It Takes a Village to Raise a String Player

A student’s special needs inspire a community of violin players, teachers, dealers, and makers

ST_TeacherStudent

Dedicated teacher, dedicated student: Teresa Campbell and George Muller.
photo by Kris Drake Photography

When a student’s special needs started inhibiting his ability to make music, his community sprang into action to get him a suitable instrument and bow. Ten-year-old George Muller needed a left-handed violin and a bow that matched his blossoming abilities and unique needs. The project engaged his musical community and drew together a school, a generous donor, a local violin shop, and a teacher who wouldn’t stop.

The talented fifth-grader and student at Minneapolis’s MacPhail Center for Music became interested in learning the violin three years ago. But he had a physical challenge: Muller was born with a left hand that has fingers one-third the length of a typical hand, which made fingering the notes with his left hand impossible. If he was to play the violin, he was going to need an instrument crafted for left-handed bowing. His teacher, Teresa Campbell, converted a right-handed school instrument by swapping the strings, flipping the bridge, and installing a new nut, but eventually he ran into the instrument’s limitations and truly converting the instrument wasn’t a reasonable solution.

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“It’s expensive to reverse the bass bar, deal with the fingerboard curvature, and shift the peg positions,” says Claire Givens of Givens Violins. “And if you’re starting with a school instrument that cost $200, it’s not the best way to move ahead.”

Clearly, Muller needed something better than his makeshift violin; he needed a new instrument built for left-handed bowing and Campbell spearheaded a movement to get George a proper instrument.

It was at this point that Givens’ shop stepped in to help, aided by a compassionate MacPhail student named James Davies, who threw in $500 to help purchase the $1,200 step-up violin. Finding a proper left-handed violin wasn’t easy, even for experts. “I had no idea how to find one!” Givens says with a laugh. “We had no idea if anyone even made a reverse violin, so we started calling around. We called a shop in Beijing that we’ve worked with for 15 years and they said they were already doing it.”

Once Givens received the violin, a full-size Daniela Casini fiddle with carved spruce top and solid maple ribs and back, giving the reverse violin a proper setup was the next challenge. “I thought that carving a bridge would be difficult, but our instrument restorer Theodora Wynhoff said she just tried to not think about it. She said setting the soundpost was hard because it was a mirror image of what she was used to doing.”

Muller’s 1/2-size bow weighs less than a typical bow, so the staff at Givens’ shop also set up the violin to be more sensitive than the typical violin. That was accomplished with a bridge and soundpost relationship that allows for less bow pressure to draw a sound while keeping the sound even.

“The hero here is the teacher,” Givens says. “[His teacher] Teresa was not going to let anything get in the way of teaching George. It’s a credit to the school, too, that they kept on with this project until we were able to find something for him.”

That dedication is important, because finding the right tool is a basic requirement for making music. “George just wanted to learn how to play and keep at it,” Givens says, “and his teacher and his school worked to help him have a musical life."

*This article appeared in Strings September 2011
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