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"He was the best violinmaker and restorer of the 20th century" -- this is how many in the violin-making community viewed Carl Fredrick Becker, who died Wednesday in Chicago at the age of 93.
Born in 1919 in Chicago, "Carl was a brilliant man who could have done almost anything he wanted to do," said New York violin maker Charles Rufino, who worked for Becker for nearly four years during the early '80s. "During World War II, he became a pilot and was such a fine pilot, they kept him here as a trainer of other pilots. He had offers from the airlines to become a pilot -- a pretty glamorous, well-paying job in the '50s. And he said, 'No, I thought about working with my father and making the instruments up at the lake, and that was more important to me.'"
Carl was born into violinmaking; his father, Carl G. Becker (1887-1975), was a prolific and well-respected luthier who worked for the Chicago firm, William Lewis and Son. The younger Carl started apprenticing with his father at age 16, making cello ribs. The two went into business together in 1968, when they founded Carl Becker and Son in Chicago, in a multi-level building on Belmont St. that served as the family's shop as well as their home. (The shop now is located at 30 E. Adams St., in the Chicago Loop.)
"If you said to Carl, which is the better, you or your father? He would have always said his father was the better," said British luthier and violin dealer Charles Beare, retired director of the London-based J & A Beare. "But I've always thought, from his work, that (the younger) Carl was actually the very best violinmaker of the 20th century -- anywhere. You get differences of opinion on that, but for me, the best of Carl was the best we ever got between 1900 and 2000."
Carl Becker made his first violin in 1948. After that, he made nearly all his instruments in collaboration with a family member, said his son, Paul Becker, who, along with his sister, Jennifer Becker, also is a violin maker. "He made only 13 violins and violas by himself," Paul Becker said. "All the rest are in partnership with mostly my grandfather, and then also with me and my sister -- about 800 violins, violas and cellos, total." Two of his grandchildren, Stephanie Jurewicz and Vada Becker, also apprenticed with him and are luthiers.
"He was responsible for uplifting the quality of our instruments," Paul Becker said. "His hand, my grandfather always said, was much better than his own, and felt that dad was responsible for making the finest instruments."
The late violin dealer Geoff Fushi, of Chicago-based Bein and Fushi, owned two of the instruments that Becker made on his own, one which Becker made specifically for him. Fushi prized them greatly, said Fushi's daughter, Suzanne Fushi, who said that her father always trusted her to get the Strads, Guadagninis, Amatis out of the safe, but "when it came to, 'Go get my Becker,' he instructed me on how to carry a violin: 'Pick it up by the neck, have your hand on the bottom, take your time, don't rush around any corners…'"
Much of Becker's violin-making occurred at the family's secluded cabin in Wisconsin, by Lake Pickerel, where he worked in a studio over the garage. (It's also where he practiced one of his favorite pastimes, muskie fishing.) But the instrument-making was a part-time endeavor -- weekends and evenings, and in the summers. His time in Chicago was devoted to repairing and restoring violins.
"He was a wonderful restorer, and he was painstaking," Beare said. "He would always be on the side of the violin, or whatever instrument he was working with, rather than on the side of the people he was working for. It was always the violin that was important."
Carl Becker worked on many very famous and valuable violins, violas and cellos, including the Lady Blunt Stradivari violin, which was sold in June 2011 by Nippon Foundation for a record price of $15.9 million.
"Carl could take the most intractable problems and solve them," Rufino said. "It was like watching someone try to untangle a big, tangled knot of string: Carl would just stick his hand into the problem, lay a firm grip on it, and follow that string to the end. Then he'd turn around and go in the other direction, until it was all in a neat bundle."
"He had boxes and boxes of little jigs he had made, and he worked with such incredible sensitivity to preserve," Rufino said. "In restoration, he would bend over backwards, tie himself in knots and go to astonishing lengths to preserve the original maker's work."
For example, in restoring the Muntz Strad of 1736, which Stradivari made when he was 92, Becker had to address some wear on the corners of the violin. "Anybody else would have just cut off the worn corner and replaced the wood with a new piece of wood," Rufino said. "Carl went through this elaborate process of slicing the thickness of the wood and pulling the original wood up, higher and higher -- it's almost impossible to describe."
