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Inside-the-Shop are informative articles
written by Kevin Smith, Luthier of The Violin Shop
A breeze moved the heavy air and gave it a little relief. Thick clouds threatened rain, but the roads were still dry. I pulled into my parking stall, unlocked the front door of my shop, and turned off the security.
I love mornings. Everything is possible. Everything is new.
Sitting at my bench reviewing my work, the wind began to kick up. Picking up my tools I didn’t think much about it. A few hours later it still hadn’t rained but the day had become dark. Although it didn’t seem noteworthy until the light got strange. It was a dark, iridescent green. So green it was messing up my perception of the varnish I was retouching.
I walked out my front door and the entire sky, all the dark clouds—green. The air in front of my face had a green cast. I looked to my right and saw my business neighbor standing with her mouth open. She was green too. It was eerie.I found out later it’s a symptom of tornado weather. One of the kids who worked for the vet in the front offices had a hole punched in the roof of his house and was telling me about it the next day. How his tree had been uprooted and crushed his neighbors’ car.
The problems I was working on seemed pretty minor at that moment. But it was definitely a time for oddities. Due to the muggy days I did a lot of sound adjustments when the weather shifted. One of the most memorable was a violin played by the assistant concertmasters’ wife. He played on a Guarneri Del Gesu, and I believe his second instrument was a Vuillaume. His bows were just as impressive. Old French. So when the weather had affected his wife’s violin I expected to see something nice. But I was completely unprepared for what I was about to see. Unzipping her case, releasing the latch, lifting the lid—it all seemed normal. Then she pulled out a violin that looked like it was made with a hatchet and varnished with shoe polish. It was hideous and I looked at her husband in disbelief. All he said was: “Listen to it.” It was as surreal as the thick air turning green the day before.
In 30 years as a violin maker, I have to place it as one of the best five instruments I’ve ever heard. It had everything you want. Not a response flaw to be found. You couldn’t hear when the bow crossed to another string. And the sound had the patina that made Italy famous. The sound found in that east-west corridor of central Italy until about 1750. From the looks of it, it was made sometime in the early 20th century. Not much wear to it; no neck graft; no repairs. And a complete shock to the myth of old, European instruments having a lock on sound. As a matter of fact there have been a lot of great sounding instruments made in the last 100 years. From nearly every part of the world. And it’s only getting better.
This brings into question another closely related myth. The relation between cost and sound. So often someone will get locked into a mindset of price range. Don’t get me wrong though, knowing your price range is a good thing. But don’t let it affect your judgment of sound. Instruments are not priced according to sound. At least not for the most part. You can find good sounding instruments in almost all price ranges.
The violin world is steeped in romance and myth. And it makes it all the more alluring. But there is a difference between the two: the romance is an attribute that brings pleasure and mystery. Myth on the other hand feels like romance on the surface, but is in fact a detriment. A myth is essentially not true. Or at best it’s unproven. It’s based on an assumed solution of an unanswered question. In the story above the question was new vs. old. European vs. American.
Another example of myth is the myth about that the way bow hair works. I don’t hear it as much any more, but for years it was rumored the barbs on the hair, that you can see through a microscope, grabbed the string. Now it’s true that hair has barbs. But as far as I can see that’s where it ends. If barbs were used to grab the string then you would have a good up-bow or a good down-bow, depending on which direction the hair was put in the bow …. but the other direction would be useless.
The other part of this myth is that the barbs hold the rosin and when they are worn off the rosin won’t hold anymore. This one sounds a little more reasonable, but it’s still off the mark. If you’ve ever had rosin on your hands you know how it grabs onto anything. Barbs are a myth. When hair stops working it’s for a good reason. The first reason is that over time there are going to be oils and other impurities that get built up on the hair. And that’s going to happen no matter how careful you are about preventing it. It will just take a lot longer to happen, that’s all. The second reason hair stops working is it gets old and inflexible. When it gets old and loses its elasticity it won’t flex and grab the string as well. Combine that with the gradual accumulation of slick impurities and you have the most common need for a bow rehair. And depending on how demanding you are as a player will determine your tolerance for the condition.
I know some players who get their bows rehaired every 4 to 6 months. I know others who will go a year or two. Anyway, back to myths. They’re all over the place. So the more you know, the better you’ll be able to judge instruments and bows for yourself rather than being caught in a world where myth can cost you a literal fortune.
A parchment is a small piece of animal skin (a friend of mine, JS, is a percussionist and helps me out by recycling his old drum heads with me) cut and fit to the string grooves of bridge, mainly on the thinnest strings. It’s used to prevent the strings from cutting into the bridge.