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Laurie Niles

October 15, 2003 at 7:16 AM

Why on Earth are violinists sticking giant magnets down the back of their pants?

This is the question I asked a fellow violinist who was subbing in the Redlands Symphony last week.

“You have to experience it for yourself to know,” he said. “I’ll let you try mine.”

This was not the first time I had heard of this phenomenon. The last time was in the ladies’ dressing room during a summer Bowl concert, when a friend was struggling to re-tape a very large magnet to her back. It had come off during the first half of the concert and started sliding south, much to her dismay.

“Oh it’s just wonderful,” she said, fumbling with the tape, “Can you guys help me here? Hmmm, I might not be able to get it back on. I hate to play without it.”

I thought it was strange, but being a Californian now, I also wanted to have an open mind.

This week I got my opportunity. During a short break in the middle of Barber’s “Toccata for Organ and Orchestra” my colleague removed the large magnet from his back (it was held in place by the waist of his jeans), leaned over and whispered, “Here, you try it!”

I took the magnet, and eyed it suspiciously. It felt like a mouse pad and was roughly the same size. I stuffed it in the back of my waistband.

“Eeeeuuwww!” I heard softly but clearly from the woman behind me. “He just had it in his pants and she’s putting it in hers!”

Oh, come on, people. This is research.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Are all the nuclei in the cells of my body supposed to line up, then, like, vibrate with the music? It felt nice to have something on my sore back that was cool, but I wasn’t getting the vibe. During the break, I gave it back.

“What is it supposed to do?” I asked him.

He shook his head, hopeless for me. Then he ran a green thingie over the magnet in an effort to demonstrate its strength.

“Let me show you, give me your violin,” he said. He played a little scale on my fiddle, ending with a lot of G’s on the E string. Then he grabbed the magnet and stuffed it down his back. “Now listen.” Same scale. I watched for signs that he was playing differently, to throw the outcome, but he really wasn’t. Especially when he landed on the Eing G and gave it a good saw. Hmmm, it really sounded different. He put down the bow, took out the magnet and played again. Definitely not as resonant.

“See? Do you hear it?”

I did, actually. I think. But I also think that I need to hear some scientific justification before I go sticking a magnetic mouse pad down the back of my pants again. So I am off to find an expert in the subjects of magnets and music. Stay tuned.

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