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Laurie's Violin School: What Violin Should You Buy?

By Laurie Niles
Published: October 20, 2014 at 12:25

Why get a nice violin for your student, if you aren't sure that he or she is "serious" about the violin?

If you enroll your child (or yourself!) in violin lessons, you should be serious enough about the endeavor to try to ensure success, and having a decent instrument is one part of that equation (along with adequate practice time and space, and a good teacher).

All violins are NOT created equal. One can see that just from the price range: about $20 for the cheapest Internet imports vs. tens of millions of dollars for an old Italian Stradivarius. There is a lot in between! Price does not always correlate with the "best" violin for you, particularly when one gets into the $10,000+ range. But below a certain point, a lower price does point to a certain amount of corner-cutting. Anything below about $1,000 for a full-size, and you need to watch what you are buying. Actually, no matter what, you need to watch what you are buying!

First, what's the problem with a cheap violin? If you'd like the long answer, here is the article I wrote about it. In short, if the violin is of bad quality, it's not very fun to play. It's nearly impossible to use the pegs and fine tuners. So it's out-of-tune most of the time. You put your fingers in the right places, and it's still out of tune. You try to use the bow the way your teacher says, and the sound is still squeaky, thin, tinny. The pitch bends. It's not pretty to look at. It smells funny. It feels funny. You try really, really hard to make it sound nice, and it never does, because it's impossible to make it sound nice.

What makes for a "good" violin?

1. Sound. Does it have a pleasing tone; does it respond to vibrato; does it resonate?

2. Fit. For a child, make sure you are getting the right size violin. (Here is more information on determining that.) More advanced students will want to consider: Does it fit your hand? How thick is the neck; can you get around the fingerboard easily? Does it feel particularly heavy or unwieldy? Not all violins are exactly the same shape, so it's important to get the right one for you.

3. Ease of tuning. Do the pegs work? Are they made of plastic or wood? Do they turn easily, or do they stick and slip? Are the fine-tuners metal or plastic? Do they work? Do they appear like they'll hold up under hundreds of tunings?

3. Set-up. Is the bridge set up properly? Is the bridge well-crafted or does it look thick and cheap? Is the soundpost in the right place? This greatly affects how the sound functions. You may need the help of your teacher or of a trusted violin maker to determine this.

4. Composition of the violin. Is the bottom made of spruce, the top made of maple? Is the fingerboard made of ebony or something similar? Those are the basics, and there are variations. But a violin made of cheap, improperly seasoned wood will not sound as good or hold up in the same way.

5. Craftsmanship. Is it made well? Are the seams glued properly? Is the purfling inlaid or just painted on? Is the finish and varnish attractive? Does it smell weird? Sure, some of this is cosmetic. But year-over-year, the sturdiness and beauty of good craftsmanship makes a difference.

How about a cheap violin that is old? Or one that you found in the attic? Keep in mind, when it comes to violins, old is very often (but not always) better than new. Time helps weed out really bad violins -- if it is a truly horrible instrument, people tend not to bother keeping it. You may be able to fix up an old violin and have it sound very nice. You may be able to buy an old violin for cheap, but still wind up having a nice violin. But watch out: you also may have to spend a lot of money to fix it. If the violin has cracks or open seams, you'll need to have a violin maker repair them. You'll need new strings, possibly a new bridge, have the soundpost checked, get new tuners or pegs, etc. So be prepared to pay something for repairs if you want to use the fiddle in the attic, and have a violin teacher or maker look it over and tell you if this will really be worthwhile before you commit.

I hope this helps, and I invite you to add any more considerations to the above list!

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What's in your head as you hear?

By Kate Little
Salt Lake City, Utah
Published: October 18, 2014 at 12:00

My ability to hear classical music has evolved with time. It used to be that I could not really make sense of music. A symphony was an overwhelming wash of undifferentiated energy, akin to being caught and tumbled about by an ocean wave. Chamber music sounded like irritating static noise. Solo piano or violin sounded like cat scratch and screech. Yet, I was certain that there was something of value in the sound that abused my ears, so I kept listening.

