Silence is not golden in the “classrooms” of the Centrum voor Muziekinstrumentenbouw (CMB), or the Centre for the Crafting of Musical Instruments, in Puurs, a town tucked into the southwest corner of Antwerp province. Instead, you hear the buzz of sawing machines, the scrape of planes shaping wood and animated discussions between students and teachers.
A staff of 11 highly qualified teachers advise 255 students of mixed ages and nationalities in the making of all kinds of instruments, from guitars to harpsichords. “There are no real lessons here,” explains coordinator Peter De Rop, as he guides me between workbenches full of special tools and instruments in the making. “Beginners and more experienced students work side by side aided by the teachers.”
The activity at CMB is supported by the Centre for Adult Education (CVO) of Rivierenland, the region in the southwest of Antwerp province. For one year of practice, students pay €500: €240 to the CVO Rivierenland and €260 to the CMB. On the normal programme of working one day a week, students take four years to complete the education. But they can choose to follow intense studies, up to five days per week. Each student has to complete the building of at least one instrument a year.
In principle, course members don’t need any previous knowledge or experience. “Th e first assignment is a basic instrument, such as a backpacker guitar,” explains teacher Ralph Bonte, “which soon makes clear whether the student has the manual skills to continue the study.”
Students are evaluated on the quality of the instrument, their logbook, in which they record their progress, and a paper they have to hand in with each completed instrument.
One in five students at the centre is of foreign nationality, mostly from the Netherlands, France and Italy, but there is also currently an American and an Ecuadorian at work in Puurs. Frenchman Simon Basler, who is in his first year, shows me the lute he is currently working on. The small rosette around the sound hole in itself has taken him 35 hours to complete, but Basler clearly enjoys every minute of shaping the wood.
Last year, the 32-year-old interrupted his career at the French ministry of Finances and moved from Strasbourg to the village of Terhagen, near Puurs, to fulfil his dream of building musical instruments. “I was tired of working in an office and wanted to work with my hands,” he says. “A friend who studied here a few years ago and became a professional musical instrument maker recommended Puurs over schools in France or Germany.”
Basler spends five days a week in the workshops, six to eight hours a day. He has already built two guitars this year, and his lute is almost finished as well. Next year, he can graduate.
That also applies to Jonathan Gelinne, 22, who travels to the school three days per week from Brussels. After following a course in Scotland, he came to study at the centre on the advice of his Scottish teachers and other music instrument craftspeople in the Belgian capital. “This is one of the best places in the world to become a professional music instruments builder, they told me. I am lucky to find it in my own country.”
But how much of a future does one have becoming a professional builder of musical instruments? De Rop admits that most of their work will be in repairing instruments, but a lot of professional and even amateur musicians want a handmade instrument. “Which is logical,” adds Bonte. “The sound of a handmade instrument is incomparably better than one industrially made. A craftsman ‘listens’ to the wood to make the instrument perfect instead of producing as many as possible. It can also be made to fit the personality of the musician by adding figural elements such as special curves or images of an animal, for example.”
Not everyone goes to the school with the aim of turning professional. Emile Verwimp, 63, a retired furniture maker, just wants to keep in practice with shaping wood. Another student, who preferred not to give her name, has no immediate plans of becoming a professional but started the courses as a hobby early this year. An Italian, she has played the violin for five years and is now making her own. “It is a fun occupation, although sometimes it is hard to keep working with maximum precision,” the 30-year-old laughs. “There are moments when I lose my patience, but I am sure that will improve in time.”
Apart from assuring the future of this ancient craft through its students, the centre also offers workshops and lectures and maintains a library, with about 2,500 books, studies, magazines and building plans. During the annual Open Door Days, visitors can hear concerts and check out finished and in-progress instruments in the workshops; public concerts and talks also make up the biannual Cordefactum festival (see sidebar).
The school works together with other institutes in Flanders such as the secondary vocational education ILSA in the provincial technical school of Boom and the School of Arts at the University College Ghent. Teachers at these schools often follow courses at CMB for extra training. This year a teacher from each school is working on building harpsichords at the centre.
The centre is also expanding its influence outside the regional borders via the Leonardo da Vinci programme of the European Commission. Part of the commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme, it funds practical projects in the field of vocational education and training, including “mobility” initiatives enabling people to train in another country, co-operation projects to transfer or develop innovative practices and networks focusing on topical themes in the sector. The centre has applied to the commission for subsidies to start up a cooperation with a school in Finland concerning building guitars with non-tropical wood, “which is very rare in our area but common over there,” notes De Rop. “We want to send students and teachers over there to learn their techniques, and using non-tropical wood would be ecologically friendly.” A Finnish delegation would in turn visit the workshops in Puurs to learn their work methods.
The final goal is to start a European and international network of knowledge exchange on musical instrument crafting. “We can’t all be on our little island,” says De Rop. “To improve global expertise on the craft and adapt it to ecological needs, for example, we need to learn from each other.”