Friday 31 July 2015

Choosing a Bow - #violin #cello #viola #bows - and How to Care for your Bow

A bow is another of those frequently overlooked elements when starting a stringed instrument, something that we take for granted because our outfit came including one and something we feel vaguely will "do" til we get better at playing. And this is largely true - most well made, decently priced outfits will come with good, student bows and they do exactly what is needed to begin learning. But even then, knowing how to take care of your bow can make a huge difference to making the most of what it has to offer, and making it last until you're ready to move up.

A bow consists of three main elements. The stick which is made of wood or carbon fibre (different types of wood include brasilwood and pernambucco) ; horse hair; and a screw and eye mechanism that tightens and loosens the tension between stick and hair. This latter is housed in the "frog" at one end of the bow, while at the other end is a delicate pointed area, called the Tip.

The average student bow is just that - average. It has an average weight, length, feel and uses medium grade wood and hair. These bows run between €25 and €90 for violin (€30 to €100 for viola and €50 to €120 for cello) and are ideal for beginning. These are the types that come with most outfits and are perfectly good for the first few years of playing. Their performance can be maximised by the following regime:

  • Always, without fail, loosen the bow after playing and tighten before playing. Never over wind the bow. The perfect tension should still see a slight dip in the bow stick towards the hair, in the middle of the stick and about a pencil's width between stick and hair at that point (slightly more for viola and cello.) 
  • Never over resin. Resin is very important to the bow - it is what enables the hair to make contact with the string and that contact friction pulls the sound out of the string. Hard, poor quality resin dust makes a harsh sound. Over resining the bow makes a harsh sound, and ruins both hair and string. If practicing a half hour a day use good quality resin once a week, if doing an hour a day use it every 3-4 days and be use we mean "pass the bow evenly three or four times across the resin block"
  • If you see lots of dust on your strings and violin, or a clud of white dust from the bow hair, you are using too much resin. Stop, don't reapply resin for a week or two, and dust off the strings after playing. Once you've used up what's on the bow hair, start again and follow the guidelines above.
Better quality bows - when you've progressed in playing a better quality bow can really help technique. Often purchased when moving to a higher grade of instrument but sometimes as a stop gap before hand, it can be very surprising to realise just how much difference the weight and feel of a bow can make.

Carbon fibre bows have a very even consistency of weight along the stick, which can be an advantage for some hands. However wood undoubtedly offers more nuance and versatility. A lot depends on your own technique, needs and the type of music you're playing. Better quality woods and hair as well as very fine tuned techniques of making can really emphasize virtues (and vices) in a players technique - it's a very personal choice. What suits one hand, won't feel the same in another. But once you're in a decent price bracket, with well made bows, choose the one that feels most comfortable and which realistically suits your needs. There are lots of choices so set a minimum and maximum price range and ask to try anything in between those points. If possible bring your own instrument to get the best idea of how you'll sound.

Avoid "label buying" - with bows, just because a certain make suits your friend, or teacher, there is no guarantee it'll suit your hand. Widen the search and look at all available options - you might just find that gem that makes you feel like Paganini :)

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Resin? It's all the same isn't it?

It's the little box of glossy stuff they stick in with any bowed instrument; an afterthought for many people and a puzzle for most beginners. What is it? Why is it important? Most students have a vague idea of what to do with it, but a host of misconceptions about how best to use it and its importance. Resin is a small component in your armory as a player, but it's vital - use too much, too little or a bad type and you can sound like you are trying to strangle your instrument into submission. Use the right amount, of a good resin, and you can enhance both your technique and sound.

New resin looks shiny, like the picture above but in order to use it you must first start it by scraping it with a sharp edge ( a pin or small scissors is ideal). Score a cross hatch of lines into the surface, lightly, so that the powder can come out.


Resin isn't expensive generally speaking, so don't be tempted to go for a very cheap one. 
The cheapest types are very coarse, the powder or dust gives a harsh sound and you need to keep piling more on just to get a half decent grip. Often we see students who are frustrated that despite their efforts their bowing doesn't seem to be improving. In fact, when they try a better resin, a lot of the scraping and screeching disappears and they realize, they were improving but the resin was hindering them. 

