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Articles & Essays

"Violin maker is surrounded by change"

Published 05/18/19
The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Focus on John Montgomery’s violin shop on Hillsborough Street, and it appears unchanged from when he opened it in 1987, when entire days passed without a single person walking by, the words “Violin Maker” in gold lettering on the window.

But take a wide view, and you’ll see that the building is at the center of downtown Raleigh’s latest maelstrom of change. Citrix, a tech company, towers behind it. High-rise condos are noisily going up to the side, and surrounding roads are impaired by construction equipment. Add a stream of scooters, bicycles and pedestrians flowing by.

“Development, well, parking, of course, is more tough,” Montgomery says. “But there are a lot of opportunities for good lunches now. When we got here, it was the Canton Cafe, the Belk’s cafeteria and Char-Grill. And Hot Weiners [Roast Grill], always the Hot Weiners.”

Montgomery Violins, the shop where he creates, repairs and restores violins and other string instruments, might seem like a relic from the past, amidst the changes around him, and Montgomery still fields calls asking if he wants to sell the building.

But his story is one of adaptation, just like the area that surrounds him. As much as Raleigh’s downtown has changed in 32 years, Montgomery says the area’s musical environment has changed even more — as has the world for violin makers and restorers. He’s staying put, and he’s excited to see what’s next.

“There have always been a lot of ways to build a violin,” he said. “With science, we understand more about the materials you use. With what we know now about building them, we are making ones almost as good as those [older ones].”

Montgomery, 65, graduated from the Violin Making School of America in Utah, one of the world’s top schools for the craft, and was working in New York City on early-music instruments (the kind used in Medieval and Renaissance periods) when he and his wife thought about relocating. They had two small children, and the costs of even small workshop spaces were high. In the early 1980s, Raleigh had been rated highly on several best-places-to-live surveys, so they visited, then moved to North Carolina in 1983.

After working from home for three years, 509 Hillsborough St. was up for sale. Built in 1935, the building had been a vacuum cleaner shop and comic book store in its lifetime.

Montgomery was thrilled with its high, tin ceilings, skylights, good condition and ample space — plenty to divide into a retail sales area, a practice room and a large workshop to build and restore violins, cellos and other stringed instruments. And it was walking distance from the family’s home in Boylan Heights.

But musically, Raleigh wasn’t New York.

“The musical environment, though, it was bare. The North Carolina Symphony was here,” Montgomery says. “But when we got here, it was a band town.”

The area’s public school orchestra programs, in general, were skimpy in the early 1980s, and there were few outside opportunities for children to learn, except private lessons, which might not be possible for kids who couldn’t afford them.

Today, school orchestra programs are expanding, he says, and there are many more organizations that offer musical opportunities for children of all backgrounds, including KidzNotz, Community Music School, the Philharmonic Association and the North Carolina Chamber Music Institute.

“All over the world, music is becoming more accessible,” Montgomery says, adding that he and colleagues have worked with organizations teaching music to children in South America.

Just as with tech and restaurants, the music scene has also benefited from the Triangle becoming a more international community.

“The level of musicians globally and here is higher than ever,” he says. “Someone may come here for a job, and their spouse might be a top musician.”

When the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival moved to Raleigh from Nashville in 2013, it helped to highlight the state’s traditional music and how it’s growing as well.

“It’s a huge thing,” he said. “There’s always been a lot of fiddlers in North Carolina, but now they’re more sophisticated and far-reaching, musically speaking. Now you can take a degree in bluegrass at UNC. The colleague I recently hired in my workshop is a Berklee [College of Music] grad and a professional fiddler. IBMA has been such a phenomenal success, and Raleigh was the perfect place for it.”

Montgomery works with several traditional fiddlers, including a member of the Steep Canyon Rangers, but IBMA doesn’t bring a line of folks to his door with broken bows and wonky bridges.

“I love to watch it, but the people who come to play come well stocked, and we’re far enough away from it,” he says.

Violins have been around for about 450 years, but even change has come in making the instruments. Montgomery has helped restore instruments for the Library of Congress. In 2011, he was part of a project that scanned a 1704 Stradivarius from the library’s collection through a hospital’s CT scanner. He used the information from the scans to create what he describes as a close copy, which the library displays with the original.

Montgomery, who has kept track of most of the instruments he’s made since 1978, has built copies of violins “worth the cost of a house” for symphony musicians to use for practice while keeping the originals safe. He continues to find so much to learn, and pass on to others, including the two other violin makers in his shop, Brian Kelly and Jack Devereux.

Some of his most moving experiences haven’t come from working on the priceless violins, but with restoring instruments found in attics that belonged to family members and come with stories. Taking a family heirloom, regardless of its value, and fixing it so it can be played again gives him a lot of satisfaction.

“Those are the ones that mean the most to the players, not what they’re worth,” he says. “We own a violin for just part of its life. Violins are always so cherished. They come in here every day because nobody throws them away. It doesn’t feel right. Violins were made to be repaired.”

And just like those violins who can find new life with some repairs, Montgomery seems invigorated by the instruments that make their way past the high-rises, past the construction and past the block full of changes into his shop.

“I enjoy doing this work and those of us who are lucky enough to do it, it’s like the Benjamin Franklin quote about never working a day in your life,” Montgomery says. “The image of the little old violin maker is true. Stradivarius was 93 when he died.”

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