Carleen Maley Hutchins
Early Study As a Luthier

It was during these four years at Brearley where events led her into work as a luthier and acoustician. The new music teacher was Helen Rice (1901-1980), a fine amateur violinist who had studied with Edouard Dethier and later founded the Amateur Chamber Music Players.[FN 6] Hutchins tried to play trumpet in Rice's chamber music sessions, but soon started viola and learned enough to read easier quartets in Rice's circle of chamber music enthusiasts. Hutchins bought her first viola, a cheap instrument, from Wurlitzer's in New York, and found the instrument frustrating. As an accomplished wood-worker, she decided in 1947, to the horror of her friends, to make a better instrument.

What follows is a remarkable succession of events and contacts driven by Hutchins's dogged determination, assistance from friends--many of them women--and abandonment of her teaching career for family reasons. For Hutchins determination is simply a personal trait; she sees nothing unusual about it. She has said the following about her independence:[FN 7]

I didn't do things intentionally to be different, but I went my own way. I think my motto in my high school yearbook was 'Thy independence let me share.' I've just done what I was interested in doing and had a chance to do and it didn't fit with what was going on with my friends or a lot of people most of the time.

The assistance of her circle of friends has been important throughout her life, and indeed has helped make her work possible. Hutchins was part of a group of well-educated, professional women who largely rejected the roles society had in store for them following World War fl. It was this rejection of traditional female roles--a quality to be observed in Hutchins throughout her life-- that helped make possible her later work in the male-dominated string world. Hutchins freely credits her friends' contributions. Rice, a Bryn Mawr graduate from a wealthy family, caused Hutchins to become interested in strings in the first place and made possible a number of important contacts. Harriett Bartlett, also from a wealthy family, helped fund Hutchins's research for a number of years. Catherine Drinker Bowen, a noted author of biographies, was an early friend and counseled her to tend to her professional priorities, worrying later about traditional domestic duties.[FN 8] Throughout her marriage Hutchins has appreciated the support of her husband Morton, who encouraged her to build violas as a hobby when their first child, William, was born in 1947, and remained supportive as the hobby became a career. Since his retirement in 1972 Morton has taken on many of the domestic chores to free Hutchins for her building and research, and has been active in violin research himself.[FN 9]

Hutchins bought plans and wood for a viola in 1947 and completed the instrument two years later. She called the instrument "the work of a good carpenter," and had no plans to build another. Rice had scoffed at her effort to make an instrument, noting that she would "eat her hat" if Hutchins ever finished it. This Rice graciously did, in the form of a cake, at a lively party for 60 persons in 1949.[FN 10] The party included a performance of Frederick Jacobi's Fantasy (1941) by violist Louise Rood, playing Hutchins's instrument, and pianist Irene Jacobi.[FN 11] Both musicians became good friends, especially Rood, the viola teacher at Smith College.

In 1949 Hutchins met the Swiss luthier Karl A. Berger through Broadus Erle, first violinist in the New Music Quartet and a friend of Helen Rice. Berger had a shop on 57th Street in the Steinway Building opposite Carnegie Hall, an area where many luthiers still work. Hutchins went to ask his opinion of her viola. Berger took her questions seriously, and removed the top to see how the wood had been graduated. He handed the pieces back to Hutchins and told her what she could do to make it a better instrument. This began six years of study with Berger. Hutchins went to his shop about every two weeks to show Berger what she was working on, a total of about thirty instruments between 1949 and 1955.[FN 12] This included mostly violas, but also a cello and four violins. In 1949 Hutchins and her family moved to her parents' house in Montclair, meaning that her mother was available for child care so that Hutchins could go into New York to work with Berger. Hutchins has no real proof of this study, and her training has been a point of contention among makers trying to discredit her, but such study is the objective explanation for a maker who started to impress musicians rather soon after starting in the craft, as will be shown below. Berger sent Hutchins to the Metropolitan Music Company to buy wood for her instruments, and advised her in wood purchases. In 1955 he was slowing down and felt that he had taught Hutchins what he could, so he sold her the remainder of his wood, including some that he had brought from England in about 1910.

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