"He took Stradivari and analyzed it better than anyone has, as far as translating it from Stradivari's work to his own," said Jim Warren of Kenneth Warren and Son violin dealers in Chicago. Warren bought one of the last violins that Becker made.
"Carl was like Violin Yoda," Rufino said. "Carl had a sort of Platonic ideal of a violin, which did not exist in space-time. You cannot have the perfect violin, but you can have an idea of a perfect violin, and he would just compare the reality that was in his hands to that perfection."
"He saw the violin as an engineering problem," Rufino said. "He taught me to see the violin as a question of the distribution of tension." If you redistribute that tension, the instrument will sound different. The secret to adjusting an instrument lay in manipulating the pressure of those strings: by changing neck angles, by changing specific points about the fingerboard, adjusting the sound post, adjusting the bridge.
"He also came to it from a very human point of view: the violin is a musical instrument that only has value when it's played by a musician. Carl's entire focus was: make it play great, and make it comfortable for the musician. There's an awful lot of arcane knowledge that goes into making an instrument comfortable."
"The supreme gift of Carl's work was that he had a mastery of line that was so elegant," Rufino said. "Carl loved ballroom dancing and was an excellent dancer -- all the ladies at any function wanted to dance with Carl. If Fred Astaire had been six-foot-three and a violin maker, his name would have been Carl Becker. His work was supremely elegant."
His patience was legend, "Carl Becker would have driven St. Francis to insanity, he was so patient," Rufino said. "Time did not exist for Carl. He didn't care about time, he cared about doing a job perfectly. His work was of exquisite delicacy and sensitivity."
In restoring the famous "Lady Blunt" Strad, the violin "had developed this spontaneous dimple in the middle of the back, a little dent -- these things sometimes happen. He wanted to push it out to restore the arching." And he did it -- over a period of six months, applying a little bit of pressure each day. "He described to me, how he made these little mini bass bars that would put a very light pressure on the dent, pushing it out. He would dampen it very lightly with water and apply the tiniest bit of pressure." In the end, he fixed the dent, without endangering the integrity of the violin; "He didn't have to heat it or do any kind of destructive or threatening thing. This was the way he worked, all the time."
Carl Becker did not reserve his patience only for the finest instruments on the planet; he also gave his full attention to the instruments of professional musicians who came from all over to have their instruments repaired and adjusted.
"He was a polite, deliberate, considerate, soft-spoken man in a field with its share of sly, self-important fast talkers. My no-name violin never sounded better than it did than it did after a few minutes in his hands," said Rick Lohmann, violinist and teacher in Santa Fe, N.M. "It still has the bridge he made for it over 20 years ago. He came the closest anybody ever did to identifying the maker. I always breathed a sigh of relief as I walked up that narrow old staircase on Belmont St., knowing that whatever tonal glitch was haunting my violin, it was about to be solved."
"He would work until 3 in the morning on someone's adjustment, to get it right," said Paul Becker. "He did that regularly, and he did it without question. He connected with people one-on-one, one at a time."
"Carl was generous and warm-hearted with everyone who shared his love of violinmaking," said violin maker Gregg Alf. "Although our violinmaking styles are different, we were able to connect as colleagues with mutual curiosity for the profession we love. Carl's approach was very methodical, extremely well thought out. No part was left to chance. Carl was a a true gentleman, generous with his time and knowledge. When he took on an apprentice, it was with the true spirit of helping them grow, both as a maker and as a person. I think many young makers will remember sitting beside him, his OptiVISOR ('Becker checker') lowered, while discussing the finest details of their instruments."
The list of luthiers who learned from Carl Becker is long and includes: Raphael Carrabba, Charles Rufino, Thomas Immel, Sebastian Zens, Sam Zygmuntowicz, Michael McMahan of Australia; Glenn Bearden, Whitney Osterud, Michael Reis, Michael Lochner, Peter Beare, Eric Benning, Vada Becker, Stephanie Jurewicz and Jonathan Woutat.
