A craftsman’s tune

Julien St-Jean

Shawville July 21, 2021

When Dennis Alexander comes to the Pontiac, he always makes sure he has a fiddle with him.

“It wouldn’t feel right otherwise,” he explained. 

Alexander is a Luthier, he hand crafts instruments, such as violins, cellos and at one point, a viola. His instruments are crafted from a variety of different woods, chosen for specific roles in the instruments due to the wood’s own unique qualities. Building an instrument, he explained, takes roughly 300 hours to complete.

“I do it all by hand. I follow the traditions from the Italian makers from the last 400 years,” said Alexander.

In his craft, Alexander mainly follows the styles created by Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Guarneri in the 17th century. He explained that these styles stand the test of time due to the beauty of their sound and that luthiers have been unable to design a model of violin that surpasses those made by Stradivari and Guarneri. 

Alexander made his first attempt at building a fiddle when he was only 14, using a collection of miscellaneous parts his father had bought at an auction and piecing them together. He admitted that this first attempt was hardly a real fiddle and that he later threw it away.

His next attempt, however, would have much more success.

In 1981, Alexander’s long-time friend, Bruce Armitage suggested that he build his own fiddle. Alexander explained that he had previous experience of woodworking and crafting from his time making furniture in the mid ‘70s.

Following his friend’s suggestion, Dennis got to work and the result of his labours was his first true violin, which he still has to this day. From there, he kept at it, making his next fiddle for his long-time friend.

“Then he said ‘if you buy the wood, I’ll make you one,’” said Armitage. “Even those first ones were pretty good.”

Now, Alexander works from his workshop in Aylmer, he’s built 95 instruments and sold them across Canada, in the United States and even in Ireland. He’s a member of the Violin Society of America and the Violin Makers Association of Arizona International, and has regularly attended annual violin maker conferences since 1984 alongside others who share his enthusiasm for the craft. 

“Most violin makers are as passionate as I am,” he said.

Over the years, he’s grown more comfortable and capable in building instruments. “I’ve refined my workmanship,” he said.

Submitted by Dennis Alexander. Dennis Alexander stands in his Aylmer workshop. Using these tools, he’s made a variety of violins, cellos and a viola.

He explained that he’s managed to keep track of where most of his instruments have ended up and who currently owns them, though one or two exceptions occasionally fall through the cracks.

In 2004, Alexander produced a CD entitled Dennis the Fiddle Maker, in which 10 musicians perform using fiddles he designed. This was followed up with Fiddlemaker 2 in 2014 and Fiddlemaker 3 in 2018, both of which share a similar concept with his first CD.

“That is the biggest reward of all, to have my violins played by musicians. Listening to them play and appreciating the instrument” said Alexander. 

Though Alexander’s talents aren’t limited to building instruments. He first started playing at the age of 12.

“My dad was a fiddle player and I learned on his violin,” said Alexander.

“Dennis and I, we grew up just a mile apart,” said Armitage, explaining how the two began playing. “So when we were younger, we started to play a little music together. We’ve had a lot of fun playing the fiddle.”

As he’s developed his skill as a musician, Armitage has performed on a variety of stages, such as the Pembroke 65 and over competition and has recorded classic Irish fiddle music at the Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts in Ottawa. 

He’s even won awards such as the Ben Wallace Grand Champion in 2007 and been welcomed into the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Music Hall of Fame – a group which promotes traditional Irish music and arts – in the 2005 Ottawa branch.

Despite his impressive record of performing around Ontario and Quebec, nothing quite measures up to the place where he grew up. Over the years, he’s performed at Shawville United Church, Jack Graham Community Centre, Pine Lodge, the Renfrew Fiddle Club, had numerous sessions at Bruce Armitage’s as well as in countless other spots around the Ottawa Valley.

“This is my home,” said Alexander. “I feel at home when I’m up here in the Pontiac.”

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