High-Quality Small-Scale Musical Instrument Makers in Australia
Members of AAMIM throughout the country are involved daily in the construction, maintenance, restoration, conservation, research and development of an extensive variety of traditional, folk, modern and experimental musical instruments. These include:
- Accordions and concertinas
- Banjos and mandolins
- Dulcimers, psalteries and zithers
- Early keyboards including harpsichords, clavichords & fortepianos
- Flutes, recorders and whistles
- Guitars — acoustic and electric
- Harps — Aeolian, Celtic, folk & concert
- Lutes and other early and ethnic plucked strings
- Oboes and orchestral reeds
- Organs — pipe & reed
- Steel drums
- Violin family including violins, violas, ‘cellos and double basses, bows & accessories
- Early strings including viols and period bows.
With the number of musical instrument makers practising in Australia, both professional and amateur, said to be in the vicinity of five hundred or so, it is surprising that the general public remains largely ignorant of the high quality and reasonable price of the locally made article.
With makers producing predominantly standard type instruments (violin family, guitar and keyboard), there is much competition from overseas imports, especially the cheaper variety. In spite of this, some makers have risen to “greater heights” in the craft due to success in overseas markets. Such attainment must be very satisfying and encouraging although further strengthening of the wind would be very desirable.
Formation and History of AAMIM
Considering the time expended, it is incongruous that no instrument maker obtains adequate reward for his or her labour. AAMIM’s main objectives since its formation in 1981 have been to promote the interests of musical instrument makers in Australia, to foster the craft of musical instrument making and encourage members to attain and sustain high standards, and to provide the means to maintain and improve the quality of Australian instrument making. The full verbatim set of objectives is listed below.
At a meeting in 1978 held by the Early Music Association of NSW at Macquarie University, Sydney, the idea of forming a society of instrument makers was discussed by Geoff Wills (Queensland), Doug Eaton (Queensland) and Bill Elliott (NSW). Bill Elliott undertook to draft a Constitution.
In 1979 and again in 1980 festivals of early music were held at Lambing Flat (Young, NSW) organised by well-known Sydney organist and harpsichordist David Kinsela under the auspices of the Early Music Association. They were attended by players, some of whom made musical instruments in the style of the baroque and renaissance periods. At these festivals the ‘Macquarie Group’ raised the matter with several of the players/makers who decided that considering the number of amateur and professional musical instrument makers working in Australia it would be desirable to form a makers’ association.
Two constitutions were prepared; one by Bill Elliott and another by the Queensland group. From these two a draft Constitution was drawn up and submitted to a number of makers for approval. The Constitution set out the aims of the Association and the rules governing its operations.
Coincidentally, at a luthier’s convention held at “Guitar City”, Sydney in November 1979, a group of luthiers decided to form an association to pursue mutual assistance and co-operation within the industry and to serve as a mouthpiece wherever needed.
Further discussions held were at the Canberra Summer School of Early Music in January 1981 by those makers who were the active organisers in the formation of the Association.
In November 1981, a public meeting was held at the NSW Conservatorium of Music; it was attended by twenty-seven people, mostly makers. The proposed Constitution was discussed and accepted. It was decided to form a body to be named The Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers. The majority of those who attended this meeting subsequently joined the Association. As the founders of AAMIM were also active members of the Early Music Association, meetings were organised to coincide with the Annual Summer School of Early Music in Canberra. The gathering of members at such a venue made it very convenient for discussing Association matters especially in the formative years.
The next meeting of AAMIM was held in Canberra in January, 1982. It was attended by members from NSW, ACT and Queensland. There was considerable discussion of the Constitution and the objectives of the Association but no decisions were taken.
While no State branches had been formed at this stage it was thought that State representatives should be elected to form the National Committee. As originally established in the Constitution of 1982 it was the intention that the Association was to function as an Australia-wide organisation with a branch in each State and Territory. This perhaps ambitious desire has, to date, not been achievable due to a number of reasons, including lack of finance.
The first branches to materialise were NSW and ACT. While Geoff Wills was elected as Queensland Branch Secretary in 1982, the branch was not formally established until 1986 during which time activities centred around meetings held in Geoff’s Instrument Building Centre at his residence at Lota, a Brisbane suburb. (The centre functioned as a non-profit community service aided by Australia Council funding and imparted instruction on the building and repairing of guitars and other instruments.)
