(Luthier: A craftsperson who builds and repairs string instruments that have a neck and a sound box, for example a violin or viola.)
“Maybe I can make and sell enough violins and violas to buy a new bass boat.”
— Cheyenne Jankowski: luthier and bass angler
Dateline: An Arkansas lake
There stands alone on an Arkansas lake dock a violin player, and as the sun sets on that lake she plays a song for the waves below her feet.
And I believe that through the music she plays the gentle waves of the lake will finally understand who we are, what we are, and through that will know our soul.
It will be the music on the radio waves that escape our planet that will tell our story to the stars.
In the end, when our time has come and gone, the universe will know us, remember us, by our melody.
“Music is the universal language of mankind.”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Meet Cheyenne … the bass angler/violin maker … and his wife, Carrie … his wife and classical violinist.
By day they work together as surveyors … at night … he sits at his work bench and either fixes or makes violins while Carrie:
Cheyenne: “Carrie practices sometimes as much as four to six hours per day. Sometimes less. She practices whenever she can. It may be downstairs at 4 in the morning or in the bedroom at 11 at night. Matter of fact, as I am typing this she is in the next room to my office, ‘my shop,’ and she just picked up her violin and started playing.”
And while you may think this is a story solely about Cheyenne and Carrie, ahh, not so much. In truth it is a story about how ordinary folks like you and me can do extraordinary things in life if we believe in ourselves, if we stick to it and don’t give up, and if others believe in us as well.
I’m going to step aside here a bit. I'll let you read the conversation I had with Cheyenne in his own words … press play:
“If you hear a voice within you say, ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”
— Vincent Van Gogh
“I started with making an acoustic guitar. That was in 2014? It’s sitting in my office still to be completed. Carrie convinced me to make her a violin and I got sucked into that rabbit hole and haven’t found my way out yet. My first completed instrument was a violin I made for her. It turned out better than what she had at the time. It was just good enough to push me to try again, thankfully.
“Each instrument has been an improvement on the last. I love to watch YouTube videos interviewing violin and instrument makers talking about their craft. I can’t remember exactly who it was, but he had a quote along the lines of: 'People ask me what is the best violin I have ever made? Its always the one I making now!'
“So far I’ve made four violins, one viola, and I have two violins 'in the works' and a request for a viola and some interest in a violin or two when I get around to finishing them. The second violin I made was also for Carrie. It is currently her everyday violin.
“While much better than my first it is not as good as my following attempts. She has outgrown its ability and is eager for me to finish one of the two being made so she can upgrade to a much better instrument.
“To my knowledge so far, all the instruments I have completed are being played and loved on a regular basis. All of my instruments are being used to play and perform classical music with some fiddle tunes scattered in occasionally."
“Imagination creates reality.”
— Wilhelm Richard Wagner
German composer and conductor
Cheyenne is a very modest kind of guy. At most I got him to admit to being a “do-it-yourself” kind of fellow. But don’t let this escape you … he taught and continues to teach himself how to build musical instruments, violins and violas … that people play … including his wife:
“I don’t get the warm and fuzzies whenever she plays, except in a situation where she is performing solo. Be it a master class or a small part of a song in church or some other performance. Depending on the piece it often gives me goosebumps. But I also get really nervous for her when she performs in a situation like a masterclass, knowing how hard she has worked in preparation.”
And then there are the kids, many from parents with modest means. They are hardworking folks who may have a hard time wrangling a violin purchase into the budget.
“Oftentimes when called upon to repair an instrument for a student, mainly newer or newly advancing ones, the instrument they have is either of poor quality or has been poorly repaired in the past. Sometimes a parent will buy a 'violin kit' say from Amazon for a very small amount with the view that if the student doesn’t stick with it they haven’t wasted a bunch of money. The problem is bowed string instruments are one of the hardest instruments to learn to play and play well.
“You are actually playing two instruments, the instrument and the bow. These inexpensive instruments are often of such poor quality and are not properly setup. This means the student is constantly fighting the instrument in an attempt to learn to play. This makes an already very difficult process even more difficult.
“A student, by student I basically mean anyone not being paid to play and perform even though anyone playing an instrument is really a student, as they grow as a player they discover limitations with the instrument they have, either because of poor setup or the instrument just isn’t capable of their newly learned abilities.
“Sometimes something happens and an instrument simply needs an adjustment. Bridges fall, parts wear out, sound posts shift, etc. These situations where an instrument needs repair can be one of the most rewarding times.
