HARRISVILLE — Grover Wilhelmsen considers himself an average guy who just likes to move along in life, but to others, he has been a lifesaver when it has come to fixing their instruments. They call him the violin doctor.
As a self-trained fixer of violins, violas, cellos, and basses, his trade has evolved over the years, beginning with his journey as an orchestra teacher 40 years ago when he noticed a problem. Every time one of his students needed to have their instrument fixed, it would take several weeks because they had to take their instrument to Salt Lake, where it would sit for a minimum of two weeks.
To combat the issue, Wilhelmsen, 64, discovered a pile of old violins at his school, in a corner of an auditorium, so he implemented some of the techniques he learned from courses he took in college and books he read about fixing string instruments, and set to work repairing his students’ violins using parts from the pile of old violins.
“I figured since we didn’t have a repairman in Ogden, I would pull out my own clamps, buy some glue, and set to work, literally learning on my own how to take care of my instruments,” Wilhelmsen said. “I call it meatball surgery – putting an instrument together that is already broken, because the last thing I wanted to do was try to hack apart a professional instrument.”
Word spread through other schools, and soon orchestra teachers at other schools started sending their students to Wilhelmsen. Eventually Wilhelmsen decided to set up shop in his garage, turning the repair business into a part-time gig.
One memorable repair came when Wilhelmsen began a new teaching assignment. He found a violin under his desk that had been sitting there for several years. The case had been crushed, run over by a car tire, and half of the violin was a mesh of pieces. Wilhelmsen figured he would try to put it back together, spending hours piecing and gluing the pieces, one time even holding two pieces together while he conducted so the pieces could dry because he didn’t have a small enough clamp. The violin is still being played by students up in the Bear River area, Wilhelmsen said.
“Some violins are not worth resurrecting, but forgive me for saying this,” as Wilhelmsen got slightly emotional, “each instrument has a soul, and it speaks to me. There are ones that say, ‘I’m done,’ so I find something else for them to do, like using parts from it. But for the most part, most musical instruments in a school setting can’t afford to be replaced, so teachers say, ‘What can you do to repair them?’”
His experience over the last 30 years in the string instrument repair business has taken him far beyond school instruments, working on restoration of old instruments. Wilhelmsen has taken classes out of state specific to the proper setup and restoration of an instrument. He is currently working on a bass that has split and cracked ribs, literally falling to pieces.
“It’s a great, beautiful bass, and once it is restored properly, it will bring a lot of joy and happiness to an adult’s life,” Wilhelmsen said.
After having retired just this year from teaching junior high orchestra students after 40 years in Box Elder and Weber school districts, he is now in the repair business full-time and figures he will continue doing it until he can’t lift his fingers anymore.
On his wall in his shop is a clock his wife, Diana, made for him that says, ‘Music is not what I do, it’s who I am.’ “That fits me well,” Wilhelmsen said.
It’s hard to find someone with his know-how and experience in Top of Utah, with most of them down in Salt Lake, which is why Wilhelmsen travels weekly up to Logan to fix any violins in need of repair. Presumably, there are few in the violin repair business because of the patience and sacrifice of time required, Wilhelmsen says, and a repair person has to have an understanding of the instrument.
“If you don’t play the instrument, it’s just a piece of wood, but if you play, and understand how it performs, along with a mechanical mind, you can create joy and happiness for a child because you understand how this instrument is supposed to sound when it’s done,” Wilhelmsen said. “If it’s not got the right specifications, the instrument will not perform, and it’s not worth anything to anybody.”
For more information, visit classicalstrings.net or visit Wilhelmsen’s shop at 2196 N. 700 West in Harrisville.