Whistling E: Why It Happens and How to Fix It

November 5, 2016, 9:20 AM · How many years did each of us put up with whistling E strings before our technique grew out of it? I was never one of the fortunate people who matured out of a technical problem by simply getting older. My method of solving such a problem seems tedious, treating the issue as a physics student would contemplate the universe. I never took physics, but enjoy the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Relativity, at least the preface.

I put up with squeaky E’s and fuzzy G’s through my 40’s. I think some people have quit over those nasty sounds, because how can perfectionists who play the violin not get totally aggravated by them? Fortunately, I stuck with it. (I was already making a living at it, and it was too late to fulfill my mother’s dream of me becoming a dentist.)

squeaky

I like applying physics to problems of sound, vibrations, rubato, vibrato, etc. Physics gets to the heart of something, and once something is true, like a string needing to vibrate, subjectivity is no longer an issue. The squeak happens because, not only is the string not vibrating, but it doesn’t even get engaged. (The actual whistle doesn’t happen on other strings; can any physicists please explain why?) Teachers get subjective when describing how to get into the string, but a little more objectivity would be welcome to focus the mind and the bow.

Why, Part One

The E string whistles because, at the moment of contact, the musician’s rhythm is vague. Since most whistles happen when the open E is approached by a slur, there’s less conscious awareness that the string has been touched. This is the only string that is vulnerable to such an obvious whistle, so being careful about engaging the string is often taken for granted. The E string reminds us of the art of engagement, and getting better at it will help the other strings sound better. The whistle is the canary in the coal mine.

Why, Part Two

If only the violin worked as efficiently as the piano, I would gladly give up the benefit of the violin legato supposedly being more beautiful. We don’t get to play a note and assume it will have a perfect sound as on a piano. The squeaky E rings belts out like a disco ring tone during a Mozart aria, because the vibration of the string has not been engaged. Engagement is the moment when the string starts vibrating. When the string is struck without engaging, what you get is fuzzy, scratchy and raspy.

Strings stop vibrating the moment the bow changes, and thus need to be re-engaged all the time. The engagement process is fascinating because it’s so easy, but at the same time, it requires the conscious attention of the performer. This process is not talked about as much as getting into the string, and the two things don’t go hand in hand.

How, Part One

To make sure the bow is engaging the E string at the right moment, first of all assume that, if you hear the whistle, the right moment has already passed you by. Like everything else in music, and in tennis, the note and the ball are coming at you faster than you anticipated. When the bow is changing to the E string, you’ll need to isolate that moment if indeed it has slipped by you in the past. Downshift your thinking into slow motion mode, even while playing at the correct tempo. If you’ve never tried that, it really works. The mind is capable of full throttle speed while thinking in an observational, slow motion, and “big picture” way.

You can frame one moment in time, while everything else is moving normally. To make sure the bow engages the E string at just the right moment, time it so that the bow is fully square on the string, not halfway between the A and E strings. Rhythm is a very angular process. Shortcuts in rhythm only produce too much variety of results. We musicians depend on each other for learning the unwritten rules.

How, Part Two

To get to the heart of the “engagement” is to figure out how to tame this “mistake machine” known as the violin. The whistling E string is the ultimate laugh that the instrument has on us. At the moment the bow touches the E, the moment of the engagement must take place. It is the gentlest part of the bow technique, the part that wakens the string. Just as the collè stroke suddenly spikes the sound, like a spontaneous staccato, the engagement gives the string its reminder that nothing is more important than the organic vibration of the string. Without the engagement, the string may still vibrate, but half-heartedly and with no recognizable oscillation.

Depending on the thickness of the string, the engagement will feel slightly different. We consciously allow the string to be fully “gathered in” by the hair. (I can’t summon up a better term for the string’s relationship to the hair. Where do you find a physicist who might have thought of this? I’ll bet Einstein’s E string whistled.) The G string takes “longer” to engage; in the conscious mind of the violinist, longer is still momentary.

The E string is so thin, that engagement would seem very simple. But nothing in the violin can be taken for granted. Wait for that moment, isolate it, and let the engagement work its miracle. The collè is now a gentle kiss, and the string will vibrate perfectly. Every time.