Eventually music turned into a string of black dots. Some dots were bigger, some smaller, some higher, some lower, but otherwise undifferentiated as they continued their march through my ears. The dots’ music was not particularly interesting, but at least it was a step toward differentiated sound.

With time, the black dots turned into shapes (still colorless), and their string became a surface. This added definition and a 2nd dimension to what I heard, but the music still seemed boring. However, increased visualization led to an ability to verbally narrate (silently) a musical piece as it played out. In my head music sounded like: “A sequence. It’s going up. Hear the swell. And there the phrase ended. Oh! A new section beginning. The clarinet and flute are intertwined. Strings providing underlying harmony . . .” A new skill, simultaneous verbal description was developing more detailed and specific hearing, and music was becoming interesting.

By and by, architectural, sculptural and kinetic qualities supplemented the analytical narration. As if I were again a child playing with blocks, a symphony can now feel like a building under construction, as I tour the edifice building a mental map of the size and location of rooms, running a hand over wall surfaces to feel their varied textures. Sometimes this imagery morphs into waves of fabric undulating with the music, defining sonic space with motion, color, and light.


Photo courtesy of Mercedes Smith

It is with these physical interpretations and sensations that music has evolved from interesting to evocative.

Considering the tools my imagination uses to perceive and process music, verbalization is the one which brings specific meaning to what I hear. However, physical and emotional interpretation is what brings enjoyment. For me, the verbal perception of music dominates and it is gnawing at me lately as I now want to feel music. So, at a recent concert by Mercedes Smith, flute, and Karlyn Bond, piano, I decided to turn off the verbal spigot. Surprisingly, the other ways of processing dissipated along with it, and I was left hearing pure sound in my head: Sound with auditory color, shape, form, motion; Sound with dimension, sense and meaning; Sound inducing physical and emotional sensation; Sound carrying me on a journey from beginning to end. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes dark, sometimes melancholy, sometimes boisterous. But moving! And, happily, a long way from the static noise of when I first started listening.

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Nostalgia for 'Hedwig's Theme'!

By Joshua Iyer
Aurora, Illinois
Published: October 18, 2014 at 09:22

I just found this really neat video on the evolution of "Hedwig's Theme". I was a late bloomer to all the Harry Potter fandom, but still, this video is fantastic, as it takes you through the titles of tracks, the films, the pictures, the four composers' takes on William's theme, and the various orchestrations used for the LSO to play this theme all throughout the Harry Potter Decade of 2001 - 2011. Obviously all the instruments change roles, but I think the violins do especially, going from quick runs to having the actual melody of the theme. So anyways, enjoy! Just wanted to share this. :P

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Competitions: A Competitor's Perspective

By Daniel Tan
Melbourne, Australia
Published: October 18, 2014 at 05:46

Up until recently I have only really been an observer of all the major violin competitions; Menuhin, Indianapolis etc. avidly following the coverage, the articles, the debate and of course the performances. Violin (and musical) competitions seem to get an interesting rap among the community. Some people think they're necessary, some people don't; some people don't like the judging, others do... the list goes on. So I was no doubt very curious to see it all for myself when I found myself short-listed as a semi-finalist for the Kendall National Violin Competition (Australia) (August 2014).

For starters, to be honest I have no idea how I managed to make it into the final eight in the first place. Armed will little recording experience and no pianist to record with (up until the week beforehand), I was somewhat surprised when I was informed of my progression into the semi-final round. Nonetheless, it is exciting in itself to see your playing and work validated in this manner (that said I could have been 8 out of 8 applicants for all I know) and I looked forward to the semi-finals greatly.

The competition day began early at Melbourne Airport amid the usual chaos and confusion that air travel often elicits. Sydney is only an hour of flying away from Melbourne so nothing too serious or taxing, and air travel always conjures a sense of excitement for me personally anyway! Despite the jet lag and tiredness, having arrived back from New York less than a week earlier (another story for another time); I hardly noticed due to my anticipation of the day ahead (not to mention my personal machinations regarding getting my violin on and off the plane in one piece).

