Violin Accessories

When I resumed seriously playing I had some very old accessories. In the picture below on the right is the old rag I used to wipe up rosin dust, and an old block of rosin, both dating back roughly 30 years.

David Bookstaber's new violin accessories

In addition to new strings I got new rosin, a new dust cloth, and in that little black cylinder next to the violin are concert ear plugs I began to wear in my left ear while practicing to prevent further hearing damage.

I spent some time researching strings to find something that would dampen the excessively bright timbre of this violin. Some suggested getting synthetic core strings, and I now play on Pirastro Violino strings, although the improvement over other strings I tried is subtle at best.

Violin Bows

When I resumed violin a few years ago and began to study Bach Sonatas I found originalists advocating for playing Bach with an older Baroque style bow. It turns out a decent bow can be had for under $100, so I got one of those – shown at the bottom of this photo.

My violin with a new carbon fiber bow, my old pernambuco wood bow, and a baroque style bow.

I also discovered carbon fiber bows selling under $100 so I picked up one of those as well. I have found the carbon fiber bow to be as good as the pernambuco bow for my style of playing (though as I noted in a previous post my style is not … soft). The baroque bow has also been fun to use: It’s shorter, lighter, and more delicate, so it forces me to practice a more gentle approach to playing.

Violin fitting

Some classical violinists can play without a shoulder rest or even a chin rest. I was trained to grip the violin between my chin and neck firmly enough to hold it in a proper position without any support from my left hand. Given my long neck this was impossible to do without a shoulder rest, and even with a standard shoulder rest it was always a struggle. So when I resumed violin a few years ago I bought the Bonmusica shoulder rest, shown in the photos below, which was a great improvement. However, even with that adjusted to its maximum height I was contorting my neck uncomfortably to hold the violin in the proper position. Further research led me to an adjustable center-mounted chin rest by Wittner Augsburg. Installing that at its maximum height finally let me hold the violin with my chin in a relatively neutral position. Here are photos before and after that chin rest upgrade:

Playing violin takes a toll. Hearing damage in the left ear is one well known effect I enjoy. I suspect that my posture also cost me a left molar (since replaced with an implant) because I habitually clenched it between my upper jaw and left shoulder to hold the violin.

Resuming Violin – Part 1

The peak of my violin study was about age 14, before I went to boarding high school. I took my violin to and from school, but I didn’t tackle any new pieces and I played it with decreasing frequency. In my twenties and thirties there were periods as long as five years where I never took it out of its case. It was always easier to sit down at a piano than to open the violin case, attach the shoulder rest, tighten the bow, tune the strings, warm up the muscle memory….

A few years ago a friend who plays in a local church orchestra noted that they could use more violinists. It was a low-key affair – rehearsals once a week, performance in Sunday services once a month, and missing either was not a big problem. I joined a second violin section that varied from 2-4 other violinists. It was fun. And I bumped in to a few very good violinists who inspired me to dust off my skills.

With my violin regularly coming out of its case, I began to spend time working on my technique, instead of just blasting through the canon of pieces I had maintained from my teenage years (e.g., Vivaldi’s Four Seasons). Now in my forties I had a level of patience for technical exercises and practice that was sorely lacking in earlier decades. It was time to tackle something new.

One rehearsal I was talking to the best violinist in the orchestra, who had let his violin practice go fallow for some years as he worked on his legal career, and who said he was also renewing his study. “With what?” I asked. He replied, “I decided to go back to the beginning, so I started with the Bach Sonatas.” Of course!

There are some movements in the Bach Sonatas for solo violin that I have always loved. The fugue in the second sonata (BWV 1001) in particular called to me. In my late teens I obtained the sheet music but I didn’t get more than two lines into it before I gave up. But now … I have patience!

Fighting Violin

In an earlier post I described beginning to learn to play violin. The difficulty of that process was compounded by my disposition as young boy: Give a boy a stick and his instinct is to grab it and wield it like a sword to whack things into submission. But the fragile wooden bow must be held gingerly. The violin is a singing instrument, and the bow is its breath. The foundation of playing a violin is delicacy and finesse. Everything about an energetic boy is bold and tense. I was given what felt like a weapon and told to, “Relax!” (Even now this is a Sisyphean struggle.)

