Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Violin Open E String Whistling Problem (Part 1)

One of the most frustrating problems for violinists is the whistling E string. You play on the D string and when you cross over to the open E, it whistles with an annoying high frequency squeal. Or you play a chord in Bach and the open E string whistles.

This whistling is not due to poor bowing technique: I have heard the best violinists in the world whistle their open E-strings.

The whistling open E string is caused by the string vibrating in a torsional (twisting) motion rather than the normal Helmholtz (transverse or sideways) motion. The torsional vibration frequency for an unwound plain steel E-string is approximately 4,800 Hz (an open E is 660 Hz), and independent of the diameter of the string or the tuning. The torsional damping (damping is how quickly the vibrations die away) is extremely low, so once the string starts to vibrate torsionally, it does not want to stop very quickly. Your finger tip provides very high damping, and that is why the whistling does not occur with stopped notes. (Stopped notes can still squeak due to low string damping and poor bow technique, but that phenomena is generally not due to torsional behavior.)

The lower strings don’t have whistling problems because the windings provide extremely high torsional damping. That is why a wound E-string (for example our Helicore H311W) is more whistle resistant than plain E-strings. We also add a damping compound to our wound E-strings which increases torsional damping. For the ultimate whistle-proof E-string, try our Kaplan Solutions Non-Whistling E string (KS311W 4/4M). In addition to the winding and added damping compound, it uses a stranded steel core, which lowers the torsional frequency and further increases torsional damping.

The Kaplan Solutions Non-whistling E-string is also very sweet sounding compared to solid steel E-strings, yet has plenty of power due to its high playing tension, comparable to heavy tension solid steel E-strings. The string has a solid ball-end, which cannot be removed, so we include an adapter which allows it to be used with common hook type fine tuners.

In part 2, I will discuss why it is so difficult to prevent an E string from whistling.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Playing Harmonics

One of the most overlooked aspects of playing harmonics on bowed string instruments is the bowing point. A common cause of harmonics not sounding is that the bowing point is too far away from the bridge.

When playing higher notes, the bowing point usually has to move closer to the bridge, since the vibrating string length is shorter. (The same proportional bowing point to the bridge is closer to the bridge in absolute distance for a shorter vibrating string length.) We usually make this bowing adjustment automatically as our left hand moves up the fingerboard when playing really high notes.

When bowing harmonics, one must remember the bowing point needs to be based on the effective vibrating length of the harmonic and the actual sounded pitch, and not where the left hand actually stops the note. For example, the typical artificial harmonic is played in the low positions, but actually sounds two octaves higher, so it must be bowed as if you were playing the normally stopped note two octaves higher. (In this particular case, the string is actually vibrating in four short segments, like four links in a sausage.) This means the bowing point must be closer to the bridge.

Addendum: I should add that the bowing speed and force (pressure) should also be based on the effective vibrating length of the harmonic and the actual sounded pitch, and not where the left hand actually stops the note.