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Laurie Niles

Inventive Teaching

July 20, 2010 at 2:22 AM

“You need to break in a new fiddle?" said my friend, violinist Bill Wolcott. “Then I've got something to show you!"

On a whim, I had brought along my new Hiroshi Kono fiddle to show Bill while I was visiting him Sunday at the Omaha Conservatory in Nebraska, since I like those fiddles so much for my students and having been enjoying this one for me. I had no idea he'd spring a new invention on me: the Vibralinist (TM).

I watched as he assembled a black box and some wires and hooked them up to his computer. Then he showed me what looked like a mute on steroids, all hooked up to this gizmo. He started some music from iTunes on his computer, and the music came weakly through the gizmo. Then he clamped it onto the bridge of my violin and – Voilà! The music was coming loud and clear – through my fiddle, as though Isaac Stern himself were playing Bach right through my little Hiroshi Kono!

I never realized that my good friend is also a mad inventor! We left my fiddle with Bill's patent-pending "Vibralinist" machine, to feel the vibrations from Stern, Midori, Szigeti and others, and went to get some coffee and catch up. When we came back, I could hear a difference: the sound had opened up just a little more. Bill likes to pipe violin music and also some vocal opera music into violins using the Vibralinist. Amazing!

Our cross-country road trip brought us to Omaha, where Bill teaches. It's a city where I once lived and worked – as a violinist in the Omaha Symphony and as a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. I also had some violin students in Omaha – fantastic students – and when I moved away in 1996, I literally could not find a teacher for them because so few professional violinist were teaching here at the time. This is why I'm happy to see an excellent teacher like Bill teaching full-steam ahead at the Omaha Conservatory, capturing the imagination of his students with both music and technological innovation.

Earlier in the day, I watched as Bill taught 13-year-old Yasmeen, who started her lesson by playing the entire “Souvenir d’Amérique" by Henri Vieuxtemps from memory. Nice! Well-played, great harmonics. She had the piece in good shape and Bill sought to increase her comfort in performing: to give her control, to steady the tempo. He suggested making the dotted notes good and long, placing certain notes, taking time. “That kind of control is so important," he said, “it's not about how fast you play."

He took out some of his gadgetry to help her with the Adagio beginning of Mozart Concerto No. 5. First, he filmed her with a Zoom Q3, a Flip-like video device that records high-quality sound and allows him to easily e-mail the videos to his students. He also had her play the Allegro Aperto from the same movement, but quite under tempo, with piano accompaniment provided by the computer: He uses piano accompaniments from PianoAccompaniments.com and can render them at any tempo – with no degradation of pitch – with the help of The Amazing Slow Downer software, available for Windows as well as Mac computers. Bill isn't just an aficionado of new technology; he loves the old stuff, too.

In his small studio, with its walls covered with black and white photos of Eugene Fodor (who mentored Bill), Anne-Sophie Mutter, Heifetz and more, is an old-fashioned turntable that plays the big vinyl records. By his feet sits a plastic box labeled “Bill's Inventions." What will he come up with next?

(BTW, Bill's Vibralinist is in production at K.C. Strings in Merriam, Kansas.)


From Heather Donnelly
Posted on July 20, 2010 at 3:25 AM

Wow, this is amazing!!! I love what technology can do for musicians these days, especially for things like string instruments where much has left unchanged for so long. :) 


From Julian Stokes
Posted on July 20, 2010 at 7:19 AM

At one time my fear would have been that technology would have replaced the skills and learning necessary. Now it seems that the emphasis is  on enhancement and empowering the human - who remains very much at the centre of music making. Can't wait to try some of this out myself!


From Dion Ackermann
Posted on July 20, 2010 at 8:09 AM

Interesting experiment. I looked at the feet of the bridge on the violin that Bill was using and it seems quite thick. Just a thought, but bridge set up can be very important for better sound. 


From Rizky Ramadhan
Posted on July 20, 2010 at 8:58 AM

I want to have one!

where/how can i get it?

thanks :))


From D Kurganov
Posted on July 20, 2010 at 1:34 PM

Here's an invention:

Using that same concept, you create a wireless device that attaches INSIDE the violin.  You would have several speakers - 1 for soundpost, 1 for the bassbar, and a few around the body -- all attached with maximum contact to convey the sound vibrations.  You would have a very discreet remote of some sort in your pocket, programmed with some tracks (modified mp3 player maybe?  or better yet, an iphone app!!!?)  

Then you can play William Prucil's excerpt recordings and with the right speaker technology, contact points, and placement, you can probably get the fiddle to vibrate about as loud as it would in real life.  now just air-violin with a non-rosined bow, and voila.  NY phil here I come.

Not Sincerely,

Daniel


From Kim Vawter
Posted on July 20, 2010 at 3:50 PM

 Bill, You Rock! 


From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 20, 2010 at 11:34 PM

 Daniel, I'm afraid you missed the concept! No, the idea isn't to impersonate a violinist or make you play better, it's to help break in the wood in a brand-new violin. For example, my Gagliano violin has had 200 years of people playing it, and that has helped it a great deal. A violin made in 2010 can use quite a bit of breaking in. It's great to play it to break it in by playing it, but it's pretty nice to simply set it to vibrating with a lot of excellent music, pick it up an hour later, and play it when it's all resonant!


