BILLINGS — Inside John Kirk's West End Billings home sits a large sitting room, currently full of expertly hand-crafted cellos worth thousands of dollars. This has been Allie Bullman’s haven for half her life.
“I’ve been taking lessons since I was in 4th grade," Bullman said. "I’d come into this room, but I’d come in through his shop, and I’d see all the stuff he was making, and I thought it was super interesting.”
“I was playing as a professional cellist and I needed a better cello," said Kirk of his beginnings in the business. "I couldn’t afford it, so I decided I’d have to make the darn 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 Billings Senior High School honors credits, she knew just where to start.
“Eighth grade through ninth grade, I took Tech Ed and Woodshop and I really loved building, so I thought it would be cool if I took hands-on building with my music love and put them together," Bullman said. "I texted John Kirk. I told him I really want to do this. He said, ‘I can help you - we just need to get the money for it.’"
That was easier said than done. Bullman started fundraising at events, but then the COVID-19 pandemic shut them all down. So she only had one option.
“Most of the money was actually my money," she said. "Part of it was from my job, but the other half was from things like house-sitting, dog-sitting, doing chores at my church, things like that.”
In the end, the project ended up costing her $1,071 - a very specific number that she'll never forget.
"I wrote out the check. It was my first check that I wrote out.”
That check covered the cello’s pre-built frame and neck - it takes years to perfect that technique - but the rest of the instrument’s many details all fell on Allie.
“Applying the varnish, rubbing out the varnish through all the different coats," Kirk said. "Installing the pegs, making sure that they work and turn easily. Installing the end pin, fitting the feet of bridge which has to be - you can’t get a cigarette paper underneath it.”
“The cello’s my baby, so I do not want to mess it up," Bullman said about her process. "I’ve been super careful and it’s been taking me time.”
It’s not just the money, though. Students are always tasked with giving their Platinum Project a community element.
“The Arts without Boundaries program, they provide quality instruments for schools," Bullman said. "Whenever I was at orchestra and I’d see all of my classmates pull out instruments that we had that were pretty bad - you would pull them out and they were falling apart. My stand partner had a nice one from Arts without Boundaries, so I thought it would be cool to make a new one for them."
It’s hard to imagine a more worthy pursuit than giving music to someone who otherwise couldn’t afford it. Now, Bullman is realistic about her amateur luthier skills.
“I know the instrument I’m building isn’t going to be as good as these ones, per se," she said gesturing to the expertly built cache behind her, "but at least it will be better than the ones we have at our school.”
“They’re almost like a textbook. You can’t learn algebra out of an arithmetic book, and you can’t learn calculus out of an algebra book," Kirk said. "You have to change and move up, and as you move up, the instruments become finer.”
It’s a gift that will benefit students for years to come, starting with this one.
“(The best part is) seeing them walk out of here with a cello they can play or donate," Kirk said, "and knowing they’ve achieved something most people never will.”