Maintaining your violin

Violins are pretty simple and there isn’t really a lot that you have to do maintain your violin, other than wiping it down every day and making sure you don’t expose it to extreme temperature/humidity conditions.  However, there is one aspect of maintaining your violin that many people miss and that is, looking at your bridge every so often, to make sure that it is standing up straight.  If your violin bridge is standing at an angle, the constant pressure of the strings pushing on the violin bridge, will eventually distort it, so that the shape of the bridge becomes permanently “warped”.

Every once in a while, we’ll get a call at Kennedy Violins about someone who wants to purchase a better violin than their last one because the last one was such low quality that the bridge “warped”. The cost quoted to them by the local violin shop to replace the bridge is usually over a hundred dollars.  They often come to the conclusion that it would be more cost effective to just buy another violin that has a better bridge than their last one.

It may be true that the violin bridges on the typical violin you get from Kennedy Violins will be higher quality than most but they will warp the same as a lower quality bridge, if enough time elapses in which the bridge is allowed to remain at a tilted angle.  The reason why most bridges start to tilt towards the fingerboard, is because as strings stretch, the pitch lowers and the result is that the strings produce a pitch that is out of tune and “flat”.  The corrective measure that violinist take, is to turn the pegs clockwise to increase the tension on the string, therefore raising the pitch.  Turning the peg to tighten the string, pulls the string towards the scroll box of the violin, which pulls the bridge forward a tiny bit.  Over the course of several months, the bridge can start to lean forwards quite a lot, depending on how much the violin strings stretch.  Solid steel strings tend to stretch less and so it takes longer for the problem to manifest itself in a warped bridge.  However, instruments strung with strings that have synthetic cores (Dominants, Evahs, Zyex) will experience a lot more string stretching and the tilting of the bridge can occur much faster.

The corrective measure for straightening your bridge is quite simple but can take a little practice.
The steps to take are:

1.  Tune the violin to the correct pitch and examine the tilt of the bridge.  If it is tilting towards the fingerboard, proceed to step 2.  The easiest way to tell if it’s tilting, is to look at the feet.
If there is a tiny gap under the feet closest to the tailpiece, then the bridge is leaning forward.

2.  Firmly grasp the top of the bridge on either side in between your thumb and first finger.  It is important that you hold the bridge on both sides and exert equal force to both sides of the bridge.

3.  Tilt the top of the violin bridge back, towards the tailpiece, without moving the position of the feet of the bridge.

4.  Inspect the bridge and make sure it’s straight.  Look at the feet of the bridge and make sure that they are contacting the top of the bridge perfectly.  There should not be any gaps under the feet of the bridge.  They need to make perfect contact with the top of the violin.

When we set-up your violin at Kennedy Violins, we tilt the bridge slightly back towards the tailpiece of the violin, so by the time you get your instrument, the stretching strings will have pulled the bridge so it is perfectly straight.  If the shipping time is less than 3 days from us to you, your bridge may still be tilted slightly back.  If so, you can straighten it, or simply wait a few days for it to align itself.

I usually examine my bridge every month or two, depending on how much I play.  Having a straight bridge will not only preserve the life of the bridge, but it will also ensure that the feet always maintain proper contact with the top of the violin and therefore transfer sound in the most efficient way, resulting in a great sounding, easy to play violin!

Find a teacher, find a friend

One of the best things you can do when starting a new instrument is to find a great teacher. That will make the biggest impact on any new player — even if it is for a few lessons to get you started. At least, you will be up and running properly and in the right direction. Too often, people get frustrated when things become difficult, and they decide to find a teacher. By then, it will be even more difficult to break the bad habits that have been formed. But, in any case, how do you find the right teacher?

First, you might want to ask yourself how far you want to travel, how often you want to take lessons, and how much you want to pay. From there, you can start researching teachers and even setting up “interviews,” which are not uncommon, but interviews can sometimes be charged as a regular lesson.

If you or your child knows someone who already takes lessons, you can always ask for references. Some public school teachers and local music stores have lists of teachers. Also, find out of there is a local symphony in your area. Some communities have groups that aren’t considered “professional” but have very high caliber players who are willing to teach.

Often times, I have contacted a nearby college or university that has a music department. I find the contact information of the professor that specializes in that instrument and ask for help finding a teacher. Sometimes that professor is willing to teach people from the community. If not, they usually have advanced students who are looking for teaching experience and some extra money.

There are also websites dedicated to helping people find teachers. One such website is teachstreet.com. You can customize the website to search in your area, and you can search for teachers who focus on certain areas or instruments. There are even reviews available for some teachers. It is a great resource for people who don’t live in highly populated areas and don’t have access to colleges or music stores.

