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Violin Blogs

Violinist.com members may keep personal journals on the website. Violinist.com's editor selects the best entries for the column below. Links to all other recent blog posts may be found in the column on the right.

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For beginners especially - how to maintain a love for the violin once the secret is out that it's hard...

By Michael Fox
October 24, 2014 17:01

I remember getting my first violin, and feeling enchanted from my 6 year-old eyes, the cloth covered, curved box made of wood stained with a dark orange hue. It seemed almost scary in its unapproachable fanciness, as if it possessed magical properties. So I just kind of looked at it with a sense of awe, until I heard some musicians play it, first in a bluegrass band, and then in a symphony, with the promise that lessons and practice would lead me being able to do that. So I tried to pick it up – and practiced my first assignment – an open A string to a steady rhythm that I was taught as “Mississippi Hotdog.” (which I guess would be one with grits in it)

My teacher could play an amazing “Mississippi Hotdog,” with each note ringing out clearly, and keeping the beat perfectly wherever she felt like setting the metronome. About half the time, my “Mississippi Hotdog” sounded like the annoying static-y noise I would hear when I went to the wrong TV channel. It took a few months of doing nothing but @%$*#& “Mississippi Hotdog” on a open string before we even talked about putting the other hand on the string to play actually notes. When we did, I usually ended up with something that sounded a little like a very sad cat. This in turn led to another few months of hard work before I was able to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Violin playing is hard. Specifically, the worst part of learning is often at the front end. Some instruments, like the piano can be learned cumulatively – meaning it’s easy to do at first, and then can get more complicated as your knowledge builds. Violin playing is much more like riding a bike – it’s basically impossible at first, but you have to train your muscles to cooperate, and certain bodily movements have to become basically automatic. That’s why you often have to spend so much time simply learning how to hold the bow, or get a pitch in tune. It can be easy to get discouraged at this point (and I have seen a few students get discouraged and lose interest when progress wasn’t going fast enough) – but here are a few things I find are really helpful in helping to maintain a sense of motivation past the hurdle:

1) Never let the love of music die

When I first started lessons, my mom made the observation that the kids who carried their own violins seemed more likely to stick with it then those who had their instrument carried by parents. I’ve sense discovered what an ingenious discovery this was, that students who really “own” their instruments are the ones who keep going even when it’s too hard to get right away. I think one of the main things a teacher (of any subject really, but music especially) should strive for internal motivation – or that a student needs to really desire to learn music for its own sake, because he or she really wants to. The great painter Pablo Picasso once said, “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist when we grow up.” So, I consider one of my main jobs as a teacher to maintain a sense of fun playfulness and love of music even when it gets hard. The discipline needed to reach proficiency will come if you really love it. But you can help me out in this goal! Keep listening to music, especially stuff with violins in it. Listen to your body, and know when you’re pushing it too much, and feel free to take a break. Play music-related games so you can “practice” without it feeling like drudgery.

2) Remember you are learning “music,” not just “violin”

Dragging a bow across a string is not just a technique. It is a way to play rhythm. It is not enough merely to know where the fingers of the left hand “should go” on the finger board, you need to listen carefully and know what it means to be in tune. Thus, playing the violin is not an act in itself, and sometimes it may be helpful to take a break from building technique, to instead build up “musical intelligence” more broadly. This can be accomplished by singing, clapping, playing a shaker or other percussion instruments, and dancing, as ways to work on matching a rhythm and pitch to what you hear.

3) Focus on only one thing at a time

One of the main reasons violin playing is such a challenge is that is requires you to do so many different things at the same time. Even “Mississippi Hotdog,” my favorite song of all time, requires an overwhelming level of coordination that can go wrong if any individual muscle is pressing down too much or not moving enough. It’s too much to think about at one time, which is how many people end up practicing things incorrectly and making everything even more difficult. Instead, really try to concentrate on one thing at a time. For example, try playing a song one time focusing on keeping the bow straight and in between the bridge and the edge of the finger board, and then do it again with making sure the fingers on the “note hand” aren’t jumping up after you lift them off the string. With my beginner students, I find it sometimes helps to focus on bowing on open strings, and then working on the note hand by plucking “guitar style.”

4) Daily short practice is better then inconsistent long practice

Violin playing is something that is only going to get easier with consistent practice. Trying to “cram” practice just before a lesson is about as effective as only brushing your teeth before going to the dentist. But I understand that, realistically, we’re not all students at Julliard or the Berklee College of Music. For many of my students, school, work, and friends gets in the way of working on everything every day. My encouragement to them is simply this – practice less more often. Even on days when you feel totally stressed out and overwhelmed, at least get the violin out of its case, and play scales for 5 – 10 minutes or so. Even that small bit of practice, with appropriate levels of concentration, activates the pathways of your brain, that, over a long period of time, will make playing come more automatically, so you can focus on actually making music.

