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Two Years With a Mezzo Violin

July 21, 2012 at 9:25 PM

2 Years and 2 Months with a mezzo violin.

In the last three months I have been racking my brain to describe the sound of this mezzo. I even went back to my old violin for three weeks so I could have a fresh listen. All that I can say is that it is right in the middle of what a violin should sound like. Not shrill, not dark but it is warm and has excellent projection over the full range of all four strings. It is to a violin as a mezzo is to a soprano in the opera therefore maybe just a bit more solid in sound. To play loud is easy, but I have to work on playing softly, This necessitates using half as much bow of my stand mate at church. This instrument has opened up as I’ve played it and it is a pleasure.

The mezzo is the development of work that was started in the Catgut Acoustical Society. It is part of the New Violin Family of eight graduated instruments that has been developed over the last sixty years. The New Family Instruments are in their fourth generation of refinement. With consultation from acoustical physicists, Carleen Hutchins developed the first two generations and Robert Spear the second two. (Google to find more.)

This latest generation of mezzo is based on the grand pattern of Stradivarius. The pattern has been scaled up proportionately in all dimensions until the body length is 14.5 inches in length (14” is standard). My instrument weighs 20 ounces versus 16 oz for my old German trade fiddle. Therefore there is no thinning of the plates to achieve the sound that it produces.

Bob Spear designed my instrument and contracted with a Chinese maker to fabricate high grade affordable new family violins. Final set-up is by Bob in Ithaca. (Find the website for Singing Woods Violins for more.) In the European market, there is Joris Woulters of Belgium that hand makes new family instruments. Last year it was estimated that at most about 150 mezzos existed in the world therefore finding one to try, if you are not in New York State, is difficult.

The playability and sound of this imported instrument are a great value for the investment. The workmanship is just what you would expect from a Chinese factory violin with noticeable chisel marks on the scroll. For the benefit of acoustics, the varnish is thin and not the thick over polished varnish we see on other factory violins. Details like matched flame pattern on the back are what you get when you spend more money. But these details will not be noticed beyond the second row in the audience.

I am one of those returning to the violin after fifty years and this instrument has made me a better player. Three years ago, I got roped into playing weekly at church with another violinist and an organist. This gave me an excuse to buy a new instrument. It is my desire was to have an instrument from the hands of a disciple of Carleen Hutchins. This is a compromise, but it was designed and set up by Bob.

I am more properly practicing and implementing techniques that I was taught in the fifties. Although my manner of holding the bow is changed and improved through observation and discussions on and use a fairly decent carbon fiber bow. Back then I used a steel bow!

Intonation and quality of sound are my current goals. I didn’t properly learn key signatures back then, therefore am trying to stay in first position for the rest of this year in order to learn and keep key fingering patterns in tact. In practicing the weekly hymns just before reading the hymn, I play through the scale of that key. In order to improve fourth finger placement going up and down, today I started to repeat the D, A or E on the open string to check finger four. Now, I know why Chris Kirsh made me fight through Flesch. And I just can’t help it but my left hand just keeps slipping up into third position where it works better for a phrase or two.

Vibrato is another problem. When I was a teenager, I had a good arm vibrato. Now, if I could grip the fiddle better with my chin, the vibrato would return. I am working to get the chin rest and shoulder rest just right (hopefully to drop the shoulder rest for better sound). The Berber chin rest seems to be pretty good but wish for a larger rib to grip under my jaw. I have a home made leather wrap around from over the chin rest to under the violin that cushions my collar bone.

I still use the Kun and have added a wedge of firm foam under the end of the back retained by the leather, a collar rest? (Sorry, Dylana, it is working well for me but, yes, the shoulder rest does dampen the sound.)

Bob has written that the mezzo will make you a better player. I can just say that it is true for me.

(IMO) If Antonio Stradivarius had lived thirty years longer, this would be the violin pattern size that he would have developed. Unfortunately, he died prematurely at 93.


From Dena Strauss
Posted on July 22, 2012 at 1:24 AM
"Last year it was estimated that at most about 150 mezzos existed in the world therefore finding one to try, if you are not in New York State, is difficult."

Maybe they should make that 151? My dad built a fiddle for me back in 2001 that was just this size. I had been complaining about the brightness of my orchestra violin and the need to step up. Dad made "fiddles" and wanted to see if he could make one that was warmer. Had no idea it was called a "mezzo" though. It is warmer, has a very mellow sound, yet not quite a viola. And it was all made by hand - not in a factory. Nice job, Dad.

From Man Wong
Posted on July 23, 2012 at 2:01 PM

Sounds a little bit like my 100-yo(?) Juzek, except my Juzek's body is a bit deeper instead of longer. I'm just an adult beginner and nowhere near good enough to make good use of it, but my nearly-13-yo son occasionally plays it and used it for Kreisler's Praeludium & Allegro, and it sounds fantastic for such a piece -- his teacher also thinks quite highly of this old violin.

Thanks for sharing this...


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