Crafting violins -- and a friendship

Cheryl Macomber was just 18 years old when she met the man who changed the course of her life.

On that fateful day in 1983, she went into Albert Muller's violin shop in search of an instrument to advance her nascent skills. There, among the scores of half-finished violins, tools and jars of homemade varnish, a passion was born.

"I was totally intrigued," Macomber recalled. "I wanted to know, how can a little instrument do all this? So I asked Albert."

More than 20 years later, Macomber has joined the increasingly rare profession of certified violin maker. She has taken over Muller's shop, and the duo enjoy an unlikely friendship.

Even though he is long retired, Muller is at the shop most days, working on his oil and pastel paintings or just sitting by Macomber's side, watching, guiding, advising.

"He's a gentleman, and he really looks out for me," said Macomber of the 87-year-old Muller. "He has so much knowledge that just being around him and watching him, I learn things."

Muller is equally grateful for the 41-year-old Macomber's company.

"We're peers now," Muller said. "When we're working, she sits in the master's chair. I sit off to the side."

Macomber grew up in Wilton and began playing piano at age 4. At 14, she took up the violin.

After she bought a violin from Muller when she was 18, the two kept in touch. Macomber visited the shop regularly to get her bow re-haired or find instruments for her students once she began giving private violin lessons.

She was always intrigued by the violin-making process, and wondered how a block of European maple could be transformed into a work of art that produces dulcet notes.

"I had no idea I could make one myself, but one day Albert handed me a violin mold and said, 'Want to try it?' " Macomber said. "Right then, I was hooked."

Even though Muller closed his shop seven years ago following his wife's death, he kept the small cottage as a hobby shop for his woodwork and painting. The building is tucked behind a used car dealership on El Camino Avenue, a cool, quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle.

The two began a formal apprenticeship five years ago, which continued when Macomber moved to Paso Robles and opened her own violin shop.

Macomber would drive to Sacramento on weekends so that Muller could continue to teach her the painstaking artistry necessary to make a violin.

They worked side by side for years, the teacher and the student, sculpting, scraping, smoothing, and basking in each other's quiet company.

When Macomber decided to move back to Sacramento, Muller had a suggestion: Why not reopen his old shop?

She rented the cottage from Muller, opened for business in June and is slowly establishing a client base.

Macomber appreciates Muller's company as well as his expertise; she has built 18 violins so far; he crafted 300 during his 60-year career.

She also makes violas and cellos, repairs and restores older instruments and continues to give private music lessons.

But violins are her primary passion.

"Making a violin is physical, it's mental, it's artistic," Macomber said. "You can put your own touch and personality into the scroll, or the F holes."

High-end violins like Macomber's, which sell for about $5,500 each, aren't necessarily in high demand. That doesn't lessen their impact.

"These instruments will be around for 200 or 300 years," she said. "So we must always do our best."

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