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“When kids come and try them, I tell them like it's just like Harry Potter - the wand chooses the wizard. It’s the same with violins.”
My name is Yam Raz, and I am a violinmaker in Honolulu, Hawaii.
It is a very traditional line of work. Most people do tend to copy and imitate a lot of the old makers. Let's take the most obvious thing that we see in violin making: the choosing of the wood. In the guitar world, you have so many different types of words to make it look more exotic and nice and beautiful and sound nice. In the world of violin making, the tradition is to work with maple wood and red spruce. You’re using those materials over and over again, and still trying to achieve greatness within those boundaries. Of course, a lot of people will say, “you can make violins today with CNC machining or carbon fibers,” but I say, “The instrument is not only a tool for sound but also a work of art.” The idea that if you take 100 carbon fiber instruments, they will probably all sound the same. But we are working with live material, so our job is to interpret the material to achieve greatness. You can learn one material your whole life, or you can learn 100 materials. For us violinmakers, keeping that range lower and having only specific types of wood helps us have a deeper understanding over time. It’s a lot about tradition, consistency, and creating beauty.
Each maker wants to sell his own instrument, but the best thing for a violin maker is that the person who will play it will love their instrument and will be inspired by it. That’s what will give them more business in the future. So a lot of times when people will come to me, I'll tell them ‘This instrument is either for you or it's not for you, you'll know you'll know it when you play it if it’s right or not.’
When kids come and try them, I tell them like it's just like Harry Potter - the wand chooses the wizard. It’s the same with violins.
A musician has to have a connection to your instrument. But maybe in two years, you’ll get so much more advanced than that violin won’t be the best for you anymore, but the idea is to make a partnership that will take you as far as it can - knowing that it will always be a good friend, but you’ll need to have changed in your life. But you don’t need to throw them away. You need to walk as far as you can with these partners in life and know when there’s a need for a change. A lot of the big players tend to get into a spot where they have purchased a very, very expensive instrument, but when their ego runs off, they think, ‘You know, I actually can find an instrument that costs 10% - if not less - of the other violin, and I can still play and be inspired by it.”
A violin is a partner for people to play with. I feel like I have a good understanding of people, so say I have three violins, and each one is a little bit different, but by knowing the person in front of me, I can know which violin is most suited for them. My specialty is a sound adjustment, which is mostly knowing the person and shaping the violin to work the best for them- which is not easy because people are complex.
Probably everything related to money and buying or selling; I’m not a good businessman. It’s something that I need to work on.
Inside the making, there are different parts that I enjoy doing - making and shaping the arching, gouging it out, scraping it. When you do work on the arching and you sharpen your tools really well, they have their own music. It feels like they’re playing with you. I feel like when I’m really working on an instrument, the CD will end and I will continue making it just because I'm already in this meditative state of mind. I will continue doing whatever it is I'm doing without even noticing what's happening in my surroundings.
I only do handmade instruments, so it goes relatively slowly. You don’t get to do, like, five archings at a time, only one or two. So it gives you a good gap between them and you really do get to appreciate it more.
My creation is giving them tools to a musician to express themselves; so it's not complete without the musician. Seeing the musician holding one of my instruments and being inspired, then I feel like I did something great.
I’m from Israel, and like everyone from there, I was in the army between 18 and 22, so almost 4 years. In Israel, in high school, people from the army will come and talk to you so you will know where do you want to go in the army. You don't think that far to college and work when you're in high school.
There are many different units that you can volunteer for. I was chief engineer and a boat on the navy vessel in Gaza. There I had some extra experience of working with my hands. You’re living in a small boat with like 12 people, so you do anything from cooking your own dinner and to make sure that they're not smuggling weapons over trying to do terror acts against Israel.
I was the chief engineer in the boat, which usually is the mom of the boat. They make sure that everything is running, the engines are maintained. I was essentially the second in command.
