Is loud allowed?
March 2, 2008 at 11:37 PM
This morning I was looking back at an issue of the Strad from 2005. It announces the premier of a work called `Don’t push your granny when she is shaving.,` for string quartet. Apparently this work `moves quickly from ppppp to fffff….` among other things. As far as I know this work has never managed to achieve sufficient status to appear alongside the Beethoven quartets as standard repertoire and I speculate there are two reasons for this. First a global protest movement from grannies who like being pushed while shaving as it’s the only fun they get out of life. The second just might possibly be, and this is purely a personal opinion and guesswork, that the composer actually didn’t have a very good idea what the violin is or isn’t good for.
To go off at another tangent before expanding on this, the first violin concerto I ever heard live was Ricci playing the Tchaikovsky in a huge and rather unforgiving hall called the DeMonfort in Leicester. It was an amazing experience for me simply because I could not understand why the violin was so quiet relative to the orchestra. Why on earth wasn’t it as loud and powerful as on all those recordings? The truth is the violin is not a loud instrument akin a trumpet Many of us are attracted to it by the glorious sweeping sounds of a Menuhin or Oistrakh recording and spend a lifetime wondering why we never quite reach that elusive dream of standing in front of an orchestra pouring heart and soul into the Bruch concerto while all the good looking, freshly shaved grannies on the front row have tears pouring down their faces as they throw you signed bloomers from Marks and Spencers.
Unfortunately there is a strong tendency to conflate end result with means of producing said result so that mistaken beliefs about what the violin is about (a huge dynamic range) coupled with erroneous ideas about how to produce a big sound prevent a player from ever reaching their true potential. A few points regarding how this might be mitigated to some extent might be as follows:
1) The violin is an instrument of color and articulation not misguided attempts to play fffff. A violinist who has mastery of a variety of bow strokes and feeling for color will sound much more dynamically varied and interesting than one who only plays `Loud.` Contrast is the essence.
2) A cheaper instrument has limitations. Trying to get more from an instrument than is in it, or forcing a student to do the same is detrimental to technique.
3) Perhaps the worst misunderstandings of violinists is conceptualizing tone production in terms of downward direction of the bow as opposed to the push and pull description found in the French School of playing.
4) If you don’t play well in tune no amount of skill in bowing will produce a large and vibrant sound. But, intonation has a deeper aspect which is not discussed so often- every violin also has its own personal intonation which is the precise pitch in which the note rings to the maximum. This may not be exactly in tune with other instruments even if the open strings are.
5) The correct ratios of speed and bow weight are governed by the placing of the bow between bridge and fingerboard which in terms stems from a clear mental conception of the sound you wish. This latter could be well learned by listening to great players everyday and great singers as well. Practice of phrases on every sound point before playing as intended is a must for developing color.
6) It actually takes more energy/correctly used tension to play softly than loud. If you want to play louder you need to relax more. Many players go the other way. Conductors have contributed a lot to this misunderstanding with their gyrating antics and demands for `more and more、‘ from young players. If you want to see an absolute model of relaxation then check out the DVD of Milstein playing Mozart 5. After looking at Milstein ( a model of relaxation) look at the leader of the orchestra. That is Hugh Bean and his sound was –fantastic-. Observe how little wasted energy in his playing and how compact everything he does is. It really isn’t necessary to do more than that in orchestra.
7) In general (although not always) a bigger sound is produced by using more bow. So practice fragments from your pieces and concertos using too much bow. Then reduce the amount of bow you use until you find the precise amount you want for maximum vibration.
8) Use a flat bow hair most of the time.
9) Play in tune.
10) Don`t confuse vibrato with dynamic variation. Vibrato add intensity. Practice passages or whole movements with your full dynamic and expressive range without vibrato. Then let the vibrato grow organically out of this sound rather than feeling like something that has been slapped on top.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 3, 2008 at 1:28 AM
Believe or not, I find my new violin that I recently brought back from China (a nice handmade performance-level violin) is too loud under my left ear. I’m using an ear plug to practice everything including the scales. Am I the odd one here?
no, I think that can happen. I have found violins that are painful to the ear. The loudest violin `with quality` I have ever played was a fantastic Andreas Guarneri. However, that didn`t hurt at all so I wonder if the jarring has soemthign to do with some kind of deepr level quality as well? The only thing I can think of is the rather obvious idea of changing to a differnet brand of string.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 3, 2008 at 2:06 AM
Thanks Buri. That's good to know, as the thought of always playing with an ear plug is not very attractive. I've got an appointment with my luthier tomorrow to have it tuned and see what he'll suggest. I'll try different strings for sure. The violin is new so a lot can happen to the sound later when it opens up, I hope.
