Way back in the 90s, my parents in Lexington, Kentucky sent me away to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. I had never lived on my own before, so they made sure I had some essentials with me:
- long-distance calling cards to stay in touch with them
- a 14400 baud modem for dial-up internet service
- a paper map of Philadelphia along with a local phonebook
Hmm, it looks like times have changed! But is studying music really all that different from when I was in school? Let’s find out with my top ten gifts for the 21st century violin student in your life.
The links below are Amazon affiliate links. If you choose to purchase any of my recommendations through these links, you won’t pay anything extra, but part of your purchase will help support natesviolin.com.
Some things never change
1. Quality pencils, erasers and sharpeners
A great pencil just begs to be used. “Pencil in that great idea you just had!” it pleads, as you’re practicing. “Mark that tempo change!” during an orchestra rehearsal. “What a great suggestion from your teacher!” during a lesson. A crummy pencil, or worse, no pencil at all, leaves you at the mercy of your own memory.
Once I picked up my first box of Palomino Blackwing pencils, I was hooked. The lead and erasers are perfect for marking music gently, and the shape feels wonderful in the hand as well. They make a nice sharpener as well, so that you can use them to “graphite your grooves” when changing strings. Be sure to pick up extra erasers too, since they’re replaceable.
2. A sturdy practice journal
When I set up my New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge, one of the first requirements for participants was to find a practice journal and show it to me on video! Now we all know that you can take notes on a screen instead of paper. But I personally remember things better when I actually write them down. And I still cherish the practice journals that I kept starting at age nine. Most violinists are surprised at just how difficult it is to remember what they practiced even one day ago. But journals aren’t just for remembering! They help you plan as well. At the end of each day, you can write down the things you’d like to accomplish at your next session; during the next week; and even longer-term. A journal is a must. I prefer leather-covered journals both for their durability and for the sense of purpose they help give my practice.
3. Music stands
Music stands are like brakes on your car: you only notice them when they aren’t doing what they’re supposed to! And there are any number of things that can go wrong with a stand: squeaking, slipping, tipping, tilting, rusting… At minimum, a violinist needs to own one great stand: a portable, foldable one that you can use at home, then take to rehearsals, gigs and formal concerts. It must be black. It should also be able to go low, for those chamber music groups where you actually need to see the other players! My favorite is made by K&M, and it’s pictured at left. It’s built to travel, and to last. I own several. At home, it’s much more comfortable to practice with a heavier, sturdier stand that never leaves the practice room. Hamilton makes my hands-down favorite, pictured at right: not only does it have a double shelf, a must for storing your pencil and metronome, but it has a cool “trigger” in the back so that I can adjust the height with just one hand, even if the stand is loaded down with an entire audition’s worth of music!
4. A personalized sheet music embosser
One of the first things you learn at music school is that sheet music has a tendency to “walk away”. As soon as you hand a piano part to a collaborative pianist, or those string quartet parts out to your friends, you may never see those pages again. Unless, that is, you mark those parts as your own. Now, you could just write your name… but ever since my wife Akiko got me my own embosser, I can’t go back to plain writing. Mine, from ExcelMark, actually puts “From the library of Nathan Cole” into the texture of the paper. Everyone who sees my embossed music marvels at how great it looks. It’s such a small thing, but I never cease getting a thrill out of pushing that giant lever and watching my name get etched into the very music I’m playing!
5. Arnold Steinhardt’s Indivisible by Four
Arnold Steinhardt was first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet for nearly 50 years, and he also happens to be a wonderful writer! His blog In the Key of Strawberry is a monthly must-read, and he has written and collaborated on several books. Indivisible By Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony is a memoir, not only of Arnold’s time with the Quartet, but of his entire life with the violin. You’ll read of his early struggles comparing himself (as did everyone!) to Heifetz, his first high tea at Curtis (wearing a Hawaiian shirt), and of course his many adventures on tour with the great Quartet. The four musicians of the Guarneri Quartet took great pride in retaining their individual voices, even as they joined them together in performance. Arnold’s writing voice has inspired me ever since I was a teenager. And while we’re talking Arnold Steinhardt, I can’t resist mentioning the documentary High Fidelity: Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet. You want to talk inspirational? This intimate look at one of the greatest quartets of all time, in its prime, is packed with first-rate playing, corny jokes, and lots and lots of arguing. But seriously, there’s so much great music in this full-length feature that Akiko and I insisted on including one particularly amazing movement of Schubert at our wedding. And all because we had watched High Fidelity so many times together!