Becker worked on stringed instruments for some 76 years, and "he experimented and tested himself every day, all through his life," Paul said. "He always advanced violins, from the day he started until the day he died. The very best instruments were the last ones he produced, and he was in the middle of making two violas when he passed away."
"I expect he's up there in heaven, grilling Stradivari about one thing after another," Rufino said. "'Why'd you make those fiddles so thick at the end of your life, I don't understand it!'"
Carl Becker is survived by children Paul Becker, Carol Henderson, Marilyn Becker and Jennifer Becker; eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Memorial services will be August 10, at a venue to be announced.Tweet
I wanted to let you know about a little project I have been working on about how to study violin excerpts.
When I finished music school, I felt pretty good about how I played my scales, sonatas, and concerti. But, when I started taking auditions to join an orchestra, and actually make a living, I realized I knew basically nothing about excerpts.
One of the most common suggestions I was told was to listen to the excerpt, and listen to a a couple different interpretations as well. This was often a tedious and time consuming process-both in finding the sheet music, and the recordings
I would have to count out measure numbers and bracket them off, and then try to sift through the recordings to find those 10 measures on the recording. It would take me a couple of minutes to find a 20 second excerpt.
I realized I was wasting so much time, so I created the free resource, ViolinExcerpts.com as a way to save some time.
So, here you can find an image of the most popular excerpts, and a couple different recordings of just the excerpt. On some of them, I've even added metronome markings to see how their tempi compare.
In other sections I've added videos of masterclasses from YouTube, as well as a platform for people to upload videos of themselves playing excerpts to get feedback-a mock audition kind of experience.
I'm always adding more excerpts and features, and trying to find features that make me a better player. If you have some suggestions of ways to improve the site, I'd love to hear from you. I have found that this saves me lots of time, and allows me to get back to actually practicing much quicker. I hope it can help you as well.
Last lesson, after falling in love with my sponge temporary shoulder rest thing, I got my Kun collapsible. I love everything about it except for the fact that it gives me massive, searing pain in the shoulder. The "scoop" isn't deep enough or something because with my shoulder and chest there's no way it can lay both on my shoulder or chest without pain. I've tried putting cloth to keep contact with my chest but that just makes it slide everywhere. I had no idea that the Kun would do so much damage. I miss my sponge so much! I must be in that small percentage that Rigid shoulder rests are just out of the question.
I play tense because I have almost no clavicle for the violin to rest on; without supporting it with my left hand my violin will slide and fall, no matter what. The Kun gives me pain, no shoulder rest gives me pain, but the sponge is the closest I've ever gotten to relaxed and comfortable playing. My issue with the sponge pad is that it will move under the elastics after a while but I'd rather deal with that.
I'm curious, though, about the Bonmusica rest because it has that "hook" shape whereas the Kun just has this groove thing (that no matter what adjustments it does not help at all and of anything has made my playing back to square one- wobbly bow, hitting two strings at once). Has anyone ever switched from a Kun to a Bon Musica with success or will I just have the same issue as I did with the Kun, where it won't lay comfortably and flat on both my shoulder and chest? I love the sponge but it does move and it will "flatten" after a while, and it just doesn't have that sturdiness a Kun has.
I'll be at the 2013 Starling-DeLay Violin Symposium (May 28-June 1) at The Juilliard School, will you?
Itzhak Perlman, with students Michelle Ross, IhnSeon Park, Ania Filochowska, Seung Jung Oh, Aretta Zhulla, Nicole Leon
©Photo: Nan Melville / The Juilliard School
I've been going to this event, which is aimed at professional violinists, teachers, post-graduate and college students, since 2007. If you're curious about what it's like, check out our page called Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard, which has links to the many articles I've written from this event.
