James Seward
James Seward holds a violin made in 1910 that he repaired inside his workshop near his home in Lockwood. Seward started repairing violins 2 1/2 years ago and gives them away to kids all around the country. Photo by PAUL RUHTER/Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – It all started in Rapelje at an antique shop.

James Seward was 69 years old and was fulfilling a lifelong dream to learn to play the violin.

“They have always been mystical, magical voices of music for me,” Seward said. “When everybody else was listening to the Stones when I was a teenager, I was listening to classical music.”

Seward’s first task was to find a violin. Being a bit of a collector, as well as an artist and a builder, Seward wanted a fixer-upper, a well-traveled violin with some history.

Seward ended up holding the remains of a $2 million violin that day in Rapelje. But he didn’t splurge on the $2 million project; rather, he opted for a lesser-priced violin that was in one piece. Still, the notion that there might be other broken violins gathering dust in people’s garages and attics sparked an idea: He could fix the instruments and get them in the hands of youngsters who can’t afford to buy their own.

That was three years ago, and while Seward still isn’t satisfied with his own playing, he beams when he talks about bringing voices back to more than 100 violins.

“I don’t play in public yet, but I’m practicing every day,” Seward said.

During a lengthy career working for Boeing in Seattle from 1962 to 1995, Seward designed and built optical systems, so ingenuity and problem-solving were part of his character. Since moving to Montana and marrying artist Mana Lesman, Seward has continued to explore new artistic ventures, including learning to paint. But this notion of fixing up instruments took a very strong hold. Lesman says Seward only knows how to do things in a very big way.

He found a junk violin at a local repair shop and taught himself to take it apart and put it back together. Seward ordered books on violin repairs and started gathering damaged violins and the necessary tools.

When his violin teacher looked over that first violin that Seward repaired, she told him to start playing that one because it was better than the one he bought fully assembled. He’d hit gold.

One of the first violins Seward gave away was to a 12-year-old foster child who was featured on a local television station in December 2008. All she wanted for Christmas was a violin. Three days later, Seward handed her the violin and watched a

tear form in the corner of her eye. He was on a mission.

In May, Seward sent 20 violins to Toledo, Ohio, to a youth symphony there that adopted a school in its sister city of Tanzania. The American youth orchestra took the 20 violins to students in Tanzania, and Seward ended up finding a donor for bows and cases. He’s still looking for youngsters and others who yearn for the magic of strings but can’t afford to buy one. Contact Seward at mtsculptor@gmail.com for more information.

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