KUALA LUMPUR: Chang Song Jie is deep in concentration as she sits at her workstation and carefully carves a piece of wood. Violins and violas in various stages of completion surround her, alongside different types of tools.
This is where Chang, a luthier, creates her magic. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a luthier is a craftsperson who makes or repairs stringed instruments – and Chang is an award-winning one.
On June 10, she was awarded the gold medal (non-professional category) at the 17th International Violin-Making Competition in Pisogne, Italy, for which she handcrafted a viola named Laksa.
Incredibly, Laksa is only the fifth stringed instrument Chang has made from scratch – and her very first viola!
So, how did this 25-year-old find herself in such a niche profession? As she revealed to FMT Lifestyle, it took a lot of hard work, passion, and tenacity.
Chang, who hails from Kuantan, Pahang, was already a talented musician who plays the piano and cello, but she never thought she would someday be making instruments.
In 2018, during her time at university, her cello instructor introduced her to one Tan Chin Seng, an award-winning luthier and owner of a business in Kuala Lumpur selling, among other things, handcrafted stringed instruments.
“On weekends and semester breaks, I would go over to learn how to craft a violin,” she recalled. Although it was intricate and tiring work, she persevered and finished her first violin two years later.
“When I started, it was to learn something new. I never thought I would choose this as a career. But after completing my first violin, I found that I really enjoyed it.”
Chang continued to hone her craft and, last year, finally made her way to Italy with Rendang, her homemade violin, to participate in the competition.
Alas, she didn’t win, but this didn’t deter her as she came back with valuable lessons. “I asked one of the judges, what can I improve? His name was maestro Roberto Collini. And he gave me a lot of constructive advice.”
Taking Collini’s feedback to heart, “I made this. I made Laksa”, Chang said proudly, gesturing to the beautiful viola behind her that has earned her the distinction of being the first Malaysian female luthier to win in an international violin-making competition.
The instruments were judged on criteria such as craftsmanship, artistry, and wood selection. They were also played to evaluate the overall tone and projection.
As it turns out, Chang’s success was also a team victory as her colleague, Samuel Wong, bagged a silver in the same category for his violin, while her teacher Tan bagged double awards for his viola (silver) and bronze (cello) in the professional category.
And to top it all off? Chang was given her prize by Collini himself!
Asked why she decided on a viola this time around – after having already made four violins – Chang’s reason was simple: she wanted a challenge.
For six months she worked on Laksa, sketching and perfecting the design, choosing the most suitable types of wood – such as maple or spruce – and painstakingly carving them into shape.
It involves a fair share of physical strength, and plenty of attention to detail is needed – especially in cutting a fine channel for the purfling, the narrow decorative edges that give these stringed instruments their distinctive curvaceous look. (Check out the photo gallery here.)
With this win under her belt, Chang quipped that she might set her sights upon a cello next. FMT Lifestyle imagines she could call it Rojak.
After all, “I grew up loving all kinds of Malaysian foods, so I name my instruments after these hidden-gem local delicacies!” she shared with a laugh.