“To be able to repair or set up an instrument and have them play better and sound better, always makes the player beyond excited. It keeps them playing and growing, it keeps the joy in learning, it reinforces all the hard work they have put in to become better.
“This is very tangible and very real, can be seen, heard and felt. To be able to play a small part in that and bring that kind of joy and touch lives in that way is true God-given joy. It makes me feel like I have some use in this crazy world, that I matter and that my work is not in vain.”
“The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.”
— B. B. King
“In the violin world I am relatively a 'noob.' We have to start somewhere, and learning is as much the journey as getting there. We never truly stop learning and growing, or at least shouldn’t. There are many, many, whose abilities far outshine mine. I am only doing this part time nights and weekends as life and my day job allows. But, the key is in learning the right things the right way. That comes from lots and lots of time studying, seeking and being honest with yourself about where your weaknesses are and continuing to focus on developing those areas. Making mistakes and learning from them and learning from others' work.
“Much like learning to play the violin, my number one goal no matter what is ‘don’t be a hack!’ Admit what you don’t know, learn the right way to do it and if it's beyond your abilities find someone you can learn from or send the project to.”
The amazing gift that I have been given throughout my career is the opportunity to meet, talk with and learn from some of the most amazing people on this planet.
Most of whom you have never heard of.
It is on us, the media, to not always report on or tell the story of the obvious, to not always ask the victims how they feel, to not only listen for and jot down “sound bites.”
It is up to us, given the extraordinary access we have to people and places, to bring information and stories to you that hopefully enrich your life.
I believe Cheyenne Jankowski to be one of those people with a story that should be told as he would have it. So for the next few hundred words, bent around some of his pretty photos, you will read my exact question to him … and his exact answer.
You deserve a peek behind the curtain of what it is we do ... what I do.
Here you go:
db: “This is a highly unlikely thing that you do, make violins. What advice would you give to other people about to do something unlikely for them?”
CJ: “Hmmmm … my wife isn’t supposed to be able to take up the violin in her middle years and advance as far as she has as quickly. I am not supposed to be able to do what I am doing without going to school or having worked hands on with someone teaching me. These are often popular misconceptions.
“People often speak of talent and being gifted. While I think talent and gifts can play a big part, I don’t think it’s in the way most think. I think the talents and gifts are for patience, perseverance and working your butt off. I hear people say, 'Oh, I couldn’t do that' for one reason or another, but they could if they wanted to, and it was meant to be.
“None of it has been easy. We are not 'there' yet, and honestly I don’t know we ever will be. I'm not sure that getting 'there' is ever really the point. If it's meant to be, God will direct your steps and guide you along the path and bring people into your life that He will use to encourage you and show you that you truly are meant to do this for as long as he has planned for you.
“You will have doubts, you will question your sanity, you will have times where you feel like quitting or you are not cut out for it. But God has amazing ways of letting us know when we are right where he wants us. Things always happen for a reason. We may not always know the reason, but our lives are so intertwined with others, it’s never just about us. We all have an amazing opportunity to be there for someone else and for someone else to be there for us, and in turn bring joy and hope to each other and make this crazy bouncing ball a better place.”
db: “Close your eyes, dream big about your violins, what’s the big dream you have concerning your work?”
CJ: “(laughs) I really don’t know. I want to continue to grow and get better. I would like to continue to build my violin world and see what happens. Maybe enter a competition or two down the road. Maybe in the future be in a position to transition into having more time for luthier work.
“I’m dealing with some chronic health problems that haven’t stopped me but are changing the way I do things. I've worked with my hands since I was 11 years old. One of my dreams is just having more time to fish. I need to make time and that’s hard.
“I’m family simple. Like most people I want to be happy, I want to be better at enjoying life and the blessings we are given. I want to enjoy the ride and see where this 'red dirt road' takes me.
“I want to get the end wore slap out in a smoking heap knowing I gave it my all and did the best I could. Some days that’s not very much, but I think a lot of it is just in the willingness to try.
“Nothing is guaranteed. We have to try to make the best of it. Find people to love and pray you are blessed enough to be loved back.”
“A painter paints pictures on canvas, but musicians paint their pictures on silence.”
— Leopold Stokowski
Famous orchestra conductor and the conductor of the Disney film Fantasia
There stands in the sunset a violinist, Carrie, playing a violin made by her husband, Cheyenne who shot this video.
Listen and enjoy …