In 1985 the Victoria branch was set up with a full complement of office bearers and South Australia followed likewise in 1986. Unfortunately, ACT had withered by 1991 and Victoria only lasted a few years due to political unrest. NSW, in the early stages a very strong and active branch, came to a slow end by 2001. Numerous reasons can probably be given for such dramatic declines; perhaps one day the full story may be told.
It has at times been suggested that State branches be abolished with the whole organisation becoming purely national. From the outset it would appear that the original structure was a little unwieldy for two reasons at least; one, the difficulty of filling the respective official positions and two, due to the widespread domicile of the members with consequent communication challenges. Telephone communication between far-flung States could be rather expensive while postal delivery was burdensome and time-consuming.
Further, it was soon realised that not all ordinary members understood the structure of the Association; that office positions existed for both the national body and also for the respective State branch. This is exemplified in NSW where in the early days National Committee meetings and State branch meetings were invariably held on the same night. So while the theory may have been sound the practicality of working the model was not always easily achievable.
Following incorporation the Rules of the Association require that the National Committee “… shall control and manage the affairs of the Association, exercise the Association’s functions and perform all acts and do all things as appear to it necessary or desirable for the proper management of the affairs of the Association.” The Rules further stipulated that the National Committee shall consist of a President, Secretary, Treasurer, Public Officer, and the Chairman and Secretary of each branch of the Association. This remains in theory to the present time.
With the establishment of incorporation in December 1992, the 1982 Constitution became superseded when the new Objectives and Rules became effective. It had become increasingly apparent that office bearers were vulnerable to litigation. In the event of the Association being sued those holding office could find their personal assets at risk.
At an exhibition held in the early 90s several members expressed their discomfort in participating at exhibitions and the like due to being unprotected in the event of a legal claim. On at least one occasion a member expressed his gross concern and ultimately discontinued his membership.
This lack of protection prompted action by the Association’s Officers and guided by the NSW Department of Consumer Affairs (now the Department of Fair Trading) the National Secretary and two members (both solicitors) drew up draft “Rules and Regulations”. This was duly accepted by the Department and a Certificate of Incorporation under the NSW Associations Incorporation Act, 1984,1 was issued in December, 1992.
AAMIM’s objectives listed at the time of incorporation, and still current, are:
A To promote the interests of musical instrument makers, conservators, restorers and repairers in Australia.
B To foster the craft of musical instrument making, conservation, restoration and repair, and to encourage its members to attain and sustain high standards in such activities.
C To provide the means to maintain and improve the quality of Australian instrument making, conservation, restoration and repair and in connection therewith and with Objectives A and B hereof and without limiting the generality thereof to:
- act as a representative of the practitioners described in Objective A to further the recognition of their crafts
- establish banks of data, books, drawings and other sources of information relative to the crafts described and to provide information relative to the source of materials, tools and fittings required for use in the above described crafts
- encourage the use of Australian timber and other materials produced locally in the practice of the crafts above described
- encourage, assist and support scientific enquiry into such aspects of musical instrument making, conservation, restoration, and repair as are relevant to the objectives of the Association
- publish material relevant to the objectives of the Association and generally to ensure that by publication, meetings, workshops, functions, exhibitions and otherwise that members of the association and where desirable the public are informed of aspects of the Association’s activities.
- encourage and support the education of present and future practitioners as above described
- implement procedures whereby members of the Association may seek such recognition of their skills as will confer a public status vouched for by the association
- affiliate with or adopt means of co-operation with such organizations as may assist in furthering the Association’s objectives
- acquire such property and assets and collect and disburse such funds as may further the advancement of the Association’s objectives
In the beginning membership was open to bona fide makers whether amateur or professional, with consequent voting rights. Over the years the number of members at any one time has fluctuated somewhat with the maximum number attaining in the vicinity of 200 around 1985. A more or less slow decline has prevailed since to the extent that present numbers are less that 100.
It is interesting to speculate on the reasons for seeking membership. The predominant one, of course, is the seeking of knowledge while a sense of comradeship would be a close second. Reasons of prestige would be another reason for some, since the Association’s initials have appeared on business cards, letterheads and some directories. With a positive attitude and a degree of input this prestige aspect could be a major tool in the fostering of the Association with a resultant return of benefit to the members.
It is interesting to note that only two of the original decision-makers of 1980 retained continuous membership, the others having dropped out after a few years. The trend to exit from membership pertains particularly to those in a professional capacity; those who, it would be thought, would realise the greatest benefit of belonging to a maker’s fraternity.
