Damir Horvat was taught to be a luthier by his father. He was mentored by one of the world’s renowned violin makers. Yet as he works in the Northeast Columbia shop at his home, Horvat says he knows it’s up to him to make his own reputation.
By Abe Danaher
April 27, 2018
Violin maker Damir Horvat stands with a thin stick of Pernambuco resting delicately in his hands. It is, the Columbia luthier says, the most valuable wood in the world, and worth more than gold to a luthier such as himself.
Horvat, 41, who works out of his shop Horvat Fine Violins and Bows, hails from two generations of luthiers. He began in his father’s shop in the former Yugoslavia. Later, he was mentored by one of the world’s greatest luthiers, Carl Becker.
He says these experiences helped make him the luthier he is today. But, he says firmly, “I create my own reputation.”
And his reputation, like that stick of Pernambuco, is one of the most valuable things he has.
“The fame and reputation of your teachers matters this much,” Horvat says, his pointer finger almost touching his thumb. But, “It’s hard work and dedication on my own that cuts it.”
As a young boy, Horvat says he sharpened tools, cleaned floors, made specific parts, and rehaired bows at his father’s shop in the former Yugoslavia.
He was 19 when war split the country, so Horvat immigrated to America in search of a better life and a better opportunity in violin making.
In the United States, Horvat says, he repaired violins part-time while he went to five schools, eventually getting his master’s in violin performance. He says he decided to become a full-time luthier when a car accident left him temporarily unable to play violin.
Around 2008, Horvat says, he became good friends with Marilyn Becker, who lives in Columbia and is the daughter of world-renowned luthier Carl Becker.
Horvat says she arranged a 2 1/2-month mentorship for Horvat with her father. Horvat says he studied every day and night learning why violins are made the way they are.
He was the last student mentored by Becker, who died in 2013.
“It is very rare to have a prominent person being able to share their time and secrets,” said Horvat. “But I think he enjoyed the company of a young aspiring person who was willing to learn.”
Paul Becker, who took over running his father’s violin repair shop in Chicago, said Horvat was a “wonderful man” who provided his father company and help.
Becker “was very patient with Damir when he would ask questions,” says Horvat’s wife, Ashley, herself a musician and violin instructor at Columbia College. She says her husband and Becker had a great relationship and that Becker always gave Horvat a new way to look at things.
The couple has been married for 16 years. Ashley Horvat says she doesn’t use her husband’s violins anymore because she now prefers older instruments. Horvat says his wife helps him stay sane and that she also sees all of his work before he returns it to customers.
They say they hope that at least one of their two children, a son and daughter, becomes a luthier.
“Maybe one day they will become a fourth generation violin maker,” Horvat said. “But if that doesn’t happen, you know, it doesn’t happen. So I’m not really going to push them into doing something they don’t like.”
Columbia Voice sat down with Horvat to discuss his beginnings as a luthier, the effect Carl Becker had on his work, whether he sees either of his two children joining the family lineage of luthiers, and the role his wife plays in his work. This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity. (Listen to the entire interview.)
Damir, let’s just start where it all began. Describe the first instrument you built as a kid in your dad’s shop.
Well, it was a violin. It was square. … I suppose when I was finished it was not strung to be played, but the response was that it was cute in the sense of my mother language. …
Did you ever get to play it? Did anyone ever play it?
No, no, no! It is still sitting somewhere in the old house that we used to live back home. Maybe I’ll get it when I’m 90 years old or something and take a look at it.
Perfect! Now you talked about working under Carl Becker, and earlier you talked to me about the “Becker way.” How have you incorporated the “Becker way” into your own work? …
Their way of thinking is that there is no skipping steps, there is no cutting corners. Like you gotta do everything, you gotta do everything the right way. You gotta do everything to the customer that you would do to your own violin. Take your time. Do it right. Find out the best, the most quality way to execute things. So that kind of mindset is, that, you know, as a student, have engrained in your mind and you have to employ it in everything you do regarding violins. …
Do you feel any pressure to carry on the legacy of Carl and your father?
No. I feel pressure to do the best I can. I want to carry the legacy of my own, of Damir Horvat. I will never be Carl Becker, I will never be my father. You as a student, as a student you don’t want to be like your teacher. You want to be better than your teacher. Your teacher is there to give you the ingredients, how to succeed, and you have to find a way to work your way to the point where you are better. …
You talked about how your wife checks your instruments when they’re done, you’ve told me that before.
Yeah, she had them playing, she had them in the shredder.
What goes through your head when she says, “No, that’s not good enough?”
Oh that’s interesting. … I look for ways to improve it. Ok, so you just made something. It’s not just her. You make a violin or viola or something and you send it out with the customers. They like it, they play it for a week and sometimes they buy it. Sometimes they say, “Oh my god, this is great, this is exactly what I was looking for.” And sometimes they just return it and sometimes, “That’s just not what I was looking for.” You have an option of getting angry. Why did this happen? Who are they to tell me this is a bad instrument? Or you just simply learn from it. … As a maker, you don’t make something and sit on it for ten years and really love what you did and cherish that memory of making a viola. You want to make things. My teachers, my father, Carl, other teachers that I have had in my life, tell don’t worry about making one instrument a year. Try to make one violin every two weeks, every month or something. …