By Luke Taylor and Nate Ryan | The Current
The first thing you’ll notice is the sound. It’s not exactly music, but it is quite rhythmic, even a bit soothing. It’s the scratching of chisels, the soughing of small hand saws and sandpaper.
At wooden workbenches, students use precision tools to hone pieces of wood or metal before them. Nearby, multitudes of instruments — in various stages of building, repair or disrepair — hang on the walls and from the rafters. In time, these raw materials will become finely tuned instruments.
For nearly five decades, Minnesota State College (MSC) Southeast has offered musical instrument repair and building classes in Red Wing, Minnesota, a city of 17,000 nestled along the Mississippi River, about an hour southeast of the Twin Cities.
Well-known for the boots that bear its name, Red Wing has recently gained a reputation as a music destination by virtue of its beautifully remodeled Sheldon Theatre, the Universal Music Center founded by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Mike Arturi, and the Big Turn Music Festival, bringing 200-plus Minnesota acts to town later this month. At MSC Southeast, located up the hill from downtown Red Wing, the focus is on musical artistry that comes before a single note is played.
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Al Forred, a first-year guitar-repair student at MSC Southeast, is laser-focused on cutting and shaping the small strips of wood that will form the bracing under the soundboard of an acoustic guitar. He takes a break from his work, and claps a bit of sawdust from his hands. “I love it,” he says, beaming. “I live for this. This is awesome!”
Across the hall, Steve Rossow — a St. Paul-based luthier who is a professor at MSC Southeast — instructs nearly a dozen students in violin repair. Affable and approachable, he takes questions from students on their works in progress, now clearly identifiable as the backs or fronts of soon-to-be violins. Rossow inspects the details, offering advice. “We mostly do everything with hand tools: knives, chisels, scrapers, that sort of thing,” Rossow explains. “But I do incorporate power tools where it can really save a lot of time.”
‘They come from all over’
MSC Southeast founded its Red Wing campus in 1973. (Its Winona campus opened in 1949.) In 1974, courses began at Red Wing in string instrument repair, combining violin and guitar. That program was a success, so the college added band instrument repair in 1976. Guitar and violin were separated into two programs in 1990, and in 2010, the guitar track added the second-year program focused on guitar development and production.
According to MSC Southeast, this year’s enrollment comprises nearly 80 students across programs in band-instrument repair, guitar repair, and violin repair. Some students are from Minnesota and Wisconsin, but also from Maryland, Missouri, Idaho, Tennessee, and other states, as well as from Canada and Australia. “They come from all over,” Rossow says. “We are probably the most thorough program on the repair side of things in the country.”
Mario Miles, a student from St. Louis, was drawn to MSC Southeast because he is a violin player who wanted to take his craft to a higher level. Miles’s mentor, the esteemed Tennessee-based luthier Amanda Ewing, recommended Miles consider enrolling at Red Wing. “I didn’t have a background in tools, so she suggested that I come here, where they assume you have no experience,” Miles says. “They teach you from the bottom how to hone up your tools, how to get them prepared to actually do this kind of work.”
MSC Southeast graduate Greg Beckwith says all the students share a common trait of being music lovers. “They want to find a career that still includes music,” he says. Beckwith is now an instructor in the band-instrument repair program and has been at MSC Southeast for 20 years. He continues, “They know they don’t want to teach, and they know they’re probably not going to make a living at performing. So they want to add another skill to their toolkit. … And they found out they want to take care of instruments. So it’s a really good skill to have.”
Another commonality among students: “They all have this need to create something,” says guitar-building instructor Tim Reede. “And they get to do that here, so they enjoy it.”
Guitar repair student Forred fits that description. Originally from South Dakota, Forred relocated to Minneapolis in 2007. Since then, he has worked a number of carpentry and construction jobs while also playing in punk and rock bands (he’ll perform at Big Turn Music Fest with the band Fletcher Coulee). Forred had heard about the program at MSC Southeast from some friends, and last summer, while on a road trip across Texas to see Willie Nelson perform, Forred decided to enroll. “One of my greatest passions is music,” he says, “and then the next one is building stuff and figuring out how it works, why it works. This just goes hand in hand.”
Band instrument repair student Caroline Brightwell came all the way from Nashville, Tennessee, for the hands-on training at MSC Southeast. “I love building things, fixing things, making things, working with my hands, and I love music,” she says. “And this is just a perfect marriage of that.”
Reede notes that the students come from all walks of life. Some are right out of high school, while others, like Miles and Brightwell, have four-year degrees. Others come from different fields entirely, like second-year guitar-building student Jeff Kelly, who spent 12 years working as a civil engineer. “I was good at the work, I enjoyed the hard work,” he says, “but every little thing I did never really equated to joy.”