A parable -

Once upon a time, there lived a little pony in a forest far away. One day, the pony found a huge tree that, according to his bird friends, had the juiciest, largest, and sweetest apples in the world. So he went to the tree, and discovered, sadly, that these amazing apples were only on the tree’s highest branches. He stretched out as far as he could go, but couldn’t get anywhere near the apples he wanted. But our pony wouldn’t give up. Every day, he would go up to the tree and stretch his neck, trying to reach as high as he could go. At first, it was really hard, and he couldn’t stretch anywhere near the apples. But, after a very long time of going to the tree and stretching his neck every day, he found it got easier and he was able to stretch higher then he had before. Finally, one day, he discovered that he could reach the apples, but that he had to work harder to reach down to the grass, because his stretching had made his neck longer. And he had become the world’s first giraffe.

And the moral of the story is – Your body, and your mind, are capable of far more than you think. If you just work at pushing yourself just a little bit every day, things that seem impossible will become second nature. Happy practicing!

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V.com weekend vote: Which is your favorite string?

By The Weekend Vote
October 24, 2014 10:18

violin stringsWhich is your favorite violin or viola string, and why?

Of course we need all our strings, and we appreciate them differently, depending on the music. But writing about Giora Schmidt and his quest for a modern instrument this week, I was struck with one of his preferences: that he wanted a violin with power on the D string, for those special D-string moments, like the beginning of the melody in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto. It made me think, which string do I like best on my own violin, and why? When I pick up another violin, what do I want to hear from each string, and what would be a deal-breaker, if I didn't like it?

So I thought it would make for a nice vote this week: which is your favorite string? Here are a few thoughts on the various strings. First, that part of the Tchaik with the nice D-string moment -- here is Josh Bell playing the piece at the 2013 BBC Proms with the National Youth Orchestra of the U.S.; the part I'm speaking about is at 3:13:

Some people don't like the brightness of the E string, and yet check out 16:08 in the video above -- what other instrument than the violin can reach those height and still sound gorgeous?

One might have a little "thing" for the G-string (no silly jokes please!) because of moments like the beginning of the 2nd movement of the Franck Sonata -- behold Soyoung Yoon playing it in 2009 at the St. Elizabeth competition (wish I could tell you the pianist!):

Of course, the A string seems to be at the center of our universe, the beloved note that tunes the orchestra. Should it be 440, 442, higher? Do we think much about this string, or is it just a workhorse for us, between the juicy high and low notes?

And I've included the C string, as we are all one family here in the string section. Many love those rich deep tones better than anything else.

So please chime in on your favorite string, and let us know why you picked what you picked! (If you like more than one string, and yes we all do, remember that this is just for fun!)

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The Intermediate Player

By Danielle Gomez
October 23, 2014 23:10

The concept of being "intermediate" is something often overlooked. Everyone is guilty of this regardless of age. Though most would not admit as much, there seems to be this unspoken expectation that a student goes from "beginner" and then immediately jumps to "expert."

What happened to intermediate?

Understanding the basics of an instrument and achieving a reasonable amount of control is really only just the beginning of the learning process. Just because the student can't play everything doesn't mean that the student is a failure or even that the effort was wasted. Being intermediate at something is the only way to eventually become advanced.

The learning curve is not a straight upward line. It may resemble such in the beginning when everything is a new concept. But eventually this line plateaus. Learning happens in phases and there is a definite possibility that things could get worse at times before things get better.

Being intermediate is far more difficult than being advanced. At the advanced level most music seems achievable given enough time and effort. At the intermediate level the mental knowledge has outstripped physical ability and the result is frustration. The effort of achieving mastery seems daunting, making everything achieved so far appear trivial.

But take comfort in the fact that these feelings are normal. It is part of the learning process and there's no way to skip this step. Every advanced musician that you hear playing was both a beginner and intermediate player at some point.

Rethinking Genius

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A List of Established Modern Violin and Bow Makers from the VSA's New Instrument Exhibit

By Laurie Niles
October 23, 2014 14:46

Who exactly are some of the more established modern violin and bow makers who are raising the art of the craft to new level? We hope that the list below can serve as a helpful resource to anyone looking for a fine modern instrument.

Last month during the Violin Society of America's Convention, an entire exhibit was devoted to new violins make by well-established violin and bow makers. Many of these makers have won so many VSA awards that they were no longer eligible to enter the 2014 VSA Competition for makers (Winners of the 2014 Violin Society of America Competition are listed here.)

Called the "New Instrument Exhibit," it featured 120 instruments and bows by 85 makers. Players visited the room all week to test the violins and bows, and they often could meet the maker right there in the room; so it was possible to speak to a maker while testing his or her violin or bow. What an incredible opportunity!

VSA violins

Here is a list of the makers represented in the VSA's "New Instrument Exbibit," all with links to their contact information. I hope you find this to be helpful!