The 2013 Faculty has been announced, and it looks like a lot of fun:
Master Class Teachers:
Jorja Fleezanis, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music
Ani Kavafian Yale School of Music
William Preucil Cleveland Institute of Music
Sylvia Rosenberg The Juilliard School
Pedagogy Class Teachers and Classes:
The Musical Gems of Josef Suk
Katie Lansdale, The Hartt School:
Invitation to the Dance: Exploring the Solo Bach Partitas; and Resonance/Concomitance: Considering Timbre and Polyphony in Bach’s Solo Violin Works
Michael McLean, The Colburn School:
Bach to the Basics: An In-Depth Look at the Compositional Genius of Bach’s Solo Works for Violin
Odin Rathnam, concert violinist:
Lost in Translation: Demystifying the Principals of Ivan Galamian in Practical Application
Guest Recitalists: William Preucil and Giora Schmidt
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Here's the Facebook Page for the Symposium: https://www.facebook.com/groups/SD.Symposium/?fref=ts (If you want to join this FB page and need to be 'invited' let me know)
Here is the website for information for this year's symposium: http://www.juilliard.edu/youth-adult/summer/starling.phpTweet
I'd like to take a moment to thank the supporters who've made it possible for us to bring you Violinist.com for another month. Here they are:
One note of potential interest: MondoMusica New York is offering Violinist.com readers who follow their link a special discount (50% off admission) to their exhibition of fine instruments, to be held March 15-17 at the Metropolitan Pavilion. Please consider visiting our other sponsors listed above, as well, as many of them also offer special discounts and opportunities to V.com readers from time to time. You always can find the list of current sponsors over on the right side of any Violinist.com page.
If you run a violin-related business and would like to reach out to and support the Violinist.com community, we have space available in our Business Directory. Please visit our sponsorship page, or contact me via robert@ violinist.com to learn more.
Thank you, again, to everyone who supports Violinist.com!Tweet
You can't always get what you want; that's basically how I would sum up the story line for Puccini's opera, Tosca. And, I have to confess, it wasn't just the beautiful music, the free ticket, and the fact that I would be getting to look down on my fellow Anchorage symphony friends from the Mezzanine. (Bravo, by the way!) No, I chose Tosca to be my first live opera experience because once I looked it up on the internet, I became riveted by the tragic plot, in which two lovers almost live happily ever after but (spoiler alert!) end up dying violently instead at the last minute, to some of the most ironic music ever written.
Something about a good tragedy really appeals to my dark, cynical side. I don't know, is it too many long winters in Alaska? Or am I just a realist? After all, does anyone really truly live happily ever after? (I'm thinking long and hard between sentences.) Even from a spiritual stand point, I've been told not to put too much stock in what this life has to offer, that the soul was meant for Heaven, and could only look forward to being reunited with its real home some day.
So, I'd gotten used to disappointment somewhere along the way. I've become so accustomed to chasing the moon in vain that I guess I forgot to stop and ask myself what I'd ever do with myself if one day...
I'm happy. I confess. I haven't wanted to write about it, though, under this notion that it's all just too good to be true. In a frightfully unstable economy where no future seems certain--especially where musicians and careers are concerned--everything seems to have magically fallen into place. I'm not rich and famous by any means (yet!), but I have what I need. I practice five hours a day, and that still isn't enough to cover all my musical venues, what with the symphony, the string quartet, and my upcoming chamber music concert in March. I'm squeezing rehearsals in left and right, all while dreaming even more about what amazing musical adventure I can take next.
Why is it, that when faced with the fiscal cliff, I chose to take a running start and dive headlong with the purchase of my dream violin? Was it the sensation of flying that I craved, the sheer pleasure of feeling weightless for a spell? Perhaps I was hoping there's nothing at the bottom of the cliff, and I'll just get to float on forever.
I don't know how this particular story will end, but given a choice between stability and dream chasing, I will always choose music, foregoing other luxuries and securities to be with my passion. I feel that only by jumping in with all I have can I escape a fate worse than death. (You only need to peruse my dark entries from last spring to understand.) Regardless of what's at the bottom of this, I already know I will be happiest if I'm following my God-given passion. After all, creating is a survival need, right up there with eating. It is the signature of the human soul, and identifies us with our Creator. Even in the most impoverished countries, people still play music; it's been this way since the beginning.
