Music historians paint the picture of J.S. Bach at his desk after a long day, hand-copying music by candlelight written by composers he admired. This was his way learning to be a better composer.
Some 300 years later, harpsichord builders like Ted Robertson still employ this technique — building replicas of instruments musicians would have played way back when.
What separates Robertson from his colleagues is how he decorates the instruments he builds.
Becoming An Artist
Robertson taught himself how to build harpsichords, producing his first instrument when he was 14 years old. He poured over instructional books and saved money from delivering newspapers to buy the wood.
“It was just the sheer love and the motivation of having played the piano and loving Bach and early music that prompted me to want my own instrument,” he says.
He moved to Bloomington to attend the Jacobs School of Music. With IU’s 20-30 harpsichords, he said he was a kid in a candy shop. He even spent a portion of his freshman year building an instrument for the school that students still play.
After a stint pursuing his interest in biology and medicine, he opened his business in Ellettsville, Indiana not only because he enjoys the natural surroundings of southern Indiana, but so he can have access to customers in Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri — an area of the country on which he can have a near monopoly.
Learning Through Copying
With a keyboard in nearly every room and his replicas of 18th and 19th century paintings on the walls, his house feels like a museum.
The instrument in his dining room is a harpsichord he’s repairing for Bethel University in Tennessee, and in the hallway is a virginal replicated from instruments from 1620. (He’s building the virginal for his own enjoyment.) Hanging on the wall in the living room is his replica of The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Just like with building harpsichords, he taught himself to paint by copying famous works brush stroke for brush stroke. He continues to improve his skills through creating replicas. “I’m 48 years old, but there’s still room to grow.”
Robertson is pleased to note that there has been a shift in harpsichord building toward reproducing antique instruments. Not only does this provide musicians with historically accurate instruments, it connects him more closely to the builders who preceded him.
“If you play an antique, it will actually teach you things about the tone and the sound,” he says. “As a harpsichord maker, that really inspires me to rediscover the past.”