Like instruments, luthier revives music in my life

The door to the nondescript cement building opens with a cheery greeting.

"Hello and welcome," says the Ashland luthier.

My eyes struggle to adjust from the bright sunlight to the dusky space as Stephen Bacon attends to the blinds at Bellwood Violin Repair and Restoration.

Shafts of sunlight stream through the slats, revealing a vault of ancient and modern instruments — from guitars to basses to violins to lutes. The stringed instruments are in various stages of repair. They hang on walls, dangle from the ceiling or repose upon carpet strips on waist-high wooden tables.

The sight is jaw-dropping to this music lover. I have always envied folks who can play. I stammer a greeting and express amazement at the sights to behold in Bacon's instrument hospital.

"Oh wow! Look at them all," I say.

A lone accordion sits on the shelf before me. The ornate, button-style, Minnesota polka box with the crimson air bellows takes me back in time. Suddenly I'm 9 years old and confessing old wounds.

"My aunt and uncle had a music store," I blurt out. "My uncle tried to teach me to play the accordion, but he said I was hopeless and gave up. My older sister could play. But I never got past the Lazy Bear Waltz."

Attempts to play the flute were likewise futile.

"I kept hyperventilating and almost passing out," I say.

Figuring one hand already had a nodding acquaintance with the ivories, I'd also tried the piano. But a cat walking across the keys creates more tuneful melodies.

Still, hope springs eternal. And I am in the presence of a man who not only managed to master many instruments, he brings them back from the dead. Perhaps before our interview is over, he can find my inner musician.

My pipes aren't too bad, I say. From elementary school to college, I sang in too many choirs to count. From girls glee to the a cappella choir, voices raised together in harmony always get to me. Notes hanging in the air, hearts lifted in song. It's like being in church — only better.

Later in life I warbled away in a trio with two girlfriends. Mostly we sang around campfires, or at parties, whenever the spirit moved us. Cathy played ukulele. Julie played guitar. I sang lead.

Bacon advises me not to feel bad about my inability to master a man-made instrument. Singing is the point of playing, he says.

"Anybody with an instrument, that's all they're trying to do is sing," Bacon says. " ... You can put so much emotion into it."

Apparently I didn't sing often enough for some folks.

My favorite musical memory came about 15 years ago when my now-dearly departed husband carted me blindfolded to a mysterious location on my birthday. Bill's intended gift became evident as soon as he removed my bandanna. We were in a music store, standing before a row of guitars.

"Pick out whichever one you want," Bill said. "I want to hear you sing every day."

I fell in love with the big German all over again that special winter's day.

I also became hooked on guitars. I bought, traded and sold several over the years, but never evolved beyond the three-chord-wonder stage.

"I've got a couple guitars now that are way better than what I deserve," I say.

Sharing these tales made me realize how far I'd let music slip away from my daily life. Absent my singing buddies, I used to sit out by the river, playing and singing solo.

I don't do either anymore. The realization hit a sour note.

But the visit to Bellwood seems to have provided a tune-up. The kindly luthier's encouraging words are resonating like a sweet note from one of his violins. I sang a little on the way to work today. And remembered the Englishman has repeatedly expressed a desire to learn to play guitar. Now to gather up a few folks for a riverside sing-along.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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