Violin Art: Rhapsody in Wood
Shoulders, necks, backs and bellies were strewn on workbenches in the violin maker’s shop. Wood chips made a carpet of spruce and maple.
The work pace was slow in the Ghent shop, as if from another age and place, and the only sound competing with the craftsman’s voice was that of a dull scraping of metal against wood. The sound was that of violas, violins and cellos taking form.
Violin-making is a world filled with mystery, said 30-year-old Lance G. Bellamy, one of three area professional violin makers serving a string-playing population of more than 3,000 schoolchildren and nearly 100 professional musicians.
Little is written about the art, and craftspeople have to dig for answers. They must try different techniques and determine which is better. Bellamy spent more than a year reading everything he could find about varnish and then took 18 months to develop his own.
“Most violin makers won’t tell people how they make their varnish,” he said. “I won’t tell people. The craft is full of secrets. Nobody wants to tell anybody anything. Nobody wants to tell what’s taken them so long to make work.”
“Most violin makers are nonconformists. . . . They are people who can work well on their own. They don’t need a lot of direction.”
Before opening his East 13th Street shop – the only one of its kind in Tidewater – Bellamy apprenticed under W. Howard Dodd, who makes violins in his Norfolk home. Bellamy now employs another craftsman, Andrew Cleveland, who just finished an apprenticeship in December.
Hand-fashioning an instrument takes about a month of concentrated effort and two months more to varnish and let dry, Bellamy said. Last year, he made and sold five violins at $2,500 each. Dodd made and sold six violins at $3,000 each. The craftsmen also do repair work.
Why not buy a 17th-century violin made by one of the Cremona families in Italy – an Amati, Stradivari, or Guaneri? Bellamy recalls a Stradivari selling recently for $498,000.
“Today, he said, “the average student has got a choice between buying an old bad violin for $3,000 or a good new violin.”
Bellamy, a Portsmouth native, began playing violin at age 12. His parents tried to guide him toward academics, but he abandoned engineering studies midway through his years at Old Dominion University to study violin-making.
“It was a turning point in my life,” the craftsman said. “I played mandolin for the (Norfolk) symphony at a concert during my junior year. . . . I enjoyed it so much that I decided I wasn’t going to continue engineering although I was doing okay at it.
“I wanted to do something with music. But I didn’t want to be a musician. I was always interested in wood but had never done anything with it.”
He worried a lot when he first decided to leave college.
Most of his family and friends “thought I was crazy,” he said. “I couldn’t go into it half-heartedly once I made the decision. I’d given up so much for it.”
But Bellamy’s engineering knowledge complements his ability as a craftsman. “The engineering background has been invaluable,” he said.
For example, most violin makers tap the back and belly of the instrument to tune it, relying on their ear. Bellamy tunes his instruments by suspending them on a wooden platform hooked up with an oscillator, an audio generator, a frequency counter, and an amplifier and speaker.
“It took me three years to develop this,” he said, adjusting the knobs. “By running through the frequencies, I can tell the best frequency. . . . The real key to a successful handmade instrument is the tuning.”
Still, he credits most of the knowledge of his trade to Dodd, to whom he paid $40 a month to learn craft secrets.
“He showed me everything he knew,” Bellamy said. “He’s very experimental. He has very good skill. He’s a good craftsman.”
Passing on trade secrets to an apprentice is an intimate business. Love for the craft is what binds the master-apprentice relationship.
“You have to know he’s dedicated and not whimsical,” Bellamy said. “Making instruments is a very romantic idea, but you go through a tedious, time-consuming task of learning, doing it. You have to tell that person everything from the beginning. You’re telling him a lot of things that took you years of frustration to discover.”
Dodd said Bellamy learned quickly.
“He was a good apprentice,” Dodd said. “There is pleasure in seeing a student do well. I suppose for a teacher, that’s probably the ultimate pleasure.”
Dodd prefers working alone, but he agreed to take Bellamy on as an apprentice in part because he was loaded with repair work and needed help. They worked together three years.
Dodd’s interest in the profession started differently. The 39-year-old master grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, and studied music all his life. He decided to become a violin maker while working on a master’s degree at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
“I had taken my cello to a repairman,” Dodd said, “and it just went from there.”
He moved to Norfolk because there were too few string players in Kansas City to support both his teacher and himself. Norfolk boasted an extensive public school program and, therefore, “the potential for making a livelihood was here,” he said.
Violin makers can indeed find a working niche here,” said Sidney Berg, music director for Norfolk Public Schools. “There are 1,677 public-school pupils playing stringed instruments.”
Berg said the schools use Dodd and Bellamy “all the time.”
“They are in business primarily because of school business,” he said. “When Dodd first came here, we had no string repairmen in the school system.”
Berg described Dodd and Bellamy as “very skilled craftsmen – fine wood craftsmen.”
They are among a very elite group. There are only 2,500 violin makers in the country, according to Eric Chapman, president o the Violin Society of America, based in Larchmont, New York.
Bellamy agreed with Dodd that teaching is a time-consuming task that takes away from the creation of instruments. However, unlike his former teacher, who prefers working alone, Bellamy relishes having a colleague.
“You can imagine what it would be like,” Bellamy said, “making instruments and there’s nobody you can talk with when you’re excited about something.”
“When I’m finished with an instrument, I’m amazed that I made it,” he said. “There are so many hundreds of steps you have to do right. It’s really unbelievably tedious work. You have to love it or it will drive you insane. Everything you do, you do as well as you can. Every time you make one, it’s the very best one.
“When you finish the violin, your enthusiasm peaks. I go through a ritual. I make sure everything is perfect. I polish it with violin polish. I make sure everything is clean and shining. There’s not a single thing I have to go back and do.
“When I finish, I usually go and wash my hands for a few minutes. Then I come out and play it. That first time you play, it is really the most exciting thing.”
But Bellamy said his job is not complete until the instrument finds an owner.
“A violin is nothing if it’s not played,” he said. “Maybe in the year 2075, somebody will still be playing an instrument of mine. That’s a nice feeling.”
This piece was first published in The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, on Monday, February 9, 1981.
Angelica Morgan, the protagonist in my novel, Turn On, Tune Out, plays violin. Her teacher in Malvern gave her a violin, However, she did not know her violin’s maker. Read her story: