NEW YORK–A nondescript two-story walk-up building sits smack in the middle of Dean Street in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and if you didn’t know where you were heading, you might walk right past it. Despite the inconspicuous location, it’s where some of the world’s finest handcrafted violins, violas, and cellos are produced.
A modest workshop occupies the south side of the second floor. Inside there’s a band saw, three workbenches, and variety of chisels, and other tools. A couple of violins in different stages of production rest on a table in the center of the shop. A man stands at one of the workbenches, quietly and diligently sanding away on what will eventually become a violin.
Paul Crowley has been making instruments since he was a teenager. His father was an engineer, but his hobby was woodworking. And Paul Crowley played guitar; toward the end of high school, he built his first one following instructions in a book.
“It’s kind of an amazing feeling to have created something from nothing. It just kind of kindled a passion to make things, for me,” Crowley told The Epoch Times. “It’s kind of what I was put here to do, I think.”
His passion for building guitars led to an ardent interest in violin making. This new attraction drew him to the North Bennet Street School of craftsmanship in Boston to hone his skills. He has fond memories of his time there, and made good friends with classmates and teachers along the way.
While in school he began interning for Michele Ashley, a renowned cello maker. After he graduated in 2002, he began working with her part-time as an apprentice. While he had learned how to make a violin in school, making one in the real world would be a completely different animal.
“School is something where you learn kind of the basics of how to make a violin-shaped object. A violin is a really complicated instrument. There are so many things to it, and it takes really a lifetime of learning to really figure out how to do it well,” Crowley explained.
Ashley shared a workshop with the revered violin maker Marco Coppiardi, providing a rich learning environment for the young craftsman.
“I probably made 50 cellos with [Ashley] over the years,” Crowley said, explaining how putting in the hours making the basic framework for the cellos helped him hone his skills. “Marco was more of a mentor. He would come over to my bench every morning and say, ‘That’s ugly, why did you do that?’ … Then he would tell me why and how it could be better.”
Eventually, Crowley decided to head off on his own. He had generally been working on repairs as an apprentice, but he wanted to make his own instruments. The ambitious Crowley set out to make a name for himself.
While it seems romantic, it’s difficult to make a living building instruments by hand. It was a steep learning curve; however, with a lot of hard work and dedication, he gained traction and developed a network of clients he could sell instruments to.
“The early years were really rough,” Crowley recalled. “It was a difficult process to gain a name and to figure out how to sell things and how to actually make a marketable instrument. You have to really learn how to make what sounds good and what musicians want. … I had to figure that out really quickly to be able to pay my bills.”
He’s had to work long hours and make a lot of personal sacrifices to build his career, but now he’s at the stage where he’s able to balance things better.
For Crowley, the most important part of his work is the art of the build.
“As anybody who does something artistic, you’re highly critical of your work. You’re a perfectionist, and you want to build the best thing that you can,” Crowley explained. “One of the challenges for me is being satisfied with the end result, because I always want it to be better.”
The process is painstaking, long, and requires diligent attention to detail. There are many different steps, from picking the wood to carving the scroll, and each step is critically important.
“Building a good violin isn’t about one thing. There’s no secret of Stradivari or one single secret; it’s a combination of every single little teeny detail,” he said.
Whenever he completes a project, Crowley feels a sense of relief, especially when he hears the first notes. However, while the instrument may be finished, Crowley is not.
“There’s always the excitement of the next one, because usually by the time I’m finished with one violin, I’m kind of already thinking about what I want to do for the next thing,” Crowley said.
Every instrument Crowley builds is dear to him, and is a statement and representation of his psyche at that particular time of the build.
Crowley has made instruments for some of the world’s most talented musicians, yet somehow he remains humble. What he enjoys most is building relationships with the people who play his instruments and who have a similar appreciation for the craft of violin making and the art of music.
“It feels great, and it’s really nice to come out and support the musicians who are playing my work too,” he said. “There’s a deep sense of satisfaction having made something that [someone] can carry into a concert hall, and that sounds, hopefully, beautiful. I kind of see it as creating good in the world.”
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