Engineering alumnus makes his mark as a scientist, craftsman, musician and artist
It takes a great artist to create a great violin. The result is even more inspiring if that artist is an intrepid scientist and first-rate engineer. George Yu (BASc ’86, systems design engineering) is all of these things and more.
Yu is a renowned luthier — a maker of violins — who is based in Louisville, Kentucky, and models many of his handcrafted instruments on rare, centuries-old Italian violins. Prized by great musicians, his masterpieces delight audiences who hear professionals play them in the New York Philharmonic, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Lyra Baroque Orchestra and other ensembles.
Students at some of the best music conservatories hone their skills with a Yu violin. And the accolades from the musical world have been stunning. One of his violins won a rare, double-distinction award at the 2014 Violin Society of America Competition, which had no fewer than 246 violin entries.
To be sure, the trajectory of Yu’s life is not entirely surprising. As a child, he learned a love of science growing up in the chemistry labs of his graduate-student parents. At the same time, he inherited their passion for music and learned to play violin. When he began studying in Waterloo’s demanding systems design engineering program, he turned to playing chamber music “to put a balance in my life.”
His degree led to a nine-year stint as a software engineer. But his career path veered sharply in a different direction when he was accepted into the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City. Graduating from the program in 1999, he apprenticed a further two years in Boston before setting up his workshop in Toronto and then, in 2018, in Louisville.
For Yu, the three months of painstaking labour required to make a single violin is “a confluence of science, music and craft.” CT scans of vintage violins reveal the precise information he needs to make his own personal versions of these priceless instruments. Before working with a specific piece of wood, he takes measurements for its stiffness and density. Science also determines his choice of drying oils in varnish.
"I come up with what I call a platonic ideal of a model of a violin," he says, sounding distinctly philosophical. "I want my own idiosyncrasies to flow from there."
Engineer, craftsman, musician, artist: in what, far more than a job, is a life’s calling, Yu embodies them all.
This story first featured in WEAL 2022.