Fine Tuned: Retired music teachers build harpsichordsPublished 11:59pm Wednesday, December 19, 2012
CHOCOWINITY — Every once in a blue moon, Ernie and Sandy Miller spot something on television they have built in their woodshop.
For more than 30 years, the Millers have built a reputation for handcrafting harpsichords. He does the woodwork, and she paints intricate landscapes and designs on the soundboards and lids of the instruments.
Ernie Miller said he has always been interested in the technology of instruments. He started rebuilding pianos. He tried his hand at building a piano from scratch. He said harpsichords were just the next step.
“It took over a year to build — much of that time spent scratching my head trying to figure out what to do next, and how to do it. Nonetheless, it was finally finished and was truly a work of art — or so I thought,” said Ernie Miller on his website, ErnestMillerHarpsichords.com.
The first Ernest Miller harpsichord stayed in tune for a few hours. It had keys too heavy to play and that clashed against one another and a host of other problems. But he loved it. He loved the finished product and the long journey to completion.
“I like building them, just the challenge of being able to start something from nothing, from the ground up,” he said. “It’s an interesting challenge.”
He said there are a series of challenges involved in building a harpsichord. The instruments take the Millers six or seven months to build.
He met harpsichord builder Paul Kennedy, who became his mentor and friend.
These days, Ernie Miller is the teacher. He wrote an instruction manual that gives step-by-step instructions and sells the ebook on his website.
He builds harpsichords in the Flemish and French traditions.
“He devotes a lot of time to it,” Sandy Miller said.
He uses a CAD program to design and build each harpsichord.
Sandy Miller is just as detailed in her work. She carefully plans her designs, researches the artwork of the times and sketches out landscapes before beginning the intricate work.
Music has always been a part of the Miller home.
“We were both music teachers, both taught choral music. Ernie taught in high school. I taught in junior high school,” Sandy said.
They retired and moved from New York to Chocowinity. Ernie Miller misses the access he had to East Coast lumberyards when he lived up north.
“Stuff just isn’t available here, which is a little surprising in North Carolina. I thought there would be nothing but wood. Really, there’s nothing but pine,” he said.
He often uses spruce, maple, ebony and poplar.
The Millers send their completed work to Boston, where the harpsichords are sold for anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 through a clearinghouse, depending on the size, style, design details and the wood used.
“Some people like theirs simple, and some really want it decked out,” he said.
Regardless of the design, a few words can usually be found on each. Sandy Miller discreetly hides her initials on her artwork. And above the keyboards is the name, “Ernest Nicholas Miller” and, of course, “Chocowinity, N.C.”