Artist’s strings are a labor of love

Kerri Roche

Throughout her childhood, when Marilyn Wallin would play her violin, she found the joy of the moment would dissipate with the last sound resonating off the strings.

So she would start playing again to continue experiencing those moments of joy as she directed the bow across the strings of her violin.

"I did click with music and still do," said Wallin. However, building the musical instruments is "a different calling than playing. It’s more concrete, less abstract. It’s not temporary the way music is. Music is in the moment. The fleeting nature of music was not as satisfying as making things."

Since she was young, Wallin grew up around others who made concrete objects. Generations back, Wallin’s paternal side of the family has all been cabinetmakers.

"I grew up around woodwork," she said. "It just came naturally."

Then, while making music and watching her father in his shop "all of a sudden, the two click. … At 18, I wanted to be a violin maker."

She headed off to college as an undergraduate to study viola performance. Shortly after earning her degree, she was at the Chicago School of Violin Making, learning to assemble violas, violins and cellos.

Forward to today, and Wallin is an internationally known violinmaker. The Maynard resident spends her days in her studio at the Emerson Umbrella, working from the sawdust-speckled light of the floor-to-ceiling windows.

In a typical year, Wallin produces about 10 pieces from start to finish. She has a year’s worth of work lined up at all times.

She keeps a sharp record of the number of instruments she has made — 172, she said, when asked to give an approximate answer.

Each piece takes around six weeks worth of work. There are about 70 parts to a single instrument, said Wallin, and each has acoustical and structural demands.

With each step, Wallin is controlling the sound of each instrument, although with her experience, there are no longer surprises.

Functionally, the instruments’ playability can be altered with very little adjustment. "You can make the instrument perform under different types of playing. There’s no reason to play a violin that is not right for you."

The process is long, much longer than mass-produced instruments.

"It can’t be done any faster," said Wallin. "I can make an instrument in a week, [but] it wouldn’t last for generations."

She mainly uses spruce or maple for all of her models, but no two are ever exactly the same.

"After many years of doing this, I haven’t settled on a model. I’m still exploring," said Wallin.

Most times, violin stores place orders with Wallin for her hand-made instruments.

"Frequently, I make the instrument for the violin shops and then they find the musician," said Wallin. "There’s freedom in making the instrument and letting the musicians find them."

One such musician was Samuel Thompson, who lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Besides necessities, Thompson took his handmade Wallin violin while fleeing to the Louisiana Superdome.

One of the most commonly played media clips from the arena was of Thompson, with his violin, playing Bach to hurricane refugees in wheelchairs and stretchers.

The violin she had spent approximately six weeks making was "the only thing he got out of the flood."

"I was moved that he was so concerned about others," said Wallin of Thompson’s impromptu performance.  "Somehow, I was a part of that at a distance."

Besides a Katrina refugee, the typical musician who plays Wallin’s pieces is a college student majoring in a stringed instrument performance or a young musician.

However, several of her instruments have graced the stages of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Kennedy Center Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to name a few.

Wallin also still plays with community orchestras, but no longer performs professionally. The life of a professional musician is too demanding, and Wallin would rather focus her efforts and time on making the instruments.

She came to the Emerson Umbrella after spending 10 years in a commercial space in Waltham. She had an assistant, allowing her to produce a handful more of stringed instruments each year, but "I’ve changed the nature of my work," said Wallin.

Now, settled in Concord, Wallin said her studio is what she has dreamed of. "I’m 20 feet from 60 other artists," she said. "If I have a problem matching a color, I can grab one of the artists I trust. It has been an environment in which my own art has grown more than I knew it could at this late a date."

Wallin will display her work in an upcoming show at the art center alongside other woodworkers. The physical structure of a stringed instrument, said Wallin, is "an art worthy of a gallery at times."

Like a visual artist, her pieces all have their own character and one is never the same as the other.

"Each one is an event. I’m no less likely to forget an instrument than a painter would forget their own painting," said Wallin.

For now, and into the foreseeable future, Wallin will continue doing what she has done for years. It is her labor of love and her source of contentment, the hours spent meticulously working on an instrument waiting for an owner.

"I’m one of those rare people who only ever had one calling," she said.

Kerri Roche of The Concord (Mass.) Journal can be reached at or 978-371-5796.