Bob Childs' success as a violin maker comes in part from his talents as a musician, fine artist, and woodworker, but also from his years of devotion to the musical community. A few years back, some eighteen players of Bob's instruments came together and formed the group "Childsplay." In 1997 I was asked to produce their second CD, "The Great Waltz" (released in 1999 and reviewed in the Summer '99 issue of Fiddler Magazine). During the making of that recording I got to hear and to play eighteen or twenty Bob Childs violins. Every one is a unique expression of Bob's well-honed creativity and craft, and they are prized by classical and traditional players alike.
Did your musical interest begin by playing, or by making instruments?
Well, I was living in Maine, and working as a furniture builder. I went back to get my violin fixed. I took it to Ivy Mann, from Orrington, Maine, and when he gave me my violin back, he just said to me, "Well, when are you coming back?" I said, "What do you mean?" "Well, when are you coming back?" and he pointed to the violin wood he'd laid out and I said, "What do you mean, are you going to teach me?" and he said, "That's the idea." So it had never crossed my mind to be a violin maker.
So you went from rough carpentry to more and more finished work and finally into instrument building?
Yeah, it's been this refined progression. I worked with him for a couple of years and it was a really good experience because it really got me excited about instrument making. After that I ended up going and studying with two people: Anton Smith, who used to teach at the school in Salt Lake City, and who's now the head of restoration at Shar in Michigan; and then I went to Philadelphia and worked with Michael Weller, who used to be the head of Moennig's shop in Philadelphia.
You said earlier that you have a philosophy about how violin making has evolved with respect to fiddling versus classical styles of playing. Would you explain that?
Well, for one thing I'm of the philosophy that there's really no difference between a fiddle and a violin, that it has much more to do with the way you approach the instrument and your music. I think there's been a lot of classism historically between how people thought about fiddle music and people who make fiddles versus people who play classical music or sell violins to classical musicians. When you think about it people like Sam Zygmuntowicz, Armin Barnett, or Rodney Miller, Jon Cooper, Chris Germain there are all these great fiddlers who are also great violin makers.
Okay, so you're saying that the instrument is primarily the same, aside from setup, and it's just a matter of the musician. If somebody comes to you and wants to commission an instrument, what's the criteria that tells you just how to build it?
I try to get a sense of what they hear and what musical sounds they want to send out to the world. And of course, that's the hardest thing, to describe! You know, who do they listen to, whose playing are they inspired by? Do they like darker violins or do they like a real soprano voice? Do they like a sound that's more inviting, that pulls the listener in? That kind of thing. Having made something like 130 violins right now, I think I have a good sense of what sound I'm going to end up with by the wood that I start with, as well as the different models that I use.
Is there any advice that you would give to somebody who is looking to buy a good instrument?
Well, obviously it's a very personal thing, but I think there's a real advantage to trying out a lot of instruments, because I think that whole process helps you really define what kind of sound you have in your head. In violin making today there's a real movement to have these really loud, trumpet-like sounds that I think tend to not be quite as beautiful, and if you're going to be a soloist that's one way to go, but I'm personally drawn to a warmer kind of sound. I like to think that every note on the violin is "round," and you know the better violins have a real full body in the note they go all the way from the bass to the soprano voice in each note. And you can easily get a violin that is too oriented toward the soprano voice in the notes.
[This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue, which is now sold out.]