Always In Tune

By Kate Hull

Violins are tuned in intervals of perfect fifths from one string to the next. As a bow is drawn across the strings, the vibrations send a transmission through the bridge and sound post to the body of the violin. That vibration then radiates into the air, turning into sounds created by artists ranging from Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach to country-swing music sensation Bob Wills. But before there is a musician fiddling and plucking away, there’s a luthier. Cue Rachel Masterson Gray. 

Tucked away in a basement studio, Rachel and her husband David Bundy have carved out a musical oasis where David teaches lessons to local students and Rachel, a trained luthier, mends violins. One room of the space is lined with bass guitars and peppered with percussions, a rock ‘n’ roll lover’s bliss. On the other side, Rachel’s space is a bit more delicate. The quaint workshop houses dozens of small tools hanging on the walls, blocks of maple and spruce woods, and violins awaiting their turn to, hopefully, once again play wonderful music. For seven years, she’s been Teton Valley’s resident “violin doctor,” fixing cracks and breaks with surgeon-like skill. 

But the road to becoming a luthier began, believe it or not, with biology. Rachel graduated with a wildlife biology degree and in the late nineties was living with a group of other biologists in Virginia. During an evening spent sharing stories and getting to know one another, an idea took hold. 

“A co-worker told us about his dad who makes violins,” she says. “I had never thought about instrument making before, but the idea stayed in the back of my head for a long time.”

Music had always been an important part of Rachel’s life. She grew up playing the trumpet and recalls memories of her mother listening to classical music, which deepened Rachel’s appreciation for all types of compositions. She and David are also members of local reggae group Chanman Roots Band, in which Rachel plays trumpet and David the bass. 

But in 2007, the idea sparked from that night of conversation came to fruition. Rachel enrolled in Salt Lake City’s Violin Making School of America. 

Rachel Masterson Gray’s workshop is filled with precision tools, wood shavings, and violins on the mend.

“I have always enjoyed doing things with my hands,” Rachel says. “The creativity factor and the satisfaction of starting with literal chunks of wood and then creating, not just something, but something musical … that is where the passion is.” 

While enrolled in the program, she split her time between Driggs and Salt Lake City, heading home on the weekends to play a gig with her band and see her husband. 

Rachel is often asked if she plays violin. “Yes, but not great,” she might reply with a laugh. She refers to herself as a trumpet player in public and a banjo and violin player in private. When it comes to working on violins, for her it’s all about the precision and the craftsmanship. 

Rachel works with a violin repair shop in Rexburg, where students and musicians bring in stringed instruments in need of mending. Wood shavings, violin pieces, and tools line her workstation. A clamp sits attached to the belly of one instrument, as a repaired seam dries. A seam is easier to fix than a crack in the body of the instrument, she explains. The mending process is all about the detail. A violin is made up of thin and delicate pieces of wood expertly carved and glued together. 

“Typically, you use spruce on the top and maple on the sides and back,” she says. The wood varieties are light in color, making a bold red or deep brown varnish easier to apply. Both are strong woods that are still very flexible. The violin neck holds the strings and the fingerboards. The decorative bridge keeps the strings away from the top of the instrument.

A small piece of seasoned spruce hides inside the violin, effecting the instrument’s tone. The distinctions of each instrument might appear ordinary to the naked eye, but to a luthier, they are the key elements, however small and subtle, to making quality music. Rachel is always listening for a certain sound that’s a bit hard to describe. You just have to hear it, she says. 

Rachel enrolled in Salt Lake City’s Violin Making School of America in 2007. Now, she is Teton Valley’s resident “violin doctor.”

“I listen for a colorfulness to the tone or a layered full sound, rather than a pitchiness—which, if you heard a nicer made instrument versus a not as nice one, you could easily tell the difference,” she says. “There is a richness to the tone that projects really well.” 

Someday soon, Rachel hopes to craft a custom violin to let her creativity shine, and then find it a home. “It’s a very personal thing, buying an instrument or finding an instrument you love,” she says. “It is about matching the person to the instrument.” 

With Rachel’s know-how blended into each nook and cranny, there’s no doubt the instrument will sound just right. Visit mastersonviolins.com