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Tokyo violin maker’s apprentice fulfills lifetime dream at 81

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When long-term Japan resident Amadio Arboleda first approached Tokyo-based violin maker Louis Caporale for an apprenticeship, he did so with trepidation. Similar requests in the past to other makers had been rejected due to concerns about his age.

Arboleda, then 78 years old, had read about Caporale in a November 2012 Japan Times article titled, “Violin maker brings traditions of Italian masters to Tokyo.” To his astonishment, Caporale agreed to take him on. Three years later, the 81-year-old is polishing the varnish on his nearly completed first violin and is beginning to work on a second fiddle.

Arboleda first had the idea to make a violin when his father, at the invitation of the city of New York, took his 10-year-old son to hear Yehudi Menuhin play a Brahms violin concerto at Carnegie Hall in 1946. After the concert, he and the other invited children got to meet the famed soloist/conductor as part of a music educational program supported by the mayor at the time, Fiorello H. La Guardia. Menuhin showed the children his violin and explained its different parts. Arboleda was fascinated to know how and why it worked.

Later he got to touch the violin of a member from the New York Philharmonic who visited his elementary school on Staten Island.

“The structure of his violin seemed to me to be so beautiful, combining the practicality of a piece of wood with the ability to produce wonderful-sounding music,” says Arboleda. “That fascinated me. So I dreamt one day I’d like to make one.”

Professionally, Arboleda never strayed far from such aspirations. His father, an immigrant from the Philippines, had instructed his American-born son to study sciences so that he might have a better life as a doctor. But it was writing that interested Arboleda most — as did words, books, languages and publishing.

Secretly he studied arts against the will of his father, while completing an internship at a pharmaceutical lab in Germany. He returned to New York, completed his biochemical degree and then worked as a chemist by day while studying book publishing at Hunter College in the evenings. Then he made the switch into publishing.

One of his first jobs in the field was as an editor at the American Heritage Dictionary, where he wrote definitions for the dictionary’s first edition. From there he was scouted by the University of Tokyo Press in 1969.

Back then, the university wanted to expand Japan’s global presence. They thought the best way to do that was to translate books from Japanese into English and sell them abroad. However, they couldn’t easily find a university-trained English-speaking editor. There weren’t any qualified applicants in Japan. Elsewhere, most editors learned the profession through on-the-job training. Arboleda landed the top job as chief editor of the international editions division at the university press because he had academic book publishing skills, some editorial experience and an Asian cultural background. His job included procurement of new titles in Japanese literature, society and culture.

Languages came naturally to Arboleda. He learned to speak six of them. Japanese and French he picked up in Tokyo, the latter acquired when he was appointed secretary of the international governing board of the United Nations University in Shibuya. It was, he said, easier to learn the language than having to wait for a translator to communicate with his elite French-speaking co-board members. He learned Filipino at high school when, three years after the end of World War II, his father decided to take the family back to the Philippines. Arboleda also mastered German and Spanish.

Besides the books, languages and the words he loved to ponder, Arboleda developed an interest in Japanese and East Asian book culture. For over 30 years he was an editorial board member of the Asia-Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO, the nonprofit organization that promotes mutual understanding and cultural cooperation among peoples. He was fascinated by Japan, a nation of bookworms whose people collectively spend about as much on printed books as do Americans, and over double that when calculated on a per-capita basis. Japan also has well over twice the number of bookstores as the U.S., many located in smaller neighborhoods.

What amazed him the most was how so few Japanese books got translated into other languages, while so many foreign books were translated into Japanese. By one estimate, 20 books are translated into Japanese for every Japanese book translated into another language.

“The Japanese have learned about the world through books, but the world does not learn about Japan through books,” Arboleda once wrote. He thought such marginalization was a pity, and did his best to spread Japanese culture by writing on related topics that interested him. One book he co-authored, “Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints,” became a classic among print makers.

