The story begins in Red Wing, MN at Minnesota State College Southeast, a technical and community college, an educational institution where students learn about wood, tools, trees, and basic principles and techniques of violin repair. Holding the honor of being the only instrument repair program in America that is structured for an entire academic year contributes to the fact that a certificate of completion from MSCS is unique.
Driving in to Tulsa, OK, you instantly know that musical magic happens here. About one block from the Tulsa State Fairgrounds and the Tulsa Driller, sitting in an obscure location, is a breathtaking retail store, Tulsa Strings, that is wall to wall with basses, bows, cellos, violas, and violins.
Jacob Melhouse attained his certificate of luthiery in 2000, and while in his formal studies at MSCS was trained under Lizbeth Nelson Butler. Butler in her own words: “My goal is for our students to go to the best shops in the world and be ready to work – and then continue a lifetime of learning.” Melhouse took his training and moved to Tulsa to be a shop foreman and trained repairman for Tulsa Violin Shop. Jacob’s training continued with different shops and repairman such as Amos Hargrave, Horacio Piniero, but most important was the relationship that he built with the violin players. A mere 8 years later Melhouse turned the key and unlocked the doors on Tulsa Strings. “Repair and restoration are the most important part of my business,” says Jacob. He is trained and experienced (20+ years) in all repairs and restorations for the violin family instruments.
Cat Autrey, yet another certified luthier (graduate from MSCS), is alsoemployed at Tulsa Strings. Autrey also took a “making” class, and actually built an instrument while attending class.
Autrey tells us…
”School was very fast paced. It was a lot packed into a very short time. They taught you to train your eyes. That’s a big part of it, to look past what everyone else sees, so you can repair or alter things that need to be altered.”
There are no more than a handful of certified luthiers in the State of Oklahoma, (approximately 5); however, luthiers are often grandfathered in or self-taught.
As Cat and I head to the workshop, she laughed. “This apron is from Rib Crib. I was doing a commercial for them, and they thought my work apron was too dirty, so they gave me this one.” Cat was in the middle of fitting pegs on a new violin, with inspirational string music playing in the background. She showed me the process of rimming the peg box to fix the new blonde spruce violin. “Fitting pegs is a little difficult, and you have to remember they are three dimensional, so you have to keep adjusting to make certain that one is not cock-eyed to the other.”
She also shared the sense of loss that musicians in Tulsa feel about the fire at the Double Stop Fiddle Shop.
“There are such a few violin shops in Oklahoma. With the loss of Byron’s shop, it was like losing a finger,” says Cat, also a violin player.
From the workshop to the sales floor, this small brick and mortar building is sure to captivate your love for stringed instruments.