Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Meeting Peter Prier, Founder of the Violin Making School of America

For years I’ve heard about Peter Prier & Sons violin shop and the associated Violin Making School of America (VSMA), founded by Peter Prier. Ever since learning about Peter when I was at BYU, I started creating an image in my head about what he must be like.

When I was working at the instrument office we usually took any major repairs to Tim Stephenson. I believe we took a couple instruments to the Prier's shop that were in need of serious repair, but most of the valuable instruments and all bow rehairs went to Tim, to whom I always took my bass and bow, luthier, in Salt Lake City.

During my sophomore year at BYU, which was 10 years ago, I started working at the instrument office doing string instrument repair and really began developing an interest in become an instrument maker. I remember talking about the possibility with Eric Hansen, my bass professor, who mentioned VSMA. I researched it thoroughly, looking at the tuition and curriculum. At the time, I was still at BYU, so I needed to finish my degree there, but I thought that after I graduated, perhaps I could go to Peter Prier’s school afterwards.

I’ve talked about this dream and this particular school even, regularly since then. I talk about it with Sam a lot, my dream to have a woodshop in our home where I can make violins. Formal luthier training through standard three-year schooling would be invaluable though, if I were to make a career of it.

I brought my violin mould, templates, Stainer plan, and textbook to Utah with the thought that I could meet with Tim Stephenson and/or Peter Prier and show them my work and get some tips and inspiration. So after I arrived I sent an email with my background and luthier experience to Peter Prier:
Dear Mr. Prier, 
My name is Liz Lambson. I'm a bassist and aspiring luthier from Colorado Springs. In 2003 I went to BYU to study bass performance where I also worked as the string repairwoman/technician in the BYU Instrument Office. Since graduating from BYU I've worked as a luthier specializing in setup and repair at Kennedy Violins ( in Vancouver, Washington. 
In the last year I've had the great opportunity to apprentice with luthier Elmer Fairbank and am working on my first violin, having focused on setup and repair before now. 
Currently I am spending the summer in Colorado Springs where I'm enjoying the great opportunity to study with Juan Mijares, one of your former students. 
I'm in Utah this weekend visiting family through Tuesday. I would love to visit your shop to meet you as I've learned so much from you through your former students. Is there a time I could stop by and introduce myself? 
Thank you, and I look forward to seeing the school if you're open for visitors. 
Liz Lambson
I received this response:
Dear Liz Lambson, 
Thank you very much for your email. It sounds like you have the passion and love for violin that we share. Congratulations on your accomplishments and progression in violin repair, set up, and now making. 
I am sure that Peter would like to meet you and discuss violins and give you a tour of the shop, however, he and his wife are currently serving a mission for their church and he will not be in the shop for the next year. His son Daniel is running the shop during that time. 
We welcome you to come in and visit. We can give you a tour of the shop and show you any of the interesting instruments we have available at this time. The Violin Making School is running separately from our shop these days, so if you would like to arrange to see the school, please call the school at 801-209-3494. 
I was so disappointed to hear that the Priers are serving a mission and I wouldn’t be able to meet him. Why didn’t I ever stop in while I lived here? I think because I had no credentials then, but now I’m confident enough to consider myself both a luthier and someone worth meeting.

I made an appointment to meet and talk shop on Friday, June 6th, specifically mentioning that I’m building my tool collection and wanted his input. But when I arrived at Tim’s yesterday afternoon, he was running late. So I said I would run an errand and come back.

On my way to Tim’s I had passed the Violin Making School and was so surprised to see it, wondering how I’d never noticed it before. The doors were open and the windows were big—I could see a few students in there working on instruments and just felt this great longing to be in there with them. I wanted to stop by and just walk in, but I knew I needed to call ahead.

So I called the school, and I was told the school isn’t open to the public. I managed to make an appointment to visit the school on Monday, June 9th and meet the head instructor.

Although I couldn’t stop by the school that day, I decided I would check out the Peter Prier & Sons shop next to the school while I was waiting to meet Tim.

I figured that even though Peter Prier wouldn’t be at the shop, I could still check it out since I hadn’t been there before.

Callie and and I had a great conversation about our backgrounds and experiences and relationship with violin making, and she pulled out many of the valuable instruments by original Italian 17th- and 18th-century makers in the Prier’s special collection for me to look at. And THEN after seeing my Stainer mold, she said, “Wanna see our Stainer?” They have an original Stainer?? I was so excited.

I got to play it—as a bassist who is not a violinist. But what an incredible opportunity, to see and hold and play an original Stainer violin! It was magical.

We wrapped up our conversation as I needed to go and meet with Tim, and as I was packing up my mold and templates, I heard the door open behind me and Callie suddenly said, “Peter’s here!”

And we were introduced.

I learned that the Priers happened to be serving in Salt Lake City, and on this particular day, Peter decided to check in on the shop. I honestly believe that this was no coincidence, but that we were destined to meet—it turned into the most inspirational and wonderful experience as he talked. He was as excited about my first violin as I was, expressing such great appreciation for my handiwork, admiring and complementing what I’ve done so far, giving me tips, probing my knowledge, congratulating me for the things I’ve learned and practiced so far. He pointed out the asymmetrical points on my mould, curves you could feel but not see. I asked if I should smooth them out, try to get everything as close to perfect as possibly, and he urgently grabbed my arm and said, no, this is what makes it unique, what makes it mine, don't change a thing, this was my work, done by hand. This is what makes a handmade instrument meaningful and unique.

And as the conversation went on, I asked him if it’s necessary to go to school to become an accomplished violin maker, and he firmly believed that there could be no better way to master the trade than to completely immerse myself in it—even for whatever amount of time possible. Even a year at the school, he said, would be so good. I asked if they do that at VSMA, and he said no, but … he’s the founder, so he has his own recommendations for flexibility.

I confessed how badly I've wanted to attend luthier school and become an accomplished violin maker, and he fervently encouraged, almost pleading with me, to do it, to go for it, do all I can to learn and find a way to go to a school—it didn’t even need to be VSMA, maybe the school in Chicago or in Boston or New Hampshire—but find a way to go. He said if I don’t I will look back and say, “I wish, I wish I had,” and I know he’s right. There’s nothing stopping me from becoming a great violin maker.

I was so moved as he encouraged me to go after my dream. I felt my heart and mind just open up and fill with the light of hope that I CAN achieve my dreams and become the artisan I long to become.

Peter, Elder Prier, said he knew this was no coincidence that he walked in, but that he needed to meet me, and I felt this same way too. He was so kind and loving like the warmest grandfather I can imagine with his German accent. He gave me a hardbound book dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the violin school as a gift. I gave him my card when he expressed a desire to keep tabs on me.

What a privelege to meet him and receive and consider his recommendation to attend the school he founded. He is an inspiring and accomplished man with such a legacy.

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