What makes Childsplay unique and inspiring is its back story. Every one of the fiddles played on stage was made by Bob Childs, a Cambridge-based luthier who has been making exceptional instruments by hand for more than 30 years.
By Glenn Rifkin
For the uninitiated, a Childsplay concert is sheer musical magic. The 14 fiddlers, accompanied by guitars, banjos, flutes, cellos and bass, create a full, rich and engaging sound that fills a hall with a resonant energy. These musicians are professionals who participate most of the year in their own orchestras, such as the Boston Symphony, or their own groups or solo performances. Nearly all the songs Childsplay performs are written and arranged by members of the group and cover a range of fiddle traditions, from Irish to Celtic to classical to popular and beyond. But what makes Childsplay unique and inspiring is its back story. Every one of the fiddles played on stage was made by Bob Childs, a 61-year-old Cambridge-based luthier who has been making exceptional instruments by hand for more than 30 years. The genesis of the group, more than two decades ago, was to bring together fiddlers from various genres and geographies whose only common ground was a Childs violin.
Childs, whose early childhood was spent in foster care in New Jersey, has followed an eclectic path in his career. After a number of years making violins in the quiet isolation of his studio, he decided to pursue a second career as a psychologist. Today, he splits his week down the middle, making violins on commission half the time and working as a therapist the rest of the week. Having married late in life, he is a devoted father raising two small children. But the soft-spoken, philosophical Childs is also devoted to Childsplay, which comes together twice a year for short, regional tours. The group will begin a five-date tour in Maine and Massachusetts from December 5 through 8.
ArtFuse critic Glenn Rifkin spoke to Childs in his Cambridge studio.
Arts Fuse: How did you embark on a career as a violin maker?
Bob Childs: I was a carpenter and a furniture maker in Maine and I’d always been a fiddle player. I took my violin to get fixed to an old gentleman named Ivy Mann, who was in his 70’s and he was dying to teach someone the craft. When I went back to get my violin, he laid out a bunch of wood on his bench and when I started to leave, he said, `When are you coming back?’ I was confused because I’d just paid him for my repair and wasn’t sure what he meant. He pointed to the wood and said, `When are you coming back?’ I said, `Oh, you want to teach me.’ And he said, `Yeah, I’d love to teach somebody.’
AF: Why did he choose you?
BC: I was a workworker, I knew tools. And I loved stories and storytellers. He was a great storyteller.He was from Aroostook County and he’d never left Maine. He had been a schoolteacher in Orrington, where I lived. I loved his stories and he just loved that I was interested in that. It was a natural fit.
AF: So you jumped right in?
BC: I didn’t quit my day job, but I began working with Ivy Mann to learn violin making. It was 1976. I worked and studied with Ivy until 1980, but I realized the violin is a European instrument and Ivy had never left the state of Maine. At the time, there was only one violin-making school in the U.S. It was in Salt Lake City and a friend told me about a guy named Anton Smith who had studied there but left and gone out on his own. He set up a studio in Spokane, Washington and I went out to work with him. I spent three years working with Anton and then I went to Philadelphia to work with Michael Weller. Both Anton and Michael had been trained by Karl Roy, who was the head teacher in Mittenwald, Germany. It’s a European craft and you have to do your apprenticeship, then you go and work in somebody’s shop. In Weller’s shop I got to see all these great violins made for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
AF: Did you have a specific kind of violin that you emulated?
BC: We took a plaster cast of a Guarneri Del Gesu, who was the equal of Stradivarius. We took these instruments apart and learned what made them so good. I still have that cast so I can look at it every day and be inspired. Essentially, violin making is sculpture and it’s all done by shadows. You can see the shape of the instruments through the shadows.
AF: When did you think you had nailed this, that this was not just a hobby but that you really might make a living at it?
BC: It was in 1984. I had been making violins for eight years, when I really crossed the threshold, that I’d reached a violin that was at the level that I wanted to sell.
AF: Did somebody tell you that?
BC: Anton wouldn’t let me sell any of my violins. The way he let me know was I had just finished a violin in his shop. He was living in the place next door to me and he knocked on my door one night. He said, `Come on outside and bring your new violin.’ He had a bottle of wine with him. I thought, `Wow, we’re going to celebrate.’ What I didn’t see, was that he had all this wood in a pile behind him. He took a match and lit a bonfire. He made this fire and we had a glass of wine. After that glass of wine, he turned to me and said, `Now you need to throw your violin into the fire.’ Because his teachers had made him do that. It was a zen lesson. You get so attached to your instruments, it’s so hard to do. But you are not at that place yet where you are ready to sell a violin. So I finished my wine and threw my violin into the fire.
When I was in Philadelphia, Michael turned to me one day, he said, `I can tell you made that violin because it sounded just like the last one.’ And that was the moment, the threshold. There was now a personality; the personality of the maker had gone into the instrument. That’s the threshold you want. You want your violins to all sound like you made them, even though each one is different. It’s like a family that sings together.
AF: How long does it take to make a violin by hand?
BC: A couple hundred hours, four to five weeks of woodworking and two to three weeks of varnishing.
AF: How much could you get for a violin at that point?