Andrew Carruthers of Santa Rosa

Bill Scott, Gregg Alf and Dennis Braun

Michael Fischer
Michael Fischer of Los Angeles

Skreko Indy
Theodore Skreko of Indianapolis Violins

Zyg and Curtin
Sam Zygmuntowicz and Joseph Curtin


Gregg T. Alf
Pablo Alfaro
Robert Ames
GianCarlo Arcieri
Dimitri Atanassov
Dorian Barnes
Gonzalo Bayolo
David Burgess
Andrew Carruthers
Chicago School of Violin Making
Carlo Chiesa
David L. Chrapkiewicz
Marco Coppiardi
Martin Cornelissen
Thomas Croen
Joseph Curtin
David Finck
Michael Fischer
Ronald L Fletcher
David Folland
Andrea Frandsen
Christopher Germain
Todd Goldenberg
David Gusset
Jonathan Hai
Mark Hollinger
Li Ming Huai
Indianapolis Violins
Feng Jiang
Chris Kiely
Felix Krafft
Francis Kuttner
Christophe Landon
Silvio Levaggi
Zhen Hua Ling
Douglas Martin
Jesse Maschmeyer
Steven M. McCann
Georg Meiwes
Ray Melanson
Thomas Meuwissen
Eduard Miller
Sally Mullikin
Orest Nakonechny
Oberlin Workshop
Phillippe Reynaud
James Robinson
Benjamin Ruth
Andrew Ryan
Julien Schneider
Kelvin Scott
Bill Scott, Jr.
Sigrun Seifert and Joseph Grubaugh
Nathan Slobodkin
Jan Spidlen
David Swanson
Joe Thrift
Stefan Valcuha
Jason Viseltear
Stephan Von Baehr
Marilyn J Wallin
Mark Hough
Ute Zahn
Samuel Zygmuntowicz


Morgan Andersen
John Aniano
Pierre-Yves Fuchs
Lee Guthrie
David Hawthorne
Kwonsu Kim
Rodney Mohr
Evan Orman
Richard Riggal
Steve Salchow
David Samuels
Elizabeth Shaak
Matthew Wehling
Li Xueyong
Roger Zabinski

* * *

You might also like:

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A Violin Double Header

By Raphael Klayman
October 23, 2014 12:32


On Sunday, October 19th 2014, I participated in two unrelated but stimulating violin events in New York City. The first was the Contemporary Violin Makers Exhibit. This was organized and hosted by the noted dealer, Julie Reed Yeboah. In the second floor main room of the Kosciuszko Foundation, on Manhattan's East 65th Street, violins, violas, cellos and bows were laid out on tables for talented and curious hands to try. While signing in on the ground floor, my ears were already accosted by the cattle call-like din of fiddlers furiously taking these new instruments through their paces. It only got worse when I got upstairs! With a lot of experience in trying out instruments at auction showings, I learned to tune a lot of this out, in order to focus on my own playing and pay attention to this or that particular violin or bow. This I did, as I soon got to work adding my voice to the general uproar. For a basis of comparison, I brought with me one of my very favorite violins – my del Gesu model Vittorio Villa of 2010 that I've named “Michelangelo”, along with my overall favorite bow, my EA Ouchard.

I started out with the bows. I liked a gold-mounted bow by Matt Wehling, though I think the already-sold gold-mounted bow that he showed me in the New York Mondo Musica exhibition this past spring suited me more. At any rate at this exhibition, my Ouchard was best – at least for my hand and my fiddle. I then made my way through most of the violins, and fairly quickly. I honestly felt that almost none of them offered serious competition to my Villa. Oh, this one had a fine G string, and that one was good in a certain register. But for overall quality, quantity and balance, most fell short. Most. When I tried Geoffrey Ovington's violin I was more impressed. And George Yu's violin impressed me the most. Indeed, it gave my Villa a run for its money, in an apples-and-oranges sort of way. Julie told me that it was already sold, and I congratulate both buyer and maker. I showed her my violin and bow and she said that both were beautiful.

I started getting ready to go. I was putting my violin and bow back in my case, and chatting a bit with Julie when I suddenly heard my name enthusiastically intoned with a Latin lilt: “Mr. Raphael Klayman!” I turned to see the friendly face of a gentleman that I quickly scrutinized for recognition, but could find none. “Forgive me,” he continued, “you don't know me, but we have a friend in common – Mr. Vittorio Villa!” He then explained that his name was Ricardo Morales, a clarinetist with the Philadelphia Orchestra! His wife is a violinist there as well. But it seems that Ricardo was quite a violin aficionado, himself. He told me that he had custom-ordered a new violin from Vittorio. “But how do you know me?” I asked. He told me that he saw my name and my Villa violins on Vittorio's website. “But how did you recognize my face?” I asked, still puzzled. He told me that he got curious about me and looked me up. Hmmm...violin aficionado, or violin FBI? In fact he seemed like a fine gentleman. I showed him my Villa violin. He not only recognized it, but remembered the name I had given it - “Michelangelo”! We exchanged cards and I hope to keep in touch with my new colleague. Our music world can be surprisingly small, and as it turned out, this would be but the first interesting meeting of this day.

