• Video below: Sarah Gray discusses and demonstrates the work of a luthier.
The view from Sarah Gray's hilltop studio, in her west Gretna home just past the “pavement ends” sign, is pure Nebraska, with grazing horses, gently sloping cornfields and a thread of golden trees running through a distant shelterbelt.
But when musicians step inside, gingerly carrying stringed instruments with split seams, fallen soundposts or worn horsehair bows, they are transported far away and back in time to a European craftsman's workshop, where many of the materials and techniques Gray uses haven't changed since the 1500s.
Gray is a luthier, an artisan who makes and repairs stringed instruments. Raised in Gretna, she first developed a love of music singing in her church choir, then majored in art at Nebraska Wesleyan University and combined the two fields by learning her luthier skills from experts in Italy and on the East Coast.
“A violin is a working art,” she said, one you can hold. It doesn't hang on the wall, “It's expected to be played.”
Gray brought her experience home when she incorporated her business, Sarah Gray Restoration, in 2010. She and her husband, an Air Force veteran who works for an HVAC equipment distributor, were looking for a place to settle and raise their children.
“We've been around the world and country now, and Nebraska just has so much to offer,” she said. “It's a thriving community — and it still has a sky.”
Gray transformed what was a basement workout room in the house they bought into an old-world craftsman's studio. The handmade workbench is bathed in sunshine and littered with the tools of the trade — chisels, varnish, a small lathe. There's a modern tool, too, Gray's smartphone, which the 30-year-old uses to text clients to tell them their instrument is ready to be picked up.
Gray also created the nonprofit Master Class Talks organization, through which she brings experts in instrument making and repair to Omaha to give educational talks to area musicians, teachers and students. The next event is a free workshop Oct. 12 featuring North Carolina bowmaker Jerry Pasewicz.
It hasn't been easy growing her business in a field where the customers are musicians who tend to be both turned off by aggressive marketing and reluctant to turn their instruments over for repair to someone they don't know.
But a growing roster of professional musicians in Omaha and Lincoln say they are grateful Gray is here.
Omaha Symphony principal bassist Will Clifton said a musician is somewhat like a car owner: Just because you drive the vehicle every day doesn't mean you know how to fix it when something goes wrong under the hood.
But leaving your instrument in a repair shop is much harder to do than with a car, he said. For one thing it, might be more valuable than your vehicle. There's also the emotional connection.
“My entire personality is wrapped up in my instrument,” Clifton said.
He said he has driven his bass to his favorite repair shop in Cincinnati just to have its soundpost replaced, a job that might take only a few minutes, rather than leave it in inexperienced hands closer to home.
So when he saw Gray's advertisement pinned to a bulletin board at the symphony, he wanted to give her a shot — but he also took it slow.
Clifton said he replaces the hair in his bows every six months as it gets worn out. To test Gray's skills, he brought her a “C-tier” bow — the kind he might lend to a student or use for an outdoor gig.
“I thought, let me give her this bow and see what she does with it,” Clifton said. “She returned it to me and her workmanship was fantastic. That got rid of the jitters and then I was more than happy to give her my very good bows and have her work on that.”
His very good bows cost $5,000 apiece, and he used to ship them to Cincinnati to have them rehaired.
“It's really valuable to have her here,” Clifton said, praising Gray's attention to detail and her willingness to ask other luthiers for advice. “She's obviously incredibly well-trained and she does really, really fine work.”
All the members of the Chiara Quartet, artists-in-residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, now have taken their instruments to Gray, first violinist Rebecca Fischer said, after their cellist heard from a luthier in New York that Gray had set up shop here. Gray said other area shops sell instruments and provide maintenance and repair but don't do extensive restoration or bowmaking.
“We were really excited to have an expert move here within driving distance,” Fischer said. “There are a number of very good people working on instruments in Omaha, but we felt like she is really attuned to the fine details of working with rare instruments since her background is in restoration.”
Fischer said even tiny shifts in a violin's components — for instance, when the instrument is jostled during travel — can dull its sound. Gray has a talent for listening to the musician play the instrument and diagnosing the problem, and she has worked with the quartet members' students to educate them on what to listen for.
Gray also wants to share the growing body of luthier knowledge with the larger community of musicians in the Omaha area. Despite her background in art, she said she has always been drawn to the “seriousness of the sciences.”
Instrument and bowmakers of today respect tradition but also study chemistry, physics, mechanics and other sciences to understand how changes in the components can alter sound, Gray said.
The first Master Class Talks event she hosted last year focused on “practical acoustics,” and this year's will provide an in-depth look at bow acoustics, including new research on how to improve playing performance. Gray hopes the talks enhance Omaha's standing in the music world by bringing top professionals to the area.
They also are a chance for her to get out and network, a change of pace from the hours she spends alone in her studio, wearing her leather apron, letting wood shavings and bow hairs fall to the floor. When her work is done, if it's done well, it's the instrument and the musician who stand out, not the luthier.
As long as the instrument is cared for, she said, “It's OK if nobody knows my name.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1336, firstname.lastname@example.org