Childsplay: The Sound Is In The Wood

By Jared Bowen

Dec. 2, 2011

Watch the "Greater Boston" segment.

BOSTON — Members of the fiddle choir Childsplay come from many different musical backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common: all of the group’s instruments were made by the same craftsman.

This is “child’s play” in name only. The music spans everything from classical to a rollicking Turkish arrangement to the moving, Celtic-tinged “Dante’s Prayer,” sung by featured vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, daughter of WGBH host Brian O’Donovan.
While rehearsing for their annual series of concerts, performers in the 21-member “fiddle choir” talked about what makes the group unique.
“It’s a real thrill. Everybody who you speak to will come from a slightly different walk of life,” said Childsplay member and Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist Bonnie Bewick.
Hanneke Cassel, a fiddle player who tours and teaches internationally, initially wondered how it would work. “When I first came into it, I was thinking we’re all coming from these different styles. Old-time Scottish, Irish, classical and more,” she said.
She quickly realized it was the instruments. “There’s something about the sound of the instruments, the timbre,” Cassel said. “It’s like they all have a vibe with each other.”

A luthier's musical "fingerprint"
It is all the sound of Bob Childs. He is the artistic director of the group, he’s a player and he made all of the violins, as he’s been doing for 35 years now. He now works only on commission from his Cambridge, Mass. workshop. It takes him two months and 200 hours per instrument. In his career, he’s made about 150 violins.

Childsplay performs in the WGBH studios. (63 min. Right-click to download the mp3)

“I work by feel a lot, so I’m feeling the wood and I’m feeling what it feels like coming off the wood,” Childs said, planing a board. “Feeling the grain of the wood. Feeling the resistance of the wood. And I’m actually listening to the sound.”
Childs likes to say the violin completed its evolution 500 years ago. The back and sides are always made of maple, the top is always made of spruce. It’s up to him to discover the sound — which is, he said, already in the wood.
And taken all together, all under his hand, Childs’ instruments are as distinct as his own fingerprints. “It’s really mysterious to explain how you can get a consistent sound no matter that you may be starting with different pieces of wood,” Childs said. “But time and time again the sound sounds like I made the violin.”
To hear 21 artists bring those instruments to life together at once is, he said, very special:
“Childsplay is like a sum of all these amazing parts and I’m the luckiest person in the world because I get to stand at the center of that sound. And it’s a very humbling experience, actually, to be in the middle of that.”

Jared Bowen is a reporter and producer for WGBH's "Greater Boston." Follow him on Twitter @JaredWGBH.

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