Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Ryan McLaughlin, luthier.
“Some people who get into violin making are accomplished players. And then there are a fair number of ’em, like me, who are just not great players at all. I can play enough to see that the parts are working properly, but you don’t want me playing at your wedding.
“I wanted to be a bass player, but I’m not very dedicated to practicing. I can maybe do 15 minutes if you nail my feet to the floor. I went to a music festival in high school and saw how much practice the other bass players were putting in, and I realized I couldn’t keep up the way I would need to keep up to make a living.
“Soon after that, I happened to visit a music-instrument repair shop, with all these instruments cut open and wood everywhere, and it just looked like home. When I was younger, my grandfather had a wood shop, and to keep me busy, he’d have me pulling nails out of boards, stuff like that.
“So I thought, ‘I want to make basses.’ Well, it turns out you don’t normally start off making basses. You go to violin-making school, and then if you’re still so inclined, you make a bass.
“Violin-making school is frustrating and humbling all at once. You’re an 18-year-old guy, you just left high school, of course you think you can make a violin and it’s going to come out great, and all of a sudden, no, it’s a lot harder than you think, and it’s going to be a while before you get to be good at it. You spend the first week just learning how to sharpen your tools. There’s a fairly high attrition rate. When I started, there were seven people in my class, and of those, I graduated with one of them.
“I haven’t made a bass yet. It’s a frightening amount of work. I’ve made seven violins, a viola, and a cello, though. But I’m more drawn to the restoration and repair side. I can fix almost anything. Baggage handlers have done some fascinating things to instruments. And I’ve seen more than a few violins that have been sat on. That’s why I sometimes fuss at people for putting a violin down in a chair. It’s the same thing every time: They’re in an orchestra, they stand up to clap, they put the violin down, they sit down, crunch. There’s no one sadder than someone who’s sat on their own violin.
“What makes a violin valuable? It’s more than just age. There are a lot of very old violins that are unfortunately not worth much, whereas the instruments made by Stradivari and other masters were valuable even at the time of their making. They were sought by the best musicians and maintained by the best shops. They were well made, well played, and well looked after for hundreds of years.
“I’ve never been one to just rub glue on something to get it out the door, so I tend to draw clients who want things done extremely well. I don’t mind clients who are fussy. In fact, I tend to like them the best because they always push me to do my best work. To play music at a high level is not easy. I’m not a great musician, but I respect what it takes to become one.”