“I don’t do plumbing,” jokes Mark Eskola, referring to brass and woodwind instruments. “I just do strings. I have done wind instruments to bail somebody out every so often, but it’s just something I don’t want to do.”
It’s not as if Eskola isn’t busy enough with strings. A longtime orchestra director at Duluth East High School, Eskola (whose brother Joe works in research at MPR in St. Paul) retired from that position in June 2013; during a school year, Eskola typically fixed more than 50 instruments, ranging from simple re-stringing to crack repair to major overhauls. And even though he’s now retired from teaching, Eskola plans to continue repairing instruments.
Although it’s easy to conclude a music teacher may have learned instrument repair by necessity, Eskola got started at it when he was about 14 years old. By the time he was a student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., Eskola had lofted the bed in his dorm room so he could have space for a workbench underneath, where he repaired instruments for fellow students and for the Gustavus music department.
Much of his instrument-repair training was learned by doing, but Eskola did spend four summers at workshops in Madison, Wis., and he’s read numerous books on the subject. “That was before the Internet,” Eskola laughs.
Mark Eskola’s workshop (submitted photo)
In Eskola’s home in Duluth, Minn., his workshop is outfitted with two workbenches, two computers, plus clamps, chisels and 20-odd drawers with tools and supplies. There are violins and violas on shelves, a string bass stuffed in a corner near the ceiling (which is conveniently high) and about six guitars awaiting maintenance.
Fixing stringed instruments is a science and an art. For example, re-graduating a cello, Eskola explains, involves removing the top of the instrument and cutting it to certain thicknesses. And a common malady for cellos is something called “wolf tone,” which Eskola describes as when “the note wants to come out but it can’t quite go” a repair that requires strategically gluing a weight to the instrument.
Among Eskola’s upcoming projects are a couple of violas and two string basses he’s going to restore, for which he actually cut down some maple and oak trees specifically for use in the restorations. Whatever the project, there’s trial and error and craft involved, but the desired outcome is always an instrument capable of making beautiful music.
Another view of Mark Eskola’s workshop (submitted photo)
Eskola typically fixes instruments for other people, but occasionally he’ll get an instrument that someone can’t throw away but doesn’t want to keep. The cello Eskola himself uses was given to him by the Cloquet School District in lieu of payment for repairs; granted, Eskola had to fix the cello before he could play it, but it’s the one he uses to this day. He recently repaired a rare 10-string guitar that arrived “smashed,” which he resold through Rosewood Music in downtown Duluth. And another smashed instrument a Gibson J-45 guitar that someone sold to Eskola for five dollars became Eskola’s personal guitar. “That’s a sweet old guitar,” he says, “but it’s kind of already worn out again now.”
Other instruments have found their way to others’ hands somewhat unexpectedly. This past year, while on an outreach trip to Africa, Eskola saw an Applause guitar he repaired get donated to a young girl in Mozambique. Later, Eskola himself gave a bass guitar to a young man in Zambia. “They had nothing, so it was really fun to see him playing that,” Eskola says.
And he’s been able to stay in touch with the blossoming bassist. “We’re Facebook friends,” Eskola says. “It’s crazy with the technology. He literally lives in a mud hut, but he’s got a smartphone.”
Mark Eskola (L) with his wife, Sharon, on a recent visit to Kenya to see their friend, David Shivachi.
On a semi-related note: If you have a disused instrument that is no longer being played, consider donating it to Play It Forward, Classical MPR’s statewide musical instrument drive. Read more about Play It Forward here.