Professors Making Music -- Literally

Release Date: 06/21/2000

Several members of the Frostburg State University community have reaped the tangible and intangible rewards of pursuing the age-old practice of making musical instruments. This diverse group includes an English professor, two physics professors, the chair of the History Department and an administrator.
What unites them is a love of music, a talent for craftsmanship and the desire to save some money. Yet each brings his or her distinctive background, skills and motives to every handmade instrument.

Dr. Gerald Snelson, associate professor of English, is traditionally known for crafting puppets. But not many know that he also is a prolific maker of stringed instruments. Why? "I make instruments to make music," he explains with a smile. Snelson has "lost count" of the number of instruments he has made. He estimated his output includes four mountain dulcimers, four open-back banjos, one tenor banjo, and six electric violins. He plans to add the mandolin to his repertoire. He has also rebuilt 17 violins. "I sell some to keep the hobby going," he says.

Snelson constructs several instruments simultaneously to make use of the time needed for the glue to dry and to allow him time to think through the process. He makes them "from scratch," except the violins' machine-carved scrolls.

Setting up is time-consuming and involves adjustments to the fingerboard and string heights. "I finish them in a white heat," he says. Then he begins "revising" the instrument. "For an instrument you play for life, it had better be right, " he says.

His first instrument was a mountain dulcimer he built after finishing his undergraduate degree. To repair a violin he found, he located books on violin construction and educated himself. Now, besides printed text, he relies on the Internet as "library and catalog," with extensive "bookmarks" organized by topic on his Web browser.

Snelson plays the banjo and takes fiddle lessons. In addition, he uses his ever-growing library of instructional tapes covering a wide range of instruments.

In pondering the relationship between his love of making instruments and teaching, Snelson said, "A teacher who does a lot helps students." After all, he says, the subject matter of literature itself is diverse.

Another professor lured by the attraction of instrument making is Dr. George Plitnik, professor of physics. In Plitnik's case, his field of musical acoustics gives him a scientific understanding of how instruments actually work. He has published research on the physics of the oboe and French horn in the prestigious Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Another article on the organ reed is scheduled for publication in the same journal this summer.

Plitnik has mentored several physics majors in senior research projects on musical instruments. Two are now working on different aspects of the pipe organ reed. Another is reconstructing a sackbut, the medieval precursor of the trombone, by using the computer to emulate its acoustical properties.

As a physicist, it's only natural that Plitnik would choose to build "from scratch." His instrument of choice is the pipe organ. His love for building pipe organs grew from his professional focus on musical acoustics, a knack for mechanical work and years of playing the instrument. To date, he has salvaged so many pipe organ parts that he has filled a barn and what he calls the "airplane hangar" on his property.

During time off, Plitnik refined his organ-building skills through study and analysis, by questioning professionals and through "reverse engineering," in this case, disassembling a pipe organ to learn how it functions. He builds solid-state controls, revoices pipes, refinishes and constructs consoles, and custom designs components as needed.

While in graduate school, Plitnik started looking around for a used pipe organ in need of repair or reconstruction. He soon found one in his home church in Leonardo, New Jersey. He and his family disassembled it and put the parts in storage. Soon after moving himself and organ components to Mt. Savage, he put it together. Eventually he transformed it into his "fun organ," complete with sleigh bells, Model-T horns, xylophones and flashing lights. Years later, he built himself a small practice organ.

Several of his creations were commissioned in Japan, where he spent two years in the early 1990s on sabbatical to do research in musical acoustics. He created two for personal home use and one for a small church in Western Japan. That one is an elegant and imposing instrument, featuring an off-white console and grille resembling a shoji screen to enhance the church's Japanese décor.

A different sort of keyboard instrument, the harpsichord, intrigued Dr. Nicholas Clulee enough so that he built two. Now chair of the History Department, he specializes in the Renaissance. Given the fact that the harpsichord originated during that period, the choice of instrument isn't surprising. It helps, too, that he enjoys early music.

But the most compelling reason for building a harpsichord is the fact that his wife Carol, a keyboard musician, wanted one. Because the instrument is expensive, costing at least $12,000, he chose a kit from Hubbard Harpsichords, a company he described as "the only maker of accurate replicas of historic instruments at that time." The kit is based on the 18th century harpsichord because, he said, the instrument had then reached the pinnacle of its development.

He began work during the summer of 1976 and completed it the following spring. The finished product was a French double-manual concert harpsichord with two keyboards and three sets of strings. Shaped like a piano, it extends an imposing eight feet in length. Clulee had no woodworking experience before plunging into the project. "At times I was kind of scared," he says. " Was it ever going to turn out right?"

He found making the first enjoyable enough to make another. In 1989 he completed another Hubbard kit, an English bent-side spinet designed as a household practice instrument, with one keyboard and one set of strings. He used veneer inlay to decorate the six-foot long instrument.

These days, much of Clulee's time is consumed with the administrative duties that come with being chair of an academic department in a university. But he looks forward to retirement, when he hopes to construct a fortepiano, the 18th century precursor to the modern piano that was commonly used during Mozart's time.

Given his high profile locally as a musician and his propensity for tinkering with things, it would be surprising if Dr. Greg Latta, associate professor of physics, did not build instruments.

But, as he says, "I've always liked building stuff."

This "stuff" is a variety of instruments he built from kits, including an Appalachian dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, banjo and electric guitar. He plays everything he makes.

"I don't want to re-engineer, I want to end up with a professional instrument," he explains. "I want something better than a commercial instrument."

His first effort was an Appalachian dulcimer constructed from a kit he picked up in the early 1970's while biking and camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He found a kit from the McSpadden Company that cost him $40 and about 15 miles of pedaling. It sat in storage until he completed it in June, 1980.

A growing interest in bluegrass music and limited funds prompted him to build a banjo from a kit purchased from the Stewart McDonald Company. Constructed of ebony, pearwood, and mahogany, the banjo is decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay along the neck and around the outer circumference, known as the "resonator." He finished it during the summer of 1982.

"It has a terrific sound," he says with pride.

While on another bicycle trip in Boston with his wife, he discovered the hammered dulcimer, the instrument for which he is most widely known. He began work on a kit from the Michael Allen Company. The result is a handsome, 58-string instrument, embellished with rose inlay of dyed and sand-burnt wood and peduk wood ships placed over the sound holes. He finished it in January 1991. After winning a Michael Allen soprano hammered dulcimer in a national competition, he customized it with the same rose inlay design to match his larger instrument.

Latta's insatiable appetite for instruments led him to yet another project, the construction of an electric guitar "like Willy Nelson's." He is especially pleased with its smooth, mirror-like lacquered finish. He completed it last summer.

Unlike her colleagues around campus, Amy Simes, director of International Studies at FSU, made an instrument because she followed a whim. "I don't know why I did it, really," she recalls.

But the urge actually arose from her fascination with English paganism and a visit to the Old Music Shop in London, where she spotted a kit for a gothic harp. Simes, who studied contemporary paganism in the East Midlands at the University of Nottingham, knew that Druids traditionally build their first harps themselves. In pre-Christian times, as bearers of ancient oral traditions, Druids sang epic poems and accompanied themselves on the harp. With no woodworking experience and few tools, she began constructing the kit on the kitchen table in her one-room apartment. Three years and some frustration later, she had a small gothic harp.

At first, she played it frequently, but it no longer remains in tune because the nylon strings have stretched. The harp now hangs on a wall in Simes' home.

Looking back, she says, "I'm not sorry I did it." She added, echoing the sentiments of her crafty colleagues, "It was good to feel a sense of accomplishment."