I feel like normal people from Israel get out of the army and then they go traveling. As a good Israeli that's what I did; the only difference was that I didn't want to go where everyone else went. Unfortunately, a lot of people get out and have bad experiences, so they just want to go hang out and have some relaxation time that involves drugs and big groups. I'm not a big group person and I’m not into drugs, so I went instead of going to India I went to New Zealand, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I took my own route. I traveled for ten or eleven months, I had an open ticket. It was great; I think it’s always a good experience for people to get to know the world and the people of the world, and experience different cultures and nature.
Usually, the service in Israel is 3 years for men and 2 years for women, or at least it was when I was serving. Most of my friends were released almost a year before me because I stayed a little extra, so when I was headed home everyone was already deep into the exams you need to do for going to college.
When I was flying back home, I kinda thought to myself like ‘Okay, now life is actually starting. What do you want to do next?’ I did know about myself that I didn't want to go to a normal school, a normal college - I didn't want to be on the highway. I remember making myself a list of things that I wanted to do and also very random things that kind of inspired me growing up. Like going to Masada – I remembered being there and feeling inspired by the place and the energy there, even if it's a very tragic story. I also put going to the Natural History Museum in New York and seeing all the dinosaurs. There was all kind of different things on the list, but the first thing that was on the list was making musical instruments.
When I reread the part about making musical instruments, I was just ‘This is it; that's kind of interesting.’ Before going to the army, I was in high school and I majored in music and computers. I used to play guitar like 4- 6 hours a day, thinking that I'll probably like finish my army service and go to Berkeley School of Music.
But after finishing with the army, I didn't feel like that would me anymore. After almost not playing at all for almost 4 years, I just feel like it's something very private and I was so out of shape that I just felt that it's not something that I wanted to pursue.
When you're in the army and you come back home every 3 months or so, and I would change the strings on my guitar, I would fix my friend’s instruments, tune the piano, but it’s not like I wanted to have a concert. It just became something very personal.
I think that the instrument making came from me remembering being a musician and picking up an instrument and feel inspired to play differently. I wanted to understand how sound is made.
I started contacting a lot of guitar makers because I said, I'm a guitar player, it makes sense to learn to make guitars. I called them, but I didn't want to have an amateur class for a couple of months where you just make a guitar and you go back home - I wanted to understand how things work. They were like, ‘Well this is what we got, sorry.’ It didn’t feel very welcoming or very inviting, it just felt like someone's blowing you off telling you like ‘This is what we do, don't get in our turf.’
Then, I randomly met this violin maker called Shlomo living in Jerusalem, in my hometown. I gave him a call and the first thing he tells me is, ‘Well, we can't really talk violin making over the phone; you should come to my workshop.’ He was already much more inviting and more like myself; it was just a really nice feeling. I went to his place and when you go to a workshop there are always wood chips on the floor and curls and instruments in many stages. There’s a very romantic feeling to it.
So, I go there and he tells me this very common phrase which is: “Cremona Cremona Cremona, the city of violin-making!”
You could hear how excited he was - he studied there 20 years before. He talked about this city in Italy where basically everyone was a violinmaker; there’s a famous school that is named Stradivari, the most famous violinmaker. He said there is so much you can learn just by being in that school and living in that city. He said, “You know I have an amateur course and you're welcome to come by my workshop to get some experience, but if you really want to learn violin making you should go to Cremona.”
I was like, “Okay, that sounds interesting, but I’m a retired guitar player, I really should make guitars.” And he said, ‘You know, I play the bass, but I found myself in this world and I’ve never regretted it. You’re welcome to come by, and I’d be happy to have you, and this is what I can offer you.’ So, I took him up on that offer to learn from him and get a feel for the tools, because the tools for violin and guitar making are very similar.
Then I found that the violin school had a plucked instrument major – not just violins – so I committed myself to going to Italy, not knowing a word in Italian.
So when you arrive, you have a week of exams to check on your level of making, of your language, of your designs, your knowledge of wood. Depending on how good you are you can get accepted to the first second or third year.
