“You need to break in a new fiddle?" said my friend, violinist Bill Wolcott. “Then I've got something to show you!"
On a whim, I had brought along my new Hiroshi Kono fiddle to show Bill while I was visiting him Sunday at the Omaha Conservatory in Nebraska, since I like those fiddles so much for my students and having been enjoying this one for me. I had no idea he'd spring a new invention on me: the Vibralinist (TM).
I watched as he assembled a black box and some wires and hooked them up to his computer. Then he showed me what looked like a mute on steroids, all hooked up to this gizmo. He started some music from iTunes on his computer, and the music came weakly through the gizmo. Then he clamped it onto the bridge of my violin and – Voilà! The music was coming loud and clear – through my fiddle, as though Isaac Stern himself were playing Bach right through my little Hiroshi Kono!
I never realized that my good friend is also a mad inventor! We left my fiddle with Bill's patent-pending "Vibralinist" machine, to feel the vibrations from Stern, Midori, Szigeti and others, and went to get some coffee and catch up. When we came back, I could hear a difference: the sound had opened up just a little more. Bill likes to pipe violin music and also some vocal opera music into violins using the Vibralinist. Amazing!
Our cross-country road trip brought us to Omaha, where Bill teaches. It's a city where I once lived and worked – as a violinist in the Omaha Symphony and as a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. I also had some violin students in Omaha – fantastic students – and when I moved away in 1996, I literally could not find a teacher for them because so few professional violinist were teaching here at the time. This is why I'm happy to see an excellent teacher like Bill teaching full-steam ahead at the Omaha Conservatory, capturing the imagination of his students with both music and technological innovation.
Earlier in the day, I watched as Bill taught 13-year-old Yasmeen, who started her lesson by playing the entire “Souvenir d’Amérique" by Henri Vieuxtemps from memory. Nice! Well-played, great harmonics. She had the piece in good shape and Bill sought to increase her comfort in performing: to give her control, to steady the tempo. He suggested making the dotted notes good and long, placing certain notes, taking time. “That kind of control is so important," he said, “it's not about how fast you play."
He took out some of his gadgetry to help her with the Adagio beginning of Mozart Concerto No. 5. First, he filmed her with a Zoom Q3, a Flip-like video device that records high-quality sound and allows him to easily e-mail the videos to his students. He also had her play the Allegro Aperto from the same movement, but quite under tempo, with piano accompaniment provided by the computer: He uses piano accompaniments from PianoAccompaniments.com and can render them at any tempo – with no degradation of pitch – with the help of The Amazing Slow Downer software, available for Windows as well as Mac computers. Bill isn't just an aficionado of new technology; he loves the old stuff, too.
In his small studio, with its walls covered with black and white photos of Eugene Fodor (who mentored Bill), Anne-Sophie Mutter, Heifetz and more, is an old-fashioned turntable that plays the big vinyl records. By his feet sits a plastic box labeled “Bill's Inventions." What will he come up with next?
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