Music Issue: Bringing back the past by her own hands

Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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Dressed in black, 16 musicians of Western’s Early Music Studio fill von Kuster Hall with the slow strains of a Baroque era song. Seated behind the other string musicians, the group’s sole guitar player skillfully strums the baroque guitar she crafted with her own two hands.

Emily Shaw sways her head to Charles Avison’s 18th century music, feeling a connection to both the sounds of the 1700s and to the instrument she made herself.

“I know everything about it. I know there’s this little quirk in the wood here and I know all the mistakes that I made when I was building it,” she said. “I think the connection would be different, not knowing that.”

The third-year Music student hails from the Elmwood area, a small town more than 100 km northeast of London. It was there in her basement that she spent more than 200 hours with $500 worth of wood, sanding, gluing and carving details into her instrument.

The top of her guitar is made with a light coloured Engelmann spruce. Its sound hole is filled with a couple layers of pear wood, into which an intricate pattern of swirls and circles has been hand carved.

“After my first year of university, I decided I wanted a baroque guitar so I could play in the Early Music Studio,” Shaw said. “But they didn’t have an instrument, so I decided to build my own.”

The Early Music Studio is an ensemble group at Western, which specializes in music from the baroque and classical periods. Students play on copies of period instruments from between the 1600s to the 1800s.

Shaw’s design is based on a guitar called the Rawlins made by Antonio Stradivari in 1700. She was taught to build guitars by her father, who made her first one almost 10 years ago.

“You have to be really accurate and really careful,” she said. “It’s really crucial to have everything line up properly.”

Back at von Kuster Hall, Shaw moves to centre stage for the second set. Along with a theorbo player, harpsichord player, flautist and some violinists, Shaw recreates the baroque music of Johann Fischer for a rapt 21st Century crowd of 50 people.

In the middle of the theater, Shaw’s parents are attentively watching their daughter’s performance. They’ve driven two and a half hours for a 40 minute show.   “My wife and I both love music,” said Shaw’s father, Mike. “It’s been in our house constantly. Emily’s grown up with it from day one.”

An electronic technologist and amateur guitarist, the elder Shaw started teaching his daughter guitar when she was around four years old. Now she’s one of the top students in the Don Wright Faculty of Music.

“He was really great at listening. Even if he couldn’t do it himself, he could tell me what he thought needed doing,” Shaw said.

Now Shaw takes private lessons with Wilma van Berkel at Western. When she graduates, she plans to do a masters degree in music and then pursue a career of concert touring, guitar building, composing, and teaching.

“You can never be done exploring music,” she said. “I know that I can be excited about it for the rest of my life.”