Making Violins The Old Way In Northern Wisconsin

By Emily Bright | April 10, 2015


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Brian Derber is a full-time violin maker from Presque Isle who runs the only violin-making school of its kind in Wisconsin. Derber has got a thick gray beard running down to his chest and a teacher’s knack for making challenging ideas simple.

“One of the common myths is that every Stradivari instrument sounds great, and that just is not so,” says Derber.

Those instruments are rare works of art, but that doesn’t mean every musician will prefer their sound.

Tone is subjective, Derber says. Making a great violin is a matter of precision woodwork. Every step affects the instrument’s sound, which no doubt gives students pause. There’s the thickness of the plates, the shape of the f holes, even the varnish, which takes Derber 25 hours to apply.

“As you get into this, you starting picking out certain personality characteristics of the maker. And that’s what attracted me to it,” explains Derber.

Derber says his own instruments reflect his role as a teacher. He tries to make his instruments as perfect as possible, with no tool marks visible.

Derber opened his New World School of Violin Making in 2000 when his wife’s job brought them to the Northwoods. But “old” and “new” are fairly blurred here.

When Galileo was peering through his telescope, violins were made the same way.

“We’re using technology that was current in the 16th century,” says Derber. “The first instruments that my students learn to make are done entirely with hand tools. And some of the tools you can still purchase. Others you have to make.

A violin takes Derber about 150 hours. Derber isn’t opposed to machines, but he wants his students to learn to do the work by hand first. Only a handful of American schools teach traditional violin making, mostly in big citieies. Derber’s rural setting was part of the draw for Leyla Kelley, a student from Omaha, Nebraska.

“I am TRYING to fit a base bar right at the moment, which is this piece, and it goes in here,” Kelley says.

All morning, Kelley has been carefully shaving the basebar with a violin knife. She’s made furniture before.

“I really thought about, like just as a hobby, going to week-long or month long sessions, but I found that it really is a big process,” Kelley explains.

Kelley’s the only student this semester, sharing the one-room workshop in a set-up that feels more like a classic apprenticeship than any traditional classroom.In the course of three years, Kelley will learn to make the whole violin family, including viola, and cello.The whole process is layers of craft and art, and the result is a tool – an instrument – on which musicians express themselves.

“And so I have this saying. ‘Non omnus moriar.’ Not all of me is dead. And that’s kind of how I view these instruments,” says Derber.  



Music: “The Gypsies: Journey Across Europe” from the soundtrack The Red Violin, performed by Joshua Bell and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Composed by John Corigliano

Emily Bright

Emily Bright

Emily Bright is a freelance writer, educator, and radio producer living in Eagle River. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Glances Back and the co-author of Powerful Ideas in Teaching: Creating Environments Where Students Want to Learn. 
2018-01-19T17:52:27-06:00Tags: , , , , , , |

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