Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Job (Babble)

I just wanted to take a moment on this Labor Day Weekend to reflect a little on my job.  I am a very lucky person because I love what I do.  I don’t know enough people who can say that, but I’m excited to go to work, and I’m always a little reluctant to leave.

After earning a music degree with specialization in music cognition at The Ohio State University (anyone who has been there knows the importance of including the ‘The’) I went on to do a four year apprenticeship in violin building here in Wisconsin, and stayed on in Milwaukee to do repair work, teaching, and freelance viola playing.  When my husband returned from his first deployment in Iraq we decided to open our own business using the money he’d earned overseas, and ‘Korinthian Violins‘ was born.

(Mona at the violin store)

Normally I would shy away from that kind of eponymous approach to naming a business I was involved in, but I think my name makes a good adjective and it has a nice ring to it.  Most people aren’t even aware it’s my name on the window, because it sounds like some category of violins like special leather.  Besides, the truth is that the business is me.  I remember when a representative from one of my wholesalers came out to interview us before they would consider letting our shop carry their products, he listened to me describe the store and what it offered and he finally said, “So, really, what you’re selling is you.”  I thought that was strange at the time and didn’t know how to take it, but I’ve come to realize he’s right. 

The only thing my violin shop offers that is different from what other shops can offer is myself and my idea of service and quality control.  I do the repair work, I set up the instruments, and I give advice based on my experience as a player, a teacher, a mom, and a luthier.  I don’t pretend to have more expertise than I do (for instance, I don’t do appraisal work because that’s it’s own specialty), and if I don’t know something I’m honest about that.  Whatever I do know I’m happy to share.  I try hard to treat people the way I would want to be treated.  I know all too well what it’s like to be the customer on the other side of the counter in a violin shop, and it can be a vulnerable place.  I want people to be able to trust me that when I make a suggestion that it’s the one I would use myself.  And even then, I don’t insist that just because something is right for me that it’s right for everyone.  I give people options and try to provide them with enough information to make a decision they understand and can be happy with.

I like getting to meet so many musicians in the area.  I love talking to other teachers and players and hearing about what they are working on.  There are so many talented people around it just amazes me.  And fitting a small child for his or her first instrument is so much fun.  There are few things more adorable than a teeny tiny violin, and when a child is excited about playing one it makes my day.  I can’t believe anyone wants to learn to play the violin because it is so hard and takes so long to sound like anything, but there are new children all the time for whom it sparks an interest and I find that intriguing and wonderful.  I think many make a mistaken assumption that most people are probably pretty boring and just go home and watch TV at the end of the day.  You’d be surprised at the number of people out there pursuing something interesting.  I know many closet musicians who play purely for the love of it, and spend hours on their violin, viola or cello trying to create something beautiful by improving their own skills.  The more people I get to know in my community through my store the better I feel about where I live and the world in general.  I know that probably sounds beyond hokey, but it’s true.

Most of what I do in my job is repair work.  Repair requires different tools than building, so the shop I build instruments in is at home because I need about a billion different clamps and specialized gouges, etc. that I just don’t need at the store.  I was warned years ago that if I opened my door to doing repairs I would never have time to build again, because the flood of repair work never stops.  It is hard to find time to build, but I’m determined to do it.  Now that Ian is home from Iraq I’m setting aside a ‘building day’ once a week where I don’t have to work on anyone’s instruments but my own, and it’s great.  So far all I’ve done is dig out space in my home shop which has become a dumping ground for household items that need gluing, but I will get there.  Violins will be made in this house even if I have to put off a hundred other projects to do it.  Of all the creative things I do that’s the activity I like best.

But repair work is interesting too, just in a different way.  Building is all about imposing your own ideas on the wood and creating something that represents you.  Repair is the opposite, because if you do it well no one should be able to tell you did anything.  It’s a nice feeling to be able to help people keep their instruments in playing order.  My favorite projects to walk through my door are the sentimental instruments that other places often don’t see the point in.  The violin world can be rather snobbish, which I don’t appreciate.  I certainly have respect and admiration for elite instruments and the people who have earned the right to work on them, but I don’t think it’s kind to dismiss everything else out of hand as if other instruments have no value at all. 

A woman once came to me with a violin that her grandmother had played and she wanted it restored so her daughter could use it.  From an objective standpoint, the violin was worthless and not a good place to dump a lot of money into.  But sentimental value is real value.  The first place she took this violin they handed it back to her and told her to throw it out.  I found that really offensive.  That’s like looking at a photo of her grandmother and them saying they’d never heard of her so it had no value.  I told the woman that it would cost a few hundred dollars to get the instrument up and running, and that it should probably be regarded by her daughter as a spare instrument because for practical purposes she’d likely need something different.  But did I have an instrument in my store at any price that her grandmother had played?  No I didn’t.  If that meant something to her, then it was worth doing the restoration.  The instrument is now playable and they are very happy to have it in their family.  How can I not like my job knowing I got to help make that happen?

