A Luthier Livestreams Himself Building A Violin To Benefit Musicians Impacted By Coronavirus

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Luthier Jacob Brillhart holding one of the violins he made. (Courtesy Aneleisa Gladding-Hinton)
Luthier Jacob Brillhart holding one of the violins he made. (Courtesy Aneleisa Gladding-Hinton)

For one whole week at the end of March, from early every morning until late at night, Jacob Brillhart livestreamed himself from his violin-making workshop in Chelsea, Vermont. The videos archived on Facebook depict a serene tableau: Brillhart, in a black apron, bent over his workbench, soft sunlight pouring in from the skylight. Every once in a while he stops to fiddle with his phone. Then, it's back to the minute, delicate work of carving a violin from scratch.

The violin in question would ordinarily sell for $10,000. This time, Brillhart is raffling it off. The money raised will benefit musicians who lost work in the coronavirus pandemic.

By the time Brillhart finished building the violin and ended the livestream on April 3, he had raised over $20,000. The raffle continues through May 15. The money it raises will be distributed by the Seven Stars Arts Center in the form of $250 grants, with a small portion of funds going to the center to offset processing costs.

"When the pandemic started hitting really hard, I lost all my gigs, and all of my friends lost all of their gigs," says Brillhart, who is also a musician. "It was a really scary time, and a lot of people were really worried, and are really worried, now, on how they're going to get through." He saw people launching crowdfunding campaigns and grant funds, pooling resources to redistribute to the musicians hardest hit. "And I thought, you know, 'What's a way that I can come up with [to raise money] that's just totally fresh?"

It was a trickier undertaking than he expected — it turns out only nonprofits can run raffles in the state of Vermont. Hence the partnership with Seven Stars Arts Center. Brillhart was also able to secure a bow to pair with the violin, thanks to a collaborative effort by bowmakers Eben Bowdach-Turner and Evan Orman, bringing the value of the prize to $15,000. Though the livestream is finished, there is still the weeks-long varnishing process to complete, which Brillhart plans to document through photos.

Jacob Brillhart plays one of his violins. (Courtesy Dylan Ladds)
Jacob Brillhart plays one of his violins. (Courtesy Dylan Ladds)

Brillhart, 27, grew up in rural town in Vermont not far from where he lives now. His father played in an Irish folk band "with a bunch of other dads," called The Grateful Dads. ("It's a weird name for an Irish band.") Brillhart studied Cape Breton-style fiddle, a Canadian tradition with Scottish roots, at a nearby violin shop, and befriended the instrument makers who worked there. Later, he attended the violin-making program at the North Bennet Street School in Boston.

The experience of livestreaming his every move in the workshop wasn't easy, Brillhart says. "It feels a little more uncomfortable that I thought it would, somehow."

Still, the task offered a kind of relief. "I have a tendency to be worried about the economy or the, you know, the state of the world," Brillhart says. "And so I also really wanted a project that would just be 100% consuming and be something that I could focus on. And not have to think about myself, my own predicament, and just be focused on doing something productive."

There isn't much in the way of drama in Brillhart's livestream videos, which are still available on the Facebook page for the fundraiser. He's almost always alone, save for the occasional appearance of his two cats, who lounge quietly in the background while he hunches over his work bench. It's an oddly soothing scene. Watching Brillhart work, the rest of the world, for a moment, recedes.

This segment aired on April 6, 2020.

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Amelia Mason Senior Arts & Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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