I traveled to my second event on a crosstown bus to the west side of Manhattan and the iconic Lincoln Center complex. Its library houses a nice recital hall known as the Bruno Walter Auditorium, where I actually once gave a recital long ago and where a memorial for David Nadien would be held. To those who aren't very familiar with the name, a separate blog would really be necessary to do David Nadien justice. But a few words would be in order to give some idea of who he was and why I, who never studied with him nor worked with him as a colleague, was interested in attending this event. David Nadien, 1926-2014, was known as a violinist's violinist and greatly appreciated by knowledgeable connoisseurs. As a young man he won the prestigious Leventritt competition, when the president of the Jury at the time was none other than Arturo Toscanini! His playing was marked by a technique extremely close to Heifetz' level, a tone and phrasing that could be both brilliant and quite elegant, very expressive nuances, and and a most sophisticated understanding of the music he played. In addition, he was an unbelievable sight-reader. He served for four years as Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, and had been heard on a number of occasions as a concerto soloist and as a recitalist. But actually most of his career was as a studio musician in New York, where his great skills, quick reactions and flexibility made him highly desirable in a milieu where time almost literally equaled money. I had heard him live a few times as well as most of his recordings. No, as a soloist, Nadien never had anywhere near the career of an Itzhak Perlman (and how many do?). But according to one of the speakers at the memorial, on at least one occasion, Perlman consulted him! This in a nutshell was a violin Goliath named David!

I actually had a lot of time between the two events. I made pleasant use of the interval by first rummaging in the Julliard bookstore, and I then grabbed a tasty sandwich from a nice deli just across the street. I took my lunch to the spacious stairs just outside Alice Tully Hall, where many people like to sit, enjoying both the food and the mild weather. At last I made my way to the Lincoln Center Library and was one of the first to arrive. Gradually some people trickled in and then as well as later, I struck up some interesting conversations with various people. More people arrived and we all milled around outside the doors of the Bruno Walter Auditorium. A couple, I had previously been in touch with by phone or by email but had never met in person till now. Some looked familiar to me but I couldn't put a name with a face. But at one point a very tall and distinguished looking gentleman entered the lobby sporting a full head of gray hair, finely chiseled features and an erect bearing. I had never personally met him before, but I instantly recognized him as Arnold Steinhardt, long time first violinist of the famous Guarneri String Quartet. This obviously wasn't your every day crowd. Most were former colleagues or students of Nadien. Others, like me, had been knowledgeable admirers. When the doors finally opened and we entered the hall, I chose a seat at random near the back. As it turned out I was part of a most distinguished cross section: next to me one one side were two former Nadien students; on the other side of me was the President of the New York Philharmonic; and in back of him, the parents of the Philharmonic's Music Director, Alan Gilbert. They had both been violinists in the orchestra, and one still is. Speaking of Maestros, at a distance I spotted and later greeted the noted Anton Coppola, with whom I had worked on numerous occasions, and now well into his 90's.

The master of ceremonies was a long time colleague of Nadien, Richard Sortomme. Other speakers included family members, colleagues and admirers, including Arnold Steinhardt who has taken over teaching a top Nadien student, Shannon Lee, who treated us to a beautiful performance of the Chopin-Milstein Nocturne in C# minor. We also enjoyed the very sensitive playing of the noted pianist, Jerome Lowenthal in the Andante Sostenuto from the Schubert Sonata in Bb.

From the many remembrances and anecdotes shared by the various speakers, a collective picture began to coalesce - a coherent mosaic emerged from disparate tiles. Here was a virtuoso who inspired listeners and sometimes intimidated students and colleagues with his fearsome skills and high expectations. Yet here was also a man who was cherished by those close to him for his wit and humor. The memorial ended with the house lights lowered and one of Nadien's many recordings was played: his exquisite rendition of Edward Elgar's Salut d'amour. And the 'amour' was palpable in that auditorium.

After the service there was a nice reception, where many swapped stories over tasty snacks. Having always admired him, his famous quartet and his books, I briefly introduced myself to Arnold Steinhardt and left soon after that to catch a subway back to my home in Brooklyn. While waiting on the platform for my train, who did I spot walking in my direction – but again Arnold Steinhardt! I briefly hesitated to greet him again not wishing to intrude on his privacy. New York has a fine tradition that's generally well adhered to of not bothering celebrities. But we were after all, both more or less in the same biz and I said hello to him again. He immediately revealed himself to be a very nice, open gentleman – and very down-to-earth (not an easy posture when you're well over six feet tall!). We quickly got into a very friendly and lively conversation about music, violins and even compared notes about some of our respective teachers. At one point I mentioned that Nadien's recording of the Elgar was an inspiration for my own recording of it – not equaling him, of course. I had a copy of my 2nd CD with me that includes it and gladly offered it to my distinguished new acquaintance. He demurred but I said that I really wanted him to have it and he thanked me. At one point I asked if I could ask him a question regarding the Guarneri Quartet: I always wondered what a quartet does with its music when it disbands. Does each player keep his own part? Do they put all the parts back and maybe donate them to some institution? He said that it was a very good question and that nobody had ever asked him that before! He said that so far each of them was keeping his parts and in the future they might think about what to do with them. He also told me that he still gets together with his Guarneri colleagues sometimes to play chamber music – but anything BUT quartets! Quintets, sextets etc. were now the order of the day. His stop came before mine and as we shook hands goodbye, he was kind enough to actually thank me again for my CD! I continued on my journey home, aglow with impressions of this most interesting and stimulating day!

