The Makers of the Music Makers


There is a wondrous serendipity in just living life, particularly if you are open to the vast assortment of activities that surrounds us. Last year I wrote a column about a delightfully serendipitous moment in Chicago in which I found myself attending an amusingly twisted Christmas play by Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister fame.

Hosting my wife and I again in Chicago recently, my daughter asked if we would like to take two of our grandkids to an interactive musical performance sponsored by the City of Chicago. Of course we wanted to. That’s why we go to Chicago . . . to play with babies. But little did I know the treat that was in store for us.

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The Fine Arts Building

Fine Arts Building (center)

We walked to 410 South Michigan Avenue, “The Fine Arts Building;” the center building in the photo with the tall, arched windows. It’s an old building. Not European old, but old like after-the-Great-Chicago-Fire old. In fact, it houses the nation’s oldest artist colony. One of the things that contributes to the building seeming old inside: some of the building’s technology hasn’t been updated for quite some time.

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Now . . . to be a little more accurate, we were actually taking the kids to the 4th floor in the little building to the right of “The Fine Arts Building” — the smaller building in the photo sandwiched in between the two bigger buildings. And to complicate things a bit, the 4th floor of the smaller building is entered through the Fine Arts Building. So . . . we entered the bigger building and looked for an elevator.

William Harris Lee’s columns of mastery.

We found the elevator, got on, and pushed the only button in the cab, which rang a bell. Everybody on the elevator was looking around trying to figure out what to do next because nothing was happening. In short order a gentleman showed up, stepped into the cab and asked what floor we wanted, closing the accordion door and reaching for a lever as somebody said “four.” He started the elevator on its journey up – and I mean journey because it seemed to move at a glacial rate.

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We got off the elevator, turned, and walked down a wide wood-floored corridor where we left the Fine Arts Building to enter the smaller building where the studio of William Harris Lee & Company resides. As we entered the studio we were directed to a large room on the front of the building overlooking Michigan Avenue; a room with walls lined with violins, violas, and cellos.

The Story Teller

After the kids and parents got settled on an area rug, a wonderfully eloquent lady (our story teller) introduced herself and her two compatriots – a percussionist and a violist. She read a number of books with lots of expression while her fellow artists would ad-lib to the cadence of the verse. And as she read, they would periodically punctuate her flamboyant exclamations. This was fun for all the kids in the room; but for me, I was amused and enamored with the talent of the musicians to the point that I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. I thought to myself: This is what life is all about . . . the brilliance and beauty of talented individuals sharing their talents with those around them.

The Backdrop

The backdrop for the performance was special because it was the wood shop and studio of William Harris Lee – the instrument maker.

Fine-tuning the wood.

After the performance for the kids, our reader graciously asked if any of us would like to tour the studio; to which I immediately said yes. This I knew was going to be a life experience for my grandkids and a treat of a lifetime for me.

Our reader, now our guide, took us through the entire studio and described the brilliance of one of the finest instrument makers in the world. She showed the process of making extraordinary musical instruments from blocks of wood — turning them into the finest violins, violas, and cellos that exist today; an “old world” shop that brought the abstract into reality, just as she had done earlier in her performance for the kids.

My Take

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A captive audience.

This wonderful setting for children seems to be a macrocosmic venue for educating entire generations about the sophistication of our collective past and the brilliance of the creative process. It is an educational tool for a new generation who may never know the origins of the sounds that surround them; a generation who may grow up only experiencing vibrations synthesized through a computer to sound like the instruments that these craftsmen created.

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For those who enjoy finding out about how things are made, or want to spur the curiosity within a child, then such a venue is for you. This setting skillfully illustrates the process involved in our eternal quest for building things that can make beautiful sounds. And when combined with other sound makers, the results can be music that elevates the human spirit and is able to express who we are as a civilization.

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It is important for us to recognize that the music we enjoy is made on instruments that are made by the hands of true artisans. But most important to me is the chance to reflect on that which was imparted to all that attended that morning in an artisan’s studio: a common history with people from all over the world; a common history which speaks through the common language of music.