WENATCHEE—Aaron Davis’ garage has not resembled a garage in years. Instead of skis, bicycles or tools hanging from the walls, bows, instruments and horsehair delicately dangle around the workshop. Shelves of shiny black viola and violin cases wait to be repaired.
On a table, a violin lies in shambles in an open case. All the strings are gone except for a few stragglers that protrude from around the pegbox. The body is scratched and the tailpiece is missing. The violin, made in 1824, recently took flight during a mariachi rehearsal when a dancer’s long flowing skirt caught on the scroll of the instrument and sent it sailing across the room.
“Everybody was bummed out but I was not too alarmed,” Davis said.
Davis specializes in repairing violas, violins, acoustic guitars, string basses, cellos, vihuelas and guitarróns — a hobby he plans to return to since retiring from Wenatchee School District last week.
A man of multidisciplinary musical talents — craftsman, performer and composer — he was also a talented and greatly admired music educator for the Wenatchee School District for 27 years.
Davis was primarily an orchestra teacher, but he has also taught mariachi since 2001 and he has been the assistant director for Wenatchee High School’s Mariachi Huenachi since 2007.
“If I had been told when I first graduated from college that I would eventually end my career teaching mariachi, I would’ve probably asked what mariachi was,” Davis said. “It was a surprising turn of events in my career but I really enjoyed it.”
Retirement doesn’t mean he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. He has owned and operated his business, Songsmith String Instruments, out of his home since 1984. He has a few long-term projects that he hopes to finish now that he is retired and free of a strict schedule.
“It will be nice to be able to do things when I want to do them. When you’re a teacher, the clock rules everything,” Davis said.
His interest in repairing and making instruments started at an early age. His grandfather made instruments and would frequently take out his violin when Davis played and he would play alongside him. Eventually, his grandfather’s hearing got so bad, he couldn’t hear the notes when he played. So he handed off his violin, which he had made himself, to Davis.
Later, during his graduate studies in the ’70s, Davis was doing some research for an assignment when he stumbled upon some violin-making books.
“I was looking through one of them and thought ‘This looks just like the stuff my grandfather has,’ ” Davis recalled. “I checked that book out, read it and it really piqued my interest.”
His family had an abundance of violins most of which were in need of some sort of repair. So, Davis decided to practice his repair work on them. He then tried his hand at making instruments and remembers someone commenting on his work saying “Well, it sounds really great but it looks kind of funny.” This motivated him to get training at the Violin Craftsmanship Institute at University of New Hampshire, where he learned firsthand from violin masters from Germany.
Now a week into retirement, he’s turning his attention to making a cello, a viola and a gamba— a bowed string instrument with frets developed during the Renaissance period. All of which are stored safely together in a wooden cabinet with a glass door in the corner of his shop.
It won’t be his first time making a viola. Davis performs in the Wenatchee Valley Symphony playing a viola he made himself in 1989.
Over the years, Davis used his skills generously. Wenatchee School District Mariachi Director Ramon Rivera said his colleague never thought twice about putting his repair skills to use outside the shop. The most common repairs for students are restringing a bow, which costs about $45, and violin bridge repair, which costs about $35.
“A lot of times, our students are low-income students and he would just take an instrument and repair it right there on the spot,” Rivera said. “He always helped kids who couldn’t afford a repair and he did it from the heart. I was just so happy he would do that for our kids. He’s such a good man.”
Sitting in the middle of his shop is a lone harp. This harp is one of two that Davis was instrumental in acquiring for the school district through grants Rivera said. He plans on having the harp ready for the fall. Beginning harp mariachi students will be the first to pluck the new strings.
“He’s the only one in the valley who would take on a project like that,” Rivera said. “He’s very unique to be able to fix a harp like it. It’s really amazing.”
Michelle Naranjo: 664-7154