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The Infuriating Thing

July 26, 2022, 6:02 PM · The infuriating thing about playing a bowed stringed instrument, take the violin for instance, is the number of variables that come into play when evaluating your sound and tone.

“I sound better today. I’m glad I changed out those Dominants for the Obligatos.”

“”Why do I sound so poorly lately? It must be those Rondos I started using.” THEN a week later, “Wow these Rondos sure sound better after getting a setup. Maybe I should get a new setup every time I change the brand of strings I’m using.”

“I sound scratchy. Maybe I need to get a rehair.”

“I sound scratchy. Maybe i need a bit more rosin.”

“I sound scratchy. I think I applied too much rosin.”

“I sound scratchy. Maybe I need another setup after getting that rehair.”

“I sound terrible. Maybe I need to practice more.”

“My thumb hurts. I better stop practicing so much.”

“I sounded okay before i started this new piece. Maybe I’m not ready for it yet.”

“I suck.Why did I start playing this damn thing in the first place?”

“”I’m sounding good today. I hope my strings don’t stretch out with the humidity we’re having.”

And so on and so on.

It’s enough to make a grown man, already struggling with his sanity, go utterly batty. (Not necessarily referring to myself. No, really.)

So, I put some new strings on my fiddle a couple of weeks ago. I had Obligatos on for six months or so. I was sounding…just choose a remark from above!

I’d also been struggling with getting back (after a large number of years) to performing both sautille and spiccato correctly.

I put on Rondos (which I’d never tried before but heard very nice things about here along with a Wondertone E string.

The first few days? Wow! I had reached violin nirvana. I finally started sounding like I misremembered I had when I was younger.

The weird thing is: All of a sudden I was playing sautille and spiccato MUCH better. I felt more in control of the coordination between my left and and my right hand.

My violin teacher was quite impressed as well. He always downplays my violin string concerns (I thing that’s called wisdom!).

Then, in the last few days, things have changed. The strings are still easy to play. But they don’t sound quite the same. I’m hearing a fair amount of weird tones. Maybe wolf tones? And my e string is whistling more than I can ever remember.

So now I get to go down that rabbit hole again. Why is this occurring?

So, a couple of questions. First, do some brands or types of strings make sautille and spiccato easier?

Second, has anyone ever experienced with Rondos or any other string?

If you’re going to tell me to get off the internet and get back to practicing, I’ll accept that remark as well. But I’ll just think of you as my father.

Replies (19)

Edited: July 26, 2022, 6:16 PM · You gotta eliminate most of those categories, because it's not them. The poor craftsman blames his tools.

“I sound terrible. Maybe I need to practice more.”

This is the one, and it's true for everyone. You have to practice as much as you can, and you need to practice completely relaxed so that you can practice a lot and consistently without tension and injury.

If you are putting in a few hours per day consistently, you can look at setup stuff. The strings don't affect bow strokes in a meaningful way. You should just find a set of strings that your violin plays nicely with and leave it alone. Give yourself a 5 year sabbatical from thinking about your equipment and see how your concerns look at the end of those 5 years.

The reason why this condescending advice makes sense is because it is precisely about reducing the amount of variables to think about, and to put your limited time into the variables that will matter the most. If you really have an issue, take your fiddle to a good shop and tell them to give you the works, give you a good set of strings, make any adjustments, and then leave it. Because if you keep these meaningless variables swirling around your head, it will drive you crazy and sap your productivity.

July 26, 2022, 6:31 PM · Just be glad you are not a double reed player. Their problems with reeds make our lives look very easy. Try not to sweat the small stuff so much. Technique is crucial; the rest is icing on the cake. String choice is an enormous rabbit hole for many string players. Try to avoid worrying about it, and let your luthier guide you on that issue and setup issues. And then, just play. Good luck!
Edited: July 27, 2022, 2:35 PM · If I may make a suggestion. One typical feature of stress in this kind of situation is the tendency to focus on and worry about 100 things at the same time.

As much as possible, focus on only one detail at a time, and then practice that one detail for a reasonable period of time (between 3 minutes and 1 hour).

Then, compliment yourself on your focus of attention (and that is important to do) and shift your attention to another detail, and go through the same routine.

