His ear is his stethoscope, sensitively recognizing what is wrong with his “patients”. His eyes are like a microscope, sharply noticing the minute details that are not supposed to be there. Thirty-one-year-old Tong Mingxi’s touch is his own formulated medicine, one that can send broken stringed instruments – his patients – home as good as new.
“This one is a tough case,” says the Singaporean luthier, working his knife on the neck of the cello that was among his “patients” for the afternoon. “You see all the flames there? We need to work hard on it.”
He lays a hand on a Stradivari, opens up and reassembles a Guarneri and takes care of an Amati. To the young yet experienced luthier, every patient is of the same importance. Even that six-year-old cello.
“Would you treat patients of a lower class differently?” he asked rhetorically.
And during his five-day tour of service in Jakarta, repairing violins and cellos in a modest workshop set up by the Jakarta Arts Council, he has proved that every single instrument is treated equally.
Having removed the strings and bridge of the cello, Mingxi’s hands quickly and expertly move his knife about on the small ebony plank that was the fingerboard. He scrapes off uneven surfaces and tries to figure out how to make the neck more comfortable for the musicians to press the strings down on it.
“See that part,” he says, pointing to a spot that only a luthier’s eyes would recognize. “This wood must’ve been part of a branch. That was where a branch must’ve come out. That’s why this is not even.”
This is what he does for a living, a profession that Mingxi took up after he started to learn violin making nine years ago.
Becoming a luthier – a person who makes or repairs stringed musical instruments – was something that Mingxi didn’t see coming. Rare as it is, the profession is perhaps known only among those familiar with violins, cellos or guitars – definitely not the kind of profession one has in mind as a child.
“I started off in university,” says Mingxi, who started playing instruments when he was 10. “I was in the orchestra and I played the violin.”
People might say that Mingxi has the talent because he also plays the violin – a skill that gives a luthier the sensitive ears and fingers to carry out various repairs ranging from tonal adjustments to major body work.
Is that the case?
“Well, not really. He can’t play the violin,” Mingxi says, pointing at his assistant Wong Pei Yu, a young Chinese friend trained to assist him. “But he’s got really good hands.”
The Jakarta visit was also part of Mingxi’s mission to seek new talents to take on the rare profession.
“We are looking for potential helpers. They can stay with us for a few years and whatever they learn is theirs,” he says.
Claiming to be a mediocre violinist, during college he took a turn that made use of his musical talents, his engineering background and his entrepreneurial streak.
“Back then I thought of what I could do that is fun. I don’t want to do anything concerned engineering,” says the father of two.
In 2001, while still in college, Mingxi met Yugoslavian violin maker Sabo Itsvan, who took him under his wing to learn about the art of assembling the bowed instrument.
“That’s where I got all the basic things,” he says.
But, like engineering and performing, it seems that violin making is not his thing.
“Repairers are restricted by present constraints, it’s all been done. If a violin is not good, the arch is already done, you cannot touch it. The fingerboard is done, so all you can do is correct it,” Mingxi explains.
“People who like to make don’t like to repair. And those who do repairs don’t like to make.”
But, perhaps, this is led more by Mingxi’s entrepreneurial instincts.
“In Singapore, there’s a market for repairing, not for violin making,” says Mingxi, who will later travel overseas again for summer workshops.
Within a year of starting out, as he gained more hands-on knowledge and experience, Mingxi decided to set up his own business. He founded Amber Craft Violins, which currently dominates the violin luthier market.
“You have to have guts to enter this market. The moment I did this people said *Are you crazy?’, but now they don’t see me as crazy,” he adds.
“That’s what drives me on. You want to do the impossible and push everything to the limit.”
His guts, constant thirst for challenge and talent paid off eventually.
Since 2004, Mingxi has been the caretaker of the famous Rin Collection, which comprises around 300 violins, violas and cellos, including those with big names such as Strads, Guernari and Amati. But, to Mingxi, the learning process did not stop when he earned the right to lay his hands on those famous brands. He continuously needs to learn and learn. But in a field where there’s no formal education, where can one learn?
“I work for people for free. I got the experience and they get things done.” He feels he developed most of his expertise working for the Salchow in New York. During what he calls his on-the-job training, he accumulates questions about repairing techniques that he can then ask big-name tutors in the summer workshops he joins overseas.
Aside from that, what does it take to be a luthier of his level?
“It’s just how much of an effort you want to put in. It’s very passion driven,” he explains. “The best way is to be doing it, working with the real things to learn the ropes.”
Mingxi’s process of learning the ropes has included opening up a Guarneri that was part of the Rin Collection – an instrument worth US$1.2 million.
“It had a crack inside the base bar. You have no choice but to open it. I had to take out the base bar, fix the crack, reinforce, do a new base bar and close put it back together. And it sounds good,” Mingxi says of a repair he deems the best experience he has had so far.
“But,” he adds humbly, “if an instrument sounds good, it will always sound good no matter what you do.”
Anissa S. Febrina , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Thu, 10/01/2009 11:31 AM | People