Oklahoma City violinist finds new music in broken instruments

Classically trained violinist Kyle Dillingham sees something different in what some would consider broken.

Photo - Violinist Kyle Dillingham uses broken beyond repair violins to create music while performing in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. Dillingham uses the broken violins as a representation that no mater how broken people may think they are, they are still able to create music in life. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman

Violinist Kyle Dillingham uses broken beyond repair violins to create music while performing in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. Dillingham uses the broken violins as a representation that no mater how broken people may think they are, they are still able to create music in life. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman

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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.”

As he looked at the damaged instruments, Dillingham kept thinking back to those orphans in Togo.

“And instantly, I was seeing these children, these orphans,” he said. “I was seeing how it’s easy to just sort of toss people aside, that there’s no hope for them. They are broken beyond repair. What is the value of this person to society? Too often, we just put them in a box and ignore them.”

So Dillingham started looking at the violins differently, judging them not by how they compared to a Stradivarius, but by the music that still could be made by that damaged body.

“It was as if God was saying, ‘Pick up that instrument. Pick it up,’” he said.

Not broken after all

He demonstrates with a violin in particularly grievous shape — its strings gone, its fingerboard pried from its dry, splintered neck.

Dillingham grasps the violin from the bottom, his palm on the chin rest, and begins to pluck the fingerboard like a thumb piano as his fingers drum out a marching rhythm on the back. He begins to sing “How Great Thou Art.”

“O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder/ Consider all the worlds Thy hand hath made.”

Then he begins to shake it, and the sound post, a dowel that once provided structural support for the body and is referred to in French as ame, or the “soul” of the violin, is rattling inside the violin, creating another source of rhythm. It no longer sounds like a violin, but Dillingham proves it is still capable of creating beautiful music.

“I’ve spent a lot time with each instrument, discovering its qualities, its strengths,” Dillingham said after finishing his version of “How Great Thou Art.”

“I’ve realized that the applications for understanding this go beyond the abandoned children I met 10 years ago,” he said. “There is a great need for a message about brokenness. If you’re alive on planet Earth, you’ve experienced some degree of brokenness.”

Now, Dillingham brings that message to people who need it most. Today, Dillingham spends part of his busy performance schedule delivering a presentation titled “Broken Beyond Repair,” in which he pulls out his tattered violins and coaxes music from them, and tells his audiences that even if they feel their lives are permanently damaged, there is still something they can do with what they have left. His audiences often are filled with recovering addicts at places such as Teen Recovery Solutions, a nonprofit organization that provides long-term help for young people fighting their way back from drug abuse.

At a recent performance at FIRSTEP, a work training program for men and women recovering from drug and alcohol dependency, Dillingham was approached by a woman who was starting to repair her life but still feeling broken beyond repair.

“She said, ‘You know, my mom always wanted me to play the violin. And I never did. And when I saw you playing that broken violin … that violin became me,’” Dillingham said.

“So I reached into my box and pulled out a little shard of violin and handed it to her. She took it, and held it to her heart. She said, ‘I’m going to call my mom and tell her that I finally got my violin.’”