Red Wing home to unique violin repair program


Red Wing is home to one of the most comprehensive violin repair programs in the country and for nearly two decades, the courses have attracted hundreds of students from around the world who want to learn the delicate craft and preserve the violin's cultural and musical heritage.

With a small saw, hunched over his woodworking bench, Mike Burns cut a tiny wedge from a block of maple wood about the size of a Tic Tac.

The wedge will go into what's called a frog. That's the part of a violin bow that holds the hair at one end.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

"So right now, I'm just getting the approximate size of the frog wedge and all the lines have to be clean and neat and they all have to be straight and flat for them to fit properly," Burns said.

Burns, 36, is from Portland, and after years of working as a tax accountant, he enrolled in the violin repair program offered at Minnesota State College Southeast Technical.

"I'm more excited about this," he said. "Actually, I started playing violin a few years back when my parents and my sister decided to give me an old family instrument that they had fixed up for me for Christmas as a gift."

Ben Brockway
Ben Brockway cuts down a wedge that is used to restring a bow in the Violin Repair Program at Minnesota State College - Southeast Technical in Red Wing, Minn. Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Burns is like a lot of the students here. He left one profession to pursue a more creative passion.

But repairing violins is tedious work. If any part of the process isn't perfect, the instrument's sound will be off.

The students learn from veteran violinist and repair instructor Lisbeth Nelson Butler. She's taught the nine-month program for more than 20 years. Students learn everything from sharpening their tools to telling the difference between types of varnish.

Nelson Butler stresses repetition and creativity as a way for them to fine-tune their skills.

"I hope to pass on an attitude of 'well, that didn't work, let's try this and this and this and this,'" she said. "And, OK, then you have to think of something else, because if none of those work, you can't just give it back to the person and say sorry, couldn't do this."

The program is one of only a few in the country. There's a four-year one at Indiana University and a handful of other schools specialize in overall violin-making, not just repair work. The program in Red Wing is geared toward students who want fewer textbook lessons and more hands-on experience.

Nelson Butler said the program attracts students of all ages and walks of life, and that can make it challenging for her to teach at times.

Repain workshops
Students work on violin bows in one of several Musical Repair & Construction workshops at Minnesota State College - Southeast Technical in Red Wing, Minn. Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2009.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"We have people who come in with nothing, and people who've already been doing repairs on their own," she said. "People who've been to the making schools and people who play; there's no typical."

At a nearby work bench, 18-year-old Emily Titus fixed her eyes on a folded sheet of sandpaper between her fingers.

"When I'm combing out the bow hair, it's been ripping out the white hairs, and so I'm sanding out in between the bristles to get rid of the bumps so it'll stop ripping my hair out," Titus said.

A few rows back, 28-year-old Ben Brockway examined the hair of a bow, which he just finished tying. Brockway is frustrated; he said this part of the re-hairing process is not always easy.

"The hairs are uneven when I run the comb through it up to the tip, but it's OK," Brockway said. "It's a lot better than previous ribbons. I'm just getting picky now."

Brockway's learned a lot since he started the class, and now he's becoming his own critic. And that's a good thing.

Lisbeth Nelson Butler said some of her students have musical backgrounds, but it's not a requirement for the program. Most are simply intrigued by the craftsmanship that's required to work with wood.

"Playing is a lifetime learning experience to reach a high level, and so is repair work," she said. "You don't have time for both."

She said because of the in-depth nature of the program, her students will likely find a job when they graduate, and many will end up staffing repair shops and music stores around the country.