Robert Haag sits in his home workshop, four beautifully crafted violins hang from the wall, as he goes to work on another. That’s his day to day routine. Haag is a full-time violin and cello craftsman, operating out of his home workshop in NW Calgary, making new instruments on a regular basis. There are other people doing it here and there as a hobby or pastime, or doing repairs or refurbishments, but for him, it’s both his love and his life.
“When I was growing up we had a violin in the house, and no one knew where it came from, it was just kind of there,” recalls Haag.
One day in 2001, Haag took the violin into a shop, thinking it to be worth around $200. He was surprised and shocked to hear that it would actually sell for $2500. He asked “why?” and the question of what makes violins different, better, worth more, started to interest him.
Haag had an acquaintance who made bows. He asked him what distinguishes violins and makes one more valuable than another. His friend replied by telling him that to understand the answer he should start by making a violin. Haag decided that to truly find out the answer to his question he would have to build one. “I decided to make one to understand the value of violins.”
The Craft Begins
And so, Haag began playing the violin and started to learn as much as he could about the process of building one. He began building his own violins in 2007 and used DVD’s to learn the first steps. He tells me that sometimes when he’s carving a scroll he thinks back to working on his first one, and how he learned to do it from a DVD.
He took a one-week class in the spring of 2008, in Tucson Arizona, beginning his real training. In the fall of that same year, when the Violin Society of America was hosting a convention in Portland Oregon, Haag used his airmiles to get there and attend it. After the convention, he was standing on the street outside the hotel waiting for the cab to take him to the airport when he started talking with another guy who had also attended the convention. By an unbelievably fortunate bit of chance, the man just so happened to be Chris Sandvoss. Sandvoss is also a violin and cello craftsman and he’s from Bragg Creek, just 46 kilometers outside of Calgary. Chris told Haag about the apprenticeship program he runs out of his workshop and he decided to pursue it.
By that time Haag had finished his first violin and showed it to Sandvoss. During the apprenticeship he finished his second and third. After he had finished Sandvoss’ apprenticeship he did some contract work with VA Hill Fine Strings Ltd. doing some repairs and setups for them. Haag said that he learned a lot working in a real shop and it was great experience and exposure. While working at VA Hill he had continued to build violins on the side out of his home workshop. On top of that, Haag also built his first cello during that time. It took 9 months to complete.
Haag said that he only ever works on one instrument at a time. “If you bounce back and forth it loses something,” said Haag. “It’s nice to have a focus, it takes a lot of concentration.” He said that the time it takes to finish an instrument depends on how much distractions arise. 60-70% of the work in making an instrument is quite physical and cellos take 3-4 times the effort of making a violin. He says that the extra physical work is hard on his aging body but that doesn’t stop him.
“I get up every morning and it’s fun. It’s like arts and crafts blended with physics and music.
Assembling the object is half of the goal. The other half is making the instrument sound good which at times seems like a black art and other times simply feels like an adventure.”
Since beginning his violin crafting adventure, Haag has met many people and made many friends.
A number of Haag’s customers are connected to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and other Calgary based performing groups.
Before his violin making days, Haag worked downtown in an office as an IT project manager. Before that he worked at a grain company for 20 years as he has a degree in agriculture.
“What’s not to love?” Haag declared enthusiastically. “It’s a wonderful lifestyle. I create.”
Haag said that there’s two sides of the business, making and repairing. He used to do repairs as well as build but eventually it was just taking up too much time and the satisfaction that repairs brought just wasn’t worth it.
He’s now been crafting fiddles and cellos out of his home workshop for over ten years and he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. “When you come into this art this late in the game, you feel like you’re pretending. Like maybe you’re not good enough and you have doubts about how you are spending all your time. But one day after a number of years applying myself to the craft, I came to the realization that I can’t not do this. I need to create instruments to feel alright. It was then that I acknowledged that I had become a violin maker!”