Playing for Keeps
If it's got strings, Deming's Howard Schwartzman will play it — and fix it.
by Paul Hoylen
Howard Schwartzman is a Deming Renaissance man. He's a musician, teacher, sculptor, cabinet maker, woodworker and more.
Deming musician and string-instrument
expert Howard Schwartzman.
The first things that catch your eye as you enter Schwartzman String Shop are the 30 or so violins, violas, guitars and mandolins that hang from the walls like wooden sculpture.
The next thing I noticed was one of Schwartzman's minimalist sculptures. It resembled a torso with two arms set at an angle. The torso and the arms are in the shape of a "Y," and a wooden sphere sits atop representing the head. The sculpture has the same pose as Edvard Munch's famous painting, "The Scream" — a screaming figure covering his ears. However, Schwartzman's sculpture is faceless. Even without the gaping mouth, this piece screamed "The Scream" to me. I found it ironic that this "Scream"-like sculpture stands by the hanging instruments ready to greet visitors and customers.
I came to hear what Schwartzman had to say about his life; however, I had the added pleasure of listening to his violin speak to me with the sweet, soulful sound of "Ashokan Farewell," part of the music in Ken Burns' PBS "Civil War" series soundtrack. I smiled at the sculpture covering its ears. I found out Schwartzman plays "Cielito Lindo" and "El Rancho Grande"; he also plays country.
Howard Schwartzman is originally from Scarsdale, NY, where he learned to play the violin at age 9 and the viola at 11 in the public school system. The young musician also took private lessons from a cousin, Maurice Shaw, who had earlier played for vaudeville at the Roxy Theater in Manhattan's theater district. Shaw's illustrious career included touring with Frank Sinatra and playing in the orchestra for "The Honeymooners" and other Jackie Gleason shows all through the 1950s and 1960s. Schwartzman, in addition, studied under Elliot Magaziner, concert master for the CBS Symphony.
Schwartzman hung up his violin for several years to build a successful career as a cabinet maker and woodworker in New York City and upstate New York. In 1993, he moved to Luna County, where this musician, trained in classical music, began playing mariachi for weddings and quinceañeras. Schwartzman served as an assistant for Deming High School's mariachi maestro, Albert Valverde, for seven years (see "Making Mariachi," February). He picked up guitar by watching Valverde. Schwartzman still performs with Marissa Guillen's mariachi group, "Angeles de Mi Tierra," and plays cello for the combined Hofacket/Deming High School orchestra under the direction of Thomas Garcia.
Not only is Schwartzman a fiddler, but he's also a fixer, putting his woodworking skills to good use in repairing string instruments. The man is passionate about his repair work, and sees it as a challenge.
"Instruments speak to me when I play them. The really busted-up ones teach me to be a better repairman. I can fix any instrument as long as it hasn't been run over by a truck," he says confidently.
Chinese-made mandolins, made to look Mexican, are notorious for having their strings set too low. The Chinese must have tiny fingers, because Deming's mariachi students complain that the mandolins' low-lying strings make it impossible to manipulate the mandolin properly. Schwartzman fixes the problem by simply boring new holes for the strings higher up on the instrument's bridge.
Much of his repair work comes from the word of mouth of satisfied customers who've brought in instruments that seem irreparable. He's a sort of surgeon, fixing broken wooden backs. Schwartzman is also the exclusive repairman for Deming High School.
Besides making repairs, Schwartzman also sells string instruments. He takes just as much pride in selling instruments as he does in repairing them. "I don't sell junk," he says. "I know how the instruments should sound. If it doesn't sound right, I won't sell it; it has to get through the sound test." All the instruments displayed on his walls have passed the test and are for sale at affordable prices.
Like Tevye, the main character in Fiddler on the Roof, Howard Schwartzman is not a rich man, but does possess integrity. He treats his instruments and customers with respect, and in turn, is respected by those who deal with him.
If you visit Schwartzman String Shop for a private music lesson, repair work, or to purchase an instrument, you might be lucky enough to hear him play a tune for you. Just don't expect Schwartzman to play on the roof. He can fix guitar and violin necks, but not his own.
Schwartzman String Shop is located at 111 N. Iron St. in Deming, (575) 694-3202.
Paul Hoylen is a Deming artist.
The Tumbleweeds Top 10
Who and what's been making news from New Mexico this past month, as measured by mentions in Google News (news.google.com). Trends noted are vs. last month's total hits; * indicates new to the list. Number in parenthesis indicates last month's Top 10 rank. Being named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people helps keep Gov. Susana Martinez atop our top 10 (a much more important honor, we're sure).
- (1) Gov. Susana Martinez — 2,910 hits (▼)
- (2) New Mexico budget — 412 hits (▼)
- (6) Ex-Gov. Bill Richardson — 392 hits (▲)
- (3) New Mexico drought — 239 hits (▲)
- (5) Virgin Galactic — 186 hits (▲)
- (7) New Mexico wolves — 137 hits (▼)
- (10) New Mexico wildfires — 116 hits (▲)
- (8) Sen. Tom Udall — 85 hits (▼)
- (-) New Mexico + Border Patrol — 67 hits (▲)
- (4) Sen. Martin Heinrich — 63 hits (▼)