(Me and upside down Quinn at my workbench)

I do lots of bow rehairs, which is replacing the horsehair on a bow.  That’s a funny process, and it’s definitely more art than science.  A man once called me saying he had dozens of bows from a school that he need rehaired that day and could I put them in the bow rehair machine.  I told him I was the machine, and that I can only do a maximum of about four bows a day.  (I wish I had a bow rehair machine!  But no, a lot of things in the violin world can only be done by hand.)  I tried to teach doing rehairs to someone recently, and I found that I couldn’t do it while I was thinking about it too hard.  If I tried to explain it as I went I couldn’t remember what to do.  I had to have the guy I was showing just observe while I simply did it, and then had him ask questions afterward.  It’s a little different with every bow, and bows made of carbon fiber act differently from pernambuco (the preferred wood from Brazil used for bows).  Cheap bows are harder to rehair than expensive ones, but expensive ones are scarier.  There are a few bows owned by symphony players in the area that I only work on when I can lock the doors and not be distracted.  Someday I want to build a bow just to have had the experience of building a bow.  The shop I worked in before I opened my own store is run by a bow maker, and he said he’d teach me sometime.  I can’t imagine when either of us would have room in our schedules for that, but it’s a nice idea.

I wouldn’t have my own store without Ian.  It was hard to run the business without him for a year.  I get freaked out by anything to do with taxes or invoices or filing or quickbooks pro.  The part of the store customers care about may have to do with me, but the parts that keep it operational are all Ian.

(Ian at his desk making sure we stay solvent)

My friend, Carol, works for us running the rental program.  We hired her originally to take over for as much of Ian’s part of the business as possible while he was away, but the rental program has grown so much that we’re keeping her on to just do that.  I think many violin stores must survive based on their rental programs.  It provides us with the steady income we need to cover our basic expenses like rent, etc., because sales and repairs are erratic, and depending on those things would make budgeting for the business very hard. 

I’m pretty particular about my rental instruments.  I got so frustrated with most of the instruments my students were using when I had a full teaching studio at the conservatory that it used to make me crazy.  I love being able to finally provide people with the kinds of instruments I wished I had seen in my teaching studio.  They aren’t the best things in the world because rentals lead traumatic little lives so they can’t be too precious, but I make sure they meet a standard that I think is decent, and I use expensive strings.  If you are reading this and your kid plays violin, remember if you have to skimp on something, don’t let it be the strings.  I can’t stand the sound of tinny, squeaky cheap strings, and it’s worth the money to have something better.  My own kids use these instruments, and I have to listen to all these kids I rent to out in the community, and I don’t want to listen to cheap strings, so it’s worth the cost to me.

I try to keep my shop professional but friendly.  When people come in with small children I always hear them explaining seriously to them that they should not touch anything, but then they get inside and see the blocks and crayons and realize it’s not quite the china chop they envisioned.  The few things that are out that might be a problem never seem to interest small children anyway.  I want it to be a place where kids feel welcome, too, and so far so good.

School groups come through my store (Aden’s class came when she was a K5, and they just walked over from the school because it’s fairly close by).  People who are just curious pop in and tell me how their father or grandmother used to play the violin or viola or cello.  The store is in a residential neighborhood near a park, and people seem pleased that we’re there.  I remember once in the summer a couple of years ago Ian went in early to do some paperwork and had the door propped open at an odd time.  He was there about 20 minutes before the police showed up because two different neighbors had called to say that someone was in the violin store at a time that seemed suspicious.  I like that feeling of people watching out for us, and I’m glad people want us in their neighborhood.

The first week Ian was home I got out a bit each day and cleaned the violin store.  While he was gone I didn’t ever have time to clean there, and I always had at least one child with me who would undo anything I did anyway.  There was a lot of clutter and too many toys, and it felt good to shovel all of that out of there and get things in order again.  My store has always felt like a nice oasis of order because the hurricane that is my beloved brood didn’t disrupt it, but during the deployment I didn’t have a choice.  I worked and they played, and it got to be quite a mess.  Now it’s back the way I like it again and it’s a relief.
So that’s my job.  I hope it continues to work out for us for a long time.  It wasn’t anything I had planned on, but the pieces of my life fell into place in such a way that it seems like the most natural thing in the world to have come about.  Happy Labor Day!  I may celebrate by going to work.

(Aden playing her violin last summer in hopes of earning some money outside the store.)

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