No you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you may find...Tweet
Is classical music a living, changing art, or is it frozen in time?
On Monday, Anastasia and pianist Elena Baksht will perform a concert entitled Chaconnes Through Time, at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. In addition to Bach's famous and beloved "Chaconne" from the D minor Partita for solo violin (which she will play in full), she will also perform the Vitali Chaconne, the little-known Partita for Solo Violin by Ernst Lothar von Knorr (Anastasia is known for uncovering such things). She will also perform world premiere of Colina’s "Chaconne for Violin and Piano," a piece in nine movements.
Michael and Anastasia met around eight years ago, when a mutual friend connected Anastasia's interest in contemporary music with Michael's style of writing music.
"At that point, Michael had a violin piece, called Notturno, which he needed played," Anastasia said. "I looked at it, and it was spectacularly lovely."
Both agree: Each piece they create together seems to bring up new ideas.
"One of the both blessings and curses of a performer is we are not creators. We need something to recreate," Anastasia said. A recording of "Baba Yaga" was released last fall, and the story behind it is a rather dark Russian fairy tale, which is not well-known in the West. Baba Yaga is a deformed old lady with supernatural powers, who eats children and lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs.
"We are also talking about the Baba Yaga being an older woman," Michael said. "Age itself is so often reviled -- beauty lost and loneliness found. This mythic character hits a spot for lots of people. She's not unlike the witch in Hansel and Gretel, but she has this side that can be redemptive, on rare occasions. She spares the life of this little girl, Vasilisa, who comes to visit her, and helps her, for lack of a better word, take revenge. But all of this is just the emotional life that goes on in creating the music. It's the story around which the music evolves."
Michael is a composer who returned to classical music after 20 years of producing jazz.
"I had stopped composing at 28 years of age and began producing jazz for artists and writing for them," Michael said. "I learned a huge amount from their spontaneity, their willingness to take risks, and their collaborative spirit. I worked with really great people. And at the point where the phone didn't ring any more, I decided that this was the opportune moment to re-find my voice that I'd left off discovering when I was 28. I came to this moment with all of this experience, working with these wonderful, malleable, creative risk-takers. I'd like to think that I brought that to the music I'm writing now -- certainly the collaborative spirit. Anastasia and I really hammer out certain passages, note-per-note."
"He's helped me discover the communicative aspect of the violin," Anastasia said of her collaboration with Michael. "It's one thing to play something that is 100 years old, which is intimately familiar. But a lot of contemporary music has lost sort of a human quality, so I would say he's reaffirmed my faith in the violin's ability to communicate just very bare, emotive, pre-human feelings."
It's also given her hope that there is a future for violin music. "It's very important to me to decide, even for interpretive issues, whether this is a tradition which is now held in amber, forever unchanging. Are we there just to serve history, as an occasional living reminder of what we once were? Or is this still a viable, living, thriving tradition?" Anastasia said. "Obviously, I have a vested interest in it being the latter. But as long as it is, it changes the way I interpret everything else."
"If your approach to Mozart, let's say, is: this is historical, this happened, this is no longer true, your interpretation will be one way," Anastasia said. "If you approach Mozart as: This could be written today, it just didn't happen to be, and I will play it as if I've never heard it before, that's a completely different set of interpretations -- and laws and regulations and issues of taste are often changed by it."
Anastasia's interpretation of the Bach Chaconne has evolved along with her thoughts about the role of music, past and present.
"I've been on a journey with the Bach Chaconne since I was 15 years old, and it's been a very important part of my life," she said. "Through it, I can trace my development as a human being. I've finally gotten an interpretation which I can say is completely mine. It's not unchanging, but the approach to the Chaconne, which I got about two years ago, is one I'm finally happy with. It is neither Romantic nor Classical, it's certainly not historically correct."
That approach has made it possible for her to see the Bach Chaconne as something new, every day.
"For instance, one of the things I like to do is that I look at all the variations -- there are 64 -- as separate entities," she said. "I've found that changing the tempos of the various variations, serves the piece very well, although again, it's not correct, it's not enshrined in the canon. But giving that piece its freedom to expand, to change from Monday to Friday, really brought it out. I just saw the way that audiences responded, and in the past year or two I've made it a personal challenge: that every note that I play should be, in my heart, like something I've never heard before."