Kelly was living in Indianapolis, and the guitar-playing he started in his final year of college had morphed from a hobby to something much more, bringing him into the worlds of songwriting and music-making (he’ll perform at Big Turn, too, both as a solo artist as well as with Carriage House, the folk duo he performs in with his wife, Jenna).
While bringing in his guitar for some repair work in Indiana, Kelly met some luthiers who were MSC Southeast graduates. After consideration, Kelly left civil engineering, and he and his wife relocated to Red Wing. “Music brought me into this amazing subculture of creativity and humanity that I wasn’t accustomed to in a corporate office environment with no friends,” Kelly says. “So it was wonderful. It changed the course of my life. And that’s what brought me here.”
Kelly says the first year and the optional second year of the guitar program are vastly different. “First year is really about fundamentals,” he says. “You’re learning a lot of great skills, relative to repair work, setup work, so you can work for a shop straight out of school in the first year. Second year is really about creativity and pushing yourself.”
According to instructor Ben Williams, music instrument repair graduates have the necessary skills to land jobs at shops or guitar factories worldwide. “So there’s quite a future in it, I think,” he says.
Williams, Beckwith and Rossow worked at instrument repair shops, and Reede has his own line of custom-built guitars. “[Maine-based manufacturer] Dana Bourgeois hires our graduates regularly,” Reede says. “Also Collings, and Benedetto, an archtop builder. We’ve got people all over the United States and in other countries.”
Jeff Kelly says he is already interviewing with a number of U.S.-based guitar manufacturers. Mario Miles wants to take what he’s learned into communities that don’t have a violin technician.
Caroline Brightwell plans to return to Nashville and find an independent shop where she can immerse herself in the work. “We’re learning how to be really, really awesome rookies in this program,” she says, “and then it is going to take time working with people and doing a couple hundred repairs before we get comfortable. So I want to find a really small business that’s got, like, a couple of employees to just really pour myself into after this.”
The students at MSC Southeast don’t have to look far to see what graduates can do with their diplomas. Along Old West Main Street in Red Wing — just a couple doors down from Kelly’s Bar, the establishment called out in a Trampled By Turtles song — MSC Southeast alumnus Brian Stewart operates Tree Strings LLC, a guitar-repair shop he co-founded with his wife in 2014.
Prior to opening Tree Strings, Stewart had spent nearly two decades working at Red Wing-based Stoney End Harps and Hobgoblin Music as an instrument builder. “I built hundreds, if not thousands, of harps,” he says of his time at Stoney End. “Now I realize, ‘Wow, I did learn a lot on the job with that.’ And learning continues. So I would say my best advice would be to find a busy shop and get a job there and just immerse yourself in it.”
Just like the faculty and other alumni at MSC Southeast, Stewart maintains an affinity for and connection to the college. Stewart’s mentor, David Vincent, has retired from teaching at MSC Southeast but remains a loyal Tree Strings customer.
Looking back on his education at MSC Southeast, Stewart fondly recalls learning lots about woodworking and the history of stringed instruments, “It set a really good foundation for what I do now. And of course, I still have the guitar I built — that I play.”
Beyond job prospects, there are intangibles the students gain. Miles says that as a violin player, he now looks at his instrument much differently — in particular, he can see what works well, and what can be improved. And he finds building an instrument from scratch to be a particular thrill. “It starts with just a plain block of wood, and you’re really kind of molding it into a violin,” he says. “It just makes you excited to see something progress.”
Forred gets a similar thrill from building guitars. “Breaking it down, it’s a box that vibrates sound that you can manipulate, but ultimately, it’s a piece of art,” he says. “And it’s something that’s gorgeous and beautiful.”
Kelly sees a connection between his previous work as an engineer and what he does now. “You have to have a great mental picture in your head every day, but I think more so with guitar building and instrument building,” he says. “It’s all about accuracy meets art.”
Some students also gain perspective on education itself. Brightwell says she is very passionate about letting high school students know there are more options available to them than four-year universities. “I’m glad that I went to a university, I’m glad I have a bachelor’s degree,” she admits, “but this is what I want to do. I think people are talking more about trades, and more about that as being valuable. It’s not any less than a four-year degree. It just depends on what you want to do.
“So I’m really glad I found this place,” Brightwell continues. “It’s very far away [from home in Nashville], and I’m very cold all the time. But it’s been really cool.”
Big Turn Music Fest happens Friday and Saturday, Feb. 17 and 18, in venues throughout Red Wing, Minnesota. Brian Stewart’s Tree Strings LLC will host an open house on Saturday, Feb. 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., during Big Turn Music Fest.
On Thursday, May 11, student-built instruments will be on display at Minnesota State College Southeast in Red Wing. The presentation includes performances by invited professional musicians who will play the new instruments. More information will be posted at southeastmn.edu.
In addition, MSC Southeast Red Wing and Winona will commemorate a combined 50th and 75th Anniversary Celebration for the college that will run during the 2023-2024 academic year.
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