It takes master violin maker (and BSSC Alumnus) Rainer Beilharz one year to create three violins and three cellos at his Castlemaine workshop.
“Sometimes I can have an instrument in process for a year. Sometimes it’s much quicker than that,” he said.
Each violin must meet the exacting standard of the best pieces made by the greatest violin maker the world has ever known, Antonio Stradivari.
So Mr Beilharz carefully adjusts each piece as he goes, measuring the thickness of the grain and the speed that sound travels through the wood.
“It’s a very fluid thing making a violin. You start at one end and sort of go with the flow to finish it. That’s about the best way I can put it,” he said.
“I’m really all about the sound these days. The first part of my career – and every violin maker’s career, really – is a struggle to make pieces look like a proper violin.
“It’s such a highly developed instrument and such a cultural icon. So the looks are extremely important. You spend a lot of time getting it right.”
There is one more thing Mr Beilharz is searching for: the X-factor.
“The best Strads (violins made by Stradivari) are extremely exciting to play – not all of them are great. Some are held together by lots of glue and they might never have been good in the first place,” he said.
“But there are so many violins that Stradivari made are fantastic. Over the years they have been looked after, tuned so well and played so much that they sound great.”
The effort needed to create the best instruments is worth it classical guitarist Jenni Heinrich says.
She has a guitar by a master-craftsman who, in 1985 made just two instruments. The other is owned by fellow Guitar Collaboration band member Anne Begg.
“Just recently I had to send my guitar to an instrument maker for repair. While it was there I had my old student instrument and I said to Anne ‘this is like playing on a wet face washer’,” Mrs Heinrich said.
“It doesn’t sing. There’s no depth or projection in it.”
Musicians develop strong bonds with their instruments, especially when they are of the highest quality, Mrs Heinrich said.
“It’s a very intimate thing,” she said.
“My guitar teacher from university approved the instrument before I bought it. I remember saying to him after I got it that I was utterly entranced.
“The novelty had not worn off and I could never wait to get back and play it again.”
“He said ‘yeah, it’s like a love affair’.”
Some musicians might go so far as to find a spiritual connection with their instruments, Mr Beilharz said.
“That’s an important part of musicians’ emotional world, but in a way it’s none of my business,” he said.
It can take time for violinists to hone their talent to the point they can make the best violins sing, Mr Beilharz said.
“If you give most people violins that sound like the best Strads, when they are used to playing a student instrument, they won’t find it very nice,” he said.
“We have this idea that a great violin will sound wonderful and warm, but under the ear it sounds scratchy and a bit unpleasant.
“It’s really what you can do with a sound that it has that edginess that makes it very special.”
Castlemaine’s Allan Evans straddles the divide between musician and instrument maker.
“You feel very connected to something when you have made it and are playing it regularly,” he said.
His boss and mentor, Malmsbury craftsman Andy Rigby, often holds get-togethers where harpists play. Many play instruments Mr Rigby has created.
“It must be an amazing feeling for him, having made hundreds of them (harps) and seeing all these people with them,” Mr Evans said.
Mr Evans’ forays into craftsmanship began three years ago.
“I had this half-sized harp that Andy had made for me. I couldn’t quite afford a full-sized one, which was about $5000 at the time, so I asked Andy if there was any way to lower the cost,” he said.
“He told me I could come over to make it with him and do a few other odd jobs in to workshop.”
Mr Evans now spends one day a week working on harps and other instruments.
“It’s just a really satisfying process taking blocks of wood and turning them into something you can make beautiful music with in a fairly short time,” Mr Evans said.
Making instruments has changed his perspective on music.
“I used to take them for granted, a little bit. But making them gets you thinking about the subtle elements (of sound),” Mr Evans said.
“I’ve certainly become a lot faster at tuning harps. When they have just been made you need to stretch the strings out. They go out of tune very quickly.”
In that way, crafting harps differs from “the mysterious art” of violin-making, Mr Evans said.
“I mean, you could knock the smaller harps over in a few days if you wanted to.”
The challenge with harps is not so much fine-tuning the instrument’s soundbox, Mr Evans said. It is working with strings.
And unlike the violin, harp designs are open to some interpretation, he said.
“The process Andy goes through often involves borrowing ideas from other instruments and then combining different design elements,” Mr Evans said.
“The big harps he makes are ones he calls ‘paraceltic’ harps. They are nylon strung, as opposed to gut or metal-strung.
“They are very similar to what you would see in Paraguay. They are a bit taller and can be free-standing, with a really big sound box.
“Whereas, most people think of Celtic and Irish harps, which are gut-strung and quite a different instrument all round.”
To learn more about Mr Beilharz’s work, visit www.rainerbeilharzviolins.com.au.
By Tom O’Callaghan – Bendigo Advertiser
Photo: Glenn Daniels