The problem is letting yourself think about everything at once. If it's helpful, write down all the details (as you did above) so that you don't have to think about them. They'll always be on your list.

Hope that helps.

July 26, 2022, 7:10 PM · 1) Get rid of the word ‘tone.’. It’s all sound.
2) There are only 4 variables: sound, rhythm, pitch and ease.
Decide which one needs improving and do what Marcus said.
It’s not rocket science.

Cheers,
Buri

July 26, 2022, 7:17 PM · Maybe there is a silver lining: sometimes you are unhappy with your sound because your ear has improved, because your playing has improved, and now your standards are higher, which is a good thing...or, maybe not. Your choice.

When I get frustrated, which is QUITE OFTEN, I remind myself that if it was easy I would get bored and move onto something else. The difficulty is the mystique that drives the pursuit.

July 26, 2022, 10:25 PM · Hi Buri, I am intrigued by what you might mean by "ease." Would you mind explaining further?
Edited: July 26, 2022, 10:39 PM · Just guessing: If your sound, rhythm, and pitch are causing damage to your mind or body then you need more ease even at the expense of the other three.

A long time ago, a voice teacher* once told me that anyone can force himself to sound like Enrico Caruso for a few minutes. But you won't be able to sing for a month afterward.

*not my teacher; I've never studied voice.

July 26, 2022, 10:50 PM · Epic use of semi-colon there, Paul; just perfect.

;-)

There are a lot of factors to playing violin, it's true. And sometimes weird things creep into technique, and sometimes there are other reasons why things just don't work as well or seem to sound as fine.

But I agree that stressing too much about too many things won't help, in fact the opposite.

About strings in particular, many years ago I decided that changing the brand of strings all the time was like a golfer always changing their putter in the hope that they would find "the one" - so I found a matched set of strings I liked and that seemed to work with my violin and haven't changed them since. (In my case, Violino by Pirastro)

Also, a related suggestion: I do think classically focused violinists can get trapped by the cycle of always trying the next hardest thing, rather than mixing in a range of styles and standards to consolidate skills and just enjoy the music.

While the classical canon is impressively extensive and we would all like to climb the ladder of expertise and play all those great pieces, there are also wonderful, timeless pieces that will allow you to get back in touch with pure music-making and not be obsessed with technique.

Edited: July 27, 2022, 12:36 AM · Hi Andrew,
The idea of ease as an equal factor with the others is actually discussed extensively by Simon Fischer in the Violin Lesson. It resonated with me because we share a mutual interest in Alexander Technique which I worked on a lot over the years.
1I think one the defining characteristic of a great player’s technique is complete ease. This is not to be equated with the absence of tension. Tension is an inevitable part of the ebb and flow of violin playing. After all, one does not play an exquisite martele stroke without some kind of appropriate tensing and relaxing. Great players have learnt to return to a neutral , relaxed state faster and more deeply than lesser players. Thus they are always freer to play faster, more cleanly and expressively.
For the rest of us, we have either acquired unnecessary tension through poor training or poor use of the body in general or both and in order to consistently improve the other factors I mentioned wer have to seek more ease, solve a problem and then strive to retain the solution with ever greater ease. This is the way we are able to perform in public with joy, because , irrespective of how nervous we are, rather than tightening up we have already learnt in the practice room what it means to release and relax .
Cheers,
Buri
July 27, 2022, 12:59 AM · I think it's worth remembering that it isn't all about practice and "being the best possible me" but about performance and entertaining people. Most audience members are completely oblivious to all the agonizing and the micro-differences it makes. If you're enjoying yourself, they will too. If not, pretend you are.
July 27, 2022, 4:06 AM · So much wisdom here. I particularly like Jeremy's point about music in different styles, and I find it useful to make music from folk sources part of warm-up time. O'Carolan, kletzmer, Playford... .I don't play any of them at all idiomatically, but once memorized they allow you to use different parts of the bow, or to work with the mirror.
July 27, 2022, 6:58 AM · As a famous man once said, "Look within, Grasshopper." Hilary Hahn could make Supersensitive Red Label strings on a bottom of the line instrument sound wonderful. It's all practice. And realizing that what we hear under the ear is often radically different than what someone else hears 10 feet away. Too much analysis is a bad thing.
July 27, 2022, 7:16 AM · Strings can have a small effect on sautille, etc with changes in tension, but not between weeks for the same string. I suspect from your description that the exact geometry of how you hold your bow and violin is changing between practices (maybe even between measures of the same piece).

