April 2010

Thumbelina's violin hunting adventure

April 18, 2010 21:43

OK, I'm not really that small, but I must have been cast the "small-hand-short-pinky" spell when I was born - my hands are about the same size as my 10-year-old nephew's, and my pinkies are just slightly longer than my 5-year-old nephew's but much shorter than my 8-year-old niece's. Worse, I'm decades past due for a growth spurt... 

As this unsuspecting middle-aged petite woman wondering into the violin-land ten months ago, getting the first violin was fairly painless - I had the people in the violin shop play several 4/4s in and out of my price range, chose two that I thought sounded the best, had my first teacher tried them out (before my first lesson), and picked the one that she thought was more "user-friendly," which happened to have the sound I preferred. It did not take long for me to realize that it was too large - I had a hard time playing 4th-finger notes... 
 
So, I started calling my violin shop to find out if they had any 7/8s. One day someone told me they had several, but when I got there (after taking time off from work), there was none... Strangely, instead of being upset, I left with a new bow, happier and poorer...
 
"Do you have any 7/8s now?" I asked a few weeks later.
"Yes, this one is wonderful. You will love it." He said.
Me: "Great! How much is it?"
Him: "$12,000"
Me: "Umm.., that's a little too much for me right now..." (I had only been learning for 3 months, and just started Suzuki book 2).
Him: "Wait, we have one that just came in. It's a Chinese but the workmanship cannot be better." 
 
I found out that it's by the same maker of the one that I ended up not picking, and it is indeed well made - beautifully flamed two-piece back and ribs, reddish-brown varnish, clean and excellent craftsmanship. The sound is dark, robust and big (It's a del Gesù pattern). I felt that it was slightly easier on the 4th finger, but not by much. I was a little disappointed, as I thought downsizing to a 7/8 would make a huge difference.  However, I had no other choice and the price was right (only a $250 upgrade from my first violin), so I took it.
 
Fast forward -- after 6 months of hand vibrato exercises, I had started practicing scales with vibrato and incorporating it in pieces, but my teacher was not happy with my hand position with vibrato - my fingers were flat on the fingerboard, and my thumb stuck out (I also have extremely short thumbs, which is probably worse than short pinkies) - in fact I had to start relearning my left hand in order to vibrate, and vibrating with the 1st finger was especially difficult. She suggested that I downsize to a 3/4, but keep the 4/4 bows I own. So, back to the shop I went...
 
I tried every 3/4 violin priced above my 7/8 up to $5,500 (in order to trade-in, it must be either a size or a price upgrade), but was not particularly impressed with the sound of any of them. James, a very good jazz violinist working there who had helped me with bow issues before, came to help me try out the violins.  He inspected my 7/8, and told me that the fingerboard is that of a full-size, and it's too flat, so I have not been taking full advantage of what a "real" 7/8 violin has to offer. He found a 7/8 old German Strad copy (the only 7/8 they had), and asked me to try it for a week (I didn't really like the sound) along with the 3/4 Clement & Weiss that I picked out after playing many non-stop for 4 hours.  I also decided that if I were to drop more than $2K on a 3/4, I wanted to make sure it's the best sounding one I could find, so I called another venerable local shop for an appointment, and arranged a 3/4 Carlo Lamberti Strad, and a sub-$3K 7/8 to be shipped from Shar for an in-home trial...
 
The following week I practiced with both violins, but couldn't decide which one was right for me - vibrato is easier than before on both, but is slightly easier on the 3/4 since it has a smaller neck.  With the 7/8, it's easier to play in tune and shift to 7th or higher positions than before (probably thanks to the arch and the slope of the fingerboard), but I still have challenges with reach.  With the 3/4, reach is not a problem, but my arm feels cramped especially when the elbow is way under the violin...  As I was practicing Kayser #7, some chords were easier on the 7/8 but harder on the 3/4, and vice versa. I went back and forth with each, which really messed up my intonation, but still could not make up my mind. It was driving me crazy...
 
The next lesson I dragged both in.  I started with the 3/4 - 3-Oct. Bb minor scale & Bb arpeggios, Kayser, Trott, then my teacher had me tried 2-3 whole-step trills that was hard for me before, and the fingered-octaves. She exclaimed "THIS IS YOUR VIOLIN!"  Then I started playing my review piece - The Two Grenadiers...  "Stop! Did you hear the sound?" It was the C-G slur. "You were hitting the A string when you placed your 3rd finger down." she said. Now I heard it too. "Um, that's the disadvantage of a smaller violin", I said. She was not convinced - she thought it was a finger stretch issue until I pointed out that my finger is thicker than the string spacing, and that's why it was touching the other string. I tried different ways to maneuver to no avail. So, she had me tried it on the 7/8 - No problem!  2-3 trills? Still hard... Fingered-octaves? Barely...  So,  I guess I will have to pick my battle - do I want to learn to stretch so I can reach farther? or do I want to learn to play without touching another string? "Maybe you need a custom violin, or you can ask whether they can alter one for you." My teacher said. "Yeah, right! Custom violins cost a lot and I'm only an early beginner... I cannot justify spending that kind of money at my level..." I thought.
 