Five members over the years have been awarded Honorary Membership for services either to the Association or for research in the musical instrument making sphere:
- Ernest A. Crome, 1983, for recording the history of violin making in Australia and his assistance in building a collection of Australian-made violins in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences at Ultimo, Sydney
- Raymond Holliday (1983), Geoffrey Wills (1996), John Godschall Johnson (1997), and Kenneth Tyrrell (2002), for their work within the Association since its inception or over many years.
The major source of income for the Association is membership fees. Fees are determined by the National Committee for each calendar year.
A secondary source, although one that has never generated a host of funds, is through advertising. To effectively attract advertisers, membership numbers need to be considerably more than minimal and the journal content needs to be of reasonable substance in order to convince the advertiser of its worth. The placing of advertisements has not been as successful over the years as it could have been, a situation which could be rectified by a member willing to act as a soliciting representative.
The holding of instrument exhibitions where the public is asked for donations can be a very effective way of raising funds. This has been proven in the past where two or three successful events in Sydney have seen NSW branch coffers swelled fairly well. Naturally, for an exhibition to be successful year after year considerable effort and care needs to be injected to make the event an artistic success.
Other incidental forms of income have been generated from donations and the occasional expense never claimed by office bearers.
Until the early 90s all funds generated from membership fees were retained by the national body for its general use while State finances were raised by a levy imposed at branch meetings. The two major expenditure items under National Committee custodianship were the publishing of the journal and the reimbursement of funds to assist the States in the organising of exhibitions and displays. For a number of years since, it has been the practice of the National Committee to grant the States a certain percentage of membership fees each year to assist in their administration costs. The figure is usually in the vicinity of 20-25%.
By far the dominant expenditure within our Association nowadays is the production of the journal; expenses such as compositor’s fee, printing, stationery and postage. The position of editor is honorary as are all office bearers. Secondary expenses come in the form of general administration items (insurance, telephone, postage and photocopying).
Production of JAAMIM commenced immediately once the Association had been formed with the first issue being produced in October 1982. With the hope of the original editors that the journal would be continuing and regular it certainly has been that, except for a few periods in the early years when production tended to be a little spasmodic due to lack of articles.
Not one AAMIM official has not considered the journal the lifeblood of the Association; they all see it not only as a major source of information but as a communicator as well. The original editors saw it as an instrument “to act as a quick and easy way of airing one’s ideas, offering hints and tips (hopefully getting some in return) and flying the odd kite.” With the editors putting in a good deal of effort the journal has generally kept its head well in the waters of regularity with a continued standard to match.
The journal is issued to members as part of membership but it has seen distribution to wider fields as well. At one time it was distributed to organisations and academic institutions both here and abroad but financial difficulties due to a fall of membership has seen a drastic pruning of this exercise. It does, however, currently appear on the shelves of several public libraries in Australia and other institutions such as the Powerhouse Museum, The Australian Music Centre (both in Sydney), some Universities and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It is also sent by reciprocation to some overseas instrument-making associations.
Following a number of editorial problems, the National Committee for 1993 decided to take the journal into their own hands to place journal production and regularity on a firm footing. Beginning with the March 1994 edition this very soon proved to be a success and much improvement was attained in design and production. In 1996 sole editorship was undertaken by the present incumbent. In spite of the occasional setback the journal is seeing the light of day every quarter and with a continued supply of articles by members and hopefully others, much life will lay ahead.
The current editor sees the journal as a paramount reference book on musical instrument making in Australia and its value should not be underestimated. As a compendium of the aspirations, activities and experiments of local craftsmen it will ultimately form a notable adjunct to the plethora of Australian musical literature accumulating on library shelves and be a source of estimable reference for future generations of musical instrument makers, students of the craft, and musicians.
Exhibitions, Conventions and Seminars
Right from the very beginning Association officials placed a strong emphasis on fostering exhibitions to allow as much exposure as possible to the promotion of Australian craftsmen and Australian musical instruments. This aspiration was achieved to a great extent in the first decade of our existence. However, with the gradual exodus of a number of experienced members in the late 80s and early 90s the number of exhibitions dwindled somewhat, but dramatically so in the NSW branch.
As the major driving force in the early days centred on the ACT and Sydney it is natural that more activity was displayed there than in other States. In due time though, Queensland and South Australia picked up some of the momentum to add their bit to what eventually became during our first decade a fairly successful period of musical instrument promotion.
