Klarissa Petti

I remember wanting to play an instrument since I was six years old. My first inclination towards this was when my first-grade teacher brought in her harp to show the class. She let each of us sit and strum. I remember her saying that she could read music before she could read words. This concept was completely foreign to me. I remember looking at the hymnals in church, wanting desperately to know what all those symbols, lines, and dots meant.

Every week my babysitter took my brother and I, and her two grandsons to her daughter’s piano lesson. She would have us play a game “Let’s see who can be the quietest.” I always won, and not only because I was extremely shy, but because I was engrossed in the lesson, trying to understand what was happening. My greatest dream at 7 years old was to play “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid on piano.

I was an avid reader as a child and youth. During my eighth-grade year I read voraciously, well over 100 books, including Homer, Shakespeare, Poe, Longfellow, Twain, and many others. I figured since I had read all this great literature I should listen to the world’s great music. The next time I went to the store I bought the first classical CD I saw, a collection of Vivaldi violin concertos. That evening, after listening to it, I decided I wanted to be able to do that someday. I asked my parents to take me to the local music store so I could get a violin. Once I got there, I think perhaps the employee thought I was too old to start the violin. He asked if I had ever considered cello and brought me one. I was far too shy to protest, so I took it home. That turned out to be the best thing that had ever happened to me.

When I was 18 or 19 a violinist friend of mine shared with me a panoramic view of the workshop at the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. It was the first time I realized that Wow! someone had to make these things. I started applying to the program but was unable to follow through. I thought that was that, but things sometimes have a funny way of working themselves out.

In 2019 I began studying cello performance. I quickly realized that, as much as I loved playing cello, performance was not for me, though I knew that I wanted to spend my life somehow involved in music. But for the time being, I went back to the family business of painting houses. A few years later, when a cello teacher, Norah Clydesdale, persuaded me to look into going back to school, the University of New Mexico came up. She knew the cello professor there, David Schepps, and thought he’d be the perfect teacher for me. She was right. One evening over dinner, I mentioned to him my interest in violin making. “Oh, we have a class at UNM where you can make a violin.” I was floored. On my first visit to Albuquerque, he introduced me to Peter White, who founded the violin making class at UNM. At our first meeting, he interviewed me, asking all kinds of questions about my experience working with tools, what I would do when work got tedious, etc. I replied that it wouldn’t be, because I’d be having fun. I think that was the right answer, because at the end of the interview he asked if I would like to make a cello. It was more than I could have hoped for, and of course I said yes. Seeing as the class only officially met 6 hours per week, plus whatever extra time he cared to spend in the shop to allow students to get extra work done, he warned me it might take all four years of my undergrad, but he would help me do it. Of course, I didn’t care how long it would take, if it meant I’d have a cello at the end of it. The opportunity to make a cello, and study with David Schepps, was what ultimately cemented my decision to come to UNM.

From the moment I stepped foot into the workshop on the first day of class, I knew making instruments was what I wanted to do; I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I spent every spare moment I could in the shop – if Peter was there, I was there. When he left, I would stay behind to work, taking breaks to practice and study. I would stay until midnight or later, sometimes even sleep there. The summer after my freshman year, I got a key to the shop, so I could spend even more time on my cello. Between going to school full-time and working part-time, it took me fifteen months to finish.

At the end of my junior year, Peter decided to retire from teaching violin making. The program he had started was going to be shut down. To avoid this tragedy, I and the other students rallied together and made appeals to the university administration to keep it going. The biggest problem was finding an instructor, a professional maker willing to take the time to teach an introductory class. No one could be found, so I stepped in and began teaching the class my senior year. I did not know enough at the time to be taking on students, but I did the best I could and have become a better teacher every year. The main goal of the course is to give people a unique and rewarding experience, which it does.

Klarissa with David Caron.

The summer before I began teaching, I began studying with master violin maker David Caron in Taos, NM. I had met him two years prior, when I visited his workshop with David Schepps, who had convinced me to bring my then half-completed cello to show him. We didn’t keep in touch very well, but when Peter announced his retirement, I knew I had to find another teacher. David came to mind, but he had officially retired almost a decade earlier and I figured he wouldn’t want to take the time.

It took five solid months of daily encouragement from my partner for me to gather the courage to ask David if I could study with him. To my very great surprise, he said yes. For the past eight years I’ve made the three-hour drive to Taos once or twice a month to spend a few days with him in his shop and enjoy the company of his wife Rebecca. Our working relationship has blossomed over the years into a beautiful friendship, for which I am exceedingly fortunate and so grateful.

By the time we met, David had spent 55 years as a maker, perfecting his methods and design, experimenting, and gaining an understanding of how each part of the violin affects its whole. He agreed to teach me all of these things in exchange for making careful notes, a written record of his life’s work.