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Oklahoma City violinist finds new music in broken instruments

Classically trained violinist Kyle Dillingham sees something different in what some would consider broken.
BY GEORGE LANG glang@opubco.com Published: November 28, 2013

A box of broken violins can look like a tragedy. Any shattered instrument can evoke feelings of sadness because its musical potential is usually gone, but when a violin is “broken beyond repair,” the loss is especially great. No fingers will coax Mozart from its strings, and no bow will meet its bridge.

But Kyle Dillingham sees these instruments differently. The classically trained violinist has played some of the most magnificent violins ever made and shared a stage with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe when he was just 17 years old. And yet, he says that a broken violin can produce something singularly beautiful if given a chance to make music again.

He picks up one violin from a box of distinctly mangled instruments he received from his friends at Inter-City Violin Studios. Its bridge is missing, so the curvature that gives the strings definition is gone. But then Dillingham drags a bow across those dusty, flat strings, and a lovely minor chord emerges. It cracks a little and is slightly off-key, but Dillingham is in love with the imperfection.

“I have a violin under my chin every day, and I never hear these sounds,” said Dillingham, 35, who recently toured Taiwan's Chi Mei Museum, home of some of the most treasured violins in the world.

“I played about $100 million worth of violins in under an hour, and one violin in particular was a $16 million violin. That violin cannot produce these sounds. It cannot.”

Plucked from obscurity

A decade ago, Dillingham and his frequent musical and literary collaborator, Dennis Dunham, were on a business trip in Ghana when they took a week off to perform missionary work in neighboring Togo, an impoverished country on Africa's west coast. Dunham and Dillingham were working with orphans that week, and at the beginning, they spoke with the head of the orphanage to determine what critical needs he was facing.

“He says, ‘Well, yes. We ran out of food yesterday,'” Dillingham said. “That's an immediate need.”

Dillingham said they immediately drove to a local market where they bought crates of chickens, bags of rice and fresh vegetables for the children. When they returned to the orphanage, Dillingham said that the children had been praying for food, and one of the boys said something unexpected and inspiring to him.

“He said, ‘We all know that God is going to send us food, but it must be really amazing to be the one God chose to bring us this food. You are so lucky.'”

That experience still was vibrating through Dillingham's mind when he discovered Inter-City Violin Studio's box of discarded instruments. They were mostly rental violins for early childhood lessons, and if a student accidentally dropped one on its scroll and its peg box splintered or its fingerboard separated from the body, they usually were written off as a loss.

“When they come back with really bad repair issues and breaks, they are basically deemed ‘broken beyond repair,' which is to say the cost to repair the instrument is greater than the replacement cost,” Dillingham said. “So they throw them into a box.”

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