The Violinist’s Practical Guide to Care, Tuning, Strings and More | Focus
The great Russian cellist Daniil Shafran once took his beloved 1737 Amati to Paris for a host of minor repairs, and on arriving at luthier Étienne Vatelot’s workshop he was told the repairs would take two weeks. Shafran returned to his hotel and the next morning he was suddenly overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness and despair. His Amati was an extension of his soul (we can hear that in his recordings) and two weeks would be the longest period of separation. He couldn’t bear it any longer and returned to the store, unsure of his plan. While waiting for Vatelot, he noticed in a corner a pile of wooden planks resembling an instrument. He wondered who it might belong to. Suddenly he saw a birthmark – the same one found on his own Amati! Indeed, it was his cello, and upon seeing his life partner lying there in distorted disarray, he became dizzy and sick. Vatelot, noticing Shafran’s deathly pallor, quickly turned him around and showed him the door: “Sir! Return immediately to Moscow! Come back in two weeks!
Perhaps there is something that inextricably ties our love for our instrument to the absolute fear of seeing its inner workings and treating it like the glued wooden planks that it is. Unfortunately, from this fear and mystery sometimes comes a reluctance to care for it properly. In a way, it’s like avoiding checking your bank account for fear of the number you might see. I can’t tell you how many times co-workers have asked me to check if their bridge is straight and adjust it. I even have a colleague who never changes his own strings!
For the latest installment in my BestPractice Masterclass series on YouTube, I aim to take away some of that fear and mystery with a violinist’s practical guide to care, maintenance, acoustic understanding, tonal adjustment, and playing. maintenance of the ropes. I have a special guest for this task: luthier Andrew Ryan. Andrew is passionate about giving musicians an understanding of ‘best practices’, and even those who feel they have a good understanding of these topics are keen to improve their workflow and habits.
For example, did you know that after tuning a new string and periodically throughout its life, you have to take it out of the bridge groove briefly? This equalizes the pressure on both sides of the bridge, the balance of which is gradually thrown off balance as the bridge is pulled back and forth during tuning. Or did you know that the sound post works like the pivot point of a toggle mechanism, and that much of the “magic” of tonal adjustment is getting the perfect balance between the ends of the toggle? And how about finding the perfect material for cleaning strings? Turns out, fine-grade synthetic steel wool is hard to beat! You can also bring new strings to a stable pitch more quickly with multiple turns of pinching and rubbing with a cloth. The heat generated will stretch the rope and even out the winding. These are just a few of the things I learned from Andrew during a recent visit to his shop.
From diagnosing the hum coming from your violin to understanding how the wolf sound works and why you don’t necessarily want to “get rid of” it, I hope you too will learn something vital about your tool. And make no mistake: understanding how the violin works and taking a hands-on approach to caring for it won’t spoil the magic and sanctity. On the contrary, it will only enhance her charm and cultivate a more intimate relationship.
Read: Daniel Kurganov: on the introduction to the violin at 16
Read: Daniel Kurganov and Constantine Finehouse perform Messiaen’s Theme and Variations
Read: 7 tuning tips to get the most out of your instrument