The sign above the porch railing of this 1909 Victorian in Dignowity Hill says “Sonny’s.” When you step inside, Sonny herself greets you and shows the way into a hall filled with military memorabilia, past a tidy bedroom where the cat Calliope lounges, and into a room overlooking the backyard.
There, the wood-plank floors are littered with maple shavings and dozens of hand tools neatly line the walls. A stereo is tuned to a progressive rock station.
This is the workshop of Scott Albert, maker of stringed instruments.
Most days, Albert toils here in the dark, letting the shadows reveal imperfections as he works for months shaping thin planks of wood into a prized violin. It may sell for thousands of dollars, via a dealer back home in Illinois, or in the case of one viola, enable a disadvantaged prodigy to achieve his dream of touring the world.
Albert knows something of being a boy with a dream. Growing up poor on a farm, he went on to serve his country in the military, yet never abandoned his dream of becoming a violin maker.
“I saw a documentary of a violin maker on PBS, of all places, and I thought that would be a fantastic thing to do someday,” Albert said. “It looked so calm, the way the wood was kind of falling off his tools. … I thought, man, that’s just so cool.”
He joined the Air Force instead and served 21 years, during which he traveled the world erecting communication towers in both peacetime and war. When Albert retired, he and his wife opened a small-town restaurant. But a violin bow one of his captains had presented him as a parting gift resurrected the dream.
“Then I discovered that for seven years I had been living near that violin school I had seen on the documentary — the Chicago School of Violin Making,” he said. He sold everything he owned and enrolled in the three-year program.
While his wife, Sonny, pursued her own wish to own a nail salon, Albert attended the prestigious violin-making school, relying on the GI Bill and his military retirement income. Upon graduation, the usual career path for a violin maker is to apprentice to a master violin maker, working in the back room and continuing the education. Instead, Albert returned home and began making violins.
He made five instruments for himself and displayed them on the wall, unsure of his next step until he met a dealer who owned a family music store. Last year, in their quest for a warmer climate and affordable downtown living, he and Sonny landed in San Antonio.
They chose the historic Dignowity Hill house where they both work and live for its proximity to culture and recreation in downtown San Antonio — something he said they never could have afforded in Chicago.
“There’s so much good music in San Antonio – it’s a great music city,” Albert said. “Austin gets the big A-name bands, but we get the unexpected sounds.”
The couple has eclectic music tastes – from gypsy jazz to classical. They walk from their home to the symphony and volunteer at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts “just because we think it’s so awesome.”
Not surprisingly, Albert also loves violin music. “But I’m a terrible violin player, absolutely,” he said. “It’s always nice to hear a properly played violin.”
So how does he know if the instrument he made is any good?
“I measure it technically,” he said. “Do the strings buzz? Does it have a wolf note? Does the finger board have the right shape? Does bridge have the right shape? Is it performing?
“It’s like if you built a Ferrari. A mechanic could build it and make sure the steering wheel and brakes work so it’s a properly functioning Ferrari. But he’d never take it out and race with it. It may be fantastic, but he’s not going to win the race because he’s not a driver, he’s the maker. It’s the same for me.”
There are two retail shops in San Antonio specializing in stringed instruments, repairs, and lessons — Antonio Strad Violin, owned by musicians Guolian Zhou and Mary Zhang, and Terra Nova Violins. Terra Nova’s owner Abbas Selgi, originally from Iran, began with a shop in his home and now sells and repairs instruments from two stores, here and in Austin.
Albert said he makes about four to five violins and violas a year, varnishing and repairing others in between. He has made 35 violins in his brief luthier career.
“I’m really, really enjoying this,” he said. “It’s certainly challenging. I’ve had a few jobs you can just do on auto-pilot, like running the kitchen in a restaurant … This is challenging every minute. It’s real challenging to get the results you want and repeat those results.”
The art of violin-making has a history that goes back to before the 1500s but stalled out during the 20th century. Violin makers are trying to revive it. Albert spends two weeks every summer at Oberlin College in Ohio with a think tank that works to solve problems in violin making.
“These are the best violin makers in the world … and me,” said Albert, who calls himself the logistics guy for their meetings. “We are trying to make the world’s best violins and make sure the craft is not lost.”
On his workbench, pieces of wood are beginning to take the waisted shape of the five-string fiddle he is making. He uses hot animal glue and a bench vise to bring two asymmetrical pieces together and gouging tools to shave the surface.
“Violin makers are really good tool sharpeners, and if they’re not, they’re not good violin makers,” he says as the chimes from a grandfather clock in the hall mark 5 o’clock and Calliope steps through the sawdust to beg for her next meal.
“A lot of hope goes into a violin when I make it,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s an emotional attachment, really. I’ve never lamented over something that didn’t go to plan. But I take it really seriously and really personally.”
A baritone player his entire life, Albert says he never once thought about where that sound came from until he heard Scarlet Rivera play a “wicked” violin for Bob Dylan.
“It was just a connection for me.”