On a steamy afternoon in late June, deep in the basement of Leakin Hall, Peabody associate professor of musicology Susan Weiss is working with a student who recently completed the veteran teacher’s course on the history of musical instruments.
Weiss’ co-teacher, Nathan Scott, has given her the summer to make her own instrument, a practical component to the class that the students experience but that Weiss is unable to undertake during the months she is teaching. On this day, Weiss and Yin Zhu (MM ’19, Vocal Accompanying) are chiseling away at wood that is supporting the shape of the cello they are crafting by hand.
Zhu is not the only former student here today with Weiss. Wang Liang (MM ’19, Violin) and DMA composition student Steven Crino have also returned to Peabody to finish the instruments they spent all semester building in the class.
Scott, a mechanical engineering instructor the Whiting School of Engineering, has a background in woodworking, electronics, and music. He has been co-teaching this class for about five years with Weiss and he runs a maker space at Peabody, a sort of woodworking shop.
The class is open to Peabody and Homewood students and often includes students from Whiting and the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences. During the school year, students spend half of their class time in the classroom with Weiss and the other half getting hands-on time in the lab making instruments with Scott. Since January 2018, the maker space has been at Peabody.
For years, the students made smaller instruments, first ones made from kits and then simpler instruments like cigar box guitars and some non-Western instruments. At the start of the 2018-19 academic year, Scott told Weiss that he wanted to think bigger and tackle “harder stuff.” That’s when they decided to tackle the cello.
The cello-making process includes cutting and sanding pieces to a certain thickness, joining those wood pieces, drilling holes, and chiseling both the front and back pieces by hand using a template. There are different processes for the ribs and neck, which is also hand carved.
Weiss has the outer shell of a cello constructed out of several layers of veneer, which were glued together and formed into shape. As they chisel away, Zhu shares that she was nervous to work with Weiss since she hadn’t done all of the steps herself. In the class, students are divided into teams of four, with each working on a different part of the cello.
“The students from different divisions bring different talents to the table,” says Weiss. “It’s so special to watch the collaboration between them develop. The spirit that I found among the students was dazzling. You don’t see that in too many classes.”
Zhu recently graduated from Peabody with her master’s degree in vocal accompanying. This course, she says, has made her feel that she can do anything. The skills she’s learned—including patience and believing in herself—are ones, she says, that she will bring to her post-graduation career.
Zhu says of today’s experience with Weiss, “The best way to teach ourselves is to be a teacher.”
See a video of the instrument making process.