Tieu Tunes: 3D-printing a musical bridge across continents

Tieu poses with one of his 3D-printed violins. Photo credit: Lauren Ferrer

From 3D printing violins in his Mahoney dorm room to 5 a.m. Zoom music lessons in Dooley Memorial classrooms, Ethan Tieus’s story is one of innovation and perseverance on the road to global social impact.

In September 2020, Tieu, a current sophomore at the University of Miami studying neuroscience and computer science, started Tieu Tunes. The program addresses the scarcity of music education in Africa by providing 3D-printed violins and regular virtual lessons to local organizations in Kenya and Tanzania.

“Even though it’s not necessarily in my academic major, it’s something I enjoy doing,” Tieu said. “It’s a program that allows me to integrate my interest in technology with my fervor for taking initiative and making things work.”

Tieu’s dedication for serving communities goes far beyond 3D printing violins. At UM, Tieu is involved with the American Medical Student Association, Scientifica magazine and InspireU Academy.

“Ethan is so dedicated and is one of the most enthusiastic student leaders I’ve worked with,” Hanna Ebrahimi, vice president of AMSA, said. “As the mentorship chair for AMSA, he makes a genuine effort to uplift those around him by creating exciting opportunities for our members to bond.”

Tieu Tunes began as a passion project, but has since developed into a reliable company recognized at the Clinton Global Initiative. Tieu’s first group of students are now playing their country’s national anthem at local concerts on the plastic violins of his invention.

His violins and accompanying lessons have not only opened doors for musicians in Africa but also serve as a light of hope and a coping mechanism for underprivileged communities.

“The administrators with the organizations I work with told me that they hear about how my violin lessons are helping with mental health,” Tieu said. “They’re helping people cope with circumstances and many show up early because they’re looking forward to the lessons.”

Tieu learned how to play the violin at 4 years old, and grew up in environments that supported the value of music education. This background propelled his desire to share his love for music.

“I didn’t want to just give lessons in Miami because Miami is super saturated,” Tieu said. “But anyone in Miami can find a violin teacher on every block.”

Tieu’s father connected him with professionals who pointed out the lack of opportunity and access to music education in Africa. Although music is valued in African life, religion and culture, because of financial and logistical barriers, people in Africa have trouble accessing proper materials and training.

“I thought, let’s just try to address everything,” Tieu said. “Let’s make a violin program that not only gives violin lessons, but also provides violins.”

Tieu’s first idea was to fundraise, but sending over $100-$150 violins wasn’t sustainable.

“The issue was getting a good quality violin that was actually going to last, especially in such an arid and humid climate,” Tieu said. “So I started thinking, what if I just made a specific violin that addressed all the challenges.”

Along came the idea for a 3D-printed violin, a customizable and cheap alternative.

Tieu’s 3D-printed violins are made of plastic, a robust material strong enough to sustain the unpredictability of the shipping process, with features like guitar tuners instead of violin pads that make the violins easier to use for beginner level musicians.

A 3D-printed violin costs Tieu around $30 to make. Being a cost-effective and practical solution, 3D printing was the way to go.

But the project was not without its obstacles. At the beginning, it felt like he was running into roadblock after roadblock.

“The first 3D printer I got, I couldn’t get it working for three months,” Tieu said. “It literally sat on my shelf, and I think it’s because I didn’t push the wires hard enough at the end of the day. I completely disassembled it and put it back together.”

When it came to actually designing the violins, Tieu was immersed into an entirely different field of music he had to essentially teach himself. He knew how to play the violin, but had no idea how to make one.

His first design made no sound. It looked like it would work, but didn’t. He then tried a design that mimicked existing wood models, but that didn’t work either. After consulting professors and friends, he learned that plastic and wood have different material densities and vibrate with different frequencies.

“I had to learn how to make a wooden violin. And then I learned that a wooden violin does not sound like a plastic one. So then I had to learn to make a plastic violin,” Tieu said. “It’s a multi-year experience and I’m still learning now.”

Tieu continues to improve his design by 3D printing the violins in puzzle type pieces in his dorm at Mahoney Residential College where he then assembles them and gets them tested by professionals.

After dealing with the miscellaneous fees and taxes of the overseas shipping process once, Tieu found that he could circumvent the chaos by 3D printing the violins in Africa.

The plastic is printed at an outpost near the location and then shipped to the organization’s location. Trained individuals at the locations assemble the instruments and then distribute them to the students.

Having started the program during the COVID-19 pandemic, learning how to make a violin was not the only challenge he faced.

The two organizations he initially worked with ended up cutting their extracurricular funding. However, it was those two initial organizations that connected him to the local communities and introduced him to the organizations he works with today, “Swahilipot Hub” and “Tech Kidz Africa”.

“When I was going through all these things like my 3D printer blowing up in my face, people canceling on me, not reaching back out or my networking not going as well as I thought it would. I was like, maybe I’m not doing something right,” Tieu said. “But sometimes it’s just small hurdles.”

Juggling a time difference of eight hours, Tieu wakes up multiple times a week at 5 a.m. to teach a lesson. Because the Frost School of Music couldn’t offer him a practice room, Tieu resorts to opening classrooms in Dooley Memorial to teach a lesson.

To avoid completely virtual lessons, Tieu recruited two TAs in Africa to help teach the lessons.

“As someone who was once a young violin student, I know how frustrating it is to put your bow on a string and it sounds like dying cats,” Tieu said. “If I say, let’s start playing a G major scale. They can pick up a violin and help the students put their hands on the scale. That makes a big difference,” Tieu said.

The next step for Tieu Tunes is to grow its financial sustainability. At the moment, funding for the development, creation and shipping of the violins is coming out of Tieu’s pocket.

“I want it to be able to survive without me,” Tieu said. “Because I feel like this program has the potential to touch a lot of lives.”

At the Clinton Global Initiative he was introduced to many people who taught him about networking, building a brand and how to fundraise. However, he has found that it is difficult to find funding for a project that does not turn immediate profit.

“This is more for the community than for the money,” Tieu said. “I don’t think this will ever be me extorting these communities for money. It’s more so this is something they need and want, and that does make it harder to get funding.”

He eventually hopes to be able to begin charging a small amount for the violins that would cover the cost of making them.

“I’m telling institutions, these violins, you see what they can do, you’ve had it for free for over two years and your students are loving it. They’re performing and they’re giving back to the community,” Tieu said.

In regards to building an initiative, Tieu has found that the most impactful projects are those where the individual is going so far out of their way to make it work that people rally behind them with support.

“If you have a very good program with passion and you lead it with confidence, and you keep the momentum going, people will want to support it,” Tieu said.