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Sergeant's fiddles saluted

Geoffrey Allison got serious about violin making while he was a medic in Iraq. Now his creations earn acclaim.

September 25, 2007|John Gerome | Associated Press

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Like anyone who goes to war, Sgt. Geoffrey Allison worried about making it home alive.

But the Army medic also found a sense of urgency in Iraq that drove him to work harder and faster than ever before.

As bombs exploded and the ground shook around him, Allison carved and shaped violins. He couldn't block out the violence or the death around him (his job was tending to the sick and the wounded), but it gave him a newfound focus.

"It became more serious," says Allison, a talkative man with glasses and a crew cut. "I thought, 'Hey, I'm in combat. These could be the last fiddles I ever make in my life. I'm going to make them really count this time.' That was my attitude -- take it to a different level of seriousness."

Allison, 40, is a self-taught luthier in the tradition of Stradivari and other 17th and 18th century Italian craftsmen who set the standard for violin making.

Now stationed at the Redstone Arsenal outside Huntsville and nearing retirement, he's begun turning his passion into a profession. He's already sold some of his violins, and with his military pension he plans to support himself as a violin maker when he retires from the Army next spring.

In the meantime, he's converted his kitchen into a workshop where he spends at least five or six hours a night. It's an inviting space that smells of spruce and maple. Half a dozen violins and violas dangle from wires above his workbench. An assortment of hand tools -- planes, gouges, chisels, knives, rasps -- are neatly organized, all of them finely crafted instruments in their own right from places like Japan, Germany and Britain.

He works from photos and blueprints of 17th and 18th century masterpieces. Recently, he sat hunched over the shell of a violin shaving thin strips of wood with a tiny gold plane.

"See here," he says, clutching a large piece of wood, "I've got this wood and piles of it back here. It's cello wood. This board alone costs $700. I'm just dying to make cellos. It's probably the most beautiful instrument, maybe even surpassing the violin. When you hear a cello play, you know that's a cello. It's got a rich, deep sound."

He does most everything by hand and with the same materials the masters used 400 years ago. He believes every violin has a soul -- not an original thought, he allows, but one that guides his work nonetheless.

"I'm not going to compromise. There are some so-called violin makers who put a board into a milling machine device and walk away and come out with a copy of something. To me, that's just a copy."

Fred Carpenter, a touring violin player and owner of the Violin Shop in Nashville, Tenn., where Allison sells some of his instruments, says the soldier's craftsmanship is remarkable.

"Most people who don't have some kind of professional luthier guidance don't end up with anything near the success he's had," Carpenter says.

"You can tell he loves what he does in the way his instruments end up. Some makers have an absolute form they follow to the letter, to the T. I think Geoffrey likes to get outside the box a little. Not so far that he doesn't comply with standard measurements to qualify as a legitimate instrument, but he's not afraid to try something."

When he was a boy, his mother played violin in the Phoenix Symphony. He remembers holding her instrument when he was 5 or 6 and wondering how someone could possibly make something so detailed.

But he didn't think of trying to build one until many years later, after he'd joined the Army to get money for college.

It's not unusual for soldiers to have hobbies in wartime, but Allison is probably the only one who builds violins, says Maj. Steven Hankins, chief of business operations at the Fox Army Health Center where Allison works.

"Having been in combat myself, everybody needs some type of stress relief. There are moments of sheer terror surrounded by endless amounts of downtime, and in some cases boredom," Hankins said.

After leaving Iraq, Allison mustered the nerve to call on Roger Hargrave, a world-renowned violin maker in Germany. Hargrave was skeptical at first, but intrigued by Allison's story, and agreed to see his work. Since their meeting, the master has publicly praised Allison's violins and encouraged him to continue.

Back in Alabama, Allison is doing just that. He says his craft isn't so much about talent as it is about patience, and he has plenty of that.

"Once I finish a violin, I pretty much lose all interest in it. There's nothing more to do. It's done. It's getting there that's so much fun."

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