BC: My first violins, I sold for around $2000. I sold my first one in 1985. The violin is all about commitment. It’s an amazingly hard craft. In fact, had I known how hard it was when I started, I don’t know if I would have done it.
AF: Your love of this music had a strong influence.
BC: I started playing in Maine. I just loved Irish music. I got to know a lot of the great Irish fiddle players. And when I moved up here to Cambridge in 1986, I always had commissions. I’ve been lucky in that way, in that I always have orders. I got to make instruments specifically for people. They will come to me with a specific sound in their head or a violin they want to imitate. I have to sort out what they are going after and translate that into the wood.
AF: How does it feel to hear this music being played on an instrument that you created?
BC: It’s amazingly moving. There’s a lot of levels to that. As an artist, you want the best people playing the instrument. The way I think about it, the violin is half the musician and half the maker. You want to be partnered with people who are really good.
AF: Is it hard to give them up after you’ve spent 200 hours with them?
BC: Oh yes, very hard. They are very much like my children. That’s one of the great things about Childsplay because in some ways it’s like a family reunion….not just the violins but with each other. There’s a kind of community built up around the violins.
AF: Do you know of anyone else who makes instruments and has a group that plays just his or her instruments?
BC: I don’t know of any other violin makers but it doesn’t mean there aren’t others out there. But I think it’s unique. Another way it’s unique is that there are people from all different musical traditions. Bonnie Bewick from the Boston Symphony; Sheila Falls is an All-Ireland fiddle player; Hanneke Cassel who is a national Scottish fiddle champion; Steve Hickman, an old time fiddle player from Appalachia……the talent level is really high, but from different traditions. And so what is cool about that is that everybody is a little bit outside their comfort zone and that makes it very creative. They don’t have any trouble learning it, but they are not in their sweet spot so they are really extending themselves and they are really open to each other, like learning bowings and collaborating on musical ideas. That’s part of what gives the energy to the band. Everybody is really excited about learning from each other. To create something new together.
AF: When did you start Childsplay?
BC: I actually didn’t create the group. I was invited into the group. It happened when I was working in the shop in Philadelphia. I got a phone call, they invited me to a concert down in Washington, DC. I said, sure I’d love to come down. And before they hung up, the person said, “By the way, the name of the group is Childsplay and everyone on the stage is going to be playing one of your violins.” I said, “Okay, even better.”
AF: That’s pretty mind-blowing.
BC: You just can’t plan for some of these things, but life presents them and you go with them as far as you can.
AF: How much more satisfying could it be that without your knowledge somebody created a whole band using your instruments and naming it after you?
BC: And having such a great time. The musical synergy was incredible. We just liked it so much we said, “Let’s do this some more.”
AF: And this is not just a hobby?
BC: It’s a real professional band. We’ve made six CDS and two films. We’ve toured the US and Europe. People really respond to the music once they understand the concept of the band.
AF: Given that the players are from all over the place, how do you rehearse and get together?
BC: We do it through the Internet. We have a backstage area on the website that others don’t know about. It’s not public. I talk to people, get them to think about tunes and ideas. they put tunes on an Mp3, put it on the Internet, we listen to it together and talk about ideas. And then everybody learns the music and the arrangements happen when we come together. Everyone is so good, they hear the music, they come up with three part harmonies, layer out, do syncopated rhythms…in process of getting together musically.
AF: How do you rehearse for a show?
BC: We spend a week rehearsing up here in Cambridge before the tour We do that and then hit the road. Everyone has their own band, so we try to do two tours a year. New England, then the rest of the U.S.
AF: How are you included in the group as a player? Are you at the same talent level?
BC: No, definitely not. The depth of our friendship is the reason I’m there. Not only am I the maker of the instruments, but I guess you could think of me as the hub with all of the spokes. I’m the reason they all know each other and I’m long term friends with everybody.
AF: So it’s almost as much about friendship as the music.
BC: It’s really hard for people to conceptualize the group. We don’t fit in a regular genre. We’re not classical. We play classical, we play a tango, we play gypsy music. We play fiddle music but it’s not totally folk because it has its own language at this point, its own sound. It’s unique. The other piece….it’s a whole, a total organism. Every one lets go of their being a leader of another band. That’s what is so exciting about this. They are used to having all the responsibility and being the front person….now they can step back and be part of a bigger process. People in the group love that.
AF: What is at the heart of the magic in making these instruments?
BC: It blows people’s mind to find out that the complete sound of the violin is in the wood. When a person describes a sound they want, how do you describe sound? But over the years I’ve figured out there are ways to talk about it in terms of color, or darkness or richness, or trumpet type sound. It’s about what pulls the audience toward the violin. Ultimately you want to make the violin sound like you made it. I want it to look as good as it can and sound as good as it can, but I want it to sound like me. Like any artist you want your brush strokes to be there, your sound, your voice to be there.
AF: Because you made them all, and 14 fiddlers are playing all at once, would it be a recognizable sound?
BC: Absolutely. There’s a unifying quality to it As Hanneke Cassell once said, “We sing with one united, joyful voice.” That’s what I’ve strived to do with my violins.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic represent a new and exciting direction.