambridge, at the workshop of Juliette Barker. That carried on for 5-6 years. By the time I was 49, I thought I needed to stop teaching furniture-making and begin to be a luthier properly. And Juliette Barker asked me to come to her workshop and help with the teaching there. And that’s when I started professionally really being a luthier. That was in 2000. That was my millennium goal, to be a luthier!
And so you’ve been at it since then?
India has a population of over a billion. We have a violin-making industry in Kolkata & elsewhere (albeit mass-manufactured a lot of the time). And yet good luthiers who have a lot of experience in violin repair and maintenance are pretty thin on the ground. This can’t augur well for good-quality instruments here, can it?
I think that the structures that we have in England are different: we have lots of orchestras, we have children in schools learning to play. They start off in orchestras at every level; we have junior level; senior orchestras. There are orchestras even for people who want to learn to play in their 60s and 70s in their retirement. Right across the board, there are lots of people playing. Lots of people want to listen to orchestras, so there are lots of instruments in society. If you don’t have that culture of going to concerts, then you don’t have the impetus for the supporting infrastructure.
China had massive government-sponsored workshops. They have now broken up, and those individual makers have gone from there. Every child in China is learning to play either the piano or the violin, or some musical instrument.
Over the decades, one hears increasingly of nationalities outside the Western world (e.g. China, Korea, Singapore, etc) going to the main training centres of the world and developing a high level of skill in lutherie. Even of some of them then returning to their countries to set up their trade there. Why hasn’t this yet happened with India? We have a long tradition of skilled artisans and craftsmen, so why have so few Indians turned to violin-making? Any thoughts?
I guess they cannot see that it is a viable business. There may not be enough earning capacity within that business.
That might be true in India, yes. But there don’t seem to be Indian-origin violin-makers in the West, either.
True. I guess there may be one or two out there, but we just may not have heard of them.
What "top tips" would you give an owner of a bowed stringed instrument in terms of care and upkeep of their instrument?
They’re very simple really:
a. Whenever you’re not playing the violin, it goes back in its case. And the case must be shut. So many people put the violin in the cases, forget they haven’t shut it properly, lift it up, the lid falls open, and the violin falls out.
b. The bow must be undone and the tension taken out of the bow.
c. Wipe the neck of the violin to take off any sweat from the left hand. Wipe off the rosin from the strings and also from the body of the violin, as rosin builds up on the varnish and spoils it.
d. Make sure that the instrument doesn’t suffer any extremes of heat or humidity or dryness, all of which can be difficult to achieve in a country with a climate like India’s.
Any tips with particular reference to our tropical climate?
There are instruments built out of carbon fibre. The cellos I know to be successful. I don’t know about the smaller instruments, the viola and violin.But temperature and humidity would not affect the material. It will still affect the strings, and may affect the horse-hair of the bow. But it stops the violin from coming apart, with all the stress of wood moving.
A common symptom in our climate is the eventual drooping of the fingerboard. Is this inevitable? How can it be prevented if at all? What advice would you give if it has already happened, given the fact that we do not have too many luthiers with knowledge of how to fix it properly?
The dropping of the fingerboard can happen in any part of the world, not just here. The whole feel of a violin is about that tactile area under the fingers of the left hand. Knowledge of the geometry of the curve of the fingerboard is important. It is not known by many people that the fingerboard is hollow along its length. And it can be too hollow, in which case the strings have to be pressed down a long way, or it can have no hollow, and you begin to get “buzzing” in the strings. It’s very precise, what has to be done.
Are there courses in England or elsewhere where people with an interest in repairing violins could study? Just how expensive are they?
If you want to study at the highest level, you could go to Newark College in England; Cremona in Italy of course, which is the birthplace of the modern violin. You could go to Mittenwald in Germany. There are also places in Switzerland, and in Brussels in Belgium….and in America of course, which has an extensive network.
Would such a course necessarily involve violin-making as well? i.e. are they inseparable?
One would always advocate making the instrument before you start thinking about repairing it. When you are repairing, you have to cut very precisely. You have to plane very precisely; use chisels very precisely. If you make a violin, you will have learnt all those skills in the making of the instrument.
So there’s no shortcut really?
Not really. There aren’t any shortcuts in life! (laughs)
In the West, most instruments get insured, but in India this is a rarity. It gets complicated, as often the repair of an expensive instrument would have to be done in a Western country, so it would mean having to get an insurance cover that is valid there as well. And there’s the high premiums as well, of course.
Well, you would need to have proof that the repairer you send it to has insurance to cover any damage that may happen to it while it’s in their care. And you can of course insure it for the posting. So the postage, travel of the instrument and while it’s in the care of the luthier should be covered. The insurance company we use in the music world is Allianz.
Does our tropical climate preclude there ever being a violin-making industry here? In terms of availability of the right sort of wood, and what our weather would do to the finished product? Could there be a day when more resilient instruments are fashioned, using local wood sources, yet with no compromise to the quality of sound?
It’s very difficult to know. I think the sound of a violin is dictated to by the woods that are used. I know that Australian makers were using Australian timbers and getting quite good results. And I know that in England, people in the past have used indigenous timbers of England and made violins. But what timbers there are in India, I don’t know. For instance, the front has to be very even, straight-grained, soft wood (e.g. spruce). Some people have experimented with balsa wood, which is I believe an African timber. That’s very light and not strong enough, so you have to reinforce it and get into different physics with it. So there are complications. So changing materials will change the sound of the instrument, and its playability.
Intrinsically, good players will be conservative people who will want to have a classic instrument that has been made in Europe. That is the truth of most orchestral players.
Aren’t American makers and their instruments highly desired as well?
They are, yes.
Could one take maple, spruce, fir and pine and grow it in temperate parts of India?
Yes. Most of the good timbers are grown in Alpine regions in Switzerland, Germany, area of France bordering Switzerland; and of course North Italy, on Alpine slopes. You want slow-grown, hard-wood, maple…
You want a tree that is certainly is no younger than 50 years. With spruce, perhaps a hundred years. These countries still have the mature growth.
Is there no danger of overlogging, deforestation?
Not for the violin-making trade. Other trades use the same timbers, and se them more often in different ways. So we get quite jealous sometimes when we see cigar boxes made from the very good spruce that we want our violin tops made from.
It’s interesting that you should say that, because there’s a grand-uncle of mine, and his nephew who used to make violins out of cigar boxes!
We have in our store-rooms some old timber from buildings that were held up with massive timbers, which were in fact, I think, American timber… again, grown in mountain regions in America… Oregon pine. And we use that sometimes. Gives a very good sound. But it’s already 150 years old before we get it. It’s very dry. We like that.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times, Goa India on 28 December 2011)