- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) - John Hill discovered long ago there was more than one way to make music.

After exploring other options, Hill found his calling in making violins and other stringed instruments 17 years ago. After taking a break of sorts during 2013, he has re-emerged in a newly built studio and shop off Kings Highway in southwest Medford.

A single-syllable, Hill-fashioned violin or viola may not evoke the romance of Stradivarius, but his creations are drawing rave reviews. A viola he fashioned won a tone award at an international competition in 2003, attesting to his artistry.

There are 220 parts in every violin, 200 of which Hill fashions in his shop. He starts with five blocks of wood, often Alpine spruce or Bosnian maple from Europe.

“Good wood is a violin maker’s gold,” he said, waving about a stick of $300 Bosnian maple. “I have used local woods, Sitka spruce and big leaf maple in a cello - and it came out very nice for the larger instruments. But for the smaller instruments, most makers agree European wood can’t be beat.”

Any of the 30 to 40 elements in the instrument-making process can lend its influence to the instrument’s final sound.

“Each violin takes the same amount of time, and the more you do, the better idea you have of what the sound is going to be like,” said Hill, whose bow slides proficiently over the strings. “I really don’t know (for sure) what the sound is going to be like until I string it up and the interplay comes together.”

The critical juncture is crafting the bridge, held taut by the strings against the body.

“It’s all difficult, but that area is really challenging,” Hill said. “It’s the transducer. How it’s carved, shaped and the choice of wood all come into play.”

Hill has produced a violin or viola about every two months during the majority of his 17 years as a violin maker. His creations average $6,500, with a high end of $10,000. A cello sold at a San Francisco shop a few months ago went for considerably more.

“When I began, I had no idea how deep this well was going to be,” Hill said. “I thought if I could make a really good violin, then I’d have a really good one to play. I had no idea I was getting into a lifetime study.”

Hill’s journey to his present corresponds to the circuitous route he took in his profession. In his early 20s, guitars were his passion, and he sought to become a luthier. He got married, however, and became a firefighter. He’s also a bit of an inventor. When he found that pillow slips on gurneys routinely came off, he developed a demobilizer to keep things in place.

But he never lost his love for working with wood and playing music.

After a decade of fighting fires in Arizona, he moved to the Northwest.

“I wanted to get out of Phoenix,” he said. “Urban sprawl wasn’t a good fit for me.”

He relocated to Deming, Washington, near the Canadian border, then to Corvallis. At 35, he began working on violins during weekends with a friend living in the Coast Range west of Corvallis.

With his interest piqued, Hill sought a mentor to launch a new career about the time he moved to the Rogue Valley in 2000. John Harrison, an internationally acclaimed, world-class violin maker from Redding, California., agreed to take him under his wing.

Three years later, he set up shop in Phoenix, Oregon, buying, selling and renting stringed instruments, as well as doing repair and restoration work on instruments and bows.

“That’s how modern violin makers make a living,” he said. “Making an instrument is the glory of the work, but it’s restoration work that pays the bills.”


Information from: Mail Tribune, https://www.mailtribune.com/

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