The Instrument

We were deep in conversation today, my friend and I, when we were interrupted.  I wasn’t optimistic that the break would be that profitable.

Usually when folks bring in old violins, they leave disappointed.

I can’t count the number of times the old fiddles have been carried through my door, many of them, cradled gingerly like a precious treasure that would shatter if anyone breathed on it.  

It belonged to (fill in the blank—Grandpa, Uncle John, my old neighbor…), and we’re sure it’s a Stradivarius.

It never has been.  A Stradivarius, that is.  Ever.

I have disillusioned more people with my appraisals of violins than any other instrument.  Unfortunately, the world is full of fakes and imitations.  A name written on a label is no guarantee of authenticity.

I have even learned to soften the blow by lowering expectations from the start.  Today was no exception.

“It’s almost certainly not made by Stradivarius.”

It turns out I didn’t need to make it any easier of this couple.  They knew exactly who the maker was.  This one hadn’t only belonged to Uncle John.  It had been made by him.

I should have known that their expectations were not the same as many others by the way they carried the instrument.  It wasn’t even in a case and they certainly weren’t handling it with kid gloves.

They didn’t want me to tell them they could retire on the proceeds from the sale.  Far from it.  These folks wanted me to confirm that the violin was no more than a wall-hanger, suitable for display on a wall in their den.

Wouldn’t you know it?  I was going to disappoint them, too.

I examined the instrument and was amazed at the quality.  The solid spruce top was well-proportioned and carved expertly.  There were no imperfections to be seen.  The beautiful hand-rubbed finish glowed in the light.

Flipping the violin over, I gazed at a wonderful flamed maple back, again perfectly proportioned and without a flaw to be seen.  The joints were tight and uniform, the structure sound as could be.

A well-shaped neck and scroll atop it completed the picture.  It was a fine violin.

I was confused.

“Your uncle made this instrument?  And, you think it’s not going to be playable?  Why?”

The couple explained that the uncle had actually been a lawyer who never played a violin in his life, either before or after making the violin.  He had made one violin just to prove it could be done.  Then he built eleven or twelve others.  

No one knew where the others were, nor if they were good instruments or not.  Because he was not a musician, they assumed he had failed in proving his point, so were going to mount the violin-shaped object in a frame and save it for posterity as a piece of art.

I objected.  

violincloseThis was as fine an amateur-built instrument as I have ever seen.  There was absolutely no reason—none whatsoever—for it not to be played.

I even took the time to tune the strings, which were horribly out of adjustment.  Sliding the tilting bridge into place and tightening the pegs to the correct tension, I then found a bow and drew it over the strings.

My friend, who had been sitting quietly through the episode, exclaimed suddenly.  He couldn’t help himself.


It was, too.  

The voice of the instrument was exquisite.  Like the maker, I don’t play the fiddle, but I know how to tune one and even my inept fumbling with the bow on the strings produced a tone unlike any that normally proceeds from most of the cheap, student instruments which come through my business.

The full-bodied tone left nothing to be desired.  Nothing at all.  Beautiful clear treble pitches and deep, booming bass notes emanated from the instrument instantly.  Nobody in the room had any question about it.

This instrument isn’t a piece of art to be hung on a wall!  In the right hands, it will make music that all listening will easily recognize as art, instead.

It is not a Stradivarius, nor is it worth a million dollars.  It is a fine family heirloom which will hopefully be played by one of the maker’s descendants, proving every naysayer who ever doubted the lawyer’s ability to build a quality instrument completely wrong.

Moments before the couple walked in, my friend had asked the rhetorical question, “What am I giving to God?” 

He and I are both reaching our senior years, the realization that time is growing short consuming our thoughts.  An old friend died suddenly last night of a heart attack, and that weighed heavily on me as we spoke of the urgency.

In our conversation, we had talked about stepping out, not knowing what the end result would be—not even necessarily knowing what we were being asked to do.  It’s as uncomfortable a thing to do as I can think of.

But, as the couple walked out of the door, cradling the instrument as if it would shatter if anyone breathed on it, we looked at each other in disbelief.  Both of us smiled as the lesson of the non-musician luthier hit home.

It can’t be done!  

Stick with what you know!

Really?  Did you ever notice it seems that God purposely took people who had done other things and used them in ways they never thought possible?  Shepherds, fishermen, tent makers, tradesmen trained for a lifetime of performing specific tasks—He gave them responsibilities which in no way resembled those earlier vocations.

To Abraham—Go to a land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
To Noah—Build an ark. (Genesis 6:14)
To Moses—Go tell Pharaoh to let My people go. (Exodus 8:1)
To Peter—Upon this rock will I build my church. (Matthew 16:18)

I was reluctant to give my friend advice today.  God puts inside each of us His dream, His direction.  It’s a dangerous thing for another person to give counsel that contradicts that.

If that violin I looked at today is any indication, it’s also a little foolish.

Sometimes we have to follow God, even when people around us don’t understand.  

My friend says he’s got things to do.  Maybe it’s time for me to get moving, as well.

I wonder.  I’ve never built a violin.




Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?  Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”
(Exodus 4:11-12 ~ ESV)


Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.
(James A Baldwin ~ American essayist/novelist ~ 1924-1987)




© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved. 

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