How a renowned violin maker gives ‘new life’ to over 8,000 musical instruments in Phoenix

Internationally renowned violin maker and instrument conservator Rodrigo Correa-Salas has been responsible for maintaining, reviewing, overseeing and preserving all 13,000 instruments and objects at Arizona’s Musical Instrument Museum for just over four years.

Previously, he worked in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Chile and Panama. Like his move to Arizona, most of those moves were predicated on invitations. When he lived in Venezuela, he was invited to audition for the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music as a student. When he lived in Chile after graduation, he was invited to work in Panama as the chief luthier — a string instrument maker — for orchestras across Central America.

Then, in July 2017, Correa-Salas received a call from Manuel Jordán, deputy director and chief curator of MIM, the world’s largest global instrument museum, inviting him to interview in Phoenix to be the museum’s conservator.

“When I got here and I saw the place, I was in love,” Correa-Salas said. “It was like, ‘wow. It would be an honor to be here, I thought, ‘I want to be part of this.’ It was easy.”

‘If you love what you do, you will be okay’
Correa-Salas was born in Santiago, Chile, surrounded by musicians. His grandpa was the orchestra conductor for the Santiago Symphony Orchestra. His mom danced professionally as a Spanish dancer and ballerina.

The artistic community foreshadowed the careers of Correa-Salas and his brothers — one is now a painter and sculptor and another is an orchestra conductor in Miami, Florida.

The three brothers followed their mom like little chicks following their mother duck, Correa-Salas said. When he was just five years old, they moved to Venezuela after she left their father to start a new life for she and her sons.

With just two suitcases and three hundred dollars, Gloria Salas-Ponce found a new home for the family in Caracas. She had always dreamed of receiving a college degree, Correa-Salas said, but instead, she gave up her dance career and worked jobs across the city from cleaning homes to working in restaurants to provide for them.

At 8 years old, Correa-Salas started working to help out. He stored the money he made from hours spent fixing cars in a little piggy bank.

“We grew up really, really fast, really really young,” Correa-Salas said. But one of the most beautiful things she taught us was responsibility. It made all the difference.”

Even amid their financial struggles, his mom still encouraged him to follow his passion. “She would always say, ‘whatever you choose to do, if you love what you do, you will be okay,” Correa-Salas said.

A musical awakening and a passion for passing it on
Correa-Salas was 17 years old when he first picked up a cello. Classical music had been around him his whole life and he felt the need to participate by playing an instrument.

In just one year, he attained a university-level proficiency in cello performance and was accepted into the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music.

Between classes and orchestra performances around the country, Correa-Salas worked as a restaurant server at a music venue. He’d wait tables before the shows, get on stage to perform and then go back to serving.

“People would have to do double takes,” Correa-Salas said, laughing.

Though he started his musical studies in cello performance, he switched to study musical education, which later paved the way for his true passion — musical instrument making and conservatorship.

For Correa-Salas, there was nothing richer than simultaneously teaching students music while also fixing their instruments.

After graduating from the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, Correa-Salas was accepted into Indiana University’s violin making program where he received an Associate of Science degree in string instrument technology.

He then returned to Puerto Rico to begin his career.

From South America to the Southwest
In Puerto Rico, Correa-Salas and his mom started a preschool, Centro Amati. They converted their big wooden house into a space where they taught preschoolers music.

On the second floor of the house, Correa-Salas opened and ran a violin shop where he repaired and restored violins. He closed the school, which he described as he and his mother’s “beautiful project,” after eight years.

At that time, Correa-Salas was appointed custodian of the cello of Maestro Pablo Casals — a legendary, internationally renowned Hispanic cellist. He later became the official luthier of the Festival Casals of Puerto Rico.

While working as the faculty coordinator, producer and teacher for the San Juan Children’s Choir, he continued to play cello with musical groups across the country.

“I loved doing many, many different things,” Correa-Salas laughed.

Fifteen years later, Correa-Salas returned to his homeland, Chile, where he gave presentations at universities and schools across the country about preserving and maintaining instruments. While there, he also assembled more than 2,000 string instruments, which the government distributed to lower income schools for orchestras.

He was invited to work as the chief luthier in Panama, where he helped orchestras across Central America restore and repair instruments for performances.

While there, he got the life-changing call from MIM. They wanted to interview him to be their conservator.

In 2017, MIM flew Correa-Salas from Panama to Phoenix where Robert J. Ulrich, museum founder and board chairman, asked Correa-Salas to repair an instrument.

“He looked at me and he called, ‘Manuel, do we have something to restore or repair?’ And after Manuel brought me to the lab, they brought me back, Manuel told him I did very good at repairing the instrument and he said, ‘ok, you are the man.'”

They offered him the job on the same trip. It would mean another move, farther from family and the career he’d built in South and Central America.

“When I saw how the musical instruments connected with all the cultures, I’ve never seen connections like these before,” Correa-Salas said. “It was like a revelation. I marveled at how they teach how the geography connects with the music. It had a big impact on me.”

He accepted the job.

“When your heart and your mind and your body tell you ‘no doubt about it,’ then you say ‘okay,'” Correa-Salas said.

What does it mean to take care of 8,000 instruments?
In his time at the museum, Correa-Salas has restored an average of more than 300 instruments per year.

His days start with a cup of coffee, he said. “A big one,” he added.

He said he’s always researching, always learning. Every day he circles around the museum to gaze over all 8,000 instruments. He monitors what might need polishing, restoration or additional upkeep.

The moment new instruments arrive at the museum, Correa-Rodrigo inspects them first.

Whether he’s restoring an instrument already on display in the museum or opening up a box with a shipment from a new museum, the process for restoration is almost always the same, Correa-Salas said.

A sketchbook sits beside him at his workspace. It’s filled with his design solutions for how to fix certain instruments.

First, he researches the materials of the instrument, the body of the instrument and where the instrument came from — a wall of bookshelves in the conservation lab is filled with books detailing instruments particular to specific regions and cultures.

“You have to understand the materials used in order to proceed,” Correa-Salas said.

Then, he plugs information about the instrument into the computer, detailing how it arrived — and later on, he’ll record the conservation process.

Some instruments take up to a month to restore, he explained. The process integrates architecture, engineering, design and ultimately, his love for music.

“I love discovering how they’re made and what happens when someone touches an instrument,” Correa-Salas said. “I love the music. To be able to restore an instrument that is unplayable to a place where it can play again is a great satisfaction. First, to be part of its history. And second, to give it life again. It fills me with satisfaction — and joy, definitely.”

 

 

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