Michael's new Chaconne evolved from their conversations about the meaning of the "chaconne," as a personal journey, as a musical framework, and as a dance form which originally came from Latin America.
"A Chaconne is one of the most perfect forms. It's sort of fractal," Anastasia said. "You have a very bare skeleton, which gives you some structure, but great freedom. As I started researching it more, I realized that the Chaconne actually came from Latin America -- Cuba -- and traveled to Spain. For Michael, his Cuban background is something that informs him both spiritually and creatively. So I found this coincidence to be striking."
The difference between the original dance and its evolution in Europe is also striking, especially as it took the form of Bach's great piece for solo violin.
"The Bach Chaconne is a tragic monument to great lost love," Anastasia said. "The chaconne started out being quite joyful -- and somewhat indecent, like many great things. It's very sensual."
"It started off as a dance, a bawdy dance done in bars, in 3/4 with the emphasis on beat 2, and usually with lyrics that were quite risque," Michael said. "Of course it comes back to Europe in the 1600's, and Bach makes this monumental work out of this and -- you can't touch that!"
Michael used the idea of the Chaconne as a launching point, including some of Bach's musical gestures, of ascending notes and descending notes meaning certain things spiritually. He also spells his name out, B-A-C-H, throughout the work, as well as adhering to the chord progression.
"Throughout this whole piece is woven all of these technical tools that I used to create it with," Michael said. "But at the same time, I wanted it to have a very appealing musical face that would still connect."
It's also a challenge for the violinist.
Michael writes at the piano and at the computer. Working on these projects, the two occasionally meet at his home in Florida.
"She would play this and then play that say, 'Why don't we do this?' and I would be recording it on the iPhone, on the video, so that I could take some of her suggestions back up to the studio and work on it more," Michael said. "So that's intensely collaborative."
When they can't meet in person, "he sends me the updated score by e-mail, I send the corrections right away," Anastasia said. "In Tchaikovsky's time this would take a boat and a few weeks, so the process is sped up."
Sometimes it helps not to be working face to face. It allows Anastasia to consider ideas, and whether they are playable, before responding.
"Sometimes he'll send me something and I'll start playing it, and at first I think, 'This is not playable,' but then I'll find sort of a cunning fingering for it," she said. "Whereas, if he were right there, I would say, 'No no, just change it.' So you actually wind up doing more of what the composer wants because you have some time to consider it."
Michael, though he has held a violin and knows how to play one, is primarily a pianist.
"You'll see this in Bartok, Prokofiev -- pianists think in fifths," Anastasia said. "We get four fingers, so a violinist will write things naturally in fourths. One of the central problems in adjusting to anything a pianist writes for you is that there's always an extra note, one second from where your fingers would naturally be. That does affect a lot of my editing."
Both composer and violinist welcome other musicians to have a hand at Michael's compositions, which are published by Bill Holab Music, on his website. (The Chaconne, with its premiere being tomorrow, will be published later.)
"That's actually the point! The point is to bring the music into standard repertoire," said Anastasia, who questions the adherence to the current canon of pieces featured in competitions and in auditions. Something like the Tchaikovsky Concerto is so overplayed, we can hardly appreciate it, she said. "The Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is a fantastic work. I'm not sure we are even in a place to understand how fantastic it is because it's so constant in our lives. If there was more variety of repertoire, there would be more variety of interpretation and these works could then continue growing and being changes and reinterpreted. With the constant noise of the Oistrakh and the Heifetz and the Perlman and all the interpretations which hue to that tradition, the Tchaikovsky is frozen in time. It cannot grow, because it's ever-present."
"For me, it is essential that beautiful music continues to evolve and exist," Anastasia said. "If we close the door on beauty in music, (if we close the door on) virtuosity, which is part of that beauty, I think our existence will be immeasurably less rich. So we keep trying to keep defining what music is today. Not what it will be in 200 years, we have no control over that. But in the case of Chaconne, this is an attempt not to mimic Bach or even to play tribute to Bach, just to continue Bach."
