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The Weekend Vote

V.com Weekend Vote: Should young soloists borrow a Strad, or buy a modern?

February 27, 2015 09:17

Events of the last week would seem to demonstrate how fickle arrangements can be, when one is borrowing a fine instrument such as a Strad.

I certainly feel for violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann, who had to give the 1711 Strad he was renting back to the German bank that owned it this week, right before his concert series with the New York Philharmonic. The bank is trying to sell the instrument and Zimmermann had the first option to buy, but by all accounts they priced it some million dollars higher than its already-sky-high valuation that was around $5 million.

Frank Peter Zimmermann
Photo by Klaus Rudulph

Young violin soloists face no small dilemma, when it comes to procuring a fine instrument. Should they borrow (or rent) the very finest instrument possible, knowing that it can be withdrawn at any moment from a sponsor, or that they might be asked to fork over millions of dollars to buy it at some undefined point in the future? Or should a soloist pass up on the chance to play an instrument like that, and instead invest their money and spirit in finding a modern violin that will live up to expectations and carry a much more reasonable price tag?

The simple answer is "get a modern, they're just as good." It's too simple of an answer, though. I've spoken to far too many experienced violinists to believe that there's nothing particularly special about the Strads and del Gesús -- to play one during the crucial beginning of one's career is to have an instrument that will inform your playing and sense of aesthetic for a lifetime. It's a special experience that just might be worth the possible pain of a bad break-up. Plus, you may wind up with a kind sponsor who just lets you use it for your entire playing career.

Or not! It gets very, very ugly, and soloists describe losing their beloved instrument like "losing an arm," one becomes so attached. Certainly, it is like losing your voice.

How would you advise the most promising young soloists today to handle the instrument dilemma?

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32 replies

V.com weekend vote: Do you hold your bow thumb bent or always straight?

February 20, 2015 09:26

There's no such thing as a "proper bow hold."

That's because any "bow hold" we create changes as the bow moves up and down, and we have to let it do so. We try to set up the hand and fingers so that certain mechanics can work, but to describe this set up as a single "bow hold" or "bow grip" is not quite right.

That said, different kinds of finger placement lead to slightly different mechanics, and one of the most crucial fingers in deciding how you cope with that ever-moving stick is the thumb. Is it straight all the time, or does it bend when moving up to the frog?

bent thumbLike many violinists and teachers, I play with, and advocate, a bent thumb. This provides both strength and flexibility in the bow hand, and it requires a strong pinkie, to take the weight of the bow at the frog. Of course, when the bow is far at the tip, the thumb will straighten, but the thumb bends as the bow moves upward and the weight of the stick shifts to the pinkie. It's usually a feature of the Franco-Belgian bow hold.

straightHowever, many players have a bow in which the thumb is straight, even locked, whether at the tip or the frog. This usually involves a high wrist at the frog, and very often the pinkie is straight as well. I would love to hear from those who make this type of bow hand work, because I know less about how the mechanics function in this bow hand, which is more aligned with the so-called "Russian" bow hold.

I have to say, there are a lot of famous violinists who have made rather unusual-looking bow set-ups work, for example:

famous thumbs
L-R: "Paganini," Heifetz, Kavakos, Ysaye

In the above photo (Editor's note, which is a fake! See comments below), Paganini's thumb appears to be pointing up the stick, certainly unusual! It's hard to know how exactly he held the bow several hundred years after the fact, but various drawings and pictures would lead me to believe: rather strangely (perhaps due in part to his Marfan syndrome). This all serves as a reminder: we each have our own physical shape, and so technique will vary.

How do you hold your thumb on the bow? Is it bent at least some of the time, or is straight all the time?

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11 replies

V.com weekend vote: In how many orchestras have you played?

February 13, 2015 11:01

I can still remember the very first time I sat in the elementary school orchestra, playing extremely simple harmonies from this old book (yes I remember the book, even!). The sound of those string harmonies together was the most wonderful sensation. I'm sure it felt bigger than it was -- even though it was only about a dozen little kids, it kind of felt like this:

Mahler rehearsal

About a year after I started playing, I'd already joined a youth orchestra, then I joined several more. In college I played in the symphony, but also in many gig orchestras, many regional orchestras. Today's question is something I can't even answer; in my 30 some years of playing the violin I've certainly played in more than 20 orchestras in the many places I've lived -- Denver, Chicago, Omaha, Cincinnati, LA. Especially if you count things like pick-up gigs!

Still, it's fun to try to think of them all! It's also fun to meet people many years after the fact, and realize that you've played together before! How many orchestras have you played in?

P.S. Many thanks to Mark Roberts for the Weekend Vote idea! If you have an idea for the weekend vote, please click here and e-mail me!

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7 replies

V.com weekend vote: How strong is your fourth finger (left pinkie)?

February 6, 2015 10:08

When it comes to our fingers, the pinkie can be a particularly weak link for us violinists. Today we are talking about the left-hand pinkie, our "fourth" finger, which is usually required to stretch at the same time as it is placed firmly on the string. It's usually the shortest finger, and in some people it's quite short!

Fortunately, pinkie strength can be developed. How strong is your pinkie? Please share with us any pinkie-strengthening wisdom or exercises that you have! And by the way, thanks to Buri for this weekend vote suggestion. Please e-mail me if you have other suggestions, I'm always looking for weekend vote ideas!

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9 replies

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