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Playing against the Odds: the Violin in Japan

By Margaret Mehl
October 23, 2014 04:29

A recent scandal in the world of classical music in Japan eve made it into the foreign press: “'Japan's Beethoven' Samuragochi paid hearing composer to write music,” screamed a headline in the Guardian on 5 February 2014. And on 2 May the New Yorker carried a detailed article entitled The Unmasking of “Japan’s Beethoven” (by Roland Kelts).

Mamoru Samuragochi, born in 1963 in Hiroshima continued to compose even after he allegedly turned totally deaf at the age of 35. His works include the Symphony No 1, "Hiroshima", a tribute to the victims of the atomic bomb in 1945. Japans national broadcasting association NHK aired a documentary in March 2013, which showed Samuragochi comforting tsunami victims during a tour of the Tôhoku region.

When it became known that the figure skater Daisuke Takahashi planned to use Samuragochi’s Sonatina for Violin (recorded by the violinist Ôtani Yasuko) for his performance at the Sochi Olympics, the composer and music professor Takashi Niigaki revealed that he had acted as a ghost composer for Samuragochi. Samuragochi admitted this and apologized profusely, causing considerable embarrassment to NHk and other media as well as Nippon Columbia Co., who sold recordings of his works.

The Sonatina was originally composed for the violinist Miku Okubo, and her story added another dimension to the scandal. Okubo was born with only one fully functional arm, her left one. Thanks to a prosthetic right arm. , she has learnt to play the violin. A TV documentary made in 2008 featured Okubo performing with another famous figure skater, Asada Mao. According to the programme, Okubo dreamt of becoming a violin teacher. Later, Samuragochi became her self-appointed mentor.

The story of Miku Okubo, striving to play the violin against the odds is moving and her achievement impressive. Nevertheless, I cannot help asking myself why she (or her parents, given her tender age when she started learning) decided that she should play the violin, of all instruments. Even with two fully functional arms and hands the violin is surely one of the most difficult instruments to play.

But then overcoming seemingly unsurmountable difficulties is the essence of what made Beethoven an immensely popular figure in Japan long before most of his music could be heard (see my January 2012 blog ”Kreutzer Sonata” ). Another variation on this theme is the well-publicized story of the violinist Narimichi Kawabata. Kawabata began to study the violin at the relatively late age of 10 with a view to becoming a soloist, after an illness contracted during a holiday in Los Angeles caused hi m to loose most of his eyesight.

Choosing the violin may well reflect the high esteem the violin has held in Japan almost since its introduction in the second half of the 19th century. Authors of violin tutors around 1900 seldom failed to point out that the violin was the “King” (or “Queen”) of Western instruments, and when it became fashionable to play Japanese koto (plucked zither) and shamisen (three-stringed plucked lute) melodies on the violin at around this time, representatives of the orthodoxy in the field of Western classical music deplored the desecration of the “flower” of Western music. In the Western world the violin has long commanded a mystique, symbolizing both heaven and hell and inspiring numerous artists beyond the realm of music, as David Schoenbaum shows in “Book 4: Imagining It” in his monumental from social history of the violin. Much of this mystique was adopted by the Japanese together with the instrument, and they moreover added some of their own.

You can read more about the violin in Japan, including the story of Narimichi Kawabata, in my new book, Not by Love Alone.

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How Giora Schmidt found his modern violin

By Laurie Niles
October 22, 2014 14:36

For soloist Giora Schmidt, playing a modern violin is no Plan B.

But coming around to that feeling of certainty was a major education and a long journey. Giora spoke about his experience with modern violins at a lecture on violin quality that took place in Indianapolis last month as part of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis and the Violin Society of America Convention.

His familiarity with both old and new violins is also probably one reason why he was chosen as one of the 10 violinists who took part in the 2012 Paris Experiment, in which American violin maker Joseph Curtin and French acoustics researcher Claudia Fritz devised a scientific study to compare six old Italian violins to six modern violins.

Giora Schmidt, the son of two professional musicians from Israel, began playing the violin when he was four, and he studied with some amazing teachers: Pinchas Zukerman, Dorothy DeLay and Itzhak Perlman among them. He also played some amazing violins early in his career: a 1753 Milan Guadagnini for about three years, and before that, a 1743 Guarneri del Gésu for about five.


