At the Workshop Bench: An Interview with Givens Violins’ Workshop Manager, Doug Lay
Douglas Lay has worked for Givens Violins for well over three decades. He graduated from the Violin Making School of America and worked for Peter Paul Prier, Inc. for several years, serving the last two of those years as foreman of the workshop. In 1986, the year he joined Givens Violins, one of his violins won a certificate for tone at the Violin Society of America’s International Competition in Portland, Oregon. Under his guidance and oversight, the Givens Violins Workshop has achieved and maintained a national reputation for excellence. Mr. Lay’s extensive knowledge of violinmaking and restoration is impressive and invaluable, and his discerning ears and attention to detail have made him a highly sought after “instrument doctor” for violinists, violists, and cellists nationwide, who trust him with anything from an adjustment to a major restoration.
We recently sat down with him to ask him a few questions:
What are some of your Restoration highlights over the last few years?
“As part of our everyday routine, we make repairs ranging from routine maintenance, bout gluing and retouch to more involved repairs like rib punctures and crack repairs. But we regularly get even more complicated projects too.
One of the more interesting projects I did in the last year was to restore an eighteenth-century Italian violin that had been dropped, breaking out the neck and tearing off the button (the protuberance at the top of the back that attaches to the neck.) The button is important in that it helps to resist the strong pull of the strings from levering the neck forward. After gluing back the button and inlaying a patch to brace it, I then reset the neck at the proper angle. Besides the subsequent retouch and setup, I also had to repair some superficial damage that had resulted from the fall.
Besides that project, this last year was unusual in that I did four neck grafts. Usually, I average about one such repair per year. For context, I know some of my colleagues have gone decades or even a whole career without needing to do a neck graft, but after 35-40 iterations I have it down to a…well I don’t want to say a routine because no two repairs are exactly alike; let’s just say I have enough experience to be confident in my approach.
A couple of years ago I repaired a beautiful turn of the (twentieth) century French cello that someone had tripped over during a concert while it was resting on its side. The poor cello sustained soundpost cracks in both the belly and back. When I was done, the owner thought it sounded better than it had before the injury.
One of my more interesting projects a few years ago was on another violin, this one Italian from the seventeenth century, that had been dropped. When I opened its case, I was saddened to see the soundpost sticking out of a jagged hole it had poked through the belly. One foot of the bridge had also punched through the belly, going the other direction. Looking through the end-button hole to the interior of the instrument I could see the bridge foot dangling in space. I ended up repairing those punctures and associated cracks, and several cracks elsewhere. Then, before installing patches to brace the damage, I used a series of plaster casts to press the arch, correcting distortion from the immediate damage, but also some that had accrued over centuries of string tension and use.”
What do you enjoy most when working with customers?
“I like adjusting instruments for different players, finding the right set of characteristics to suit their taste and needs. Some people might be surprised to learn that what they like is not necessarily what everybody likes, and that what feels good to them and suits their playing technique would be unhelpful for someone else. That’s the challenge and the beauty of this field, finding the qualities most compatible with the taste of the player.”
“Since arriving in the Twin Cities in 1998, I have always turned to Claire’s wonderful shop for all my violin maintenance needs, especially for the expert assistance of Doug Lay, who always, with the utmost patience, knocks my bridge and post in just the right place to get it sounding its very best!”
– Steven Copes, Concertmaster, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
“Douglas Lay has been working on my instrument since 1989 and while I now live in San Francisco and travel internationally on a regular basis, I will make the time to fly to Minneapolis for the detailed and meticulous work that I always receive from Doug at this workshop. I would not have anyone else work on my instrument.”
-Carla Maria Rodrigues, Principal Viola, San Francisco Opera
“One very important long-term relationship in the [Givens Violins] shop for me is with Doug Lay, who has been the custodian of my violins, their health, the purity of their voices and an ease of resonance from top to bottom. He’s been my violin GP and I will fly to have him adjust my instrument no matter where I live.”
-Jorja Fleezanis, Concertmaster, Minnesota Orchestra: 1989-2009, Professor of Music (violin) and Henry A. Upper Chair in Orchestral Studies, Jacobs School of Music