When I was fifteen I took a lesson from Victor Yampolsky. I was working on Wieniawski’s Concerto No. 2, and I was a bit nervous before the lesson. Then I got really nervous as soon as I walked in.
Maybe I suddenly remembered that Yampolsky’s teacher had been David Oistrakh. Maybe I realized that I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. But for some reason, the sound I pulled out of my violin that morning was, for lack of a better word, unhealthy. The bow didn’t feel right. The strings weren’t vibrating.
So I made an excuse: I had just gotten my bow rehaired.
I immediately wished that I had kept my mouth shut.
“Oh?” he cried, raising his formidable eyebrows. “And what will you say, Mr. Nathan, when you are on stage at the big competition?” Was he exaggerating his Russian accent, or was it just me?
Then he made his voice squeaky, as though he were a pimply teenager. “I’m sorry, but my bow has just been rehairrrrrred!”
Note to self: no more excuses when in the presence of old-school Russian violin teachers.
Only a poor workman blames his tools
Have you heard that expression? It’s always bothered me, because I figure that bad things can happen to anybody’s equipment! That doesn’t make them poor workmen… or players. So was I right to blame my bow?
Absolutely not. I should have been playing a bow that hadn’t just been rehaired. Or I should have rosined more. You learn these things through experience and humiliation. And that’s why the best players, those whose living depends on how they sound, have a checklist of things they look after daily.
So don’t wait to check on the following six items. Do it today, and make sure you’re sounding the best you can with the tools you’ve got. Then, you won’t feel the need to put your foot in your mouth like “Mr. Nathan” above.
Note: most of us need a luthier or violin shop to check on at least one of these items. If your violin hasn’t been to the shop in a year, then it’s definitely in need of a check-up!
1. How new are your strings?
If your strings have been on your violin for more than six months, any discussion about their qualities is irrelevant. Some stricter folks would say three months. Aaron Rosand would say six weeks. Aaron Rosand has deep pockets!
But regardless of the exact duration, let’s agree that the age of the string matters. After a while, strings get more and more elastic, and even if they appear to be in good shape, they just sound… dead. And eventually, they go flat (not pitch-wise, literally flat!) from being pressed against the fingerboard. So they start to vibrate with a strange wobble. And, of course, eventually they unravel.
If your yearly budget for strings is between $200-300, you’re probably better off buying five sets of Dominants than one or two pricey sets. And for the strings I use, check out my Frequently Asked Questions page.
2. Have you rosined properly?
Even the newest, most expensive strings won’t vibrate unless the little notches in the bow hair catch them and release them. And that’s not happening without an assist from rosin.
Everyone has a different idea about what kind and how much rosin to use, but here’s my take: most people who complain about poor grip don’t have enough rosin on their bow hair, for one reason or another. I rosin once a day, and I have a few tips for how to do it:
Make sure that you use enough pressure when rosining so that the friction will melt the rosin a bit and help it adhere to the hair. Then, rosin the length of the hair evenly. In other words, not just at the frog and the tip, where we spend the least time playing! Use a slow bow as well. The more “drag” you hear and feel, the better. Then you’ll just need one good pass up and one down.
Finally, it’s possible for bow hairs, just like strings, to wear out before breaking. When that happens, they won’t hold rosin and your bow will need to be rehaired. Just don’t use it as an excuse later on!
3. Is your bridge straight and upright?
Now that you’re good with strings and rosin, we can get to the instrument itself. The vibrations from the strings are transferred to the body of the instrument by way of the bridge. But the bridge won’t transmit those wonderful vibrations if it’s curved, warped or seated improperly.
The easiest problem to fix is the leaning bridge. An ill-tended violin bridge almost always leans forward (toward the scroll) because the turning of the pegs, combined with the grooves in the winding of the strings, pulls it that way. The exception is on the E string side, where the fine tuner tends to pull that side of the bridge back! It’s easy to set that bridge right again, once someone has shown you how. If you do it improperly, the bridge could fall. Then your sound would really suffer!
