Northfield, Minn.—Sally Mullikin, a senior at Carleton College, has played viola for as long as she can remember. When she first came to Carleton from her hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C., she decided that just playing viola wasn't enough—she wanted to learn how to make one. She sought the help of a local luthier (maker of stringed instruments), and began the careful and slow process of crafting her own viola. Now, three years later, she has completed the instrument, as well as a paper on the history of the viola and her experiences building one, and gave a recital with it a couple of weeks ago.
Playing the instrument she made has given her a feeling of self-sufficiency, she said. "I'm proud of it, but if there's something I don't like about the way I'm playing, I can't just blame it on the instrument because that would be my fault, too. I'm responsible for every sound it makes," she said.
Mullikin has spent much of her free time at Carleton on the process of learning to make stringed instruments and actually crafting her viola. She started by contacting a local violin and viola maker, Laurence Anderson, who took her on as an apprentice in his shop. She watched him build the instruments, gradually assuming more responsibility until he offered to help her make her own viola. With a S. Eugene Bailey Instrumental Music Scholarship from Carleton to offset the cost of housing, materials and Laurence's time, she spent the summer after her sophomore year in Northfield crafting what she hopes will be the first of many instruments. She began making her viola in June 2000 and continued working on it between off-campus studies adventures, completing it in June 2001.
Learning about the history of the instrument for her comprehensive project resonated more deeply after she had created one of her own. "I never get tired of it, but I definitely like making violas more than I like writing about violas," she said. Her enthusiasm for the craft will be essential to a successful career as a luthier. "Violin makers I've talked to have really driven home the point that you have to be completely devoted to your work if you want to do well," she said.
Mullikin hopes to try building violins, which she also plays, in violin-making school after Carleton. After studying formally for three years in school, rising luthiers pursue apprenticeships with famous instrument makers. "My dream is to someday have my own shop and my own customers to buy my instruments. I love music so much and to get to the origin of it with something that makes music is fascinating," she said.
Building stringed instruments is hard work because it requires close communication with composers and musicians, Mullikin said. "Luthiers have to be very responsive to what composers demand of the instrument and to how players can execute it with the instrument they're given," she said. The task of luthiers is not to design their own instruments, but to tailor each instrument to the needs and preferences of people creating music. "Very few makers design their own instruments," she said. "When the instruments were invented they were more or less perfect and you're not going to improve on the old masters."
Though the first violas and violins were nearly perfect, she said, violas were not as perfect. "If you look at the history of the viola, it's kind of an impossible instrument because it needs to be larger than the violin, and the violin is already the perfect size. So it's awkward to hold a viola like a violin," she said. As a result, she said, "The viola has been overshadowed by the violin throughout its whole history, so I thought there was a lot to cover there."