* * *
Here is Anastasia Khitruk, playing Michael Colina's "Baba Yaga Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra," Movement 1:
When violinist Anne Akiko Meyers announced this week that she had been granted lifetime use of the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu, a number of people asked why someone who already owned two Stradivari violins would also accept this valuable violin, which apparently was sold for a record-breaking price to an anonymous patron.
After the announcement, I e-mailed Anne, and here is our conversation:
Laurie: When did you first learn about the Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu?
Anne: I read about it when it was being called the priciest violin in the world. I thought it was a little bit of a gimmick but when I got the opportunity to play on the violin for the first time late in the summer I was immediately struck by the sound which had a richness I'd never before heard from a violin. I have played many Strads and del Gesu's throughout my lifetime, but nothing compared to this sound.
Laurie: Were you interested in the instrument, then found a sponsor, or did the sponsor kind of find you?
Anne: I have been fortunate to have violins from foundations and private donors most of my life. When I was about 10 years old, Dick Colburn loaned me many violins (Grancino, Guadagnini) until I made my debut recording at age 18. In my 20's, I played on the 'Rose' Strad, thanks to a private donor, and then performed on several Guarneri del Gesu violins subsequently. It was quite a relief to purchase the 'Royal Spanish' Strad of 1730 in 2005, because instruments that are given on loan are often taken back at any time. The lifetime loan of the 'Vieuxtemps' del Gesu is truly extraordinary because I have an arrangement where I do not have to worry about being asked to return it. I was crying tears of happiness, joy and disbelief when this extraordinary event happened.
Laurie: What are you going to do with your Strads, now that you have use of the del Gesu?
Anne: I believe that instruments should be played -- this is the purpose and end goal of all the makers. Last year I gave away an Arcus bow because I thought it would be better used by an aspiring artist. I also donated a modern violin to a music conservatory in Cartegena, Colombia a few years ago.
The 'Royal Spanish' is on the market now, and I am thinking of Molly's future as well. Since life is full of surprises, it may make sense to always have my own violin. Plus I have restrictions on the use of the Vieuxtemps.
Laurie: Are you permitted to loan out the del Gesu?
Anne: No. I have restrictions on its use to help protect the instrument.
Laurie: How does one go about getting sponsorship for an instrument? How does a sponsor decide whom they'd like to loan a valuable instrument?
Anne: Classical musicians have been helped by great arts patrons for centuries, and for string players, there are a large number of foundations and generous collectors who have made great instruments available. Often, the value of the instrument can be enhanced by the exposure it gets when an important artist plays the violin, so it can be a win-win for both the donor and performer.
Laurie: Do you have anything to add?
Anne: I feel like Cinderella playing this violin. That fate and destiny have brought this unique piece of history into my hands is really humbling and a major responsibility to preserve it for future generations.
Last winter I frequently heard very anxious customers about their instrument going out of tune so frequently in the winter...
One of them asked, "Why don't you write an article about this???"
... uh,of course!
So I wrote this article with 11 winter tips for your instrument... and yourself!
Let's start where it all begins: Wood is material in motion... when changing temperature and / or humidity wood shrinks and expands. As your violin / viola / cello / double bass (mostly) is made of wood, this happens to your instrument.
In the winter, your instrument will go out of tune more often. In winter, the temperature difference between inside and outside is higher (especially when you have the heating on). Moreover, the humidity in the winter is very changeable. Everywhere you go, your instrument has to adapt to the climate of your home, car and the new location.
Winter tips for your instrument
1. Don't be scared if your instrument is quickly and often out of tune. This may have to do with the winter weather. Some people think that they have broken something or done something stupid, but that is most often not the case. Bring your instrument just quietly back into tune and tune regularly until your instrument is more stable during a study session or rehearsal.
2. Keep into account this tuning problem in your timing. For example, leave a little earlier to a rehearsal, lesson or performance, so you have time for your instrument to be tuned and to adapt to the temperature and humidity of the new environment.