Even our smallest beginners use a decent German student resin, costing about €2.50.
 Geipl German Resin, AB resin and Royal Oak Profi is around €5,95 to €6.95 and excellent brands like Dominant, Kaplan dark, Nymans, Hills, Pirastro all cluster between €8.95 and €15.95

There are specialist resins, like Liebenzeller or Larsen that cost between €17.95 and €35 but they are the exception not the rule.


Once you have your decent resin, with a good grade of powder, the next thing to remember is when to use it. 
As a rough rule of thumb if you are doing half an hour practice per day, use it once a week. If you are doing an hour a day use it once every 3-4 days.

 Applying it means to make 4-6 firm passes of the bow across the resin block, making sure that you don't skip a patch - go from tip to frog.

Then put it down, and step away from the resin!

If you feel or the teacher feels you need to add more, by all means do; these are guidelines not hard and fast rules. But by erring on the side of caution you will keep your strings sounding well, your bow hair responsive and clean and when you make an effort to master smooth bowing techniques you'll see an return on your hard work.

Friday 3 July 2015

Moving Up to a Better Grade of Instrument; A Parent's Guide

Karl Hofner Violin Outfits

It's that time of year again - the kids have barely been granted freedom from the chains of school and parents have to start thinking about September and all that entails. It's been almost 2 years since our popular article on starting an instrument "A Parent's Survival Guide" was published on this blog and it's still proving useful to parents who are new to the entire business. But we've been asked several times to do a version on how to move on to the next level of instrument buying so here it is.

For a lot of parents, once they grasped the basics of why one beginning instrument is better than another, it made sense. You can quantify things like better fittings, and better sounding strings, and there's a tangible benefit to them, and to having an instrument that can be traded in, all of which are easy to understand and don't really require you to actually judge the tone or sound of an instrument yourself. A lot of parents are intimidated by the fact that they never played themselves or feel they don't have the ear to tell if one violin sounds better, but they can rely on things like after sales service and accountability. 

Fast forward a few years and your child has progressed. They're no longer scraping Twinkle Twinkle; names like Bach and Haydn are being thrown around in cold blood and suddenly they start talking about undertones and resonance and their teacher starts talking about "It's time they moved up to a better instrument...." And you realize that you have to do it all over again, and it's going to cost you money.

But how much money? how big a jump should you make? What instrument will carry them through from grade three to.....leaving cert? grade 7 or 8? how far will they actually go? 
Your child wants an old instrument like her friend has, the teacher wants a modern handmade one, both want you to sell a kidney to finance it, and you're afraid you can't hear the difference. SO how to proceed?

1. Set A  Price Range

Often customers come in and say blithely "Oh we don't mind the price," not realizing that violins can  and often do, cost an arm and a leg, and one of those kidneys we spoke about earlier. Be realistic. There's no point in longing for a three thousand euro violin when in fact you have five hundred to spend. Ask for advice -call in first, tell the shop what the violin they are playing on cost, ask the teacher to list some improvements and qualities they'd like to see in the new one, Get some idea of the minimum leap needed to hear a distinct improvement from what they are using; then ask the options up from that point until you hit a point where you know you simply will not pay more. 

For example, your child is playing on a 3/4 or 4/4 that cost 200 euro; the teacher asks you to move to an intermediate level instrument, suitable for grades 3 or 4 to 7.  There is very little point in going one or two hundred euro higher. You generally  need to make a leap of about three hundred to the 500, 600, price range to hear a justifiable difference. So your minimum level is €495/550 and your maximum level is set by your individual available finances. 
Say however the teacher tells you that the child needs to be on an instrument suitable for grade 6 upwards to grade 8 or beyond, then you might need to look towards the higher end of your budget.
Reputable shops and dealers should be happy to advise you on the individual strengths of the instruments in any given price range, and should also be able to give you a rough guide to the grades or levels for which they are suitable.

