St. Lawrence Central students meet crafter who made guitars for Johnny Cash and Aerosmith at Custom Pearl Inlay
Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 6:36 am

Brasher Falls guitar students, Molly Burnett (left) and Macy Fountaine frame a beautifully inlaid mandolin at David Nichol's workshop

BRASHER FALLS -- St. Lawrence Central School guitar students recently enjoyed a trip to Custom Pearl Inlay, Malone, where they met a string instrument craftsman who built guitars for artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Aerosmith.

Students from Krista Easton’s high school guitar class met luthier David Nichols, who shared his knowledge of the trade and some of his personal history with the students.

Easton said Nichols' high level of expertise and craftsmanship left these high school students "buzzing with excitement for days afterwards."

The tour of Nichol’s guitar shop, located in the first floor of his home, started by showing students his masterpiece guitar.

"The St. Lawrence students were on the edge of their seats to learn about, hold, and examine this piece of musical art," Easton said. "Phones were whipped out as students talked excitedly about the craftsmanship and took close-up pictures and videos to keep and then brag about to fellow students and teachers at school the next day."

Easton said Nichols displayed models of mandolins and taught students a method for playing the mandolin, which students were "eager" to try themselves.

"Students were actively encouraged to gain hands-on experience with the tools and materials that are used in inlay design and are now able to say that they have held mammoth tusk in their hands, and abalone shell…and they can tell you where they’re from and how they are used."

Easton said students learned about local history, agriculture, environmental preservation, and the inner workings of a guitar that give it a unique sound.

She said students were also offered a chance to see the wood sets that would be used for new guitars.

"Students could audibly be heard “ooh-ing” and “ah-ing” over both the beautiful look of exotic woods and their sonic properties that Mr. Nichols demonstrated by simply knocking on them," she said.

Easton said the experience was also appreciated by Nichols as recalled building his first guitar and talked on a project that led him to his life’s work.

"I can’t remember the last time I have seen a group of high school students so intensely engaged in learning during the school day," Easton said. "And one of the best parts was that this treasure of knowledge, expertise, and humble grace was all just in our backyard… a regional treasure that they didn’t even know was there."

Easton said she believes the North Country has a number of regional treasures including artisans, craftsmen, musicians, and teachers.

"And I lament, along with Mr. Nichols, that classrooms in public schools no longer seem to resemble the project-based, student-led format of the shop class that changed his life," Easton said. "These students have been fortunate to have not only met this inspirational man, but to have tasted a bit of the democratic classroom themselves in the format of their own guitar class at school."

A more in depth telling of the visit submitted by Easton follows:

St. Lawrence Central students gather outside David Nichols' shop, "Custom Pearl Inlay." Pictured from left to right are David Nichols, Samantha Dishaw, Sierra Sicard, Kelsey Newtown, Carissa Jandreau, Trever Roach, Molly Burnett, Hunter Conners, Shawn Patrick, Dalton Gonser, Tom Brownell, Danielle Furnace, Macy Fountaine, and Josh White.

By Krista Easton

Students from Krista Easton’s high school guitar class at St. Lawrence Central School in Brasher Falls, NY got to kick off their first day back at school after vacation with an inspirational field trip this past Tuesday, April 9th. These dozen students were lucky enough to be hosted at Custom Pearl Inlay by luthier David Nichols of Malone, NY. Mr. Nichols not only welcomed these students with a warm heart and sense of humor, but with expertise and craftsmanship that left these high school students buzzing with excitement for days afterwards.

The tour of David’s guitar shop, located in the first floor of his home, started by showing students his masterpiece guitar. As Mr. Nichols said to the students, “it is a guitar meant to be looked at many times.” And there was certainly a lot to behold. Pearl inlay designs in every nook and cranny, gold and sapphire pins, wooden portraits carefully and expertly designed on the back ¬to represent the legacy of David’s career. The St. Lawrence students were on the edge of their seats to learn about, hold, and examine this piece of musical art. Phones were whipped out as students talked excitedly about the craftsmanship and took close-up pictures and videos to keep and then brag about to fellow students and teachers at school the next day.

Of course, that was just the beginning. Students learned about local history, agriculture, environmental preservation, and the inner workings of a guitar that give it a unique sound, such as observing the bracings that can be “voiced” to allow more treble or bass to resonate when the instrument is played. As Mr. Nichols displayed models of mandolins, he also took the chance at a teachable moment to talk about music theory and musical structure as he demonstrated his nearly instant method on how to play the mandolin in absolutely any key. Instantly, students were eager to talk about wanting to pick up a mandolin as soon as possible to apply these techniques. Students were actively encouraged to gain hands-on experience with the tools and materials that are used in inlay design and are now able to say that they have held mammoth tusk in their hands, and abalone shell…and they can tell you where they’re from and how they are used.

When students were exploring the back storage room that held the wood sets reserved for making future guitars, students could audibly be heard “ooh-ing” and “ah-ing” over both the beautiful look of exotic woods and their sonic properties that Mr. Nichols demonstrated by simply knocking on them. But the real show came when a small amount of oil was added to the wood to make it shine, giving students an idea what the finished product would look like. As soon as the light hit the spot Mr. Nichols had highlighted with a simple rub of his cloth, it was as if the students were watching fireworks for the first time. There was an audible explosion of gasps and expressions of wonder. When was the last time you heard that in a high school classroom setting upon learning something?

Mr. Nichols reminisced, too, about when he had gotten the chance to build his first guitar: in high school shop class. For a moment, he painted a picture of a classroom where students were allowed (and even encouraged) to come up with anything they could think of to construct and learn about. His teacher’s condition for building a guitar? Come up with a plan. Every step outlined from the beginning, so that young David would find success. Guided by his interest, passion, and curiosity, this classroom experience opened the door to a path that has led him to his life’s work…and one that has gained fame and recognition worldwide with musicians who have asked him to make guitars from Johnny Cash to Aerosmith. I almost wish I had counted how many times my students’ jaws collectively hit the floor while we were there. It was just one amazing story and fascinating fact after another that had my students riveted to Mr. Nichols’ every word.

I can’t remember the last time I have seen a group of high school students so intensely engaged in learning during the school day. And one of the best parts was that this treasure of knowledge, expertise, and humble grace was all just in our backyard… a regional treasure that they didn’t even know was there. I believe we have a great number of regional treasures: artisans, craftsmen, musicians, and teachers that surround us in our North Country community. And I lament, along with Mr. Nichols, that classrooms in public schools no longer seem to resemble the project-based, student-led format of the shop class that changed his life. These SLC students have been fortunate to have not only met this inspirational man, but to have tasted a bit of the democratic classroom themselves in the format of their own guitar class at school. The curriculum is designed by student interest, is project based, individually aligned to meet each student’s needs and skill levels, and echoes a century-old idea that constructivist practices in the classroom will lead to lifelong learning. Certainly, Mr. Nichols is proof that an artists’ work is never done, always fascinating, and is meant to be shared with others with joy. As learning should be every day in our kids’ classrooms.

Thank you, Mr. Nichols, for the spark of endless fascination you have lit with these young adults. You have given them an experience they will never forget, and a look at how teaching and learning can be… we will continue to pursue this philosophy with joy as we enjoy these last few months of the school year together. And more than music and artistry, you have taught these young people what it means to be a model citizen of our world through your humility, humanity, and humor. A master in every sense of the word.