If you do set up an interview, you may go in with questions about the teacher’s musical ability. Don’t forget that you will want to enjoy the overall interaction and “vibe” of that certain teacher. Here are some questions that you want to keep in mind:

  • What is the cost?
  • When is the payment due? (Some teachers will let you pay at the time of the lesson. Some teachers will want a full month of payment at a time.)
  • How flexible is scheduling?
  • How often do lessons need to occur (weekly, monthly, etc.)?
  • What is the cancellation policy?
  • Are there performances involved?
  • Who covers the cost of books and materials?

Once you find the right teacher, it can become a lifelong friendship and mentor, such as my teacher, Eric Wenstrom. He continues to teach orchestra in the public school system and also conducts the Teton Chamber Orchestra located in Idaho.

There are even YouTube videos on how to play the violin. Even though they lack the personal interaction, they can be a great resource for people who unpack their violin for the first time and want a place to get started. Here is an example of a good video to get started:YouTube Preview Image
Finding a teacher that works within your budget, schedule, and personality can be a challenge. However, the rewards are immeasurable when you find the right one. It can take your interest in learning to play an instrument to a whole new level.

Where can my kid play?

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OK, so you’ve taken the plunge and started your child on a stringed instrument. They’ve practiced, gone to lessons, done group recitals, maybe even started playing in a school orchestra.

But what if your school doesn’t have a string program? Many school districts around the country are cutting back, and usually the first programs the school administration looks at for cuts are the arts programs – music, art, etc. And then they look at enrollment in those programs, the cost of keeping a specialist teacher on staff and the first thing you know, there’s no orchestra program. Gone, bye-bye, so sorry.

Of course, there’s still a band program because that usually also supports the sports programs, and heaven forbid the sports programs get cut! (Don’t get me started on the merits of arts education over football – that’s a whole blog unto itself.)

But, OK, you’ve got a kid who is really getting along rather nicely with their instrument and has no groups to play in. What to do?

It’s important that your child not only learn the instrument, but also to have opportunities to perform and play with other students – hopefully with students at varying levels of proficiency.

The very act of sitting in an orchestra surrounded by other musicians who play the same instrument you do, takes on a significance and adds an educational and experiential level that you simply can’t get while practicing alone or one-on-one with your teacher.

So playing opportunities are important to the development of any musician.

The obvious place to start is to ask your child’s teacher for recommendations, as they are the most intimately familiar with your child’s development and skill levels, and can readily assess your child’s readiness to step into the world of ensemble playing.

If you live in a larger metropolitan area, there are usually youth orchestra programs available.

The oldest youth orchestra in the United States resides in Portland, Oregon. Over the 80+ years of its existence, Portland Youth Philharmonic has developed a program comprised of several groups, from younger intermediate level players all the way through some of the most advanced college students.

This venerated program very early on became the prototype for youth orchestras across the United States and continues to train young musicians to the highest levels. In fact, there isn’t a major symphony in the United States that doesn’t have someone playing in it that came up through the Portland Youth Philharmonic. It truly is a training ground for very successful musicians.

Admittance is by audition only, but once admitted, you can be assured that your child will receive some of the best musical training available.  Parents are expected to be very involved and as dedicated to their child’s experience in the orchestra as their child.

Check out this video of a young woman who came up through the PYP system. You’ll see how it changed her life:

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This particular orchestra is, of course, only available to students in the Pacific Northwest, but there are many, many similar organizations around the country. One need only to consult Mr. Google to find lists upon lists of youth orchestras. One search yielded a pretty terrific site that covers the US, as well as many other countries. Musicalchairs.com is a great place to start your own research – you can find the listing of youth orchestras across the country here.

Even if you live in a small town, there are usually community groups available to play in that are organized by like-minded people who simply love to play and want to have a place to play.

Ask around, find a place to play and get your child involved. It will change your kid’s life, and give them something enriching and fun to do for the rest of their lives.

We at Kennedy Violins are all products of that early involvement and training and are here to help you bring your child up in a musical tradition that will stay with them their whole life.  From beginning instruments all the way through professional quality instruments, we are here to assist and encourage what we already know can be a life-enhancing activity.

The Soul of the Violin

How does an instrument so small and delicate as the violin produce such a wide variety of musical tone and energy? Under the fingers of an accomplished player, the violin can be amazingly expressive and powerful. The construction of the violin is extremely intricate and fascinating, and one component in particular is responsible for much of the sound production.

Violin Sound Posts

Take a look inside your violin. The interior is bathed in rich light filtered through thin wood and varnish, looking almost like a miniature cathedral. Continue reading The Soul of the Violin