On reaching retirement, Arboleda rekindled his childhood dream of making a violin. He flew to Cremona, an Italian town famous since the 16th century for its manufacture of stringed instruments, where he asked violin makers for an apprenticeship. After describing his dream, one famous violin maker told him bluntly, “I understand that you would like to make a violin, but you’re too old.” Disappointed, Arboleda returned to Tokyo and continued to search for an apprenticeship for another three years. Each time he was turned down because of his age.

Aged 62, Arboleda became a professor of communication, culture and publishing at Josai International University, where he continues to teach after almost two decades — though at a much-reduced level. More often than not he can be found at Caporale & Ochando’s workshop in Yoyogi, pursuing his passion — violin making.

On landing his “surprise” apprenticeship in late 2012, Arboleda bought his own set of tools. As expensive as they were, he was told the investment would give him “ownership” over the violin he would painstakingly carve out of blocks of wood. He also learned to sharpen them.

Although he never thought making a violin would be easy, it proved to be far more difficult than he had ever imagined. In his youth he had learned carpentry from his father. Arboleda prided himself on his ability to make a cabinet or fix a table. Violin making, however, turned out to be much more complex. It required physical endurance, patience and the ability to develop new skills. Seemingly simple tasks like planing and cutting the wooden contours of a violin are in fact quite difficult.

“If you’re impatient with developing those skills, you would soon fail,” he says.

Caporale first gave him four pieces of wood to cut into square blocks. Arboleda asked himself, “What does that have to do with making a violin?” He thought maybe they were for practicing his planing skills. Over time, the big blocks became tiny.

“I had no idea they were eventually to form the main support of the violin. That’s how I got started,” he says.

Initially he thought that the contours were made by bending the wood. In fact, all but the ribs (sides) are carved, a task that caused Arboleda’s muscles to become sore. “I didn’t actually realize that you have to carve it out,” he recalls. The hard maple that forms the violin’s back and ribs could also be easily splintered or gashed, as grains run in at least two (almost perpendicular) directions. The spruce, used for the front, is soft and easily damaged by a misjudged slip of the blade.

To help him learn, Caporale lent him a thick book that introduced the entire violin-making process. He also put a Stradivarius in his hands. Arboleda hesitated at first to handle the $15 million violin, but Caporale insisted. It was only by holding a fine instrument that a student gains a proper understanding of how old instruments are actually made, Caporale told him.

Arboleda was surprised to find that violins manufactured in the 1700s could seem off-balance or roughly made. Makers in those days didn’t have the tools we have today, so they had to make do with more rudimentary ones. Economics also played a role. The quicker the old masters made violins, the more money they earned.

“They had no idea that eventually their violins would be worth millions of dollars,” Arboleda explains.

The more he delved into violin making, the more complicated it seemed. Arboleda criticized himself severely for each mistake he made working the wood. With his previous experience as a lay carpenter, he thought he knew better.

Arboleda also had to learn to look at a violin from more than two dimensions. As well as its functionality, a well-made violin scroll gives the impression that it spirals, for instance. Fail to carve the scroll in just the right manner and it will not appear to do so. That requires looking at the violin from many perspectives.

Three years after starting his apprenticeship, Arboleda says the “beauty of making a violin has finally begun to emerge.” He also better understands his limitations. When making mistakes, he is less inclined to be self-critical.

“It is natural to make them because I lacked the necessary skills to begin with,” he tells himself. Then he doubles down to acquire them.

The 81-year-old apprentice is grateful to have had the opportunity to make a beautiful musical instrument.

“The feeling to know that I could create something as beautiful as a violin encouraged me to persist,” he says. Indeed, he remains as engaged with life as a person 20 years his junior — and looks it, too.

“Being at Caporale & Ochando’s Yoyogi workshop, I’m with many young people who want to learn to make violins. It’s fascinating to be with them, to see their passion in making this very difficult kind of instrument,” he says. “I’m also teaching 18-year-olds at Josai University. I get older, and they’re always 18 years old. It’s very invigorating.”

Richard Solomon posts regular Beacon Reports at www.beaconreports.net. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp