As a violin dealer, it always surprises me the varied ways that people try instruments. It’s clear to me that there is no standard technique that people learn as a student and the results at worse can be very unhelpful. Ruggiero Ricci’s “The Glory of Cremona” comes to the rescue. So thinks Benjamin Hebbert.
With appreciation to Ben Conover, musician, violin and bow maker – for the discussions that have helped to formulate some of the ideas in this blog. Find his instruments at https://www.benconover.com/
My total nightmare in a violin shop is when a parent has been told by their teacher that they need a new instrument before tackling the next grade examination. In come mother and child with a gleaming new carrier bag from Schotts, the music publishers, and the child is sat down (if they’re a cellist) in front of a music stand and expected to play unfamiliar music on a range of unfamiliar instruments in an unfamiliar room with an unfamiliar person breathing down their nose. It happens more times than you would believe, and is absolutely the worst thing that can possibly take place.
Things don’t get very much better when you are dealing with grown-ups, and you would be simply amazed at the contorted exercises that people do in order to try an instrument. I’m not against contorted exercises per-se, I should be clear, if they prove a point, but often they don’t. At the same time, precocious people often feel they have to play the most virtuosic music imaginable to try a new instrument – often music that they haven’t quite learned yet. Given that they are in an environment that never feels completely comfortable, this can lead to a kind of road crash.
Elsewhere this leads to uncertainty, and to analysing elements of an instruments performance that may be irrelevant to the way you play: Recently (no names mentioned) a performer was complaining that the note on the e-string just beyond the fingerboard didn’t ring as well as the rest. It seemed that they wanted to play the lowest and the highest notes as a way of assessing the overall quality of the violin. Quite aside from the physics of that note (at that length and tension it will act like a stiff rod rather than a flexible string – the entire rules of vibration change), I wondered what repertoire they would ever play that would demand that note being played in the manner they were attempting, or if they had noticed that all violins had the same deadening at that point. Frankly, at this point a Strad and a Stentor level peg it for tonal quality. The last thing I want to do is call an experienced musician as daft as a brush, but God help me on that particular challenge sometimes.
I try instruments every day, and have learnt along the way from seeing people doing it in a clever way. I don’t think that there will ever be a single way of doing it, but I’d like to make some pointers:
Jacqueline du Pré rather famously spent hours on end just with open strings and single notes. I really like this idea to get to know the instrument. There are thousands of ways you can attack the strings with bow speed, pressure and angle, and by searching for the richest palette of colour that the instrument can make is particularly satisfying on a cello, and really works across the board. Even though I don’t really play the cello, I find that a zen-like exploration of the open strings opens my ears up, and teaches me a lot about tone that I can transfer to the violin. I recommend it to anyone and it’s less sweaty than yoga.
Whatever the instrument, start slowly. I think of the middle two strings as the core of the instrument’s character – the outer two strings may have different characters, so I warm up with slow scales and long notes within the ‘core’ strings, remembering that the octave above the lowest string (3rd finger on the second string) is the most resonant part of the instrument. How much can I warm that note up, and how easy is it to match the rest of the instrument to it’s tone? I tend to end up moving into a contrapuntal improvisation around an arpeggio, all in first position. When I am satisfied, I will progress up onto the top string and down to the bottom. In my view that really simulates most music, and allows you to balance the instrument better. When you are comfortable in first position, you can go further, but bear in mind that in first position the strings are at their longest and most resonant. After that it’s worth playing things…
So here’s my segue into praise for Ruggiero Ricci’s Glories of Cremona where he recorded on fifteen Cremonese instruments from Andrea Amati through to Nicolo Bergonzi. A playlist is given below. He chose repertoire that worked best for displaying the qualities of the violin, which I think is an important thing to keep in mind. Not all music, even that composed for the violin is shall we say violinistic.
Before reaching for the main volume, a second lesser-known record was included in some releases of the album. To some extent it was created for an audience of audiophiles in mind at the height of interest in Hi-Fi and quality sound – could you become an armchair connoisseur of the sounds of famous violins?
Ricci played the opening of the Bruch violin concerto on each of the instruments, a twenty-five second sound sample on each of the fifteen violins in the lineup, which is a marvellous way to test the performing range of the violin. I would go a little further than that, because I think that one of the tests of a violin is what I affectionately call a cadenza on the first note… . that sensuous open G is a constant transformation of pressure and speed to create a single note of infinite complexity. Working around it, warming it with vibrato an octave above, and wallowing in it’s beauty is just a lovely thing to do – go crazy! Below are two excerpts from The Glory of Cremona, the Kurtz Andrea Amati from the 1560s that I have had the absolute pleasure to play at length, and a Guarneri del Gésu from 1739, the Vieuxtemps (he had several).
With all this in mind, play as little as possible on instruments when you are making a decision. Any more than a minute and you will begin to confuse yourself. It’s easy to make comparisons between two instruments, but if you’ve played a whole tune on each, when you get to the third your brain is like spaghetti, and by the fifth your ears will be bleeding. As you reduce your choice to a final one or two, spend more time becoming familiar and indulgent. Remember that as you grow in confidence during the process you will play things better, so you should be open to trying some of the instruments a second time.
When making your initial decisions don’t play any instrument for more than a minute otherwise your brain will go to mush.
Ricci’s playlist below really forms the ideal of works to try instruments with. Those of us in the trade get sick and tired of macho loud fireworks of Tchaikovsky and Sarasate being shot off like a machine gun, because there isn’t enough time within each note to form a sense of sound and get an idea of the instrument. Frankly rapid fire Sarasate can work extremely well on a bright and loud instrument with monotone colour, so what have you proven? For less virtuosic players, its simply a matter of playing those things that are familiar and under your fingers. If you are a learner, play your last grade pieces rather than the things you are working on at the moment, that you can’t quite play. Christmas carols work well too, or excerpts of tunes that you are particularly confident with. Remember that if everything else is unfamiliar to you, the last thing you want to do is struggle with the notes in front of you. Of course if you are lucky enough to be able to improvise, thats cool, if not, see if you can train yourself to improvise around a simple arpeggio so you are playing more of a tune than an exercise.
Here’s the playlist. I recommend it to anyone as a primer before trying instruments themselves, whatever the budget you are looking at, because it demonstrates the range of tone that exists within different violins. Most of all, enjoy!
1. Veracini, Largo Gasparo da Salo, c. 1570-80
2. Paradis, Siciliana Carlo Bergonzi – The “Constable”, 1731
3. Hubay, Des Geigenbauer von Cremona Joseph Guarneri de Gesù – The “De Beriot”, 1744
4. Handel, Larghetto Antonio Stradivari – The “Madrileño”, 1720
5. Romanze A-Dur Joseph Guarneri de Gesù – The “Ex-Vieuxtemps”, 1739
6. Brahms, Ungarischer Tanz n°20 E-Moll Antonio Stradivari – The “Joachim”, 1714
7. Brahms, Ungarischer Tanz n°17 Fis-Moll Joseph Guarneri de Gesù – The “Gibson”, 1734
8. Lied ohne worte Op.62, n°1: Andante Espressivo Antonio Stradivari – The “Ernst”, 1709
9. Desplanes, Intrada Andrea Amati, c. 1560-70
10. Nardini, Larghetto Antonio Stradivari – The “Rode”, 1733
11. Vivaldi, Praeludium Nicolo Amati, 1656
12. Paganini, Cantabile und walzer Antonio Stradivari – The “Monasterio”, 1719
13. Mozart, Adagio Joseph Guarneri de Gesù – The “Plowden”, 1735
14. Kabalevsky, Improvisation, Op.21, n°1 Antonio Stradivari – The “Spanish”, 1677
15. Tchaikovsky, Melodie Op.42, n°3 Joseph Guarneri de Gesù – The “Lafont”, 1735
In 1998 Elmar Olivera produced an updated recording along these lines which had the advantage of stereo recording, a digital medium (CD) and a selection of instruments with setup that reflected newer innovation in string technology and an altogether more modern sound. For the sound sample he used the beginning of the Sibelius concerto.
To be perfectly honest, although it is an extraordinary demonstration piece – and a credit to Olivera’s virtuosity, unless you have studied this work, I wouldn’t bother putting it in your trial repertoire – not inside the violin shop at least, though there is nothing better for understanding the control that the violin gives in pianissimos. It’s just surprising how often it gets fluffed. Keep it for when you are back at home. Until you are totally at ease with it, it says far more about bow quality and control than the violin, so even if you are an accomplished player, you may be testing the wrong piece of apparatus when you trial violins with it. Still, if you still have an appetite for glorious sounds, it is well worth the investment. Bein & Fushi in Chicago sell it, and it’s still firmly in copyright, so you can’t go to You Tube to enjoy it yet … some pleasures have to be bought.