I did the exam, and they said, ‘You’re making level is pretty good, but you don’t speak a word in Italian!’ They ask you questions in Italian and you have to respond in Italian and nobody in Cremona speaks any English.
They told me by the third year, you start learning about varnishes and chemistry, so if you don't understand what they say, you don't you can't really learn a lot of important things. SoI started the first year in the first year, and I started taking a lot of extra credit. At that time, instead of making a violin in the first year, you only make pieces. You'll make a tailpiece or a scroll. But by the first 3 months in school, I finished the project for the first year and second year and I told my teacher, ‘You know, I'm here to learn how to make violins, so let's make a violin.’
Every time he was just like, ‘No no no, you're not ready yet, you're not ready yet,’ and then after 3 months of finishing all the projects, he was just like ‘Okay, okay.’ So I started making my first violin and then by the end of the year I think I was the only student in the school that was stubborn enough to make my own violin. Maybe calling it a violin will be too much; it was a box that was able to old strings, but I learned so much from it that I felt, ‘This feels right.’
The difference between guitar and violin making is that guitars are usually not arched, and you play with a bow, so the way it works is very different. I feel like there's you can find the art in every type of making of instruments for sure but I just remember working on my first arching and it was fun and interesting and complex. There were a lot of talks at the violin museum and I went to all of them that I could. Learning about the complexity of the violin family and how they work was fascinating to me.
So at the end of the first year, I did the test again and jumped to the third year. After that third year, I was already able to make a few more violins of my own and really took a huge step forward. I remember putting the strings in my first instrument and having one of my friends play it and he was like, ‘Yam, this is really good.’
I finished the third year and then, you need to actually choose if you want to go to plucked instruments or violin making or restoration, and I was like, ‘Violins just feels right.’ I remember reading at the time the book ‘The Alchemist,’ a spiritual sort of book. For me, it represented that a lot of times the world tells you where you need to go; the question is only if you're listening. For me, that’s the feeling that something is true and just going for it, even if it doesn't make sense or is scary.
That’s why I fell down into the violin-making world. I didn't know if violin making was for me, but I felt like I had to keep going forward to a grain of truth.
After school, I was offered to teach in a small private school; it was a new school. People will come to work programs from one week all the way to 3 years to learn violinmaking; so I started teaching over there and at the same time I was making a cello for a lady who lives in Seattle. We met when she was living in Italy, and she told me, ‘When you finish it, why don’t you bring it over to Seattle.’
So I just decided to make a networking trip and go to the big shots in New York and Seattle and L. A. to meet makers and get perspective on my work. I came in with a quartet with the idea of getting some feedback, and after seeing what they like in the U.S., I'll be able to make it and send instruments to them.
But, at that time also around January, a guitar maker and ukulele maker who lives in Kailua, Oahu (Hawaii) came to Cremona to learn about violin making. We met through Couchsurfing; I hosted him and showed him around. We really connected and he told me, ‘You have to come and visit me, I have like an extra room in a workshop and we can trade secrets of the craft.’
I thought, well, I’m going to Seattle, I'll never be as close to Hawaii in my life. I know that a lot of people offer like ‘Hey come by,’ and by the time you do, they’re like, ‘Oh no man, it's really not a good time, I have this and that..’ But by the time I called him, he actually broke up with his girlfriend and wanted the company and had extra room. He was like, ‘Stay as long as you want, I love having you here.’
The second day, it's my birthday dinner, and he invited some friends over – including a girl, Lilian, and we ended up connecting very well. I didn't want to go, so I stayed for the rest of my Visa until eventually, I had to leave. I went back to Italy and closed my workshop over there and sent all my stuff back to Israel to my folks, and I told them, ‘I need to go and check about a lady; there's something real over there I don't know where it's going to go but if it’s real, I need to be there.’ So I bought a ticket, came back to Hawaii, and eventually, we got married.