"You do everything you can to get a loan of something big," Giora said of his early playing days. Playing those fine violins for so many years, "I started to get really educated about the sound," he said. But like every loan, the time comes to an end, and you have to give the violin back. The question is always looming: Get another loan? Sell your soul to the devil to try and get a violin priced at $1 million or more? "I came to a decision, when the Guad had to be returned, that I would seek out the best modern instrument that I could for the concert stage."

When he started looking into modern violins, he was happy to realize that not only was this feasible, it also appeared to have some advantages.

"It was kind of exciting, and it was really eye-opening," Giora said.

For him, one of most appealing features of newer violins is their ability to hold stable in changing environments; whereas violins that are several centuries old are notorious for being difficult to play when they are put under the stress of constant travel. For a soloist who is constantly crossing the globe for concerts in various locations, this is good news. "I can do a concert in the jungle of Brazil or the dryness of Alaska," Giora said. His modern violin "holds its pitch and always sounds good."

He considered commissioning a violin but ultimately felt reluctant about the idea. What if you wait four years for a commissioned instrument and then you don't like it? The one that Giora bought "was available; he already had made it."

And who made that violin? In 2011, after much research, Giora bought a violin made in 2000 by Hiroshi Iizuka, a Philadelphia-based luthier who actually specializes more in violas. Giora hasn't looked back.

"I have concertmasters ask, 'What Guarneri are you playing?' or, 'What Guadagnini are you playing?'" Giora said.

"Everyone who puts bow to the string looks for a different output," Giora said. For him, he really wanted a violin with power on the D string, for things like certain passages in the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

He was pleasantly surprised at the difference in sticker price between an old Italian and a modern. Though he thought he'd have to spend $30,000 to $50,000 to get a fine modern, he spent less.

"I had a budget, and I ended on the low end of that," he said. It seems to be in our violinist genes, he said, the idea that if something is priced high, then there must be a reason for that. In fact, when it comes to fine instruments, there seems to be no correlation between price and a desirable violin, one with a high quality of sound and good playability. (Note: this is not true at the lowest end student violins.)

For Giora, participating in the 2012 Paris Experiment validated his decision to buy modern and bolstered his confidence in modern instruments in general.

"I tried violins priced in the millions that were not as exciting as some of the moderns I played in Paris," he said.

Something he learned from Paris, where they played the violins with goggles on, is that it's easy to be deceived by looks. That gorgeous antique look does not always equate to a good-sounding violin. Sometimes violins are like Swiss cheese, "there are parts you love, and then there's a hole," he said. "Sometimes you just want a nice solid piece of cheddar!"

Wearing the goggles, "I was surprised to see how, within three seconds, you know: absolutely not, or absolutely yes, or you need more time with a certain instrument," he said. "That kind of pre-selection process was something I'd never done."

In the Paris Experiment, the violinists started testing instruments in a small rehearsal room, playing solo. For the next testing session, they moved to a larger, 300-seat concert hall and also had the option of piano accompaniment.

"What we picked as our foremost (in the first session) changed in the hall," he said. Adding piano then changed perceptions further. "I felt some violins were really enjoyable for playing alone, then certain overtones got enhanced or diminished with the introduction of the piano," Giora said.

The question is: Do you want a violin that covers all the bases: playing alone, playing with piano, playing with orchestra? For Giora, the answer was "yes."

"All of that became very clear, and the results for me were astounding," he said. "All of my choices were modern instruments."

Beyond each player's ultimate choice of instrument, the Paris Experiment took down a lot of data on player's specific reactions to every violin, with players rating instruments in six categories: overall quality, articulation, timbre, playability, projection, and loudness under the ear.

"Joseph knew what I would like, based on Paris, and it was spot-on," Giora said. "There was one that stood alone for me, and it was exactly what the data predicted."

The idea that modern violins can hold their own against million-dollar old Italians is good news for those of us who can't afford a million-dollar instrument (99.9 percent of us, would be a guesstimate). It means that "for the next generation there are options of instruments that are exciting and can hold their own against these instruments that have this mystique associated with them," he said.

For Giora, signs of the strengthening interest in modern violins are everywhere. While in Indianapolis, he was pleased to learn that one of the competitors in the Indianapolis competition was playing on a violin by modern maker Gregg Alf. (Kristi Gjezi, performing on his teacher Svetlin Roussev's Alf violin.)

"I would like to see more of these players playing instruments by the great makers was have among us today," Giora said. "They are alive and well, and willing to work with you. It's not a Plan B to play something modern."

* * *

After the lecture, violinist Giora spoke to me and documentarist Stefan Avalos about his violin, going into fine detail about how he has worked with the instrument to produce the sound he wants and demonstrating with the violin:

Video copyright 2014 Stefan Avalos, as part of his documentary, "The Strad Project."

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Comparing Strads and Moderns, with Phillip Setzer, Cho-Liang Lin and the Paris Experiment researchers

By Laurie Niles
October 21, 2014 14:34

How do modern violins compare to the best Strads, when played side-by-side?

