BILLINGS – Inside John Kirk’s home in West End Billings is a large living room, currently stocked with handcrafted cellos worth thousands of dollars. It has been Allie Bullman’s refuge for half of her life.
âI’ve been taking classes since I was in 4th grade,â Bullmans said. âI used to come into this room, but I would come by his shop, and see everything he was up to, and I thought it was super interesting.
âI was playing as a professional cellist and needed a better cello,â Kirk said of his early days in the business. “I couldn’t afford it, so I decided I should do the damn thing myself.”
Kirk has been one of Montana’s top luthiers for almost 40 years now. So when Bullman had to come up with a Platinum Project for her Honor Credits at Billings High School, she knew where to start.
“From 8th to 9th grade I followed Tech Ed and Woodshop and really loved building so thought it would be cool if I took up building practice with my love of music and I put them together, âBullman said. “I texted John Church. I told him I really wanted to do this. He said, ‘I can help you – we just need to get the money for this.'”
It was easier said than done. Bullman has started fundraising at events, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shut them all down. So she had only one option.
âMost of the money was actually my money,â she said. “Some of it was from my job, but the other half was from things like keeping the house, babysitting a dog, doing chores in my church, things like that.”
In the end, the project cost her $ 1,071 – a very specific number that she will never forget.
“I wrote the check. It was my first check I wrote.”
This control covered the prefabricated cello frame and neck – it takes years to perfect this technique – but the rest of the instrument’s many details all fell on Allie.
âApply the polish, rub the polish through all the different coats,â Kirk said. âInstall the pegs, make sure they work and turn easily. Install the end pin, mount the legs of the deck that needs to be – you can’t put cigarette paper underneath.
âThe cello is my baby, so I don’t want to mess it up,â Bullmans said of his process. “I was very careful and it took a long time.”
It’s not just the money, however. Students are still responsible for giving their Platinum project a community element.
“The Arts Without Borders program, they provide quality instruments for schools, “Bullman said.” Every time I was in the orchestra and saw all my classmates take out instruments that we had that were bad enough – you guys pull out and they fall apart. My booth partner had a nice one from Arts Without Borders, so I thought it would be cool to make a new one for them. “
It’s hard to imagine a more commendable activity than giving music to someone who otherwise couldn’t afford it. Now Bullman is realistic about his skills as an amateur luthier.
âI know the instrument I’m building won’t be as good as these, per se,â she said, pointing to the expert-built cache behind her, âbut at least it’ll be better than those that we have in our school. “
âThey’re almost like a textbook. You can’t learn algebra from an arithmetic book, and you can’t learn calculus from an algebra book, âKirk said. âYou have to change and progress, and as you progress the instruments get finer.
It’s a gift that will benefit students for years to come, starting with this one.
â(The best part is) seeing them come out of here with a cello that they can play or give,â Kirk said, âand knowing that they’ve achieved something that most people will never do.â