3. Avoid changes in temperature and humidity as much as possible. Don't leave your instrument in a cold room, that you heat up quickly when you have to be there. Take care of conditions so that they can be as stable as possible.
4. Are your strings in good condition? Strings get weaker with frequent changes in tension: they snap, go waddle in tone or go out of tune a lot. Take extra good care that your strings are in good condition in winter season. Are your strings older than 1 year? Then they probably need to be replaced. An amateur who plays violin 1 hour a day should replace the strings yearly. Do you play more? Then you need to replace them more often. I replace my violin strings every two months... then they are really gone and I'm happy when I am playing on new strings again.
5. Do the pegs of your violin, viola or cello run smoothly? If your pegs are not doing a good job in the summer, it will only get worse in the winter. Very often it works to treat your pegs with peg soap: remove one string at a time from the peg, remove the peg from the peg box, treat it firmly with peg soap and place the peg and string back. Then go to the next string. It is truly a miracle potion! Didn't this help? Then it may be that your pegs are not a good fit and then you need to replace them or let a violin maker make them fit (by re-bushing the peg box).
6. Is the room of your instrument usually too dry? Drought can cause cracks in your instrument. If the environment is too dry, you might consider purchasing a humidifier. With stable humidity between 40% and 70%, you do not have to worry. Many violin cases are equipped with a so-called hygrometer.
Your main musical instrument is of course your own body...
Tips for yourself
7. Wear gloves often! If you allow your fingers to get too cold, then it takes time to warm your hands before you can play optimally again. If your hands are very cold (and therefore your muscles and joints), then you are more susceptible to injury while playing. In very cold rehearsal rooms, you might consider playing with fingerless gloves.
8. Muscles and joints love heat! If you are cold and you do all kinds of virtuoso tricks, you're likely to experience discomfort ... make sure to do a warm-up -- not only in sports, but also in music! I find stretching (yoga) in between a rehearsals very pleasant to keep the muscles in shape.
9. Rub, rub, rub! You'll probably have seen it in ladies magazines: in winter you should keep your skin hydrated. As a musician, this applies especially to your hands ... playing with a cut in your fingertip is not fine! So buy the thickest hand cream out there and rub it onto your hands! If you can keep your fingers smooth, then they will not quickly become numb. It is also important that you choose a cream that quickly withdraws: you merely want to rub it into your hands and not into your instrument.
10. Take care of your violin spot! Violinists can have more trouble with their violin spot in the winter. A violin spot is a spot / irritation / discoloration in your neck that is created by the pressure of the chin rest. Udder ointment works very well to take care for and reduce your violin stain. Conditions for this to work are of course a well-fitting chin rest and shoulder rest with a good violin: then you have no hassle of a violin spot.
11. Take a hair dryer with you! Yup, here comes Zlata again with a weird tip ... Do you really always suffer from cold hands and no gloves help? Just take a hair dryer with you to your rehearsal and blow your hands warm before you start playing. Just rub with a good hand cream and you're ready to go! Don't worry, there are violin soloists who do this!
Do you have more winter tips for string players? Do you have questions regarding this article? Would you like to comment? You are very welcome to do so below!Tweet
Good violins can be quite pricey.
The most recent record-sale sum is an extreme example: the undisclosed amount -- somewhere in the vicinity of $15 million -- fetched by the 1741 Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu. Many things came together to make this one violin extremely valuable: its age and provenance, its extremely pristine condition, the famous violinists who played and endorsed it, the famous and long-deceased luthier who made it, the publicity surrounding its sale, etc.
But even a violin that costs a fraction of that price can be a huge investment for a person of average means. The purchase of a good violin may require a loan: from relatives, or from a bank (though instrument loans are hard to get). My instrument loan came from the Musicians Interguild Credit Union, a resource for members of the Los Angeles AFM chapter (I like to tell people about this possibility, as it is a good one.)
I never thought I'd put so much on the line to obtain a good instrument, but then I fell completely in love with the one I bought. I've never regretted it, either.
Would you, have you, taken out a loan to get a violin?
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