I called my violin shop and discussed my quandary about the violins on trial. The guy answering the phone told me that altering either violin for me is not possible - "What if you don't like it after we alter it for you and you don't want to buy it?" He asked. He was impatient and a little rude, and I was upset. I decided that I would rather keep my 7/8, cut my losses, and bring my business somewhere else...
 
The next Saturday I went to the small violin shop I had an appointment with - they didn't have as many violins, and there was no play rooms, so I had to play in front of everyone. Luckily I was the only customer there, but it was still embarrassing. I tried a couple 3/4s and the only 7/8 they had - an old Rudolf Wurlitzer, which looks like a twin brother of the German Strad. I like the sound of the 7/8, and the neck feels so right in my hand, but the fingerboard is narrow and string spacings are small, more like a 3/4, and of course reach is still a problem. The woman who fronted the shop, Caitlin, was very patient and eager to help me. I told her about my concerns, and she explained what she could do if I purchase the violin from them - "We can replace the nut and widen the string distances". "Is it possible to shorten the string length then?" I asked. "Sure, we can cut the fingerboard, and fit a wider nut there." Then she asked the girl who had been sorting tailpieces quietly to play the violin for me.  Now I recognized her - I had seen her in concert twice last year -- she is Kelly Talim, a very talented 13/14-year-old violinist. She threw everything at it - Bruch Concerto, Mendelssohn Concerto, Buch's Chaconne, etc. It was a treat, and I loved the sound she made on that violin. One last issue - the price was over my $3K budget. "We will work with you. If you like the instrument, we are willing to discount it." Wow, I'm sold already! So I  took it out on trial for a week. Caitlin even replaced the tailpiece with one that has built-in fine tuners to make this beginner's life easier.
 
On my way home, I started thinking - Why do I have to buy another violin to have it altered? Would it make more economical sense to have my 7/8 modified instead?  All I want is a violin that I don't have to struggle to play; sound is no longer as important to me anymore. Besides, I still prefer the sound of my violin to anything I have tried so far, except for the last 7/8, but the difference is hardly worth $3K. So I decided to find out how much the cost of modification would be, first from my old violin shop (since they sold me the instrument), then the other one.
 
In the mean time, the violins from Shar arrived -- I did not like either of them.  The 7/8 has a thick neck, and the fingerboard edge is too sharp, which digs into my hand, so it's uncomfortable to play...  The 3/4 has a wider fingerboard than all the 7/8s except my own. Also, both came with only a fine tuner on the E - the pegs were hard to turn and one of them kept slipping.  Sorry Shar! They are going back.
 
I waited impatiently until Tuesday (Violin shops here don't open on Mondays), and called James - he still remembered my violin, and thought the shop should make it right for me, since I bought it from them. He said that he would talk to the owner, the manager, and the repair department head, and hopefully it would not cost me anything to have it corrected. I was so excited!
 
The next day I took time off from work and brought my violin in. Janet,  the head of the repair department, asked me what I liked and disliked about each violin and told me what she would do -- narrow the neck, replace the fingerboard, refit the nut with correct string spacings, and cut a new bridge.  I asked whether it's possible to also shorten the string length, and she decided that an "in-between" (3/4 and 7/8) string length would work. James told me that after all is done, it would feel like a new violin, and best of all - it's free-of-charge. I cannot thank him enough!
 
Yesterday I returned the 7/8 from the other shop, and explained to Caitlin what had happened, so I would not be buying the violin unless the modification doesn't work. She was very gracious, and told me that if I need a violin to practice in the mean time, I am welcome to borrow one from them. I had already found out that she is an award-winning violin maker (She won  two Certificates of Merit for Tone in the 2006 VSA Competition for her viola and quartet), so I asked her what her rate is if I decided to commission a violin from her.  It's very inexpensive for someone with such impressive accomplishments. I have made up my mind -- I'll commission my next violin from her when (if?) I reach the Mendelssohn Concerto level, not only because she is a great violin maker, but I love the idea that my violin is made by a woman...
 
I visited my violin at the shop yesterday - the neck has not been finished yet, but it was indeed like a complete different violin. It was much easier to play, fitted my hand better, although my finger fell off the E string a few times, because now the E string is very close to the edge, but that would be easy to adjust. Also, I would have preferred the fingerboard edge to be a little rounder, James promised to see what they could do about it.  Hopefully I'll soon have a violin that's almost "custom-made."
 
Even though it was daunting and frustrating at times, I'm glad my search is over, and it has a happy ending. Overall, my experiences with all the shops have been positive.  I feel lucky that I live in a city where violin shops stand behind the products they sell, and where I have access to good violin makers and luthiers.
 
I hope my experience can help others, whether they are beginners looking for their first violin, or players with physical challenges looking for a playable violin.  I will write another blog entry soon to share how I tested violins and what to look out for when one's main concern is playability. Stay tuned...

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