I've been amazed to realize how very small changes of where the instrument meets my neck can totally alter the sound and playability of the instrument. Ditto for amount of pressure on bow hand and exact angles of bow arm.

I'd suggest considering that infinite set of variables, instead of the set you list. At least it's free to experiment with, except for time. What works for me is a combination of lessons with a good teacher (and carefully memorizing the internal feel of what works there), then watching myself in the mirror for as much of my practice session as possible. So many of the changes day to day that I thought were in the instrument turned it to be in my posture.

Strings being both relatively and absolutely in time, and bridge angle correct, though, are one thing that can really change by itself day to day so always remember to check. The difference between mostly right and entirely right there is huge

July 27, 2022, 7:20 AM · Weather-dependent bow tension?
July 27, 2022, 9:19 AM · Sander Marcus is right on the money. "The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven" -- John Milton

July 27, 2022, 10:04 AM · In a recent "Late Show" Colbert interviewed John Oliver who, we learned, played the Viola while in school. He noted the ups and downs of playing his Viola, citing that one day you sound great, the next lousy. It never ends.

There is a difference between playing your instrument, playing it well, and playing so well you can be paid to do so.

For me, the journey has had a lot of ups and downs. Those magic moments when the sound is fantastic followed by a day when it's miserable. There are so many variables that it takes a lot of practice to be consistently good.

There was a point where I bought, at the recommendation of my teacher, a "better" violin (Reinhold Schnable Master Artist) that my teacher could make it sing. Sadly, I had the money because of a better job, but that job required 80% travel so I had little time to play/practice and the "better" instrument was way more demanding than the "Family Fiddle" that I initially learned on. I wound up selling the Schnable as I was frustrated every time I put it on my shoulder. It wasn't the instrument, it was me.

Now that I'm retired I have a lot of time to play and my intonation and skills have improved greatly and I can make the Family Fiddle sing. I could probably sound even better with a better instrument that I can now afford but I'm in my mid-70 with osteoarthritis in my wrists and hands and I no longer perform because my hands are not reliable.

Ups and downs are part of the life of being a musician. Of course, I'd love to sound like Joshua Bell when he's having an off day - my best days are not even close to that.

July 27, 2022, 10:45 AM · There are always days when I don't like how I sound. I try to ignore that and push forward. Next day will be different.

One of my teachers one told me this anecdote: She was practicing, her husband nearby on the sofa reading the newspaper. She was unhappy with her tone and made a remark about it. Her husband said: "Why? your are sounding just as good as always".

It is really true that your violin sounds different right under your ear. Chances are that for others it sounds just as always.

If I am really unhappy and frustrated (with my sound or with any technical problem I seem unable to cope with) I stop and try again the following day (as an amateur who is fine with the level he is at I can easily afford to do that).

Edited: July 27, 2022, 11:23 AM ·
With real estate, it's location, location, location. With the violin I think, it's experimentation.

I purchased my violin almost a year ago, and I've since been experimenting with different configurations. That includes breaking my tailpiece, which was much more an advantage than a disadvantage.

I've been experimenting with chin-rest location, strings, tail-guts, bridge position, bows, bowings, bow-holds, shoulder rest location, violin angle and position, etc., etc.

Because I liked the tone when I first purchased the violin, I was reluctant to let my luthier adjust the sound post. (I suspect he deals with a lot of that.) After I broke my tailpiece experimenting with strings by over-tightening the E-string tuner, I had no choice. Post his thorough adjustment of the instrument, the voice was better than ever.

With all this experimentation, the voice of my violin has substantially improved. So, I encourage what you're doing. Eventually, I suspect that you'll settle in on something that you like. I know that, it's worked for me.

July 27, 2022, 11:46 AM · The Infuriating Thing....is that there is no infuriating thing. Just play the right note at the right time!

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