Take a look at a straight violin bridge: this one, like most, appears to be leaning backward if you’re looking at the scroll-facing side of the bridge. But the rear side hits the top of the violin at a 90-degree angle.
The seating, or fit, of the bridge is just as important as its straightness. You need every millimeter of the two feet of the bridge to fit solidly on the top of the violin, with no gaps. Try this test: attempt to slide a piece of paper under each of the eight corners of the feet of the bridge. If you’re able to fit any paper under any part of the feet, the bridge is not properly seated and you’re losing sound. This could be because it’s simply leaning, as described above. Or you could have a warped bridge.
A warped or curved bridge requires a visit to the shop. So before your bridge gets to that point, get in the habit of lubricating the eight grooves that the strings run over: four on the bridge, and four on the nut. Do it each time you change your strings. I use a graphite pencil since graphite is a lubricant for metal. That way, when I tune, the strings don’t dig into the bridge as much and my bridge stays straighter. You should still check your bridge each day, but lubrication is an insurance policy in case you forget.
4. Is your soundpost where it should be?
So now those vibrations have gotten as far as the top of the violin, but they won’t be transmitted properly to the back without a well-fitted soundpost. With few exceptions (you maniacs know who you are!) violinists don’t adjust their own posts, so to really check this you’ll need to visit a shop.
Which shop? I have colleagues who travel great distances to see a certain soundpost guy, and I won’t say they’re crazy until I’ve tried him myself… in fact, I look forward to meeting him someday! But keep in mind that there are only so many places a post can go, and it doesn’t take a luthier long to try several viable positions. With each placement, you play a few notes and see what’s happened to the sound. A bit like getting new glasses made: “Better… or worse? Better… or worse?”
In addition to the placement, there is the “tightness” of the post to consider. A longer post, set in the same place, will obviously fit more tightly and exert greater pressure on the top and back. If you’ve ever seen the right f-hole of a fancy violin pushed up higher than the left, it’s because at some point that violin had a tight post placement.
A tight post generally enhances brilliance, and some luthiers resort to it as a default because brilliance and projection make violinists happy! But every post placement has tradeoffs. On some instruments, a tight post can stifle resonance. For those instruments a looser setup will allow the violin to ring more freely (as I discovered during my transition away from my shoulder rest), leading to better projection and more pleasing overtones.
5. Do you have any open seams?
If you’ve followed the checklist so far, your entire violin is vibrating. But is it vibrating optimally? Not if any of its seams are open!
I suspect an open seam when I hear a buzz. Not every open seam will buzz, but many will. Some seams are so obviously open that you can see them with the naked eye! Others are more subtle, but will still rob you of your best sound. Often you can detect an opening by tapping all around the outside edges of the front and back of the instrument. It’s a bit like detecting a wall stud behind drywall. If one spot sounds different enough, you’ve got an opening.
I don’t trust my own “tap test”. If I hear a buzz, I visit the shop since I’ll need their help to close the seam in any case. Any minor openings get taken care of during my regular maintenance checkups and adjustments.
6. Are you playing with a good contact point?
Once you’ve taken care of steps 1-5, you may be surprised at just how much sound you’re getting, and how rich and brilliant it is! You may also be surprised to notice your violin responding in ways that it couldn’t when it was unhealthy.
Specifically, you may find that you’re finally able to play closer to the bridge. Of course, proper contact point isn’t exactly an instrument health issue. But it’s a “sound health” issue, and that’s really what we’re talking about in this post!
Most violinists spend too much of their time too close to the fingerboard. There are a few reasons for this: some violinists don’t like hearing any “scratch” or “edge” in the sound under their ear (soloists hear plenty); some don’t realize that when you play closer to the bridge, you need to increase bow pressure, so they hear a “glassy” sound and get discouraged; some have a crooked bow stroke so their bow “slides” toward the fingerboard on every down-bow.
But now that your violin “fit as a fiddle” (sorry!), go one step further and start exploring the area near the bridge. It’s one of the fastest ways to sound more like a soloist, and it will lead you to even greater discoveries in the bow arm. Which discoveries? Stay tuned for a post or video on contact point!