One of the most memorable events in Indianapolis last month was when violinists Phillip Setzer and Cho-Liang Lin took time from their duties as jurists at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis to perform on Stradivari violins and great moderns, including prize-winning moderns from the Violin Society of America's instrument contest, which took place at the same time. Not only that, but violin maker Joseph Curtin and researcher Claudia Fritz, known for their experiments with modern and old instruments, provided context by presenting some of their thoughts and findings during this event, called "Violin Quality and the Paris Experiment," which was as much a concert as a lecture on Sept. 20 at the Indiana History Center.

Phillip Setzer started by performing his own arrangement of the Schubert Song, Du Bist die Ruh, first on the 1714 "Jackson" Strad, then on Setzer's own violin made by Sam Zygmuntowicz, which was based on the Jackson.


He played with pianist Chih-Yi Chen. Frankly I was distracted from the task at hand (trying to discern the difference between the instruments) by Setzer's gorgeous playing. Across the board was his sound, intimate and personal in the beginning, and then flowering and growing through the piece. And what a beautiful vibrato, with such loose fingers! In this case, I couldn't help but think, for the audience, the player makes the music. For the violinist, the instrument is the partner, and an artist's opinion about the instrument has to be connected to whether or not it easily makes the music as he wants it. He may have to try harder to produce his voice and his interpretation with one than the other, but the audience may not discern this when the artist is such a fine one.

Following Setzer's performance, Curtin talked about the myths and beliefs surrounding old vs. new violins. "Stradivari and Guarneri del Gésu are, for me, the greatest makers we've known yet," Curtin said. But their legacy of excellence sometimes causes modern violin makers to live under a kind of paternal cloud, hindered by the feeling of a "varnished spruce ceiling" of violin making. "It can paralyze a young maker."

Curtin challenged some long-held beliefs about old violins vs. new. Among them:

1. Violins improve with playing; the longer and better they are played, the more they improve.
2. Any competent violinist can separate old from new violins by playing them.
3. The best old Italians are quiet under the ear but out-project seemingly louder new instruments in the hall.
4. Strads and del Gésus have distinct voices.
5. The sound of the best old Italians have never been reproduced in newer violins.

These beliefs have evolved over time, and "we rely on what great violinists from the past have said," Curtin said. But are they true? "Scientists don't believe or disbelieve, they just want to test this." What do recent "ear-witness" accounts suggest?

Curtin and French National Centre for Scientific Research researcher Claudia Fritz led the controversial 2010 double-blind study that was held in conjunction with the previous Indianapolis competition.

"We agreed there were limits to the study -- it was the first one we did, and we had to learn from it," Fritz said. Curtin and Fritz took the results and the criticisms, and they devised a new study, to be done in a concert hall with top players and more instruments. The "Paris experiment," as they called it took place in 2012 at two locations on the outskirts of Paris, France, with 12 violins, six old and six new; and 10 soloists with international careers. There were two sessions, an hour and fifteen minutes each, and participants were allowed to use their own bows. They played in a small rehearsal hall, then in a 300-seat hall, with reduced lighting and wearing welding glasses.

Claudia Fritz and Joseph Curtin, who is holding welding glasses like those used in the Paris Experiment

In the concert hall, they were allowed the feedback of one friend, and they were permitted to have the violins played for them, so they could hear them from a distance, not just under the chin.

Their task: to choose a violin for a hypothetical solo tour, next week.

What were the results of the Paris experiment? Well you can look at them in great detail here, on Claudia Fritz's website.

But here is what Fritz and Curtin spoke about in September: First, "the choices were highly individual," Fritz said. Six participants chose new violins, three chose old, and one waffled before choosing old.

Despite many news media headlines emphasizing A Strad? Violinists Can't Tell as the conclusion, this wasn't the main focus of the study, Fritz said. Violinists were not asked to focus on discerning whether the instruments were old or new for most of the experiment; this task took place at the end of the experiment, when the violinists were given 30 seconds with each instrument to guess if it was old or new. The soloists did not guess better than chance-level.

"We did that at the end because we wanted to focus on preference," Fritz said. Certainly, whether the violin was old or new was not obvious to the players in this context.

At the end of the session, Cho-Liang Lin and pianist Rohan de Silva treated us to the "Blues" movement from Ravel's Sonata for Violin, played once on Lin's own 1715 "Titian" Strad, then on the new violin by Collin Gallahue that had just won a gold medal at the Violin Society of America's competition that week. Lin had chosen that violin from among a number of the winning violins: "I loved them all," Lin said. "I felt more comfortable, knowing how to produce the sound on this one," he said of Gallahue's violin. He attributed that comfort to the fact that it was based on a 1735 del Gésu model, so it felt similar to a violin that Lin owns and regularly plays on, a Zygumunotwicz based on the same model.


Of course we in the audience didn't know which violin was which until afterwards; I had the impression that the second violin (which turns out to be the modern) sounded a little darker, but both performances sounded great and I would not have been able to guess which violin was the modern and which was the old Italian. The performance with Gallahue's violin had the added fun of a string breaking in the middle of all the strumming in that movement. Lin had to stop, run back and switch violins, then complete the piece.

