Phoenix museum luthier repairs stringed instruments to play again


Internationally acclaimed luthier and instrument restorer Rodrigo Correa-Salas has been responsible for the care, examination, supervision and preservation of the 13,000 instruments and artifacts at the Musical Instrument Museum of Arizona since a little over four years.

Previously, he worked in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Chile and Panama. Like his move to Arizona, most of those moves were invitation-based. While living in Venezuela, he was invited to audition for the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music as a student. When he lived in Chile after graduating, he was invited to work in Panama as head luthier – a maker of stringed instruments – for orchestras across Central America.

Then, in July 2017, Correa-Salas received a call from Manuel Jordán, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of MIM, the largest instrument museum in the world, inviting him to interview in Phoenix to become the curator of the Museum.

“When I got here and saw the place, I was in love,” Correa-Salas said. “It was like, ‘wow. It would be an honor to be here, I thought, ‘I want to be part of this.’ It was easy.”

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Musical Instrument Museum curator Rodrigo Correa-Salas poses for a photo at the MIM Conservation Lab on March 7, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona.

“If you love what you do, you’ll be fine”

Correa-Salas was born in Santiago, Chile, surrounded by musicians. His grandfather was the conductor of the Santiago Symphony Orchestra. Her mother danced professionally as a Spanish dancer and ballerina.

The artistic community foreshadowed the careers of Correa-Salas and his brothers – one is now a painter and sculptor and the other is a bandleader in Miami, Florida.

The three brothers followed their mother like little chicks following their mother duck, Correa-Salas said. When he was just five years old, they moved to Venezuela after she left their father to start a new life for her and her sons.

With only two suitcases and three hundred dollars, Gloria Salas-Ponce found a new home for the family in Caracas. She had always dreamed of receiving a college degree, Correa-Salas said, but instead she gave up her dancing career and worked all over town, from cleaning houses to working in restaurants to support herself. needs.

At age 8, Correa-Salas started working to help. He stored the money he earned from hours spent fixing cars in a small piggy bank.

“We grew up very, very fast, very very young,” Correa-Salas said. But one of the most beautiful things she taught us was responsibility. It made all the difference.”

Even in the midst of their financial difficulties, his mother always encouraged him to follow his passion. “She always said, ‘whatever you choose to do, if you love what you do, you’ll be fine,'” Correa-Salas said.

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A musical awakening and a passion for transmission

Correa-Salas was 17 when he first learned the cello. Classical music surrounded him all his life and he felt the need to participate by playing an instrument.

In just one year, he achieved college-level proficiency in cello performance and was accepted into the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music.

Between classes and orchestra performances around the country, Correa-Salas worked as a restaurant server in a concert hall. He would wait tables before shows, get on stage to perform, then return to service.

“People should do double takes,” Correa-Salas said with a laugh.

Musical Instrument Museum curator Rodrigo Correa-Salas reassembles a silver-plated brass trumpet after it was cleaned and polished at the MIM Conservation Lab on March 7, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Although he began his musical studies in cello performance, he turned to musical education, which later paved the way for his true passion – musical instrument making and conservation.

For Correa-Salas, there was nothing richer than simultaneously teaching music to students while repairing their instruments.

After graduating from the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, Correa-Salas was accepted into Indiana University’s violin-making program where he earned an Associate of Science degree in String Instrument Technology.

He then returned to Puerto Rico to begin his career.

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From South America to the Southwest

In Puerto Rico, Correa-Salas and her mother opened a kindergarten, Centro Amati. They converted their large wooden house into a space where they taught music to preschoolers.

On the second floor of the house, Correa-Salas opened and operated a violin shop where he repaired and restored violins. He closed the school, which he described as his and his mother’s “beautiful project”, after eight years.

At this time, Correa-Salas was appointed cello keeper of Maestro Pablo Casals, a legendary Hispanic cellist of international renown. He later became the official luthier of the Festival Casals de Puerto Rico.

While working as a faculty coordinator, producer, and teacher for the San Juan Children’s Choir, he continued to play cello with musical groups across the country.

“I loved doing lots and lots of different things,” Correa-Salas laughed.

Musical Instrument Museum curator Rodrigo Correa-Salas works on the fine details of a double-reed instrument from Madari, India, at the MIM Conservation Lab on March 7, 2022, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Fifteen years later, Correa-Salas returned to his native Chile, where he gave presentations at universities and schools across the country on the preservation and maintenance of instruments. While there, he also assembled over 2,000 string instruments, which the government distributed to low-income schools for orchestras.

He was invited to work as head luthier in Panama, where he helped orchestras across Central America restore and repair instruments for performance.

There, he received the call from MIM that changed his life. They wanted to interview him to be their curator.

In 2017, MIM flew Correa-Salas from Panama to Phoenix where Robert J. Ulrich, museum founder and chairman of the board, asked Correa-Salas to repair an instrument.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Manuel, do we have anything to restore or fix?’ And after Manuel brought me to the lab, they brought me back, Manuel told him that I had done very well in fixing the instrument and he said, ‘ok, you’re the man.’ “

They offered him the job on the same trip. It would mean another move, further away from his family and the career he had built in South and Central America.

“When I saw how musical instruments connected to all cultures, I had never seen such connections before,” Correa-Salas said. “It was like a revelation. I was amazed by the way they teach the connection between geography and music. It had a big impact on me.”

He accepted the job.

When your heart, mind and body say ‘no doubt’, then you say ‘okay’,” Correa-Salas said.

The Musical Instrument Museum features instruments from more than 200 countries and regions.

What does it mean to take care of 8,000 instruments?

Since his time at the museum, Correa-Salas has restored an average of more than 300 instruments per year.

His days start with a cup of coffee, he says. “A big one,” he added.

He said he was always researching, always learning. Every day, he goes around the museum to contemplate the 8,000 instruments. It monitors what might need polishing, restoration or additional maintenance.

As soon as new instruments arrive at the museum, Correa-Rodrigo inspects them first.

Whether he’s restoring an instrument already on display at the museum or opening a box with shipment from a new museum, the restoration process is almost always the same, Correa-Salas said.

A sketchbook sits next to him in his workspace. It is filled with its design solutions to fix some instruments.

First, he researches the materials of the instrument, the body of the instrument and where the instrument came from – a wall of shelves in the conservation lab is filled with books detailing region-specific instruments and specific cultures.

“You have to understand the materials used to continue,” Correa-Salas said.

Then he inserts information about the instrument into the computer, detailing how it came to be – and later he will record the preservation process.

Some instruments take up to a month to be restored, he explained. The process incorporates architecture, engineering, design and ultimately, his love for music.

“I love finding out how they’re made and what happens when someone touches an instrument,” Correa-Salas said. “I love music. Being able to return an unplayable instrument to a place where it can play again is a great satisfaction. First, to be part of its history. And second, to bring it back to life. It fills me with satisfaction – and joy, certainly.”

Details: Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. 480-478-6000,

Contact the reporter at [email protected] Follow her on Instagram @sofia.krusmark.

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