In downtown Salt Lake City lies one of the best-kept secrets in the West, possibly even the nation. The Violin Making School of America (VMSA), opened in 1972 by the late Peter Prier, thrives and attracts students from all over the world.
Prier first came to Salt Lake City to work in a small shop and ended up opening his own violin repair business. Aspiring luthiers (violin makers) urged him to share his knowledge of violin making, and the school opened on the upper floor of the shop with four students.
“He went to a famous violin-making school in Bavaria,” Charles Woolf said. “And came out here because I think it reminded him of his homeland.” Woolf has been the director of the school since 2006. Prier continued working at his shop until his death in 2015.
“Interest in the program quickly grew,” Woolf said, “And he bought the building on the corner in order to accommodate them. A short time later, he added the second floor.”
One of the alluring things about the building is a mural of luthiers practicing their craft. This was added in the 1980s.
“We have a good reputation, and this is our fiftieth anniversary,” Woolf explained. “We are excited to reach that point, and we’re doing well. We’re surviving COVID.”
Famous musicians including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Isaac Stern have come to the school to show their instruments and provide feedback to the students.
In addition to its featured craft, VMSA has given back to the community by providing numerous tours.
The art of violin making has changed little in 400 years since its inception in Cremona, Italy, and for the most part remained in Europe. VMSA was the first violin making school in America, and is part of an elite group of only three schools in the United States. The other two are in Boston and Chicago.
The school covers the entire process of making violins and cellos from start to finish. Students produce seven violins and one cello, and the curriculum includes violin lessons. The courses are designed for a three-year program.
“Our school has a lot of very successful graduates,” woodworking instructor Alex Wilson said. “Look at some of the most famous violin makers working right now. A lot of them are graduates of our school.”
One is Michael Doran who received a Gold Medal for Cello, a Silver Medal for Cello Tone, and Certificates of Merit for Violin and Cello Tone from The Violin Society of America. Others include Theodore Skreko, Matthew Noykos, Andrew Ryan, Qi Cao and Eduard Miller—all award winners.
Wilson waxed poetic about violins and his profession. “So there’s all these different actual, physical parts of the instrument. They actually equate in name and somewhat artistically to a human structure,” he said. “When we’re working on instruments, we wind up using a lot of language that’s similar to how you might care for a person. The instrument has an age, and it requires maintenance like we all do.”
Students get the chance to go to the Utah mountains and cut down an Engelmann spruce and split it in preparation for fashioning a violin. Violins are made of maple and spruce.
The idea of constructing an instrument for a violinist’s particular needs appealed to VMSA student Andrew Stolfa. “It is such a broad task taking these fundamental, simple woodworking concepts and trying to apply them in an artful way,” he said. “There are no duplicates of that same tree or piece of wood. There’s no exact copy of organic matter.”
“We have to learn how to engage individually with the materials we’re working with and try to make a finished product that means something to someone else,” Stolfa said. “To make a living off of that!”
VMSA, a little violin-making school in Salt Lake City, has created an artisan shop that means something to the world.
304 E 200 S, Salt Lake City 801 209-3494
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