It might get louder.....;)
Thank you, Buri. I'm so sick of hearing people play nothing but fortissimo with exactly the same tone color all the time (here and elsewhere and everywhere else in my generation.)
Yixi, what strings are you using? Evah Pirazzis used to have that nasty blaring quality on my old violin.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 3, 2008 at 4:35 AM
I know Buri! I was hesitating when I putting the word down, but then I meant to say the violin will have more matured/balanced/harmonious sound to my ear but carries afar, something like a good canary’s song: not too loud nearby but you can hear blocks away. I’m sure this is the ideal situation but ‘opening up’ may be the wrong word for it?
Mara, I’m using Dominant G-A and Pirastro gold plated E. I’ve got a set of Infeld Red, and a couple of different brands (Wondertone Solo, Pirastro Jargar) of E strings to try out once I got the violin checked up by my luthier tomorrow. The loudness of this violin doesn’t seem to bother me in certain rooms (ones with more furniture for instance), but in my practice room, which has low ceiling and a lot of wood around, the sound resonant very sharply into my left ear. My teacher tried it when I was at her place and said it was a loud violin, but she didn’t find it too loud as I do. But then, she married to a gorgeous trumpet player, me to a quiet scholar;)
Buri, I really need some of your string therapy after spending the weekend in a pit, playing in front of two trombones. That acoustical environment had the effect of shell shock to the soul. As a result, I (--ashamed to admit) damaged a nerve in my left pinkie from overplaying; I can't seem to keep from overplaying in those situations. For trombonists, there's only loud and louder. All forte, all weekend long.
Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject. I'm especially glad to confirm that different violins have different shiny spots. Sometimes I'm working with students and their violins, and we make some very interesting discoveries about the personalities of individual instruments, as far as resonance is concerned.
When teaching, do you ever play your students' instruments?
From al ku
Posted on March 3, 2008 at 2:51 PM
yixi, the other angle is to consider the effect of soundpost position in relation to the bridge. also, the thickness (mass if you will) of the bridge may also play a role in filtering out or in certain frequencies. may be a more qualified luthier can tell you more.
we had a loud violin at one time (to the point that my kid asked for a mute because it literally gave my kid headaches. when we switched to a bridge that is thicker, the piercing higher frequency sound is diminished and the violin tone become deeper but in a pleasant way.
overall, i think it is easier to modulate a loud violin than to try to coax a wimpy one to open up. have fun!
Yes, I have had "screaming" violins before. Ick. I think you're smart to wear the earplug for the time being. A soundpost adjustment should help the problem- just go to the luthier and have them move the post until the sound is full but not piercing. Buri and others correct me if I'm wrong, but in my experience a screaming violin is usually also an unbalanced one that is crying out to be adjusted...
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 3, 2008 at 10:18 PM
Thanks guys! Just got back from my luthier and here is the report: the violin is quite well made, powerful and has a lot of potential, but the set up needs quite a bit of tweaking: it’ll need a new bridge to replace the forged Aubert Luxe, a different sound post (the current one is a bit too short), the finger board and neck need to be thinned as well.
Buri, sorry getting this blog off the track. Back to your original point, my teacher told me to play the trumpet if I wan to play loud. Cute eh? ;)
Howard, the screaming violin may not have been touched enough as a baby.
This was hte secret of Stradivarius.
Buri, I know that YOU may think it's ok to go around touching violins on the f holes, but the rest of us think it's... weird.
What I meant by unbalanced was that prob. the e string was very loud, but the g and d thin.
Cheers, I'm out of here... the comedy is over.
not till the fat lady sings.
From Maria L
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 1:33 AM
or, in this case, the granny :)
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