Thank goodness there was another fiddle waiting in the wings.

* * *
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The Week in Reviews, Op. 53: Leonidas Kavakos, Isabelle Faust, Simon Michal in Concert

By Robert Niles
October 21, 2014 13:36

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Leonidas Kavakos
Photo courtesy Decca / © Daniel Regan

Leonidas Kavakos performed three Brahms sonatas in recital with pianist Yuja Wang.

  • The Telegraph: "He has a naturally noble sound, thanks to his fabulous bow control which can sustain an even unblemished line from tip to heel. It felt exactly right for Brahms, whose own control over his musical materials was equally iron. And in the slow movements, where Brahms relaxes and indulges his taste for rich sonorities, Kavakos’s clean, pure line kept sentimentality at bay."

Isabelle Faust performed the Britten with the San Francisco Symphony.

  • San Francisco Chronicle: "Faust give the piece a thin, laborious reading, in which mournful respect was replaced by grim hectoring."
  • San Francisco Classical Voice: "Her performance and technique were as striking as her bright red, serape-like blouse that evoked the spirit of Iberia."
  • Examiner.com: "Britten’s concerto is as technically demanding as it is intensely expressive. Fortunately, Faust approached the concerto with a solid command of technique (as solid as the technical dexterity she brought to her recording of the Berg concerto). Equally, important was her chemistry with Denève, responsible for providing her with a context based on Britten’s deep understanding of every instrument in a full orchestra."

Simon Michal performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Juilliard Orchestra.

  • The New York Times: "Czech violinist Simon Michal played with freedom and deep tone. It was a little fussy at times, but his nonchalance and ability to shape a phrase suggested a talent we will hear more from."

Pinchas Zukerman performed the Beethoven with the IRIS Orchestra.

  • The Commercial Appeal: "His performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major was a testament to the ways virtuosity can be expressed."

Valeriy Sokolov performed Bartok's Second Violin Concerto with the Ulster Orchestra.

  • Belfast Telegraph: "Intense, vibrant, technically superb, Sokolov exploited every nuance of genius in Bartok's music."

So-Ock Kim performed the Mendelssohn with the York Guildhall Orchestra.

  • The Press: "So-Ock Kim is not your typical violin virtuoso. She has all the ammunition, but she spurns fireworks for their own sake. So her account of the concerto was off the beaten track – and all the more refreshing for that."

Laurence Jackson performed the Bruch with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

  • Birmingham Post: "It was a performance of grace and good taste – a little too much of the latter perhaps."

Please support live music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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What I learned from practicing every day for a year:

By Kate Little
October 20, 2014 20:34

Practice can be defined as a task that is achievable. Holding oneself to an unachievable standard can be stressful and counterproductive. My definition of practice included the following:

  • I must be alone.
  • The environment has to be clear of distractions, particularly electronic ones.
  • My head has to be clear of distractions.
  • I have to choose at least one challenging task and work to improve.
  • I have to be paying focused attention in the moment, and I have to be making progress.

Excluded from my personal practice definition were any sort of rehearsal or jam session, playing through pieces for fun or enjoyment, or performing pieces for others. Also excluded was any particular time requirement, or particular directions from the teacher. I allowed myself to decide each day’s practice content and length. To count as practice, I required myself to make progress at something on the violin solely via my own effort.

The smiley face stickers really do make a difference.

It is easier to maintain the momentum of practicing every day than it is to restart practice after taking a break. Once I let myself say, “I'm tired and have too many obligations. I’ll practice tomorrow,” it is easy to say the same the next day and the next day and the next, and all of a sudden a week has gone by with no preparation for the next lesson. Rather than the effort it takes to restart, it is easier, even at the end of a long day, to find something that can be worked on, even if for only 15 minutes.

Family will be supportive once they realize that you are serious, that practice is not negotiable. At least mine did. It was great when we got to they point where they’d say “Can I make dinner, Mom, so you have time to practice?” or “Do you need me to take your carry-on so you can take the violin?” Their support has been crucial.

You don’t ever have to ask yourself, “Do I feel like practicing today?” or “Do I have time to practice today?” Those questions are already answered with a resounding “Yes.” The only questions to ask each day are “When?” “How long?” and “What?” Once you get going with practice-every-day, it’s not that big a deal. If this is something you want to do, and you turn it into an achievable, enjoyable task, the habit is easy to develop.

Practice can be a meditative escape from our high-paced, digitized, electronic world. Practice can be a time to relax and reconnect with one’s authentic, unenhanced potential. Practice can be a time to challenge oneself to see how far one can expand one’s personal capabilities. The rewards of self-discipline, skill, self-knowledge, and music last for your lifetime. They are always yours and can never be stolen away.


P.S. October 21, 2013 – October 20, 2014: Thank you to The Weekend Vote & the Adult Starters – Violin/Fiddle Facebook group for their inspiration.

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