THE ART OF SOUND
Scott Sleider builds sounds. He creates fine violins with maple grown in Bosnia and spruce that comes from only two groves in northern Italy. In its natural state, the wood has the wave and sheen of water and is the color of pearls.
To craft his violins, Sleider uses tools that have changed little since the 1500s, and he makes his own varnish from recipes dating to the 1400s.
There are 84 pieces in a violin, and Sleider makes each one by hand.
Sleider, 42, is one of 100 people in the United States and the only one in Wisconsin to pass the rigorous membership requirements for the elite American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, Inc. He can build violins, build bows, restore antique instruments, identify and appraise instruments for insurance purposes, and testify as an expert witness in court.
"When you hear a great violin, you get the feeling that the whole instrument is playing," he said. "That's the main difference between a good violin and a great violin."
Every time the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra plays, you come in contact with Sleider's work. He's repaired many of the musicians' violins, cellos and violas.
Violinist Eriks Klavins took a violin made by Sleider on the MSO's 1986 European tour, and it played in the world's major concert halls. You'll also find Sleiders in Wisconsin college symphonies, church choirs and chamber orchestras. A Lawrence University music professor is on the waiting list for a Sleider, and one Milwaukee family owns five.
"He's extremely talented," Klavins said. "When I bought that violin, I was looking at some French instruments that were considerably more expensive, but Scott's just sounded terrific."
Step into Sleider's climate-controlled workshop in the basement of his Sawyer County home. Wood warps, so the temperature is kept at 68 to 72 degrees, and the humidity at 42% to 46%. The curvaceous pinups on the walls with front, side and rear views are of string instruments, not models filling string bikinis, and the workshop is filled with the shells of violins, violas and cellos in various stages of completion.
It's not a new observation, but whoever invented the violin undoubtedly was inspired by a woman's body, with its long, slender neck, nipped-in waist, and curves swelling above and below. For a female visitor, it can be mildly disconcerting to be surrounded by flesh-colored violin shells resembling disembodied torsos, as if there once had been heads and limbs that withered and fell off through lack of use.
Sleider isn't unaware of the instrument's erotic implications.
"When I make a violin, I want to make something that people want to fondle, that they want to hold," he said. "That carries over into the playing."
What also carries over is the mind-boggling detail that goes into making or repairing a fine instrument.
The hank of hair on the wall comes from a herd of white horses in Manchuria. That's right -- Sleider imports all the hair for his bows from northeast China.
"It's become quite a cottage industry over there," he said. "I look at the hair through a microscope to make sure it hasn't been bleached. That weakens it. Black hair is larger in diameter, and has a coarser quality. Hair from this particular herd gives the musicians a lot of bite and articulation and clarity."
He cuts down his own willows (for the violin's interior parts) and has pounded dried cow tendons into granules to make glue. The sides, back and scroll of a violin always are maple, but the tops are spruce, and Sleider has found two groves north of Cremona, Italy, where the light is restricted and the growth slow enough to produce the uniform sound he desires. A top quality log can cost up to $3,000, and for Sleider the sight and smell of good wood is an aesthetic experience.
"The woodshed is my escape," he said. "I'll take a glass of wine and sit out here and daydream, just looking at wood. An hour later, the wife wakes me up calling me to dinner."
As he talks, Sleider sits at his work bench, planing the top of a viola-in-progress to an even thickness of 2.5 millimeters -- or one-tenth of an inch.
He works in a raspy, three-part rhythm soothing in its regularity: He shaves off bits of wood, and then brushes away the residue with the flat of his hand, forming miniature piles of spruce dust as fine and soft as flour.
Scrape, scrape, swish. Scrape, scrape, swish. Or occasionally: scrape, scrape, puff, swish.
"There are machines I could use to do this," he said. "But I do all my cutting by hand. When you have that hands-on contact, you get an intuition about what the violin needs and what you should be doing to it."
It takes him four to six weeks to make a violin or viola (each sells for $8,500), and two months to make a cello (which sell for $16,000). In a world where many fine string instruments cost twice the mortgage of an average home, that's dirt cheap.
"It's thrilling for musicians to be able to buy this absolutely superb violin that's affordable," Klavins said. "Every one he makes gets better and better. He's going to make quite a name for himself some day."
Sleider is one of those people who seem born with an inborn predisposition to a certain line of work.
He comes from a long line of dairy farmers, and his father was a construction worker and plasterer in Milwaukee. The music genes were there, but hidden -- it wasn't until he was grown that Sleider learned that a grandfather had played the violin.
Young Scott wasn't introduced to orchestral music until his fourth grade class was given different instruments to play.
"All the guys wanted to play the trumpet, but I knew right away that I wanted to play the violin," he said. "There was something about the flowing sound, the voice. And I loved the length and complexity of classical music."
A year later, in the fifth grade, he made his first repair.
"We had a rental unit, and I broke the bow," he said.
"I was terrified, and didn't want to tell my parents. I glued it and spliced it, and devised a clamp system. You couldn't tell it had been broken. Months later, my instructor picked up my bow, looked at it for a minute, and put it down. He never said a word."
Sleider knew in high school that he was more interested in repairing instruments than in playing them. Before he'd graduated, he had a job offer from a local music shop -- and that's where he met his future wife. "We were introduced by a nun," he said. "She ran the school's music program, and Cheryl was one of her students."
But at the time, he was 17 and she was 13, and the courtship didn't take off for years.
Instead of going to college and studying violin-making from a textbook, Sleider moved to Chicago and was apprenticed for five years to master violin maker Franz Kinberg.
Before he retired, the Yugoslavia-born Kinberg was one of the 10 top violin makers in the United States, and his best instruments are selling now for about $45,000. As a teacher, he was demanding and brilliant, cranky and nurturing, and he sprinkled his lessons with quotes from the ancient Greeks.