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Replies

November 5, 2016 at 11:54 PM · Kaplan "non-whistling" E - a professional life saver.

Try it!

November 6, 2016 at 02:29 AM · Use a wound E string. Also, Stephane Grapellli had the whistle, and his sense of rhythm was anything but vague.

November 6, 2016 at 02:56 AM · Paul, this certainly doesn't invalidate anything you wrote, but I heard that when an e-string whistles what is actually happening is that the string is rotating in a back and forth manner at extremely high speed. In other words it's moving torsionally. I guess I need to ask if anyone else has heard that, or has any evidence true or false. I admit that I don't have that evidence. Just hearsay.

November 6, 2016 at 05:01 AM · That makes sense, Mark, especially the part about the "extremely high speed". A whistle is the result of something extreme. And the torsion part, which I take to mean that the string is being twisted, adds an energy to the mix that we do not want.

November 6, 2016 at 05:39 AM · http://violinacousticblog.blogspot.com/2011/05/violin-open-e-string-whistling-problem.html

part 2

http://violinacousticblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/violin-open-e-string-whistling-problem.html

part 3

http://violinacousticblog.blogspot.com/2011/06/violin-open-e-string-whistling-problem_24.html

November 6, 2016 at 02:46 PM · This is something that has bugged me for the last 15 years or so; before that for some reason it had never happened to me in the 25 years I'd been playing. The only things that have changed are my violin and the brand of strings I use (originally I always used Golden Spiral E strings). Evidently I've tried using different E strings, including gold plated (beautiful sound but no better at avoiding whistles) and in desperation, the famous Kaplan "non-whistling" E, which is unusual amongst E strings, being wound.

But why are most E strings not wound? It's presumably because the sound is simply not as good - no they don't whistle, but neither do they produce that gorgeous clear sonorous sound that can be achieved by a really good steel E string, although obviously the bloke who designed the Kaplan wouldn't agree with me on that. I gave up on the Kaplan for that reason and now just have to chance it and hope for the best. The article in the links given by Albert Yen was very interesting and gives some possible solutions, although as it was written by the inventor of the Kaplan the main solution nevertheless appears to be to buy a Kaplan!

November 6, 2016 at 11:46 PM · I believe that the main reason for a whistling E is the bow transition from the next string down, which is at a lower tension, therefore a bowing technique problem, as my teacher pointed out when I mentioned whistling E's, even though I've never had one. It is also significant (I'm not sure why) that the whistling E seems to happen only with the open string.

I think you'll find that a gut E has little or no tendency to whistle (I've deliberately tried to induce the phenomenon on my gut E's since reading this blog, with no result). A gut E is of course at a lower tension than steel, the organic fibres are wound during manufacture, and it is significantly thicker than a steel E.

[edit added 7 Nov 2016: I think I know why the whistling occurs only with an open string. As has been pointed out, the whistling is a high frequency torsional vibration of the string about its longitudinal axis. If the string is open it can vibrate freely; if it is stopped with a finger that will dampen and effectively kill the high frequency torsional vibration.]

November 7, 2016 at 02:07 AM · Kaplan non-whistling e string has to be about the worst sounding e string on the market. Sure it doesn't whistle, but has no projection. Good bow technique is a better solution.

Cheers Carlo

November 7, 2016 at 06:31 PM · Warchal Amber E is another solution. I assume that the wavy part of the string helps engaging the bow.

November 9, 2016 at 03:46 PM · I have not had an E-string whistle since I switched to Thomastik Peter Infeld Platinum-coated E strings.

November 10, 2016 at 10:15 PM · I now use Infeld Red, and the E string is gold-plated; it produces a beautiful sound (when it doesn't whistle). Might have to try the platinum coated one.

Carlo, I agree about good bow technique, but when you have a serious whistling problem, just try playing a four-note chord with an open E and not tearing your hair out. I'm thinking for example of variation 4 from the 3rd movement of Beetoven's 6th Violin Sonata. 3 out of four times it whistles, and I simply can't find what I'm doing differently when it does work. The whole thing is getting very depressing...

November 10, 2016 at 10:25 PM · "Might have to try the platinum coated one."

On the other hand, at that price...

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