John Becker has been a luthier — a craftsman of stringed-instruments — for more than four decades. From his Chicago shop in the Fine Arts Building, he maintains and repairs scores of high-end violins, cellos and other instruments played by Chicago Symphony Orchestra members and musicians from across the country.
Kenneth Olsen, the CSO’s assistant principal cello, for example, counts on Becker for the care of his orchestra-owned 1727 instrument made by Antonio Stradivari and his workshop. “John Becker’s shop does really meticulous, really good-quality work,” Olsen said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m 100 percent exclusive with them, but the convenience and the quality are both there, so it’s been years that I’ve taken it there. They know the instrument really, really well at this point.”
Becker began as a concert harp maker at Lyon & Healy of Chicago during the mid-1970s. There he worked with luthier Henning Christiansen and became interested in violin repair and restoration. Pursuing a career as a repairman, Becker took on the role of master restorer at the acclaimed dealer Bein & Fushi in 1979. Fifteen years later, Becker opened his own shop, John K. Becker & Co., and was joined by craftsman Keisuke Hori. In 1995, luthier Takeshi Nogawa came on staff. Becker’s son John J. has been assisting his father since 2013 and son Garrett has been a full-time luthier for the firm since 2015.
In an e-mail interview, Becker discussed the world of string-instrument repair and restoration:
Do you make instruments in addition to repairing and servicing them?
I occasionally work on my own instruments, more so in this past year, but for most of my career, I’ve been a full-time restorer, repairman and expert on violin family instruments.
How many such shops like yours are there in Chicago — shops that cater to top-level musicians and instruments?
Our company is somewhat unique and focuses on high-end restoration and repair of masterwork violins. In addition, we also offer select instruments for sale. There are several other firms focusing on sales and acquisition of high-level instruments in downtown Chicago and several smaller repair shops located in the Fine Arts Building.
Which musicians in the Chicago Symphony do you regularly serve? What other clients do you have?
I’ve worked with all the CSO concertmasters since the mid-1980s, including Samuel Magad, Rubén González and Robert Chen. Through the decades, many from the CSO string section, such as David Taylor and Yuan-Qing Yu [the CSO’s assistant concertmasters], have come to me for adjustments, repair and restoration. For 35 years I have been maintaining the two Stradivari violins and other instruments owned by the CSO. Our shop has an international clientele of soloists, professionals and professors, and many times clients will fly in just to bring an instrument to our shop or will stop by when they are soloing with the CSO.
How would you describe regular maintenance? What are some examples of major repairs that you have had to make? Can an instrument from, say, the 18th century, last indefinitely with the right maintenance?
Regular maintenance includes adjusting the instrument’s tonality, checking for open seams, cleaning and polishing, new bridge and sound post, and fingerboard dressing. During my career I’ve restored and repaired over 100 Stradivari and about 45 Guarneri del Gesù violins, many of which are the crown jewels of the violin trade. Many of these have required complete, major restoration involving extensive, major internal work. An example of what we specialize in would be the opening of a Stradivari or Guarneri that has not been worked on since the turn of the century and replacing the old restoration work performed almost 100 years ago that greatly enhances the playability and stability of the instrument.
With proper conservative maintenance, instruments of the 18th century and surrounding periods will last for the foreseeable future. My work ensures that these works of art are in top shape, ready for daily use and will be in excellent condition well after my lifetime.
What is different about the treatment of a high-value instrument vs. a commonplace one?
We care for and treat all artists’ instruments in the same manner, regardless if it’s a fine modern instrument or a Stradivari and do not grade our work on the instrument’s value. That being said, the skill level in my workshop must be at the highest level in the industry, and we are dedicated to excellence. Attention to the most minute detail is required to work on these types of instruments as the margin of error is basically nonexistent. An extremely small adjustment [a tenth of a millimeter, for example] on a top-tier instrument makes quite a difference.
What are the biggest differences in the techniques you employ now and those that might been used 50 or 100 years ago? Or are there any big differences?
The techniques we currently use are more conservative and refined because of the monetary value of the instruments, as opposed to 100 years ago. A higher level of magnification, use of swing-arm microscopes and much better lighting in the workshop would be three main differences between our shop and one 100 years ago. There were several distinctive restoration firms from the past which I have used as a guide in regards to restoration such as the firm of W.E. Hill & Son in London, as well as the Wurlitzer firm in New York. From examining so many of these shops’ restorations, I have been able to refine the direction of restoration style with a more modern, conservative approach.
What effect has the coronavirus health crisis had on your business?
We have been affected greatly by the virus as nearly all small businesses have. Our building is closed to customers. We are only performing minimum basic operations, and all appointments have been canceled through April. I have been contacted by many musicians who are currently not working and were hoping their instruments could be worked on but I am unable to help them in this difficult situation. I hope we can get back to work as soon as possible.