Strings and other things

Appreciating Montreal’s classical music community

Adam Burton, Sports Editor

Growing up, my favourite movie scene was the wand-shop sequence from Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone. The scene opens with Harry entering Olivander’s wand shop, surrounded by towering shelves of wands and surfaces cluttered with tools and scraps of parchment. After trying an array of wands, he settles on one that feels just right. Olivander explains, “The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter. It's not always clear why. But I think it is clear that we can expect great things from you.”

To me, this scene offered a parallel fantasy to picking out a string instrument—an experience every string musician has in their life. A luthier—a maker of stringed instruments—brings out an array of instruments, and lines them up on a counter for you to play. After what can be a multi-day selection process, the musician picks the instrument they will play for dozens of hours a week, for what will hopefully be the rest of their life. Montreal’s classical music community is tightly-knit, and musicians at all levels—students, teachers, and amateurs—have been facilitating musical collaboration and connection before and during the pandemic. The amount of love and labour that goes into music making and crafting instruments is important, broadening horizons and encouraging people to pursue their passions.

Lili Saint-Michel

Lili Saint-Michel manages sales, rentals, and institutional relations at Jules Saint-Michel Luthier, a string instrument shop in downtown Montreal. Saint-Michel studied biochemistry at the University of Montreal, but when she developed tendinitis in her hand 25 years ago, she decided to start working at her father’s violin shop.

“The relationship with customers is very diversified,” Saint-Michel said. “You never get bored because the violin is something you can always learn more about [....] Repairs are very interesting. Sometimes, we may have a violin in the family that hasn't been played for a long time and we put it back in playable condition, and it can be very emotional [....] It’s very nice to see the connection between people and their instruments through the restoration process.”

The store’s journey began with Saint-Michel’s father, Jules Saint-Michel, a Hungarian immigrant who fled Budapest during the 1956 revolution against Soviet-imposed rule. He went on to study medicine in France, and eventually moved to Montreal, where he practiced medicine until opening his own stringed instrument shop in 1970, solidifying his lifelong passion for violin-making.

The shop has come a long way since its single storefront, expanding to include the neighbouring shops, and the top floor, where they now house a violin-making museum and spaces for lessons. Saint-Michel emphasizes the shop’s role as a community space for people looking to learn and discover a love for classical music. For this reason, Saint-Michel has collaborated with Economusée, an international organization that offers public workshops and gives artisans a chance to share their work.

Simon Gidora

Simon Gidora is a U2 student at McGill pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree for violin performance. He started playing violin at the age of five after fiddling around on his older brother’s instrument and immediately falling in love with it.

“The current violin that I own, my parents bought when I was 13,” Gidora said. “We took a trip down to Seattle to look at some violins and a few different violin shops and I brought three violins to try at home in British Columbia. One of them was a new Italian violin, and one of them was an old French violin, which was the one that I ended up buying [....] I spent a couple weeks playing on all of them. I really loved the French one. It was warm, it was easy to play. It spoke to me. It felt comfortable with my body.”

After eight years with his violin, Gidora feels a bond with his instrument, which was built in 1862, that is difficult to put into words.

“Every time I pick it up, I think about the fact that this violin has lived through so much,” Gidora said. “It's been alive longer than any person walking this Earth right now, it’s seen things and none of us have seen. I can't even imagine all the people that have played on it. It will probably outlast me, it will probably have people a hundred years from now playing it [....] It's really cool to be able to connect with an instrument that connects you to a whole lineage as well as the history of classical music and the performers that make it happen.”

Samuel Moir-Gayle

Samuel Moir-Gayle, U3 Arts, has continued to pursue classical cello into his university degree. Born into a musical family, Moir-Gayle doesn’t remember a time when music wasn’t part of his life. After years of honing his skills on the cello, Moir-Gayle has come to know his instrument quite well.

“[Your instrument] starts as an extension of your body physically, like your brain giving your mouth and tongue instructions on how to speak a new language, but for someone who dives into the musical community, especially the classical community, it becomes a part of your identity,” Moir-Gayle said. “As you mature in life, your music and craft matures with you.”

Connecting and forming a bond with their instruments does not only make musicians more technically proficient, it also provides an emotional outlet. Playing an instrument gives one a voice that they otherwise would not have access to: It can express emotions you cannot put in words. Everybody’s voice is unique on their instrument, and every voice has something different to say. Moir-Gayle has come to realize that perfection isn’t something you should be striving for; honesty of expression is far more valuable.

“If the relationship between musician and instrument has taught me anything, it’s that perfection and being the best is only as important as the value you place on it,” Moir-Gayle said. “I think that nowadays when people create classical music, we are so focussed on becoming the next Rostropovich or Heifetz or Horowitz that we often forget about the incredible people who supported them, whether it be orchestra members or teachers or luthiers.”

After over 15 years of classical training, Moir-Gayle has come to realise that his favorite part of music is the chamber music ensemble—a group of three to eight musicians. Making music with a small group of musically inclined peers allows for a level of artistic fluidity unmatched in other musical settings.

“Playing in an orchestra or as a soloist is great, but there is nothing like the satisfaction that comes with creating something personal with others on a small, intimate scale,” Moir-Gayle said.

Perfecting a piece of chamber music is an experience like no other. Coordinating rhythm and intonation is only the first step in creating an honest rendition of a classical work. Deciding on what emotions to convey and honing an ensemble’s communication skills is essential in perfecting the living and breathing entity that is a chamber group. Forming this bond with similarly inclined musicians is enthralling; many spend their lives developing and maintaining these unique connections.

“[Chamber music] shows you who you are and how you work with others and what is important to you when you create art,” Moir-Gayle said. “You come to know people on such an individual level that you can interpret what a glance means in an instant. You could tell whether your first violinist is breathing to calm themselves down or to send a message. When you perform together, your bodies, and your instruments as an extension of them, move and pulse and retreat and rise and fall as one fluid system that’s constantly fighting for a direction.”

Josie Thompson

Josie Thompson, U2 Psychology, has continued to pursue her passion for music through the various music clubs and organizations offered at McGill. At first, classical music was forced upon her by her parents, but in high school she managed to find value in the therapeutic nature of playing an instrument.

“My violin just became such an outlet,” Thompson said. “[Whenever I felt down], I would just come home and just rail on the violin like crazy, with double stops [and] super passionate parts [....] You take that energy when you're performing, and you can share how you're feeling with an audience. It's just the best feeling.”

Since enrolling at McGill, Thompson has had less time and opportunity to practice and perform, and has experienced a sense of loss for not pursuing a career in music.

“It's tricky,” Thompson said. “I still have doubts about not [training in music professionally], and I do regret that I don't play as much anymore. I was never intending to pursue it, [but] halfway through high school I just fell in love with it. [Practicing music is] so personal. You are expressing your emotions and months of hard work through it and then getting it right is like a rush that I can’t describe.”

To make up for that loss, Thompson has delved into extracurriculars, including School of Music Montreal (SoMM), an organization that matches student volunteers with local schools to provide one-on-one music lessons to those seeking extra training. Thompson has taught piano and violin at SoMM for three years, and is now the head of human resources. Teaching is a cathartic outlet for many who have held music as a passion and want to pass it on.

“My students have all been really excited to learn their favorite songs on the piano,” Thompson said. “My first semester teaching, I had this one student who was so shy, she wouldn't talk to me. After maybe six weeks, she finally talked to me. It was just the biggest win. But at the same time, she was improving really quickly on the song we were doing and you could tell she was really dedicated and loved what we were doing. It's very fulfilling.”