Despite a temperamental plane door, arriving in Sydney and at the Con was no issue and my Dad and I enjoyed the time we did have to go for a walk around the gardens and Opera House beforehand. Despite being a proud Melburnian, I love Sydney and every opportunity to visit the city.

I had opted not to fly into Sydney the day before because unfortunately university orchestra dealt me a 7 hour rehearsal call the day before the competition. I would just have to manage my performance with one rehearsal before the competition on the day, with the official pianist for the competition. I arrived at the Con around 10:30am just before the first session commenced and was warmly greeted by the organisers and some other competitors before being shown a room to warm up in. Shortly after I enjoyed a smooth rehearsal with the wonderful pianist who also took the liberty to show me around the incredibly large music school that is Sydney Con.

It is worth pausing here to say that despite our best intentions, it is almost always impossible to come into these performances feeling prepared. As I mentioned previously, I had only recently arrived back from a month of study in the US, and was in the thick of a rehearsal period for an orchestral program the following week. As such, in the warm up room and with the pianist, I could feel my lack of preparedness showing. Be it in dodgy intonation, or just a general lack of musical refinement. However, whilst these things add to nerves no doubt, I had resolved myself earlier that day to just fully enjoy the new experience and do my best to make the best music I possibly could on stage later that day.

Thankfully for the semi-final, Kendall's repertoire requirements are not hugely onerous, requiring a movement from any of the solo Bach Sonatas or Partitas, a movement from a major violin sonata, and a show piece. I had chosen to play the following:

Bach, Partita No.2 in D Min, Sarabande
C. Franck, Sonata in A Maj, 2nd Movement
F. Kreisler, Tambourin Chinois (brought in last minute to replace a horrendously under-prepared Introduction and Tarantella)

After warming up, rehearsals, some fresh air and lunch, the second half of the semi-finals commenced. Playing second in this session, I watched one of the following competitors go on and off from back stage whilst trying to direct my own attention to something non-violin related (as I often do to keep nerves in check).

My performance flew by in a blur. I remember having to contend with a shaky bow all through my Bach, before settling much more through my final two pieces. Personally, I often ruminate over technical concerns too much as a violinist, and as such I tried to focus heavily on the music and the gesture of the performance. Whilst it definitely wasn't the most flawless or refined performance I have ever given, I would like to think I achieved the character and musicality I was aiming for that day. To me though, what I most fondly remember of that performance is how much I enjoyed it, and how genuinely lucky and alive I felt to be on that stage that day. Upon talking to some audience members later, I was glad to hear that came across.

However, the highlight of my day came when I finally got to sit down and listen to the two remaining competitors. To cut a long story short, I was absolutely blown away by what I heard. Both had such wonderful sound and suppleness of tone, incredible senses of virtuosity and colour, but above all, great generosity of musical intent. I left those performances feeling thoroughly inspired and renewed in my own quest to better my ability on the instrument.

In general, that is how I felt about the whole day. I didn't get through to the finals in the end (unsurprisingly), but I didn't feel like I had lost either. I had just experienced an inspiring day of music making, welcomed openly and warmly into a new environment by its lovely organisers and stakeholders. I cannot speak highly enough of the competition. I felt incredibly welcome the entire time, and the environment cultivated was nothing but open and friendly. My only regret was honestly not being able to see more of the performances, or to meet more of the competitors properly. I flew home that evening utterly exhausted (I fell asleep against the window, which made me glad I chose that seat) but entirely renewed in my focus and desire to become a better musician.

I hope that I can make it into such competitions in the future, and enjoy more of what other violinists are capable of. With a lot of work, a new program and a bit more new found experience under my belt, hopefully Kendall will welcome back with open arms in 2015.

This can also be read here at my personal blog.

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