After growing up just outside Boston, Massachusetts, immersed in music lessons in the midst of a musical family, Anya Schoenegge Burgess completed a violin-making program at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She then worked with a luthier (maker of stringed instruments) in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
With those credentials, some might think she had been preparing her whole life to head to the heart of Cajun country. But though Burgess had arrived in Washington, Louisiana, in the summer of 2000 to teach English Language Arts to fifth, sixth, and seventh graders through Teach For America, Acadiana hadn’t been her first choice. Or even her second.
“I didn’t know enough about it,” she said, about her long-ago destination and present home. “Louisiana wasn’t on my radar. … When you’re not plugged into the Cajun music world, you just don’t know. It was so far away from where I was.”
She had taken French in the seventh and eighth grades but never put it together that there was a French culture in the U.S. “It’s another world,” she said. “When I arrived, I remember turning on the radio and hearing French. I was like ‘Whoa!’ I immersed myself from the get-go.”
She went to Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki, Richard’s Club, and as many rural Cajun or zydeco dancehalls as she could find. After a short stint renting an apartment in Opelousas, she moved to Arnaudville, where she has lived ever since, to secure a firm place within the Cajun music world.
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After completing her two-year teaching obligation, Burgess decided to stick around for a bit to learn more about the local culture. But when she met the man she would eventually marry, Richard Burgess, a Lafayette journalist and also a musician, her future in Acadiana was assured.
By Burgess’ estimation, there may be more fiddle/violin players per capita in the Acadiana region than anywhere else in the country. Not only is the area rife with Cajun musicians, there’s also the local symphony. But the real impetus for the high number of string musicians in the area is the strong public school program that teaches students of all ages how to play. So Burgess began to use her violin-making training to earn money: she started repairing violins.
“It was a niche market waiting to be filled,” she said. “I’ve been busy from the start.”
For more than a decade, Burgess worked in the little shop behind her home in Arnaudville repairing instruments. With business booming, she decided to rent a storefront in downtown Lafayette: SOLA Violins. In the tiny shop at the corner of Jefferson and West Vermilion, Burgess has taken a minimalist design approach, allowing the dark wood of the instruments lining the walls to be offset by warm lighting, lovely blonde cabinetry, and a Persian rug.
Even though she is a member of two Grammy-nominated groups (Magnolia Sisters and Bonsoir, Catin), she says she still thinks of herself primarily as a violinmaker and repairperson. “I love everything about the craft of working on instruments and helping people become better musicians,” she said.
For Burgess, the business allows her to contribute to the local music community in a different way, by putting good quality instruments in people’s hands through violin, viola, cello, or bass rentals and sales. “Musical instruments are almost impossible to buy online; and generally speaking, the cheaper it is, the harder it is to play,” she said. “Renting something decent is a good alternative to buying a poor quality VSO—violin shaped object.”
Plus, having a selection of high-end instruments for seasoned musicians means that there’s a lot of great music played in the store, a treat for everyone. In the courtyard just outside SOLA Violins, Burgess invites musicians of all ages and skill levels to play during Art Walk, held the second Saturday night of each month in downtown Lafayette.
Burgess is part mechanic, part woodworker, part surgeon, part detective, part musician, part therapist; news of her commitment to doing things right spread like wildfire through the music community. Folks, like Easton Bourgeois of Church Point, drive from near and far to bring treasured violins coddled in blankets and long-forsaken fiddles covered in cobwebs to Burgess. Bourgeois brought a friend in to SOLA with an old violin he was hoping to have restored. Burgess had to break the news to him: an old violin isn’t necessarily a valuable violin.
By Burgess’ estimation, there may be more fiddle/violin players per capita in the Acadiana region than anywhere else in the country.
“She has a great reputation in what she does. She knows what she’s doing—and that comes from people who know what they’re doing,” Bourgeois said.
“I’ve gotten over tiptoeing around. I’m transparent and honest and try to tell it like it is,” she said.
When Burgess first got started, people were bringing her old violins right and left, almost always expecting them to be valuable, which led to some heartbreaking situations along the way. “It happened a lot when I first started. Someone called and had what they thought was an original Stradivarius,” she said. “Someone had gotten in an accident, and they were going to sell the violin to pay for medical expenses. I could feel the weight of the conversation.”
Even though his friend’s violin was not worth much, Bourgeois decided to come back to SOLA, this time looking at an instrument for himself. At 71, he wondered if it wasn’t time to learn something new—something to keep him sharp, something meaningful. Burgess, who’s passionate about getting the right instrument in the right hands, encouraged him to rent an instrument to see how he liked it.
“Loving your instrument goes a long way toward becoming a better musician. An instrument you feel a connection with will make you want to pick it up every day and play it,” she said. “The violin I play most often is the first one I built, and I still feel a very close kinship with it. This violin is full of my DNA, but it’s developed its own richness and character over the years, as I’ve played it so much.”
A photograph of her violin hangs on the wall alongside other photos of important family moments and her children. “It’s pretty much part of my family!” she said. “Part of the reason I love it so much is connected to the process I went through when I built it. It was life changing. I guess those were halcyon days—and suddenly I was an adult. The process of building it kicked my butt. I made a lot of mistakes and had to scrap the first ribs.”
In total, Burgess has built ten violins from start to finish. She’s sold eight, plays one herself, and built one for her husband; currently, she’s working on one for a customer in California. Still, she primarily considers herself an instrument mechanic. “I have a lot of great tools, and the span of my work ranges from routine maintenance to complete restoration jobs,” she said.
A customer recently compared her work to that of a marriage counselor, mending broken relationships. “I do everything I can to bring out the best qualities in each violin that’s brought to me, and oftentimes the owner wasn’t aware that their instrument had the potential to sound so good and play so well,” she said. “They fall in love with their instrument all over again.”