How I began making musical instruments
I started making wind instruments in 1975 while still in
college. I had been introduced to the recorder; and, as a clarinet player, I was
fascinated with its simplicity (no keys and no reed). For some reason I
mistakenly decided it ought to be easy to make one. I took a night course in
woodworking at a local technical college to learn how to run a wood lathe and
read Trevor Robinson's book "The Amateur Wind Instrument Maker." Very quickly I
found myself constantly trying to figure out how various parts of instruments
are made. It was a new experience for me, as I had never made anything in my
life...and I was hooked. As an orchestral string player (viola), I had read a
lot about the mystique surrounding Stradivarius and the other early violin
makers, and somewhere in the back of my mind the dream of becoming an instrument
maker was born.
I wrote a friendly introductory letter to Friedrich von Huene (designer of the Moeck “Rottenburgh” recorders and one of the best known recorder maker/designers in the world) and explained that I was making recorders as a hobby. He thought it unusual that anyone would try this and said he would like to see some of my work. I mailed him my nicest rosewood recorder and began making plans to drive to Boston to visit his shop.
When I arrived he explained that I would need to make my own tapered reamers to get the correct bore on Baroque recorders, and that any maker of fine woodwind instruments needs to be more a machinist than a woodworker. His shop had several rooms, one of which was full of about a dozen machine tools. I didn’t know what they were used for, and I was too intimidated to ask. He showed me one of the reamers he had made, and to me it seemed impossible to fashion such a tool. When we got around to talking about an apprenticeship, he said it would require a four year commitment…not something I could consider while still in college with a new wife.
I came home partly disillusioned because I had thought recorders are made by hand. After all, they seem so simple. Somehow the sight of all those machines took something away from the aura I had imagined. I wasn’t giving up, though. I took von Huene’s advice to heart, bought a metal turning lathe, took classes in machine tool technology at another technical college, and read everything I could get my hands on about machining metal. The metal lathe brought a new dimension of accuracy to my work, and soon I branched out into transverse flutes and then xylophones; again, because of my attraction to their simplicity.
After graduating from the University of South Carolina, I took a job teaching strings (small classes of violin, viola, cello, and bass) in the public school system and continued making instruments in my spare time. I had all kinds of instruments lying around the house, and one day my wife said "Why don't you try to sell some of this stuff at a craft show?" So it was that I first began to sell my work. After teaching for a few years I found that, more often than not, I was wishing I could stay home from school and make instruments. Now I realize that my desire to stay home from school and play probably began during elementary school.
I left teaching in 1980 hoping to make a living in instrument making. In 1981 I traveled to Chicago to take an apprenticeship in violin repair at Bein & Fuchi. At that time they were one of the larger violin dealers in the country. One day I was watching a worker from the bow department machining tortoise shell on a milling machine, and I realized that I felt envious. I wanted to be doing his job. Von Huene had implanted a fascination with machine tools, and I knew that was the type of work I wanted to do. It was also becoming obvious that the hand work required in violin making really didn't suit me, and I left after a short stay.
I came home disheartened, and after considering my options I contacted the Kelischek Workshop for Historical Instruments in North Carolina. George Kelischek told me on the phone that there was no way he would hire me, so I asked if I could come up for a tour of his shop. We made an appointment, and I brought with me a display case with about a dozen of my flutes. He bought several on the spot, ordered a couple more, and hired me to make the Mylar reeds for his crumhorns. Though making the reeds was to be my main job, I also got to work on crumhorns, Kelhorns, and eventually ocarinas.
I lived in a small apartment in George’s basement and traveled back home on weekends. At this point my wife and I were both thoroughly confused about where all this would take us, so she kept her teaching job and ‘held down the fort’ as I continued my adventures.
Thomas Kelischek, George’s middle son, also worked in the shop, and we became good friends, often playing ping-pong or recorder duets at night.
One day George came back from a show in Florida and showed me two ocarinas he had purchased. One was a small clay 4-holer, and the other was a wooden double by Alan Albright. I had seen a clay 4-hole ocarina before, but I really loved this wooden double ocarina. George immediately saw the potential market for a wooden 4-hole pendant ocarina and set out to design one. After showing me his initial results, he encouraged me to experiment on my own. He gave me access to his supply of Honduras Rosewood, and in my spare time I made my first ocarinas in his shop. Meanwhile George, Thomas and I began production (to George’s specifications) on the first batch of ocarinas to come out of the Kelischek Workshop. George supervised every stage, but he was already consumed with designing the injection molded plastic windway/lip inserts that became standard on his later wooden ocarinas.
That was in the summer of 1981. I left George’s workshop after only three months because of the basic difference in our temperaments. Once again I felt disheartened, but this time I finally gave up. I enrolled in a two year program in a tech school to study electronic engineering. God only knows what I was thinking. I just figured I had tried my best to pursue my dream and failed, so now it was time to give in and get some kind of regular job. I knew I didn’t want to teach, so that meant going back to school to be retrained. I loved electronics for the first year, because I was fascinated by the mathematics, but in my spare time I kept making recorders, flutes, xylophones and ocarinas.
During the second year, calculus and transistor theory got the best of me; and again I was drawn to instrument making as a career. Ocarina sales had increased to the point that I believed I could make a living at it. I gradually phased out recorders and flutes over the next few years as my family of ocarinas began to evolve.
Alan Albright was still making his double ocarinas at that time, and over the next year I was able to add five different sizes of his instruments to my personal collection of ocarinas from around the world. I studied them for many hours, and they were my inspiration as I developed my own preference of ocarina tone…a pure, sweet sound that speaks effortlessly with just the slightest wisp of air.