What we can't tell you:
Whether they'll practice or how to make them practice
How long they'll keep up playing the violin
Whether a new instrument will miraculously improve  their grades

We can give you advice and guidelines but in the end, only you know what you can afford realistically and remember, you can always trade in and move up again in a few years.

2. Invest Time As Well As Money

Don't look in a rush, don't buy in a rush. If the teacher asks you in January to consider a new instrument before the Feis or exams, don't leave it til the week before to panic buy. Your child needs time to play in a new instrument and choosing in a rush really hinders making a good decision. Invest some time in making a choice; a good shop will welcome queries, and happily show you the range or give you the information, so go in without the kids on a reconnaissance mission or email/ring and get the low down. Have an idea of the choices available before coming in to buy.

 Some parents like to ask us not to show above a certain price bracket while others ask can the player try a dearer one while they're here, just for the experience. Both are perfectly reasonable requests depending on the child.  Some parents ask us to show without mentioning the price in front of the player, so that they don't make a choice or discard a choice based on price. 

Commonly asked questions include - 
Does the bow make any difference to the sound?
Can I choose a better bow with that outfit and upgrade?
What makes one instrument sound different or better than another?
Why do instruments from the same maker sound different from each other?
Why does this one have four adjusters and that only one? Can it be changed?
What strings are on it? What happens if the teacher wants a different set of strings on that violin?

3. Ask Your Teacher For Their Input

A teacher's input is crucial in our opinion. They know the virtues and vices of the student's playing. They know the likelihood of them progressing and at what rate, and they know how much effort(or lack of effort!) the student is putting in to their craft.
They also have a good ear, have likely seen man different grades of instruments and have a fair idea of what level of instrument you should get for your money.

Some teachers will pop in and try the instrument for you, if you're investing beyond the student levels; in fact, many actually are familiar with the product ranges in shops and can just advise you without needing to inspect individual instruments. For example many teachers we deal with recommend price brackets rather than any particular make or model because they know whatever we have in that range will be suitable. 

They will often be able to tell you what the long term outlook it - if they think the child needs something to do for a few years or if they really think the potential is there to go further. No one can guarantee that a child will keep on playing but if the potential is there it's a lot easier to take a risk on buying a better instrument.

4. Trad, Classical, Jazz, Death Metal...?

Bear in mind that different qualities are beneficial to different types of playing. A Trad player might appreciate a brighter tone whereas a Classical player has different requirements. Some instruments sound well across a variety of genres whereas others are suited to one more than another.

Also if the player is doing mainly traditional or jazz or indeed, punk death metal rock, remember that steel strings might suit that style better; many of the intermediate and up violins come with synthetic strings for the better classical sound. Don't be afraid to ask about changing strings, and negotiate - most shops will only charge a small surcharge if the price difference is reasonable. 

5. You Don't Have to Buy The Most Expensive

Within a price range, if the instruments are properly set up and well made, go for the one that YOU like the best. Every model will have a different sound. Every player has a different sound preference. If one of the instruments suits the player, but it's not the most expensive, that's fine, that's great. There is no point in going for a dearer instrument for the sake of it. In the end sound is the most important thing. 

If the instrument is NOT in an outfit (violin bow and case, for example) ask about a discount off accessories like bow, case, shoulder rest and so on. We offer a 10% discount when bought with an instrument. Also ask what comes with an outfit (eg usually violin bow and case with resin) and what is not included (eg shoulder rest, music stand) Also don't be afraid to ask for help in making an existing shoulder rest comfortable, and changing a chin rest if necessary. Adjusters can be put on or taken off, unless the tailpiece has them integrated - don't be afraid to ask. In the end you want to walk out with everything set up for the player as comfortably as possible. 

In the end, you have to trust the process to a degree - no one has a crystal ball and it's always a risk to invest in a more expensive item. But if you can be sure that it's well made, well set up, you can trade in, there's a full after sales service and the advice given was accurate, then the risk is minimized. And you still, hopefully, have your sanity.....

Hope this is of help when making those all important decisions; any questions we've missed, feel free to ask in comments!!

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