Jars of resin, woodstain powder and turpentine line a shelf in Juan Pablo Mijares' studio. Below rest the naked neck and body of a cello in progress. Tucked under a worktable, a fat split of dried Colorado-grown Engelmann spruce anticipates its lucky future as the top plate of a violin.
As these materials wait for their master's attention, Mijares is busy doing one half of what he does in this, his 25-year-old business — responding to the instrumental needs of local students who play violin, viola, cello or bass. One has shot up over the summer, and now the shoulder rest for his viola doesn't fit his neck. "I didn't realize that growing taller messed things up," his mother says.
A second's violin has a cracked body. It'll need some gluing, Mijares tells her. He can finish it in two days. The 16-year-old nods, then holds up a wispy-haired bow and adds with a cringe that it also needs a "restringing." It seems summer music camps aren't easy on students or their instruments.
The third, a boy who proudly states that he's been playing for five years, "since I was 4," is in the market for a larger violin.
Mijares admits he'd forgotten how busy it gets in the afternoon at the beginning of the school year, and yet he's excited, too. These kids keep alive a centuries-old tradition, and, if they stick with it, may become an integral part of the other half of his luthier work.
"The kids who really progress, they come back and I build a violin for them," says Mijares, 52. "That's the most exciting thing, to build a violin for them ... that they maybe will keep forever. Not only might they keep it forever, but they might pass it down, and it might be, hopefully the idea is that it'll be around 300 years from now, and somebody will still be playing it."
Song of the Italian
An alleyway near Tejon and Bijou streets is home to Mijares' shop. An ornate metal gate is the first indication of something different hiding amid downtown shop owners' private parking. The second is a small wooden sign that reads J. Mijares Violins. Cream stucco walls and dark shingles lend an Italian-village ambiance to the outdoor area.
Inside, a dark and velvety parlor of sorts holds cases and cases of instruments and chairs for waiting customers. Beyond that, visitors find a studio for woodworking, and beyond that, an office.
Once everyone has left, the hum of a window air-conditioner is the only sound in the space.
Mornings, Mijares says, are much like this. He's closed to customers in the a.m., to leave time for planning, carving, building and varnishing the instruments that take him hundreds of hours to complete. It's a process that's in no way efficient, he emphasizes, but one that he loves — "to sit there and be with the violin and carve the wood into what it wants to be. It's very slow and methodical, you know, and peaceful, working on the violin."
His primary training came while earning his luthier degree from the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, after which he studied violin performance at Brigham Young University. And the methods he uses adhere closely to those used by the Italian masters.
"The great thing about the Italians, they had this attitude of this kind of artsy, free work, and it just shows, where the Germans were almost too meticulous. I mean, you see that in their violins. And what everybody loves is that freedom that they see in Italian carving, in great Italian violins."
No fiddling around
Amid the building and fixing of these fine instruments, Mijares also instructs others. Once a month, he hosts a luthier class. "I actually haven't made a bass yet, but we have a class for amateur makers, and in the class, there's a guy who's built two basses now. ... I haven't had the stomach to build a bass yet. It's almost as big of a project as a boat, not quite."
Of course, he has taken on a boat. Three of them, actually. The largest, a 19-footer that sleeps six people, took him about five years. It's "just a hobby," Mijares says, but it's obvious from the detailed plans and photos hanging about his office that it's a true love.
That, along with his wife, a cello instructor, and five kids — all of whom, yes, play stringed instruments. His 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son both perform with the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony. And even the youngest, who at almost 3, sits in a photo holding a very, very small cello.
"When they're this young, we don't have lessons or anything. We just get them used to it ... she just saws on it," he says with a chuckle. "She watches Little Einsteins and 'plays' along."
The life of a luthier isn't all fun and games, though. There's one thing in particular Mijares says he struggles with.
"Varnish. The varnish is the thing that everybody frets about the most ... everybody has their secret recipe and their ideas, and nobody knows what they really did 300 years ago to make these beautiful, beautiful violins. It's almost an impossible thing to do, to make a new violin look like one of these beautiful 300-year-old violins, so you're never satisfied, you never quite can do that. ... And you won't know for 300 years if you did it right."
But it's a chance Mijares is willing to devote his life to, building just a few instruments a year.
"My goal is to reach a hundred here before I retire."