And now, the recommendations for the 21st century
When I went to Curtis in the 90s, it still cost a small fortune to make a recording, even a simple one (say, for an application to a summer music festival). Video was practically out of the question. Very few of my fellow students had internet access at home, and the school wasn’t connected either. Violinists practiced and performed, composers wrote music by hand or on expensive computers, and photographers took pictures. Needless to say, we’re living in a different world now. It’s incredibly easy to create digital art, whether it takes the form of words, sounds, images, or some combination. And it’s even easier to distribute that art via the internet. Therefore, today’s most successful musicians are savvy not only with their instruments, but with cameras, microphones, computers and smartphones as well. Now smartphones are incredibly versatile tools. They double as audio recorders, still and video cameras, metronomes, you name it. They can do just about everything, but they don’t do everything well. The following recommendations take over where the phone leaves off:
6. A proper microphone for an iPhone
You can’t get better as a violinist until you hear how you actually play. When I was in school, I used to wait until I had performed in concert and listened to the archival tape. Then I got smart and bought a portable recorder that I could use in the practice room. Of course, the sound was terrible because I didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars. But at least I learned a few things about my playing. Today’s iPhone is a remarkable device with a bad microphone. It’s still better than what I had as a student. But with a real condenser mic plugged in, the iPhone turns into a different animal. Suddenly you can hear actual sound quality, dynamics, and articulations! And because you always have your smartphone with you, all you need for a real recording studio is this accessory mic. In general, you get what you pay for with microphones, up to a point of diminishing returns. I’ve personally had great experience with the products from Blue Microphones and Shure in this category, particularly the Shure MV5 around $100 and the Blue Spark around $200. They both give great bang for the buck. If you’re interested in going above the $200 price point though, you’ll want to skip this category and move on to the standalone recorders in the next category.
7. A portable digital recorder
Sound recording, anywhere and any time, is so important for advancing students that I’m spending two categories on it. But why would you buy a separate digital recorder if all you need is a smartphone with an accessory mic? Two reasons: durability and quality. Smartphones have complicated software installed on them, and anyone who uses them frequently knows that things can and do go wrong all the time. If you’re only recording a practice session, that’s no big deal. But if you’d like to be able to truly create your own media with top-quality audio, you’re going to need a device that’s designed specifically to capture audio. The Tascam DR-40 is the recorder that I own and use for my critical work. Its built-in mics are good (fantastic compared to a smartphone), but it really shines when you take advantage of its XLR inputs for professional mics and preamps. Connect a $350 mic (or more…the sky’s the limit!) to the Tascam, and suddenly you have a recording studio that would have cost you thousands when I was in school. I used to own a Zoom (the H4n) and that’s a great product as well. I chose the Tascam this time around because its XLR inputs are more versatile, and that’s what I require for my audio and video work.
8. Studio monitor headphones
A great recording doesn’t mean much if you’re listening to it on computer speakers. Or generic earbuds. Professional studios have studio monitor speakers, but those require space and lots of money. On the other hand, a pair of studio monitor headphones will deliver professional audio at a fraction of the price. And you can use them with your computer, tablet, phone, recorder, or any other device. I’ve always liked Audio-Technica headphones. The ATH-M50x are used in studios worldwide. Sony makes great studio monitors as well. “Studio monitor”, by the way, says a couple of things about a pair of headphones: they’re designed to isolate the listener in a quiet environment (so they’re often a bit heavier than your average pair of headphones); and they’re designed to deliver a flat frequency response, so that you hear more or less what’s on a recording (rather than exaggerated bass, for example).
9. The iPad Pro for digital score reading
It’s happening slowly, but professionals are beginning to move away from the printed page and toward digital copies of their sheet music. The next generation will still keep paper copies of music, but only as a backup. Currently it’s the other way around. But going forward, the working copies will be digital, for many reasons. First, there’s the matter of page turns, addressed in the next and final category. Second, there’s weight and volume. Even as a student, my bag bulged with all of the scale books, etude books, solo pieces, quartet pieces, orchestra pieces, and scores that I was responsible for practicing. Not only that, but as I mentioned in the embosser category, those parts had a tendency to “walk away”. Now iPads can walk away too, but they can also be backed up: not just physically, but into “the cloud” as well. It would take some real irresponsibility to lose your entire collection of PDFs. You can also do things with digital copies of music that you just can’t with paper. Most importantly, you can create and save “sets” of markings. Everyone has had the experience of playing a piece of chamber music with “the last group’s” markings in it. Sometimes those markings are great, other times lousy. It would be wonderful to preserve the great ones before you changed them to suit your own group’s needs. With a digital copy, you can do just that. Start with a clean copy, or a set of markings that’s tried and true. Perhaps a fellow student worked on the piece with a great group, and is willing to share his markings? Maybe your coach has a set of her professional markings that you could peruse? You take what you want from each set and create your own. Then, when you come back to the piece years later, you have a whole library of possibilities to choose from. I wish more than anything that I had my teachers’ markings for everything that I studied over the years. I do have some of those parts, deteriorating in stacks of music. The rest are lost forever. The next generation won’t have that problem.
10. Wireless Bluetooth pedals
For some people, this is the main reason to switch to digital: no more page turns! I discussed some other advantages of digital sheet music above, but this alone is a game-changer. More phrase-endings have been ruined, and more entrances botched, due to rushed page turns than from any other cause. Foot pedals mean that you never have to turn a page again. My friend Hugh Sung helped pioneer the wireless page-turning pedal, and his company AirTurn has made it their specialty. Hugh was head of the collaborative piano division at Curtis when I was there, and he had two big problems that he needed to solve: he needed to keep track of twenty different sets of markings for the Tchaikovsky concerto; and he never wanted to turn another page in his life! So AirTurn was born, and with it the era of digital sheet music in performance.