Doing my Job

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September 27, 2004 // UPDATED 4:11 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Doug Lay

Workshop manager/instrument restorer

Claire Givens Violins, Inc.

1004 Marquette Ave.

Doug Lay has fiddled with million-dollar fiddles belonging to million-dollar musicians, but he's not a star-struck kind of guy. He pays as much attention to violins belonging to 8-year-olds as he does those of symphony stars.

Lay oversees the workshop at Claire Givens Violins, Inc., a dealer, maker and restorer of fine violins, violas, cellos and bows. The shop's windows in the Handicraft Guild Building appropriately look out at Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall.

The instrument restorer fine-tunes violins that date back to the 1600s and resuscitates instruments crushed by cars. Lay was turned onto the restoration business when he first played violins as a youngster.

It takes months to restore some instruments; those crushed by motorists, for instance, take a year to repair.

What goes into your work?

We do repairs and restorations of old instruments. We acquire instruments that are not really playable and make them so. We service working instruments and keep those in good to working order. We serve mostly advanced students to professionals -- some beginners.

How old are the violins that come in?

We had one in a few weeks ago that was from 1646. Antonio Stradivarius [maker of the modern violin] was born in 1644 so he would have been 2 years old. It was from Kremona, Italy. Kremona is the cradle of the violin. There were only a few places where the violins were made in the late 1600s.

How do you make old violins playable?

For instance, this instrument was not that old. [Points to the violin at his desk.] It's from 1903. The necklace was loose and at an improper angle. I had to remove the neck to reset it at a proper angle. ... If it was a 400-year-old chair, it'd be in a museum with a rope across it so no one would sit in it. But we have to keep these things playable, and they're under tension.

What's the value of keeping an old violin in shape?

Well, Antonio Stradivariuses are [worth] in the millions. Sometimes the sound isn't the only difference that's discernible to the player. It does what the player wants more easily.

What kinds of things happen to violins?

Being run over by an automobile is not that uncommon. I've heard of several. So most here in Minnesota the weather is one of the critical factors. The extremes in temperature from hot and cold to dry and wet. Violins are built pretty lightly for

acoustical reasons.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

I would say listening to the instruments when they are done. We're just a block from Symphony Hall, so I sometimes stay after work and go to a concert.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

It's not always the technical stuff. Sometimes it's more of a people thing as far as different musicians have different playing styles and different instruments, and when they say, 'I don't like this,' you have to figure out just what it is. Some of the distinctions are very subtle, and so you have to ask a lot of questions and really listen to what they're talking about.