Here in Hawaii, I found a local instrument-making shop, and now I work here and pay my rent by doing some work for him. Instead of me having the overhead of my own shop, I can use all the tools over here. Sending all the stuff that I came later during the years from Israel is super expensive. And I like working here because it gives me more experience with restoration work that I didn’t really get exposed to do back in Cremona because we were so focused on violinmaking. Here, you do day-to-day restoration and do a lot of sound adjustment directly with the musician, which can make a big difference.
So, on a typical day I’ll wake up, make breakfast, and come to the workshop around 9 A. M. I’ll work between 9 to 1 pm making my own instruments. That’s usually my favorite time of the day just like being here on my own; the guy who owns the shop arrives here only around 1 or 2. Then I'll start doing restorations and repairs, which doesn't need to have as much as all of me into it. Then I’ll try to leave around 5 so I can still catch the sun and hopefully do a little hike or jump in the water with Lilian.
I do Monday to Friday usually, but sometimes people want to meet on weekends. I just had a client coming from San Diego who commissioned an instrument, so when he got here it was 24/7 around what he needs and wants to get his instrument into the best shape. It’s great because it gives you time to really get to know the musician who's playing your instrument and develop that relationship. And it makes sure that I will still have a connection to my instruments even when they're not next to me, so I can learn from their experience and in time develop my own making style.
I feel like my routine really depends on what stage I’m in; there are some 7 days that might be just making or just repairing. Right now I'm working one day a week on improving my website so that I have more exposure online. Being a sole proprietorship is requires you to do everything you can really, you don’t have anyone else to do it for you.
So far every musician I sold an instrument brought me another client; so far so good. If it will continue in this way it might work out pretty well but I do need to have more exposure if my goal is to do mostly making and sound adjustments in the future, and less restoration. That’s not as much my passion.
There’s a lot of myths in my industry. Every person who comes into the shop will tell me they watched some documentary, or have some idea that Stradivari violins are the best because of some kind of particular varnish, or fungus in the world, blah blah blah. I just remind them that the instrument that was designed back in 1700 wasn't designed to be the instrument that they are today. They were rock instruments; so being rock instruments they were made differently. Since then, they were changed to say what we do with them today. The fact that they play well is mostly thanks to the restorer and people who handle these instruments. Being high-value instruments, they were repaired by the best people in the industry.
So, I think that the misconception is that people will think that newer instruments are not as good as all older instruments. Today, what they’ve shown in many blind tests, is that old instruments and newer ones can sound just as good. The difference is that it’s a work of art. Obviously, an instrument that survived 300 years will have a higher stock value but that doesn’t necessarily reflect on the sound. I’ve met players who say, ‘I own a Stradivari but I like the sound of your violin much better and it’s easier to play,’ and they’re not trying to make me be cocky or anything; they're just telling me that. A lot of Stradivari wasn’t maintained that well and they don’t play well; in his career, he made 1000 instruments, so there are maybe 50 or 60 that was well maintained and kept in the best conditions, but a lot of them will suffer from old age and not being kept properly.
There is a couple of violin-making school in the States; one in Salt Lake; but like I was told, “Cremona, Cremona, Cremona, the city of violinmaking!” That experience of living abroad, learning it from the place where it was invented, and feeling like you are living at the time that it was made, is so important. Being like Cremona is like living in the past in many ways.
My feeling is like you can learn violin making anywhere around the world, but you can live the violin making only in Cremona.
I'll be happy to teach anyone and then when they'll be ready, send them to Cremona to where they can live it if they do decide to pursue a career.
Persistence. From the violin-making school, there are about 30 or 40 graduates every year; like 25 percent or 30 percent really continue in the world of violin making. It's okay, I don't think that everyone from the school needs is a violinmaker their whole life; you definitely learn a lot from making violins that you can apply in many different things. But I feel like the biggest message that I can give to people who are just starting their path and looking for what they want to do in life- just like I got from The Alchemist - it is just to listen to this truth and see when something isn't right for you. Otherwise, go for it full-heartedly.
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“Each other’s lives are our best textbooks.”– Gloria Steinem