HAPPENED TODAY - On December 7, 1887, the pianist and composer Ernst Toch was born in Leopoldstadt

Ute Zahn

When I contact Ute Zahn to ask her to tell me about the Luthiers Without Borders Association she immediately replies with enthusiasm. He answers within a few days, but apologizes for the delay. She is in the middle of organizing a lutherie exhibition with the work of local makers and I have been very busy. 

Are there many violin and bow makers in your area?
In our area (Minneapolis and St Paul, known as the “Twin Cities”), there are many violin and bow makers with a high standard of both ethics and craftsmanship. Out of about 25 luthiers we originally invited, seven instrument makers and five bow makers decided to take part. The instrument makers are Dan Arlig, Frederik Bethke, Daryl Carlson, Mitchell McCarthy, Steve Rossow, Bill Scott, and myself; the bow makers are Jesse Berndt, Andrew Dipper, Lee Guthrie, John Vierow, and Roger Zabinski. The event will take place at the Quinn Violin shop in Minneapolis from 29 March to 4 April. Our town and surrounding area are just about bursting with music. So we reached out to about 35 orchestras and music associations, to invite musicians at all levels of playing to come, listen to, look at, and try our instruments.

And we hope that the musicians will take your invitation. But now let’s get back to the topic cell our interview. When and why the association Luthiers Without Borders was born?
Luthiers without Borders was founded in Belgium about 12 or 13 years ago by a gentleman called Paul Jacobs.  He had personal connections to Cuba and established a workshop/school in Havana.  Our US association came about because I read about LSF in The Strad magazine and thought this is something I might want to do, myself.

How the association is organized?
Each country is an organization of its own.  This is because tax requirements for no-profits are not the same from country to country, and LSF is a tiny organization lacking the resources to set up a world-wide entity.

How many violin makers are part of the association?
I don’t know how many members there are worldwide.  In the US, just a handful of people (maybe 10-12) is currently associated with LSF, but the situation is fluid.  We do not make people sign up, sign a contract, or anything like that.

In which countries of the world operate the association?
As far as I know, the Belgium branch is still operating.  There is also a branch in the UK, as well as out US branch.  I know there are some people from France and Canada who have traveled with LSF, but I am not sure those countries have official organizations. LSF has traveled to Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad, Ecuador, Haiti, and Afghanistan on teaching missions.  There might have been other trips that I am not aware of … we have also sent donations of strings and instruments to Iraq and Honduras.

How many musicians contact the association for help every year?
I don’t really know the answer to how many musicians ask us for help — our US organizations has maybe three or four requests every year, but often nothing happens after we have answered the initial enquiry.

What they need most?
What musicians need most varies from place to place.  Most places have access to instruments, but they might not have adequate strings, and the instruments are often badly set up and in need of repair.  Our focus is mostly on training the local musicians to do repair work themselves.  This means we (or they) will need all the necessary tools, glue, varnish, and repair wood.

There is someone who supports the association financially?
Our support comes from private donations, often donations of instruments, tools and repair materials; fundraising activities, and some grants. The Belgian organization received a grant from the EU once. In some of the places we traveled, we asked the people whose instruments we repaired to make a small donation towards the local program that had brought us there.

Why did you decide to join the association?
I decided to become involved with LSF because music (and, by extension, instrument making) has been so important in my life — it has given me the ability to travel all over the world, it has given me my livelihood, and it has been the source of most of my greatest friendships.  As someone who grew up in a prosperous first-world country, I am aware that not everyone enjoys the privileges I had growing up, but I want to help make music possible in as many lives as I can.  LSF offered me a unique way to put my skill set to work to that end.

What was your most beautiful experience in the association?
I think my most beautiful experience so far has been to see the success of our program in Trinidad.  We traveled there in five successive years, teaching a small handful of people.  The local teachers were incredibly supportive of our program and moved heaven and earth to ensure consistency in teaching, to make our stay wonderful, to enable the students to get the most out of the program.  We followed each trip with a couple of months of Skype lessons, and at the end of the five years, arranged for the students to come to the US for one month to participate in two internships in violin shops in this country.  They now have their own violin repair business in Port-of-Spain, doing good work, and I could not be prouder.

What are your dreams for the association?
My dream for the association is for someone to have to time to really help it grow!  As I have my own modest business to run, I cannot devote as much time to it as I would like.  The same is true for everyone else involved, so it goes in fits and starts.  It would be wonderful to come up with better funding so we could pay for all travel expenses, for example.  Right now, we ask the host country or organization to pay for our travel cost and put us up somewhere, which can be prohibitive, even though we donate our time and skill.

Thank you very much, Ute, for your kindness and availability, but also for the time and your skill that you make available to others. We hope that your dreams will soon come true!