CHRONICLE PHOTO David Burham, Springfield resident, gestures as he explains how he crafts instruments out of his home workshop in Springfield.
SPRINGFIELD – When David Burham first decided to become a luthier, he wanted to pick the brains of all of the world’s elite violin makers.
Of course, that wasn’t possible. But with an insatiable yearning for learning, Burham started accumulating mentors – including some folks who were “on a whole other level than the rest of us.”
Long ago it became apparent to Burham, a lifelong musician, that there was only one possible way he could afford to play the kinds of expensive instruments he always dreamed of playing.
He needed to learn how to make them. Plain and simple.
“I was playing in a Baroque ensemble back in the early 90s and one of the players had a Baroque-style violin, but I didn’t have the money to have one made so I wanted to make one myself,” Burham said. “So I started looking at pictures and books and asking hundreds of questions of luthiers and repair people in town.
“Then I studied in the shop of one of the finest makers in the world – he could already see to infinity … ‘You haven’t captured the character of the corner,’” he added, imitating his anonymous luthier.
“The character of the corner? What?”
All those lessons – even the ones that didn’t make total sense then – have somehow combined to make perfect sense now after 22 years of violin making for the Springfield resident.
One of those lessons, he said – this one coming from one of his many nameless tutors – is that there are four levels of learning. It has taken him several years to feel like he is comfortable in understanding just exactly what that means.
“There are four levels of learning, I was told,” Burham said. “First, there’s unconscious incompetence: You don’t know that you don’t know what you’re doing.
“Then there’s conscious incompetence: You become aware that you don’t know what you’re doing.
“Next is unconscious competence: You’ve done enough work and you’re finally doing it right but you don’t really know that you’re doing it right.
“And finally, conscious competence: You know what you’re doing and you know that you’re doing it right.”
Burham said the Four Levels become a part of our everyday lives.
“Human beings, we’re at all four stages in our lives through relationships and jobs, car repair, you name it,” he said. “I think it applies to everybody in all walks of life.”
When Burham joined the Sugar Beets, they were already a great band. His arrival made them something special, as they were named Eugene’s best band in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Oh, and for 40 years he has performed in the Eugene Symphony. During that time he’s had the privilege of playing alongside many world-class talents, and he studied violin with Sherry Kloss, a protege of the legendary Jascha Heifetz.
“Use your practice time efficiently. Even Heifetz said there’s more than one road that leads to Rome,” Burham said.
Burham, who was 9 when he started playing violin, also gives private lessons, and currently has about 10 students. His busy calendar only allows him to produce, on the average, one or two of his custom-made violins every year.
Burham works out of his Springfield home, where he has lived for 7½ years. He doesn’t like to work alone, so many of the pictures of Burham include PuPPy!! – the shop mascot.
“I take PuPPy!! with me, he has his own gallery,” Burham said. “He posed with Zach Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Nadori, John Williams … he has his own gallery but some people don’t understand.
“I was going out with a very beautiful woman in 2003. She had seen me play at a Sugar Beets gig. She and I got together and were walking through some department store one night and saw a shelf of stuffed dogs. Somehow there was one that stood out to us, I don’t know why. We took that dog. He has a personality that we have given to him. I understand that PuPPy!! is a stuffed dog. He’s been at symphony rehearsals so many times. But there are people who just don’t understand.
“He’s a friend. Do I hear him speak to me? No, but he’s a part of my life that’s fun.”
So how does Burham help his customers decide exactly what kind of violin, viola or cello they want?
Well, that’s where all of that expertise comes in.
First, do you want 4, 5, 6 or 7 strings? In rare cases nowadays, you might even see 8 or 9 strings.
There’s any number of woods to choose from, and Burham has to be mindful of where he’s sending the instruments so they will thrive in any specific climate.
The first choice is whatever hardwood is domestic – cherry, maple, black walnut, ash or elm – as they all must meet density standards. Burham said he has also used exotic woods like cocobolo, zebrawood and purple heart – woods not indigenous to the U.S.
“I love working with black walnut, it’s easy to work with,” Burham said.
CHRONICLE PHOTOS Clockwise from top: The tools of the trade decorate a busy craftsman’s work space in David Burham’s home. His PuPPy is the shop’s mascot, and has posed with celebrities such as Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. This distinctive purple model is one of his favorites. More tools and inventory at Burham’s shop. The violinist and craftsman – Burham’s been with the Eugene Symphony Orchestra for more than 40 years – displays a piece of wood he’ll soon turn into a violin.
“You can have whatever wood you want, whatever design you want, the number of strings you want, whatever inlay, I’ll make whatever you want as long as the wood can hold up to the string tension,” Burham said.
“There are purists who say this is the way to do it, that violins have certain measurements that you have to respect, but I say do what works. If this fingering doesn’t work for you, try another one. People say bluegrass or jazz or world music or industrial metal is not real music, I like playing all those things. I’m not a fan of rap and I have my own biases. Someone who says to me bluegrass isn’t real music, I’ve been in the Eugene Symphony for 40 years so I understand that purist view.”