From Anthony Barletta
Posted on July 21, 2010 at 2:29 AM
Very cool gizmo. I can only hope that it is affordable. From previous posts it is clear that William is quite skilled at using technology as a teaching tool. Best of luck with the invention!
From William Wolcott
Posted on July 21, 2010 at 4:04 AM
It most certainly IS affordable. My number one goal is to help people. Please email me for inquiries and thanks to Laurie for a wonderful visit and taking the time to post a blog. And thank you to everyone for watching. Best to everyone! :-) - William
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on July 21, 2010 at 4:06 AM

I find the piano backup to violin music quite appealing.  It should be good for my students, too.  However, I haven't looked closely at prices.


From William Wolcott
Posted on July 21, 2010 at 4:22 AM

A couple of things to consider regarding pre recorded accompaniments (in no particular order): first and foremost, you must have the appropriate slow down software to render the piano accompaniments useful. I use The Amazing Slowdowner. It costs 50 dollars and is downloadable. It is truly 'amazing', in my opinion. After software is purchased and used in conjunction with the accompaniments, keep these points in mind: 1. Volume. The level must be loud enough for the player to hear while playing. 2. Clarity of sound. I have very expensive Mackie studio monitor speakers which offer a great sound and great volume. 3. Acoustic space. The space is small, which is important for hearing the accompaniment. 4. Not every piece works! Pieces with lots of fluctuation of tempi are worthless. The first mov't of Tchaik is a prefect example. When Laurie was present, my student played the first mov't of the fifth Mozart concerto. The accompaniment was not used for the adagio opening (again worthless), but was used and worked well for the rest of the movement (at least the exposition which she played that particular day). 5. Teacher controls tempo! That I like very much. Lol I hope this helps, and best of luck to you and your students. :) One thing I've found exremely productive is that the accompaniment, when used wisely, offers the student almost an immediate understanding of playing slowly with a full dynamic range. That can shave years off of development! Best of luck to you, Pauline. :)


From D Kurganov
Posted on July 21, 2010 at 8:43 AM

Remember when people used to use those little contraptions to "shock your abs and give you a 6-pack while you're watching tv"   wishful thinking and half-scientific research only goes so far

:)


From William Wolcott
Posted on July 21, 2010 at 1:22 PM

 Actually, it did start out as wishful thinking. On September 11, 2001, in Los Angeles, I played a violin in the white made for me by Jeff Muller (thank you, Jeff!). Though I already owned an Italian violin (Pasquale Ventepane - http://www.prierviolins.com/Fine-Instruments.aspx), I wanted something more "custom" made especially for me.

While it was being made, Jeff and I discussed old vs. modern and what makes great instruments great, etc. Of course, everyone has their opinions. However, one thing that came up repeatedly was "yes, but older great violins have been played for hundreds of years!" 

That was frustrating to me. So I started wishing: "I wish that I could live 200 years to see what a violin could sound like; I wish I could speed up the process somehow. I wish I could just somehow have it played for the equivalent hrs of 200 years worth of playing; etc." You get the idea.  Certainly, I understood (and still do) that playing the equivalent of 200 years in a short time could never be the same as playing over the span of 200 years - obviously.  Still, the idea entertained my thoughts. I already knew of violinists as well as other string players putting the violin against a speaker for a little extra 'umph'. I had also heard of some makers putting their violins in 'boxes' with a speaker to help open up the sound. While interesting to a degree, it did not stop my wishful thinking. 

Then I discovered de-damping:

 http://www.amazon.com/Resonance-Conditions-Instruments-Vibration-Dedamping/dp/1892210029/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1279719427&sr=8-1

 

So.. I tried it myself. Funny thing... I actually turned on my vacuum cleaner and set my violin on it in such a way that the bridge touched the motor of the vacuum. I kept it running for about an hour, or about the amount of time it took before my wife threatened me and my fiddle. haha

Anyway, when I played it, there was definitely an improvement in the sound. My ears told me that. It was obvious, and I've certainly been playing the violin long enough to know the difference. 

But still I was not satisfied with a motor, even a small one, attached to the bridge of an instrument. My 'wish' was to simulate playing as closely as possible. After a lot of wishful thinking and some evolutionary steps, I came up with what you see in my Youtube video. 

Since then, I have shown it to several violinists, including a few very well known players. Every one who I have shown it to - who has tried it- has been impressed, and have heard the results first hand. The concept is simple and effective.

It is true that wishful thinking will only get you so far. However, short-sighted cynicism will get you nowhere.

William

ah yes... I almost forgot...     :)

 

W


From Patricia Terry
Posted on July 21, 2010 at 4:16 PM

The vibralinist is also an excellent tool for use on older unplayed instruments which may need to be "reopened" along with violins that have recently undergone adjustments or modifications.  It is simple to use and so effective.  In an aside, Bill is a most amazing teacher and a virtuoso violinist himself!

PT

 


From Edward Lamaide
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 3:42 AM

You can make one of these your self for under $15

The transducer he is using is from Dayton Audio bought through the company parts express. Here is the link to the product. It is the same thing he is using using NXT technology.

http://www.parts-express.com/pe/showdetl.cfm?Partnumber=300-375

Simply remove the three arms that are sticking off of it and attach a wooden mute to the bottom and you have what he is using in the video. I am not trying to downplay the product at all. I think I am going to make one for my self. I just thought others would like to know what is needed if they wanted to build one as well. I am really looking forward to trying this out.


From Dion Ackermann
Posted on July 22, 2010 at 8:48 AM

 @D. Kurganov :

I agree with you, this should be tested against a placebo to be scientific. Pseudo-science will fool a lot of people, although it can no doubt be profitable.

There are even pastors that can make a short leg grow to full size. You don't believe me, why?, people have seen it. 

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