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Building violins in Surry County, hub of old-time fiddle history

Most students don’t take the same class over and over again for several semesters, at least not on purpose. But students in Joe Thrift’s violin making course at Surry Community College do just that, some of them staying in the course for years to complete their instruments.

Joe Thrift has been teaching a violin making course at Surry Community College for the last six years. He trained in England, at the Newark School of Violin Making, as part of a class that turned out to be what Thrift describes as “the class of all time” because it produced so many great violin makers, including Roger Hargrave.

When Thrift started making instruments back in the United States, a person in need of mentorship made him realize he enjoyed passing on the knowledge he’d gained. That’s when he pitched the idea of starting a violin making course to Surry Community College.

The class has grown from an initial 12 students to 50 students, and Thrift has to keep adding class sections to keep up with demand. A few years back he hired one of his top students, Russell McCumber, to be his assistant, and now they teach five sections of the class together.

When asked what he loves about teaching the course, Thrift says, “I just like seeing people who are really excited about what they’re doing, and the highlight of their week is coming here. And it’s a big social thing along with a learning process, and we play a little bit of music, but the social aspect of it is huge for everybody I think, and I love all of that as well.”

It seems like what everyone in the class loves the most, though, is hearing the instruments they’ve built finally make music.

Michelle Lotker

Michelle Lotker is an award-winning documentary storyteller with a passion for listening to people’s stories, learning new things and discovering the unexpected. Her background combines a stint as an environmental scientist with a Master’s degree in journalism to make her uniquely qualified to tell complex stories in accessible, engaging ways. Lotker’s work has been screened at film festivals including the International Wildlife Film Festival. She’s worked with organizations ranging from UNC-TV to the Sierra Club to local community health centers and national architecture firms to tell stories through a variety of audio and visual formats.