Monday, November 22, 2010

The Violin Society of America 2010 Convention

The 2010 VSA Convention was our biggest and most successful convention ever, with over 500 instruments and bows entered in the competition. The list of winners are here. Congratulations to Jeff Phillips who won Gold Medals for his violin and viola, and Peter Goodfellow who won a Gold Medal for his cello! Congratulations to all the other medal and certificate winners as well, and all those who competed. The standards rise every year and there were some excellent instruments that did not even win awards!

There was simply not enough time, even over a whole week, to attend all of the interesting activities and presentations and catch up with friends and colleagues. There was a wonderful study exhibit of Old Italian and French Masters organized by Jim Warren which showed the fascinating connections between the various makers: I was drawn to an exquisite Rogeri next to one of his Maggini copies which had previously been attributed to Maggini himself.

My favorite instruments were in the Hors Concours and Innovation Exhibit room, which I help organize. We had a gorgeous exhibit of VSA Hors Concours winners (VSA Competition winners who are no longer eligible to compete because they won too many Gold medals!) plus other past competition winners and the competition judges. I saw for the first time a bow by bow judge Stephane Thomachot, one of the most influential living bow makers. I spent many hours with Hors Concours bow maker Gregor Walbrodt: his viola bow was so fantastically balanced and handled so well that it could have been mistaken for a violin bow! Hors Concours bow maker and newly elected VSA President Rodney Mohr had a large selection of bows on display, the most interesting and fun being his 4G bass bow. It is so beautifully made that one only noticed on closer inspection that it was made out of recycled materials and pieces of pernambuco laminated together. Embedded in the frog was a 4Gigabyte memory chip that can be hooked up to a computer USB port!

One of my favorite violins in the exhibit was by Joseph Grubaugh and Sigrun Seifert, but the star of the show was a bass guitar they made inspired by an old guitarron. Look at that gorgeous back (picture of Joe and bass guitar at right)! Joe had a cardboard model of a viola they plan to make using a similar technique of bending the plates.

Here are some interesting presentations I heard: Christina Linsenmeyer, curator at the new Musical Instruments Museum in Phoenix, Arizona…Innovative bass maker Jim Ham who has turned his attention cellos, violas and violins…Alex Sobolev and John Bell on rapid manufacturing techniques for the 21st century, and their digital violin project…The latest research results from our “Vieuxtemps” del Gesu project, with Joseph Curtin showing the apparent importance of the acoustic response due to the excitation of the bridge in the previously neglected vertical direction, and Terry Borman showing modal animations integrated with CT scan data…Hors Concours bow makers David Samuels and Yannick Le Canu discussing Dominique Peccatte… Bernd Musing of Arcus discussing carbon fiber materials for violins and bows, and how the frequency of the first bending mode for a bow stick affects sound…Violin maker and historical researcher Carlo Chiesa on little known facts about Cremonese makers delivered in his unique entertaining style…David Gage on bass setup…Tom Croen on fingerboards…Ned Steinberger showing his latest lightweight NS Electric violin…Jeff Van Fossen and Roger Zabinski of Coda Bow discussing how they design their carbon fiber bows.

Other memorable activities: playing Doug Martin’s latest ultralight balsa violins – their aesthetics remind me of the instruments portrayed in Picasso and Braque’s Cubist paintings…Discussions and debates on violin acoustics, competitions and other topics with many people, often at midnight…Watching competition judge Bill Scott giving critique to competition competitors with the utmost patience, tirelessly …Watching David Samuels plane a bow blank at the Bow Forum…Playing most of the 200 violins in the competition!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

VSA-Oberlin Acoustics Workshop 2010

I will be at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Ohio) next week for our ninth annual VSA-Oberlin Acoustics Workshop. Violin maker Joseph Curtin and I started this workshop in 2002 and this year, 50 people will gather for a week of violin acoustics presentations, demonstrations, and projects. I feel lucky to spend each summer with many of the world’s leading violin makers and acoustics researchers and would like to introduce some of them.