The next decade, however, saw a dramatic decline in the activities of the NSW branch, and consequent cessation of exhibitions with Queensland picking up the flag and running. With a strong nucleus of members in Brisbane, exhibitions have been held regularly over this period up to the present day.
Arguably, every exhibition held under the banner of AAMIM has been successful from an artistic point of view and this is probably the most important point. Some have been more so than others with a few being exceptional such as several held in Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. The situation is different from a financial aspect; while some exhibitions have been very successful financially with public entry by donation, others have suffered by being set up on a no charge/no profit basis. At least two exhibitions with entry by donation, organised by the NSW branch swelled coffers rather handsomely as well as being successful artistically.
Exhibitions have ranged from one-day affairs to those covering several days and on some occasions, several weeks. The norm has been two or three days, sometimes over a long weekend plus a day prior for setting-up purposes.
Given a strong input and commitment from organisers and exhibitors, exhibitions can be a major way of alerting the general public and indeed those in the music industry that Australian craftsmen do exist and that local instruments are up to the standard of or better than overseas products. With solid input from all, exhibitions can be a notable source of revenue. The returns thus earned can help fill the coffers to further aid the organisation and the individual. It does, however, need the assurance of co-operation from all.
Recognising the far-reaching advantages of “through the air” exposure many members have been interviewed on radio and appeared on television to foster either themselves or to advertise the existence of the Association (or both). We have been interviewed on television channels ABC, SBS, 7, 9 and 10 on a number of occasions; FM and AM radio stations; at primary and secondary schools; various advanced societies and venues such as The Royal Society, Sydney University Music Department, Sydney Technical College and the Australian String Teachers Association.
The printing press has not been neglected either in the promoting of AAMIM or its members. Members have often been featured in prominent capital city and suburban newspapers and in magazines and journals. We have also been featured in some overseas publications.
From past experience newspaper editors of suburban newspapers are very willing to print profiles of people if the article is compiled by someone other than from its editorial staff, while the placing of an advertisement adds further weight to seeing the article published. Such exposure (other than the advertisement) does not incur any cost.
Experiments with and Use of Australian Timbers
One interesting objective, as stated, is to encourage the use of Australian timber and other materials produced locally. As time goes on, more and more use is being made of Australian timbers, mainly in the making of non-traditional instruments.
Many artisans working in traditional fields and utilising traditional woods seem to be reluctant to venture into the unknown forest, the view being that local woods cannot compare with conventional spruces and maples and other species.
In spite of this, a number of makers have experimented using local timbers with some producing instruments of striking craftsmanship and exceptional sound quality to match, particularly in the woodwind field. While local timbers have been successfully used in the bodies of instruments, in keyboards and in decorative parts it seems to be a debatable point whether such woods as King William Pine, as used in soundboards, have proved all that successful from a tonal point of view as compared with the European counterpart.2
Schools of Instruction
Another AAMIM objective is to encourage and support the education of present and future practitioners. It was the desire of the Association’s office bearers in the early days to endeavour to institute regular courses of instruction in the various aspects of musical instrument making. It was intended that courses would cater for elementary and advanced students on subjects such as chemistry, acoustics, woodcraft, glues and varnish etc. While on some occasions lectures of substantial substance were held, interest eventually waned after several years to the extent that any form of instruction existing these days is rather spasmodic except for Queensland branch holding the flag over the years.
From 1973 to 1995, Geoff Wills and Doug Eaton instructed members of the community in building and repairing guitars and other instruments at the Instrument Building Centre in Brisbane, mentioned earlier in this article.
Several notable lectures and seminars were held in the first years by notable AAMIN members such as Graham Caldersmith, Geoff Wills, John McLennan, John Godschall Johnson and Ian Clarke. Some of these sessions covered a number of months (at one per week) and it is indeed unfortunate that many such projects have not been able to continue. A number of occasions of similar importance held at branch meetings such as the workshops of Doug Foster and 2007 National President Maurice Briggs have tended to uphold the intentions (to some degree) of our forebears.
Memorable to 24 students in Sydney was a violin making course under the tutorial of Harry Vatiliotis over several weeks in what he describes as an old tin shed at Sydney University. Most made a violin of some sort as a one-off with a few going onto further heights in the amateur or professional worlds.
