Britain has an incredibly vibrant culture for violin making, and its schools enjoy an enviable reputation attracting students from all over the world. Over the years different institutions have come and gone, but Newark College of Violin Making in Nottinghamshire, South Thames College in London, Glasgow Clyde College and West Dean College in West Sussex provide contrasting opportunities for anyone interested in pursuing the craft to professional level.
Numerous courses in instrument making and repair have existed over the last century or so starting with the National School for Musical Trades that began violin making classes more than a century ago in 1916, enjoying it’s heyday under William Luff as part of the London College of Furniture (you can watch it in action in 1935 right here). Today, Newark’s School of Musical Crafts is one of the largest centres for training musical instrument makers anywhere in Europe with around 120 violin makers enrolled in the course from all around the world. South Thames College, Glasgow Clyde and West Dean College are much smaller but no less important organisations. South Thames focusses on repair of instruments with a specialist violin department and is a good choice for part-time students, or those who want to be around London. West Dean’s small full-time courses in instrument making have a focus on early instruments – the viola da gamba in particular, which leads to different perspectives on how to approach stringed instrument making in general. Graduates from all courses find their way into the trade, or make successful careers of their own as musical instrument makers.
Can I become a violin maker?
All instrument making schools welcome a diverse array of students, from school-leavers right the way through to retirement age, and comprising students from all over the world. If you are planning to study in the UK from overseas, it is best to check directly with each college about it’s ability to take international students, but all have a strong history of welcoming people from around the world and you should have no problem getting onto the course of your choice. The mixture of age and experience provides a very special learning environment. Although playing a musical instrument is desirable, surprising numbers of students and professional instrument makers don’t play the instrument that they make, and some don’t play an instrument at all, as the craft of instrument making has it’s own fascination and challenges separate to the skills of music making. In times past, a high level of woodworking skills was necessary to get onto any of the courses, but in recent years woodwork and other practical craft-skills have disappeared from secondary-school curriculums. If you are interested in applying for a course in violin making it is essential to ensure that you have the manual dexterity to use tools properly (many people don’t), so take a short course for a week or so as part of your journey towards applying. West Dean (see the short courses here), and the Violin Workshop in Cambridge offer a host of week and weekend courses, or speaking to a local violin shop and asking for advice and a little bit of work experience can be invaluable. The basic rule – don’t be put off if you don’t have tool experience, but be realistic about your prospects if working with tools doesn’t come naturally to you when you try. Lastly the British Violin Making Association holds a maker’s day every spring. Come along to meet other professional makers and see if you fit in.
Newark School of Violin Making sits amongst various schools of guitar making, piano tuning and restoration and woodwind making and repair. The prospectus can be found here. It is by far the largest school in Britain, with more than 100 students studying violin making at any time. Newark is a small market town right in the centre of England, so the vast number of student and professional makers in a small area allows for an incredibly focussed three years of study.
In 2015 to celebrate Yehudi Menuhin’s centenary year, given that he helped to found Newark (and West Dean) I asked a team of students at Newark to make a copy of Menuhin’s celebrated “Lord Wilton” Guarneri, and challenged them to make a video of the process. If you want a sense of what violin making involves, and whether you could do it, the next ten minutes spent on YouTube could change your life completely.
South Thames College in London, (formerly known as Merton College) has run violin making and repair courses for years within a broader Musical Instrument Technology department that encompasses guitar and woodwind making and repair. The mix of full-time and part-time places gives the course a disproportionate intake of mature students, and it’s geographical location in South London means that people who want, or need, to be study in easy reach of central London find it a particularly good place to study. The focus tends towards repair rather than making instruments, and it has a significant reputation amongst the London repair and restoration workshops, with several alumni who have gained experience in the trade starting their own businesses. Find the website here.
West Dean College in West Sussex is run by the private Edward James Foundation, and the college is a stately home in the middle of some of Britain’s most spectacular scenery. The workshop for it’s full time course only has room for nine students. When it started in the early 1980s it focussed on early instrument making because of the heavy demand from the emerging early music scene. Now it uses viol making as a way of training students with tool skills, and enabling them a versatility and range of skills that they can bring into their chosen direction, whether it is to remain in early strings, or to develop violin or guitar making skills. The mix of students within the college can provide a different kind of stimulation from being shackled with 120 prospective violin makers. The college includes departments that make, restore and conserve clocks, furniture and books, providing training for conservators in museums and libraries all over the world, as well as fine art department and countless short courses. Fees are the highest at West Dean, but you get a lot for your money, and the Foundation employs its own fundraisers to help to find bursaries and scholarships to make things a little cheaper. Top tip: worry about the fees after you’ve passed the interview! Find the prospectus here.
Glasgow Clyde College (familiar to many in the trade as Anniesland) was established in 1989 and is now Scotland’s established institution of musical instrument making and repair. The course that has a capacity of about 30 students lasts for two years up to NQ level, and has produced an enviable number of Scotland’s violin and guitar makers and repairers. Given the length of the course, many students will find they need more learning time, and use it as a stepping stone towards Newark or other schools, and it provides a particularly useful foundation course for anyone who wants to explore violin and guitar making before becoming deeply committed. At the same time, the quality of work and a strict ethos for tools skills and high standards of output means that various aspiring makers who have trained elsewhere make their way to Glasgow to refine their work, especially in guitar making. Violin making runs side-by-side with guitar making and there are fewer students who follow that path, but it is nevertheless a hugely important contributor to violin making in Scotland and beyond. Further information is on their website here. You can watch a time-lapse video of guitar making in the college below.
If you think instrument making might be a good idea the starting point is to sound out a local instrument maker first. For some people the process of learning to make instruments is reward enough, giving them the confidence to spread their wings in the wider world afterwards and a hobby for years to come. Others embark on a life-long obsession and a successful career. Tool skills are critical, and it is good to know that you have the ability to handle a plane or a chisel properly before you get too committed. There are fabulous residential courses at the Cambridge Violin Making Workshop for amateur makers, and West Dean also offers a huge array of craft courses that will be useful to develop a bit of experience before you make a big commitment – see their website here. A friendly violin maker can probably guide you (and they do tend to be friendly). Students range enormously from school leavers to people looking for a career change all the way through to retirement projects. Musical ability is not a prerequisite for being a musical instrument maker. If for whatever inexplicable reason, you are drawn to the romance of being a violin maker … the opportunities are waiting for you.
London College of Furniture ran a fabulous course in instrument making that had it’s origins in the Northern Polytechnic Institute that developed around the time of the First World War. In its heyday it produced an incredibly vibrant variety of makers and restorers, but as it merged into City Polytechnic, then London Guildhall University and finally London Metropolitan University the lack of any mandate to secure the future of a specialist institution led to it’s demise. In 2015 it took its last students. Leeds College of Music also ran a good course which ended in around 2000. The Welsh School of Violin Making was founded shortly after Newark and was killed off in the mid-1990s. Over the years I have met and worked with phenomenal makers and restorers who were trained at either of these. They all made a huge contribution to our rich cultural tapestry, drawing students to study in the UK from all over the world and their graduates have made an enormous impact on musical life everywhere.
Benjamin Hebbert’s training as an instrument maker was at the former London College of Furniture in it’s brief existence as London Guildhall University and he taught as a visiting lecturer when it was London Metropolitan University. He was on the full time staff at West Dean College sometime around 2010 and has been a regular visiting lecturer since then. Somehow he became trade examiner at South Thames College. In his spare time he likes to cause trouble with the students at Newark when the opportunity arises.