Joseph Curtin is a winner of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (popularly known as the “Genius” awards) and was the first musical instrument maker to be so honored. Faculty member Sam Zygmuntowicz’s instruments are played by many of the world’s leading soloists, including the Emerson Quartet. He recently completed the Strad3D DVD, which documents the Strad3D project that we did in 2006, measuring three of the world’s greatest violins, the 1715 “Titian” Stradivari, the 1735 “Plowden” Guarneri del Gesu, and the 1734 “Willemotte” Stradivari. This DVD contains high resolution photographs, videos, recordings, acoustic measurements, CT scans, instrument data, and essays by prominent researchers, and will provide many fascinating hours of browsing.

George Stoppani is a modern Renaissance man: in addition to making modern and baroque violins, violas, cellos and basses, he makes gut strings, and has written sophisticated software which we use at the workshop to analyze the vibrations of violins. Evan Davis is the head of Boeing Aircraft's Acoustics Laboratory and is applying his expertise in Statistical Energy Analysis, a technique used to predict the vibrational behavior of complex systems (for example, airplanes), to analyze the violin. Professor George Bissinger is the principal researcher in the Strad3D project, which was the first time a 3D laser vibration scanner was used to measure the vibrations of a violin. Professor Colin Gough has turned his attention to violin acoustics after his recent retirement from the University of Birmingham and a career researching high temperature superconductors. Claudia Fritz is a researcher at the Musical Instruments, Acoustics and Music Laboratory (LAM) in Paris. Her interest is in the psychoacoustics and the qualitative evaluation of violins and the work she did at the University of Cambridge can be found here.

Bill Scott is a VSA Hors Concours winner, which means means he can no longer compete in VSA competitions by virtue of winning three Gold Medals! Raymond Schryer has won several Gold and Silver Medals at the VSA and Triennale (Stradivari Cremona) Competitions. Feng Jiang has won a Gold and Silver medal at VSA Competitions. I love to play the violins and violas from all these makers. This summer, I look forward to meeting for the first time Marko Pennanen, a young Finnish maker who won First Prize at last year’s Triennale Competition in Cremona.

In addition to these prize winning makers, we have makers from other backgrounds who were bitten by the violin making bug. They bring different perspectives to violin making and acoustics. Doug Martin is a designer of rowing shells, and introduced the use of balsa as an ultralight violin construction material, along with his method of rapid prototyping to the workshop. Ted White is an ex-biology professor who spends most of his time now to making violins, and collaborated with Jim Ham to make an ultralight cello. Tom King is a retired economist who devotes most of his free time to violin making, when he is not busy as the treasurer of the Violin Society of America.

A new participant this year is Thomas Pinstrup, acoustic engineer and string designer at Larsen Strings. I am sure we will have some interesting conversations about strings! Another new participant I look forward to meeting is Zachary Moen, a lawyer who is studying to be a violin maker, and who plans to blog daily from the acoustics workshop.

There are five other VSA sponsored programs at Oberlin this summer: violin making, bow making, violin restoration, and bow restoration. A new program is the Bass Workshop, led by acoustic workshop alumni Jim Ham, David Gage, and Jay VandeKopple. Jim is one of the most innovative instrument makers in the world, and he has begun to apply his innovative approach from basses to violins, violas, and cellos. David Gage’s bass shop in New York City is a "must visit" shop for all bass players. The bass workshop will be held concurrently with the acoustics workshop, and there promises to be lots of cross-fertilization between the two programs and participants.

These are only a few of the fascinating people that will be at Oberlin next week. They all share a passion for instruments and music, and learning how bowed instruments work. It promises to be another exciting week!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Vieuxtemps Guarneri del Gesu Project

I was privileged to be part of an international team of experts invited by Geoffrey Fushi of Bein& Fushi Rare Violins to study one of the world’s greatest violins, the 1741 “Vieuxtemps”Guarneri del Gesu. The project was organized by violin maker Joseph Curtin and the team also included violin maker Terry Borman. The three of us travelled to Chicago last month to do acoustical testing, modal analysis, CT scans and recordings of the "Vieuxtemps" and other great violins generously provided by Geoffrey Fushi.

One of the highlights was a recording session with violinist Ilya Kayler, with three del Gesu’s, two Strad’s and a Guadagnini arrayed on a table - a feast for the eyes and ears. Terry Borman has some pictures of our project at his website:

Geoff Fushi has written in a recent Bein & Fushi newsletter that the “Viuextemps” del Gesu “..stands at the pinnacle…it is the most exciting violin I have ever heard. Even more exciting than the magnificent “Canon” del Gesu that was once played by Paganini…the "Vieuxtemps" [is] the greatest violin masterwork of all time with unmatched tonal qualities.”