All I wanted to do was to play loud and fast. At age 12 we went shopping for the full-size instrument I play to this day. I picked a violin with a relatively “bright” and unsophisticated timbre. Then I spent an afternoon in a luthier’s shop looking for a bow, which is the component that determines a player’s range of technical expression. For reference I played some bows priced in the $50,000 range and I could not imagine why professionals would want to use such flimsy sticks. I chose a bow that was so exceptionally rigid that, the luthier joked, it must have been made of titanium. (It’s actually Pernambuco wood, like most fine bows.)

Strength and size offer no advantage on the violin. Search for “violin prodigy” and you will find an endless parade of pre-teen Korean girls who can perform the most difficult violin pieces with robotic precision. Skilled musicians do not wrestle with their instruments no matter how loud or fast the music. Contrast that with this video of me muscling through a “warm-up” exercise at age 17:

Learning Violin

While learning to play violin I benefited from a good ear. For example, when I finally acquired sheet music for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons I was able to make my way through them in their entirety on first reading because I knew them so well by ear. But my ability to rely on playing by ear that left me practically incapable of sight-reading.  Like embarrassingly abysmal: If I don’t know how a piece is supposed to sound I could be mistaken for not knowing how to read music. I might have reinforced that when I started studying piano at age 10 and immediately attacked difficult pieces where the technical difficulty made sight-reading impossible anyway and by the time a passage was mastered it had also been memorized. So after two years of piano I could smash through Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in c#, but I have never been able to sight-read a even a simple church hymn.

I didn’t realize that I had a skill of any note until I was 9 and I agreed to someone’s request to play a violin piece in Sunday School.  I performed Fiocci’s Allegro and thought nothing of it until my parents heard that afterwards bunch of kids had asked their parents if they could learn violin.

When I was 11 I got to play at my church’s Handel’s Messiah sing-in, which was funny because the minimum age for attendance was 12. I was playing second-violin, which is very difficult to practice alone – or play by ear – because it’s an accompaniment and doesn’t have the melody. The orchestra, which was otherwise mostly professional musicians, only had two rehearsals, so in performance I only played along to the half dozen pieces I had practiced. I was amazed when the second string of the violinist to my right snapped in the middle of one of the movements and he was able to keep playing by shifting on the third string. At the end of the movement I assumed we would stop so he could change his string, but no: we kept right on going.

I can only find one recording of me performing before I went to high school: Here’s me playing a Mozart violin concerto (accompanied by a piano arrangement) at age 13:

Beginning Violin

When I was four years old my parents asked me if I wanted to learn to play the violin. I didn’t have a lot going on at the time so I said yes.

I was accepted as a student by Mrs. Primrose, a Japanese teacher of the Suzuki violin method (and wife of famous violist William Primrose). I discovered that the violin is a difficult and awkward instrument. Learning it requires patient practice, and patience was not one of my early character traits. (A fellow student was Jenny Oaks, who has made a career as a violinist. Mrs. Primrose would often chastise me, “David: Why don’t you practice more, like Jenny?”)

What I lacked in patience I abounded with in obstinance. I was first born and my poor mother did not realize what a constant and pitched battle it would be to get me to practice. She was gifted with perseverance that somehow kept me on the violin for the years until I reached a level at which it became interesting enough for me to continue studying with minimal goading. (She did, however, learn from the process: My younger siblings were started on musical instruments at increasingly later ages, and the last three got to start with piano, which has an easier learning curve. You’re welcome guys.)

Beginning the Suzuki violin method is excruciating for a young western boy. The first few weeks consist of nothing but finger exercises with a pencil, before ever touching the bow. Then there were what seemed like months of bowing “taca-taca stop-stop” on open strings before I was allowed to try placing fingers on taped marks to play other notes. There is no “Karate Kid” moment when the student discovers that all of the detached exercises have laid the foundation for a rewarding performance. Just months of tedious practice and virtually nothing to show for it. That’s what learning the violin felt like.

Violin practice at age 6