An offshoot of any lecture or seminar is that the proceedings are able to be written up for publication in JAAMIM. Anyone who is not able to attend (and this would be most) is able to benefit to a large degree in the knowledge thus generated.
In the mid 90s overtures were made to AAMIM by the University of Technology, Sydney, with the suggestion of a study course within their curriculum to cover subjects which could be useful to musical instrument makers; our Association acting in an advisory capacity. It was envisaged that the course would embrace subjects such as elementary chemistry and physics, acoustics, properties of wood and metal, soldering, brazing, polishing, and workshop practices. Unfortunately, lack of interest in the idea saw its demise. With the prospect of the student attaining a certificate it was felt that this could become a stepping stone to something more ambitious in the future (see the next section on accreditation).
Is Accreditation an Option?
In the late 80s, the idea of setting up some standard of credibility within the Association was canvassed to provide a yardstick to the public when choosing to purchase an instrument or have an instrument repaired or restored. A number of members considered that it would be desirable for the Association to institute a course of instruction which would lead to issuing a certificate of proficiency of minimum standard.
A committee was formed in 1993 to look at whether the project was feasible. Several meetings were held and questionnaires sent to many makers, but the few replies returned indicated lack of enthusiasm, despite assurances that there was to be no compulsion in any shape or form.
There seemed to exist at the time a certain degree of antagonism between professional and amateur craftsmen; the former looked upon the latter with some disdain, that they are a presumptuous lot who make one or two instruments and then call themselves experienced artisans. There may be one or two in this category but the term amateur embraces a much wider scope. One can be a highly skilled craftsman and still be an amateur, as is the situation with many makers today.
Similarly, while a professional maker may possess the necessary credentials from a recognised school he may not be a better craftsman than his amateur brother. What most professionals forget is that they were once amateurs.
Quite a number of members, particularly amateur makers, viewed the idea with suspicion, fearing that the ranks or membership into two distinct spheres would occur. The idea was eventually abandoned.
Perhaps John McLennan hit the nail securely in his article in JAAMIM, November 1990:
It seems to me that AAMIM [could] …adopt a more prominent profile and attempt to determine the future development of instrument making in this country more positively. …Adopting a form of self regulation would improve the status of the Association in the eyes of the makers and the community …[and] would come to be valued by the makers and public as a safeguard of the industry.
From early times our Association has had a strong working relationship with the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney (formerly Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences), while reciprocal assistance has been extended by the Museum’s officers in providing specialised advice at times and in setting up exhibitions.
Early in 1983, the NSW branch applied for and the Museum Board approved our application as a “Friend of the Museum”. The result of this was that the branch was able to use the Museum’s facilities for bimonthly meetings and lectures (including the occasional public lecture) free of charge. Such use over the years has been most beneficial and has been greatly appreciated. Some time later “Friends” became “Affiliated Societies”.3
While this affiliation still exists, the gradual decline of the NSW branch has reduced the Association/Museum connection. One or two members have, however, retained a strong connection over the years, notably John Godschall Johnson. John’s close involvement resulted in his being presented in 1993 with an “Award For Distinguished Service”, an award which was newly instituted that year by the Museum.
Awards and Grants
Following the inauguration of the Churchill Fellowship scheme in 1965, three members have been successful in obtaining grants to enable study overseas in musical instrument construction: South Australian violin maker Rex Thompson in 1977, Canberra-based violin and guitar maker Graham Caldersmith in 1982, and NSW hurdy-gurdy and steel pan maker Charles Moller in 2002. (update??)
Ten members received grants from the Crafts Board and the Music Board of the Australia Council between 1975 and 2004 (update?)
A Problem for the Association
With regard to inflation, computerisation and the ravages of time in this ever-changing world, it is to the credit of Association office bearers together with those contributors to our journal and a few other miscellaneous members that our organisation is still functioning after well over 20 years of existence. The unfortunate mass exodus of “professionals” from our members due to a perceived grievance with being associated with amateurs has had a marked effect, not only financially but principally because the available intelligence and imparting of knowledge at lectures and workshops is greatly reduced. We are ever optimistic that the future will rectify this position.
Ken Tyrrell. Last revised 13 September 2007.
The article is based on a longer account by Ken Tyrrell in JAAMIM (Journal of the Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers Inc.), Vol XXIII No 2, June 2004, pp 4-28, ‘The Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers Inc.: A general history’. Copies can be found in most Australian State public libraries, or obtained from the National Secretary or the Editor.