My friends ask me, is the “Vieuxtemps” really the greatest sounding violin in the world? Is it really worth $18million? It is probably the best violin sounding I have had the pleasure of playing, out of the three dozen or so Strads and del Gesus I have held in my hands. Determining the “greatest”, though, is like comparing Bach to Beethoven, or Beethoven’s 5th to his 9thSymphony. As in any great work of art, each violin has its own unique character, the depth and complexity of which is revealed only with time, though greatness is apparent even from the first brief encounter. More specifically, what I heard and felt in my short time with the “Vieuxtemps” was that it had a higher limit than any other violin I have played. The more I dug in, the more it gave, seemingly without limit.

After my all too brief encounter with these masterpieces, I returned home, dreaming not of owning these magnificent instruments (I don’t have $18million…), but with the words of violin maker Joe Grubaugh in mind: “Fan, can you design strings that will make any violin sound like a Guarneri del Gesu?”

Joe - I’m working on it! (Meanwhile, you can try the Zyex Violin Strings I designed - it should give any violin a deeper, richer sound.)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

String Tension Terminology

Players, violin makers, and scientists all use the same term tension to describe slightly different things. This can sometimes lead to confusion.

When scientists and engineers discuss tension, they mean the pulling force exerted along the length of a string. This is what we specify in our catalog and website. This force is determined by the amount of mass (material) on the string, the tuning (frequency at which the string vibrates) and the vibrating length of the string. For standard instruments and tunings, the string vibrating length and tuning are fixed. So the only variable that the string designer can change to affect the tension is the amount of material on the string. The more mass, the higher the tension.

When instrument makers discuss tension, they usually mean the force exerted by the strings on the top of the instrument. This force is determined by string tension as well as the geometry of the bridge and the instrument. For example, the flatter the string angle over the bridge, the less static vertical force the strings exerts on the top of the instrument. Most makers believe this force can significantly alter the sound and playing characteristics of the instrument. I’ll discuss this topic in a future post.

When players discuss string tension, they mean the subject feeling of the string from both their left fingering and right bowing hands. While this subjective feeling of tension is largely determined by the string tension, it is also affected by other factors including string response, string sound, core elasticity, the diameter of the string, etc.

Another confusing term is string gauge. Gauge refers to the diameter of the string, not the tension. In the gauge system most commonly used for gut strings, the diameter in millimeters is equal to the gauge times 0.05. For example, a 14 gauge string is equal to 0.70mm, or 0.0276" in diameter. For guitar strings, the gauge most often refers to the diameter in inches or thousands of an inch. So a 36 or .036 gauge string is 0.036" in diameter.

For an unwound string (or simple guitar strings with one type of winding), larger diameters lead to more mass and therefore higher tension. However, modern bowed strings are wound with multiple windings of different materials with different densities . Therefore, a larger diameter string may not be heavier tension. That is why bowed string manufacturers specify the tension rather than the diameter or gauge.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

String Tension

One question I am often asked is about string tension. What is it? Why is it important? Why do string manufacturers offer strings in different tension grades, such as light medium and heavy?

The string playing tension is the force along the length of the string and is determined by the amount of mass (material) wound on the string. It is also determined by the string length and vibration frequency, but these are typically fixed for standard instruments and tunings.

String tension affects the response and playability of the string, as well as the sound. Higher tension strings will sound louder and can be played louder, but they are less responsive. They are more difficult to control, especially when played softly because they have more mass. While lower tension strings cannot play as loud as higher tension strings, they often have a larger tonal palette than higher tension strings.

Contrary to popular belief, higher tension strings are not necessarily brighter sounding. The opposite is often true. Since higher tension strings are inherently louder, players often bow further away from the bridge and use less bow pressure, which produces a less bright sound.

We offer most strings in light, medium and heavy tension grades. Other manufacturers may use terms such as soft and strong, or dolce and forte, or weich and stark. The medium tension is what works best for most players and instruments. However, your particular instrument and playing style may work better with light or heavy. In addition, your instrument may work best with a mixed set of different tensions. Don't be afraid to experiment!

There are no standards for tension, so one brand's "medium" tension can be different than another brand's medium. All of our string tension specifications are listed on our website:

I will discuss some additional issues and myths about string tension in a future blog.