Have you ever met a luthier? Perhaps you have and didn't know it. Perhaps you've heard the word, like I have, but can't really define it -- so you wouldn't even know if you had met one or not.
I would like to introduce you to a luthier who works for the Connecticut School of Music in a studio in the Greenwich Senior/Arts Center at 299 Greenwich Ave. The studio is tucked away at the back of the third floor, where Tom Hyde has been busy all summer assembling and repairing violins, violas, cellos and basses for rental, mostly to school children.
Yes, Tom Hyde is a luthier -- and what he does is fascinating!
I had everything to learn, and I'm grateful that he gave me the time to explain his craft and allowed me to take pictures so that I could share what I learned with you. Perhaps this information will not be news to those who have played a stringed instrument, but I think most folks will not be familiar with what a luthier does.
I have to apologize to Tom in advance that readers really won't know him after seeing his picture, because I was so engrossed in what he was doing that I featured his handwork and not his face -- but I'm guessing that my choice of subjects will be just fine with the skilled artisan.
When I came into his studio, it was filled with large boxes of dozens of instruments that had been shipped primarily from China. The "bellies" of the instruments that arrived needed, like many things from China, to be assembled! I had never thought about "mass- produced" stringed instruments and the resulting challenge of assembling them. In addition, there were also many other instruments in the studio in various stages of repair and disrepair -- it certainly looked like more than a summer's worth of work waiting to be done!
Tom was at his worktable in the process of placing a small sound post, like a dowel, made of spruce into a cello. It's a very tricky procedure, because no glue is used. The post is shaped to fit snugly and be held in place by the tension between the front and back plates. The placement of the post is critical to the sound of the instrument, so it must be done with great care.
In the picture accompanying this article, you can see the next stage of the process: Tom is looking in a hole in the bottom of a cello, where the spike or endpin will go in to support the cello on the floor, and he is using a mirror on a long rod to assess the placement of the post. He is about to slip the mirror into the F-hole, where the sound vibrations escape, to assess what changes need to be made.
In the next picture of Tom, you can see him using an instrument called, very logically, a "sound post setter" to make small adjustments to the post. That tool looks a bit like a small metal branding tool of a flower with four petals and a squiggly handle, difficult to maneuver through the narrow F-hole.
I didn't get to see the rest of the process of assembling the fretwork and strings, etc., of the cello, which would have been equally interesting, I am sure, but I did get to look around the studio in search of some more pictures. As with all photographs, it is always light that makes or breaks a picture, and light streaming in a window and over an unfinished violin caught my eye.
It was the beautiful sheen of the wood and the silky pools of shadow and light on the surface that drew me to take the photo, but when I reviewed the picture on my computer, I was surprised to see a violin clown face emerging instead. Do you see it, the face with the little clown hat perched at the top? And do you also see, in the picture of three sizes of stringed instrument bridges, that they look like mini Sumo wrestlers? I did see that when I took that picture.
In the midst of so many instruments waiting for repair, I couldn't help but notice some larger ones that already were wrapped up in cases and ready to go; in fact, as you can see in one of my photos, they seemed grouped together as if they were chatting about it. And there in the far corner, all by itself in a very crowded room, was a cello just waiting for its turn, strings askew and missing most everything else. It looked very lonely, but I'm sure it will soon be the cherished best friend of an aspiring musician.
If you know someone interested in renting an instrument, please tell them they can call Kenkuo of the Connecticut School of Music at 917-322-9658. Perhaps their instrument will be the very one Tom was working on in these pictures!
Lee Paine of Riverside is a professional freelance writer and photographer. She teaches, lectures and judges in the photographic field. You can visit her website at www.leepainefinephotography.com.