“We are rooted in the music community”: Trujillo family crafts old-world string instruments in Westminster

Saturday, 21 October 2017, 06:19:15 AM. Mi Vida Strings, a stringed instrument repair and rental shop, has sent violins across the world and restored instruments for musicians ranging from metro area school students to Bob Dylan.

The smooth tune flowing from Michele Trujillo’s violin carries surprisingly well over the harsh sound of metal scraping steadily against wood. As she plays an excerpt of “Butterfly’s Day Out” by composer Mark O’Connor on a violin named Candice, her husband, Eric, stands bent over a table using a quarter-sized metal plane to shape a slat of spruce into what will soon be the polished body of a new violin.

The couple’s 1,000-square-foot shop is snug at the end of a row of small businesses along busy 72nd Avenue in Westminster. Eric’s work table, covered in curled wood shavings, faces the window. He enjoys both the natural light and catching the interest of passersby.

Visitors are often welcomed by the toe-tapping tunes of Cuban musical group Buena Vista Social Club — one of the couple’s favorite bands. The music emanates from a large retro-looking radio and has a slightly grainy quality that makes you feel nostalgic.

Eric’s work space fills the front half of the shop — shiny, hollow violin bodies line the walls, a plank of wood showing the curvy outline of the instrument it’s soon to become sits on a small table, and a vintage-looking double bass lies with its body open, waiting for Eric’s hands to mend tiny nicks and cracks.

“This is a spruce wood. This usually comes from the Carpathian Mountains, or Italy, which is where I buy all my tonewoods from,” Eric said, gesturing to the violin in progress. “This is a frame for the famous Guarneri del Gesu violins,” he added, pointing to a skeletal frame hanging on the wall. “Del Gesu and Antonio Stradivari are the two most famous makers in Italy. If you’re lucky enough to find a pattern or get to trace an original … you can make copies of those famous Italian instruments.”

Eric’s excitement for his work is evident as he describes various woods, designs, master musicians and master instrument makers. He and his wife own and operate Mi Vida Strings, a string instrument rental and repair shop at 3702 W. 72nd Ave. This week is the shop’s seventh anniversary.

“Seven years ago, I was at a dead-end place at the shop I worked at,” Eric said.

He was an apprentice at Kolacny Music — Denver’s oldest music shop, where he’d worked for 17 years — but the country was recovering from the Great Recession, the shop was hurting, and Eric was ready to do something more.

He’d grown up primarily playing saxophone but at a young age was taken under the wing of Latin percussionist Gary Sosias, who taught him to play the congas. He mastered bassoon while in high school, which led to scholarships for college. And he spent several years witnessing professionals play and repair their string instruments at Kolacny.

In 2010, friends from church encouraged a reluctant Eric to quit his job and open his own store.

“It was scary,” he said. “I’d left a steady job working at a reliable company. My wife had just left her job because we’d just had our third child … but we thought if we didn’t do it now, there wasn’t going to be a better time.”

That leap of faith panned out for the Trujillos. Since then, they’ve sent violins and basses around the world. They’ve crafted and restored the string instruments of a variety of musicians, from metro area school students to Bob Dylan and members of the Colorado Symphony.

Eric studied luthiery — the craft of making string instruments — under Richard Kolacny, owner of Kolacny Music.

“Kolacny was a famous bass technician, setting up basses for all the famous jazz players and classical musicians, but he really didn’t have his hands anymore,” Eric said. “I became his last bass apprentice.”

He also studied under other master luthiers, including Paul Hart and Tetsu Suzuki — and his clients say it shows in his work.

“Eric has magic fingers and hands in regards to sound posts. His bridge work is fantastic, and his fingerboard work is excellent,” said Mark Stefaniw, a local bassist of more than 35 years who also runs a private teaching studio. He’s been bringing his instruments to Eric for almost 10 years.

“He knows how to take what his customer is trying to explain and transfer that into his craft,” Stefaniw said.

On average, the crafting of a new violin takes Eric about two months from start to finish. Basses take a little longer, and ukuleles take a little less.

But work at Mi Vida Strings doesn’t end with string instrument repair and rental. The shop also offers violin classes for children and teens, ukulele lessons at Westminster’s Crown Pointe Charter Academy and courses at the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts.

Eric also performs occasional gigs playing sax with his Latin percussion band Mambotet, and Michele plays violin at church.

“We are rooted in the music community,” Michele said. “The Denver music community is so thriving, and we feel connected to that.”

The couple’s three kids not only play instruments, but are also budding apprentices.

“The whole Trujillo family is just amazing,” Stefaniw said. “His son is working on building a bass, and his daughter (13) did some touch-up work on my instruments that was just amazing.”

Daniel Trujillo, 11, is working on his first bass, which he will take to a luthier convention in New York in a year and a half. His bass will be competing against his dad’s.

Eric says if Daniel wants to continue the family business, he will do everything he can to prepare him for success.

“Carrying on this tradition feels really good. In a day with so much technology, to be able to sit down with hand tools and make instruments from wood is very rewarding,” he said. “This is the part that the computers can’t do, that the apps can’t do. This is how we’ve been making violins for 350, 400 years. It doesn’t change.”

There aren’t many luthiers in Colorado.

“The old, great makers are dying. There’s a lot of new upcoming bass makers, but keeping to the traditional, old-world way of making a violin is becoming a lost art,” Eric said.

“They’re all great people and great craftsmen,” Stefaniw said of other area luthiers he’s worked with. “But Eric has a special something that I haven’t gotten before with my bass over the years that has really kept me coming back.”

Eric says that “special something” is a mindset that focuses on quality over quantity.

“Even if you want to make money in this business, it’s better to be honest with the customer and tell them not to waste the money, and save it for a better instrument in the future,” Eric said.

“These days it’s rare to find a business that really has the best of intentions at heart,” said Karen Lauffer, a regular client of Eric’s and owner of Silver Strings Academy in Westminster. She guesses she has sent about 50 students to Eric over the years.

“This crazy little store has maintained us,” Eric said. “We won’t ever get rich doing it … But I’m just trying to put a little bit of good back in the world through music.”

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