"It was Hippocrates who said, `In a healthy man, all the organs work in harmony,' " Kinberg taught. "And in a good violin, all the parts have to be in harmony."
Toward the end of his apprenticeship, Sleider was given a nearly ruined viola to repair.
"It was trashed," he said. "I brought it back to the owner -- Cheryl -- and I was almost out the door when I thought, `I might never see her again.' So I turned around and asked her out."
The young repairman must have done a good job. Scott and Cheryl have been married for 17 years and have five children.
When Kinberg retired, Sleider opened his own repair shop in Milwaukee. He immediately was successful.
"Scott brings out the best potential of whatever instrument he's working on," symphony violinist Tim Klabunde said. "For a professional musician, your instrument is second only to your spouse -- and some people would say they're even. So we're not going to let just anyone get their hands on it. We're not that far from Chicago where some of the big names are, but for a lot of us in the MSO, Scott is our first choice."
In fact, Sleider was too successful. He was spending all his time restoring violins, not making his own.
"My business was running me, and not the other way around," he said. "When you're working in restoration, you can't put your own stamp on it. You're trying to re-create what the original maker did. The ideal restoration means that you can't even tell it was done. So I don't get as much enjoyment from it."
So the Sleiders took a risk. They gave up the lucrative repair business, sold their home in Bay View, and moved to the North Woods. Now, Sleider does only major repairs. The rest of the time, he builds his own instruments.
"I think we're in a renaissance period of violin making," he said. "It might be presumptuous, but I think this era will produce violins that are the next Stradivaris and Guarneris. And I want to make them."
So when Sleider goes out to his woodshed with his wine, he's thinking about the building blocks of sound:
About using letters of the alphabet to capture an instrument's specific voice. ("I try to build the sound in my memory," he says. "I do it mostly with vowels. O is a fuzzy sound. E is brilliant and reedy, a bright sound.")
About the particular qualities he wants his instruments to have. ("My favorite thing is for the sound to have a liquid core," he says. "Something malleable.")
About how to get all 84 pieces to work together. ("Building a violin is a lot like playing chess," he says. "Every piece relies on the others.")
He's figuring out how to make intangible things concrete. And he's figuring it out in a place where he's surrounded by the aroma of fresh-cut spruce and maple, as friendly and assertive as a hand on his shoulder
A fine craftsman takes you
Published: November 16, 1997
Building a violin is no lark - especially if you want it to sing like one. Here's an abbreviated list of the steps Scott Sleider goes through when he's fiddling around:
• Select your wood, the most crucial step in violin making. A rule of thumb – the softer the wood, the darker the sound. Hard woods produce a bright, soprano voice.
• Sketch out a pattern of the interior mold of the violin you wish to build. (The models Sleider devised combines features of two famous violins made in 1741 by Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesu: the Kochanski and Vieuxtemps fiddles. `It gives you a sound with immediacy, plus power,` he says.)
• Make the 24 interior pieces from black willow. Take your bending iron, heat it with water, and wrap the six ribs around the iron by hand. The structure of the ribs dictates the structure of the rest of the violin.
• Build the sides from maple, planing them down to a thickness of 1 millimeter. If the sides are too thick, the violin will be locked up. If they're too thin, the top and bottom won't function at the same time. And if the sides are too high or deep, the finished violin will have an unpleasant bassy sound because you're increasing the air volume and lowering the internal pitch.
• Once you have the interior mold, draw an outline 2.5 millimeters from the perimeter. This will become the back and top of the violin. Split maple logs (This ensures the grain will be straight) and glue the pieces together so that there's a line running exactly down the center of the top and bottom. This gives the violin more stability and ensures that both sides will be uniform.
• Using a gouge, create the back's bowed shape. Plane and scrape the back to a thickness of between 2.5 and 4 millimeters, until the wood is soft as silk. The back functions as the violin's speaker.
• Cut a curlicue ridge around the perimeter of the back. Be careful-a tiny slip can ruin a month's worth of hard work. Laminate three pieces of wood together that have a combined thickness of 1.2-1.4 millimeters. Insert them into the ridge, mitering the edges together at the corners, so that the laminated pieces completely fill the cutout area. This is the `purfling,` and while it's decorative, it also has a function; any erosion of the violin's edges will stop at this border. Glue the back to the ribs.
• The violin's top acts like a membrane that allows the violin to breathe, and you make it the same way you made the bottom, with two differences – spruce is the wood of choice, and the top should be a bit thinner than the bottom, varying between 2.5 and 3 millimeters.
• Cut the soundholes, or f-holes (named because of their shape) into the violin's top. Those two curly cutouts look pretty, but they let the air in and out, making the violin sing. Add the purling, and glue the top to the sides.
• Cut out the scroll and the neck from maple. `This is where the aesthetics come into play,` Sleider says. `You want the scroll to look like it's moving, like it's uncoiling.` Insert the neck into the body of the violin. Note that no nails are used to hold the fiddle together -- just four wooden pegs, two on the top and two on the bottom.
• Add the fittings (the bridge, fingerboard and tailpiece.) Slip the soundpost inside the violin and place it in the proper position.` The French call the soundpost the soul of the violin, and placing it determines what kind of response you'll get, whether it's stiff or loose, high-frequency or low-frequency. Adjusting it is a major intuitive thing.`
• Varnish with four to eight coats of resin, allowing the violin to dry for two to three days between each coat. `Varnishes that are too hard will straitjacket or inhibit the violin.`
• String the violin with multi-strand perlon, a synthetic fiber. Again, the strings can either tighten up and restrict the violin's voice, or let it sing.
• The body dictates what voice the violin will have,` Sleider said. `The set-up fine tunes that voice.`