I have been playing the violin for many years now. However, I always had the curiosity in the making and repairing of this amazing instrument. To learn this skill, I worked at Xinghai Instrument for two weeks during my last summer holiday in highs school. I was put under the guidance of Master Shiying Zhang. Master Zhang has been fixing different string instruments for the majority of his life, and he is a real master when it comes to the art of making and repairing these beautiful instruments.
Xinghai Instrument is located next to the Forbidden City in the center of Beijing, which is quite a long way away from where I lived. In order to get there on time, I would wake up early and squeeze into the morning rush hour bus. The journey took around an hour if I didn’t have to wait too long for the buses.
For the first week, I didn’t get my hands dirty at all. As I knew nothing about repairing bows and instruments, I stood by Master Zhang’s side and observed. In the beginning, I was very scared of the techniques that Master Zhang was using. This was because I always thought of the violin as a very weak and fragile instrument, handling it with extreme care, thinking that doing anything extreme would break the wood. However, this was not the case. The Spruce wood is very strong and would not break as easily one might think. An example of this was when Master Zhang found that there was a slit crack between the back and the back plate and the ribs. As soon as he told me this I got very afraid because I thought it was going to be a very hard fix. Master Zhang told me that the glue just came off as sometimes temperatures might be very high. All he had to do was to reapply some glue. He used a small metal plate to apply the glue into the small opening. Then clamping the violin with premade clamps, he let the glue dry. Now that it was fixed, one could not even see that it was had actually opened before. After this incident, I started to accept the methods of violin fixing.
Master Zhang also taught me how to change the horse hair of a bow. The whole process took about 2 hours, and multiple bows could be done at the same time. At first, I thought it was a very easy process, but soon I learnt it was harder than I thought. First of all, my hand lacked power. There were some procedures which required strong hand power such as pushing this marble stick off the fog of the bow. Also how to hold the bow and use the equipment needed was vital. I always held things in a very awkward position which prevented me from doing certain tasks with just two hands. However, under the guidance of Master Zhang, I slowly learned how to hold things correctly and learned how to use tools. After spending two weeks with Master Zhang, I am able to change the horse hair myself. It is another great skill to have as the horse hair on the bows needs to be changed quite often.
I also learnt how to fix a violin when is a crack on its face or back. The crack might not be so big, but if it is not fixed in a timely manner, then it would cause the crack to increase in size and eventually split the face or back into two pieces. This sort of injury to the instrument is a very common and Master Zhang sees it very often. Master Zhang used his tools and took the face board off the instrument. Then by using his special glue and some extra wood, he would slowly glue the crack back together and then add the extra wooden pieces over the crack to reinforce the join, preventing it from splitting apart again.
Apart from learning technical skills of repairing the violin, I was also able to learn some marketing skills. Master Zhang would get multiple visits from customers every day. They were all regulars and have been asking Master Zhang to fix their instruments for years now. Master Zhang is a very approachable gentleman. Even when people do the wrong things to their instruments, he wouldn’t get mad at them but instead he would make a joke out of it. A good example of this was when a high school student brought his cello in to repair. The strings were all off and the bridge had fallen down and was missing. It just didn’t look like a cello anymore. It was later learnt that he got mad because he was not able to tune his cello properly and he thought that it was due to the bridge so he threw his 100 year old bridge onto the floor and broke it. This was very irregular especially for someone who has played an instrument for a long time. I felt that the student has disrespected the his instrument. Breaking a 100 year old bridge doesn’t just mean breaking a piece of wood, he also broke the history that went along with the bridge. Master Zhang did not get mad after the student told his anecdote; instead he taught the student how to adjust the sound bridge so he would know what to do next time. This friendly relationship he has with his customers makes them want to come back and want him to fix their broken instruments.
I started work in the high season when the Chinese schools just closed for summer holidays. There were a lot of instruments in the little workshop and the space was filling up fast. I helped Master Zhang do small things in the workshop to lighten the load on him. Overall it was a great experience and I believe I truly enriched my understanding of the violin. I now have a clear imagine of how a violin is made and also some techniques to repair it. I really enjoyed doing this and it could be a possible career option for me in the future.