The Poisonwood ... Peg? A Tale of (among other things) a Falsely Accused Mosquito

June 30, 2013, 10:24 AM ·

While in New York, a friend, the violin maker Brian Skarstad, spoke highly of a new violin that had just reached his shop by a colleague of his, John Moroz of Salt Lake City. I wasn’t in the market for another violin, but was going to be driving right past Brian's shop in Pleasantville, New York, and so out of curiosity I stopped in.

Fifteen minutes later, I left—with the Moroz violin. A beautifully made instrument on a Guarneri model, it was pretty stiff competition for my Italian violin, an excellent Gaetano Gadda bearing a Scarampella label. The Gadda was put to good use by my partner, Nancy Elan, in one of the major London orchestras, and I started playing the Moroz.

Some months later, when a round welt on my neck began itching mercilessly, I was not surprised. After all, the mosquitoes in Occupied Palestine can be voracious, and it was just unfortunate that one happened to bite me where the violin rubs against my neck. But the whole violin-side of my neck soon became raw, stinging such that it would wake me night after night, and only the prolonged spray of a hot shower would provide even brief, partial relief. The skin began to shrink on that side of my neck, as if there were dried glue on it.

Briefly back in New York, I went to a dermatologist. He suspected I was allergic to the nickel on the chinrest hardware or to the ebony, or perhaps I had a fungus. I’ve never been allergic to chin rest hardware, but covered it with tape to eliminate it as a suspect. My neck continued to get worse. I still held the mosquito world responsible for the original (now rather horrific) circular welt half-way down my neck, though clearly something else was also going on.

It happened that my first two weeks back in the West Bank I was playing viola in a chamber group. Only viola, no violin, all day long, for two weeks. My neck stabilized and began to heal. After the last concert in that group I returned to my violin, and immediately my neck broke out with new vengeance.

Now that it was clear that something on the violin was the actual cause, rather than merely exacerbating some other culprit, such as the fungus theory, I realized two things that I should have noted earlier. One, like many violinists who tend to play with the chin centered rather than to the side, my chin touches the tailpiece about as much as it does the chin rest. And two, my inflamed ‘mosquito bite’ just happened to be precisely where the end pin meets my neck. The cause had been literally right in front of me—the instrument's exotic wood tailpiece and end pin.

John Moroz had used a matched set of very high quality fittings for the violin made from a fine Brazilian wood called caviuna. But the wood, as we now learned, is known for causing strong allergic reactions. The problem had not been apparent when I first bought the violin, probably because the wood was varnished and the toxic substances took a while to ooze out.

I hermetically sealed the tailpiece with tape, spanned a barrier over the end pin by threading it through the legs of the chin rest clamp, and used a cloth over everything, to be sure. The wood of the tailpiece and end pin was so toxic to my skin that it took a good month before my neck was close to normal again, but the problem was fixed (and the mosquito vindicated). All I needed to do was insulate myself from the wood until I was next in New York, where Brian would replace tailpiece, end pin, and pegs with ebony ones.

But there was one final twist to this saga. After Brian replaced the fittings, I shed the protective cloth and played—and within an hour my neck flared up again. I was really beginning to think that I needed an exorcist rather than a luthier. The only explanation I could conjure (short of dark magic) was that during the months I played the instrument with the Evil Wood, my skin was continually smearing the oils from the tailpiece onto the (otherwise innocent) chin rest, and so my old chin rest was now contaminated.

So I got a new chin rest, took a deep breath, and played. Exorcism successful.


July 1, 2013 at 02:07 AM · Truly a Devil's instrument if I've ever seen one!

July 1, 2013 at 12:10 PM · Wow. I'm sorry you had to go through all that trouble! I'll definitely keep an eye out for caviuna

July 1, 2013 at 01:33 PM · I began using the Strad Pad in my teens. I don't like direct contact with any chin rest, whatever the material, or its hardware. I can practice and play 3 hours a day -- more on days when I can fit it in -- without any skin irritation. These washable devices I find a great boon -- no separate cloth to keep track of.

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