Wood Used in Violin Making

I write this blog post as I am aboard a train heading to the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire. Various luthier classes are being held there this summer. With that introduction, I would like to turn to a very pertinent subject: the different types of wood used in violin making. Maple, Spruce, and Ebony are the most commonly used woods, and Willow and Rosewood are often utilized as well.

Maple is most often used to construct the back, ribs, neck, and scroll of the violin. European maple from Yugoslavia that is well figured (meaning it has a pleasing pattern), aged, and properly cut is often considered to be the prime choice. However, rather than being concerned with the origin of the wood, it is better for violin makers to carefully choose wood that is the lightest in weight and color, and that has attractive figure. Another important point is the fact that the age and density of the wood is more important than the attractiveness of the figure. Maple is primarily used for these parts of the violin because it has good mechanical properties. These factors allow the maker to create a light weight instrument while retaining excellent acoustic qualities. The result is a highly responsive, arched instrument.

The top, blocks, and lining of a violin are usually made using Spruce. European spruce has been common for quite sometime, and Engelmann spruce from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado is also a superb choice. The quality of sound the violin will produce is affected more by the choice of wood and carving done to the top, rather than the back. The best spruce for violin making should have a tight grain, and should be properly aged. When held by the corner and tapped with the knuckles, the wood should produce a clear sounding ring; not a dull, muffled sound. This kind of spruce enables the best acoustic properties to be realized when converting string vibrations into the body amplifier.

The fingerboard, pegs, tailpiece, and end pin of the violin, all known as the “fittings,” are usually made using Ebony. Ebony is the strongest of the light weight woods. This durability enables it to stand the test of time and hold up for years. The deep black color is also very attractive on an instrument.

Through years and years of experimentation, violin makers have come to favor certain varieties of wood: Maple, Spruce, and Ebony as the best choices in violin making because of the unique structures and properties that each of these materials has to offer. Kennedy Violins offers high quality, affordable instruments that have been constructed using carefully selected tone woods, regardless of the price category. Since we are owned and operated by string players, we know how important it is that instruments of all price categories are made using properly prepared choice tone woods, and are properly set up and ready to play. I invite you to browse our selection of violins today!


Auto Racing and Stringed Instruments

Ok, you may be thinking “what does auto racing have to do with playing a stringed instrument?”. Before I started driving Spec Miatas at the Portland International Speedway, I had the vague opinion (as most probably do), that driving a car fast around a track, is mostly a matter of talent, a love of going fast and experience.  It is all of those things but what I’ve found out, is that learning to play a musical instrument well, shares many parallels with learning how to drive around a race track as fast as you can.

Here is a quick list of a few of the most common parallels.

1.  Technique and hard work are more important than talent.

One of the statements that is often said to me in conversations with people that are not professional musicians is “you must be very talented..”.  While I appreciate the compliment, it is somewhat aggravating to hear these words because I know from personal experience as a player and a teacher, that it is mostly hard work and discipline that enables a person to reach a high level of ability with their musical instrument.  To hear these words, is to almost negate all of the years of dedication and sacrifice that I’ve put in since I was a child.  Most students are unwilling to sacrifice their time or get distracted by other things in their life, to put in the hard work necessary to master an instrument and this is the biggest reason why most people quit before they reach an advanced level.  In other words, just about anybody can learn to play a musical instrument at an advanced level, regardless of the natural ability they were born with.  As a teacher, I’ve seen this first hand many times throughout the years.  A hard working student who does what they are instructed to do and puts time aside time to practice several times per week, will always achieve greater results than the very talented student, who is lazy and undisciplined.

Learning to be a fast auto racer is the same.  There are many driving techniques that must be learned to consistently post fast lap times.  Many of these techniques are used almost exclusively by the racing community and the only way to get good at them is to practice.  I found this out very quickly when I did my first qualification set around the track, in an effort to set my best time for my first race.  I drove as fast and hard as I could but I was still a .5 second slower than the other more experienced drivers.  The very next week, I went to the track (without my fellow racing buddies) and worked on improving my technique from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon.  I managed to peel 1.5 seconds off my previous best lap time.  I didn’t get more talented.  I simply practiced and put my instructors words into use.

DIsciplined student practicing hard

2.  Each track is unique and must be learned like a new concerto.

Any player who plays a piece of music well, has probably practiced it quite a bit.  In fact, more technical repertoire will require more practicing time because every piece is different and will request the performer to master one technique or the other.  If you take two advanced players and one is a bit better than the other, the one who practices the piece until they master it, will always play the piece better than the slightly superior player who has just picked up the piece and is trying to play it without sufficiently practicing it.

Cars gridding up for the race

I’m currently driving my car at the Portland International Raceway.  I’ve practiced several hours to learn the track.  Every turn of the track has to be negotiated a certain way in order to achieve the best times.  Learning a track is much more technical than I had ever imagined before.  There are very precise points at which you have to know where the brake zones are, what gear you should be in, the turn in points and the exact apexes of each corner.  An excellent driver who is not familiar with these key characteristics of a track, will always be slower than a driver of less skill that has an intimate knowledge of the same track.  Every race course in the United States is just as unique as the myriad of pieces that are available to the average musician.  The best championship drivers in the country are not only very skilled drivers but they have an intimate knowledge of many tracks around the country; just as a skilled performing musician has a very close knowledge of many concertos and has learned to master them all.

3.  As the student progresses, they need to upgrade their instrument.

Before I purchased my first race car, I rented a similar car from a renowned driver in the United States, who had personally fine tuned the suspension in the car, so it was able to negotiate turns as well as it could.  The car that I eventually purchased is decent and the suspension is set up reasonably well, but after gaining more experience driving closer to its limit, it has become obvious that the car will at some point prevent me from going as fast as other cars that are set-up better.  In other words, the more skilled I get as a driver, the more that the car itself will determine whether I win a race or not.  I will eventually have to replace it or get a considerable amount of work done to the suspension and engine if I want to be competitive.

Getting strapped in


A musical instrument is exactly the same.  People call us at Kennedy Violins all the time and ask which violin would be a good fit for them.  To some extent, this is a difficult question to answer because we know that if they are fairly new to the violin, they will not need to purchase a particularly expensive violin, however we also know that the less they spend on an instrument, the sooner they are going to need to replace it.  Therefore, we always ask the customer what their intended time horizon is.  How long do they want to go before they have to upgrade?  Is the answer 1 year, 3 years….never?  Of course budgeting for a violin is one of the most crucial aspects of the purchase process, but buying a better instrument now, can save you money and hassle in the future.  It’s always a good idea to have an idea of how long you want the instrument to last before the students skill starts to surpass the ability of the instrument and it holds them back.

To all of the aspiring students out there, there is a central idea that encapsulates the sum of my thoughts in this post.  It doesn’t matter what kind of skill you want to master, whether it’s a musical instrument or anything else.  The only way to get where you want to go, is dedication and proper practice.  The good news, is that the more your skill improves, the more rewards you will reap from your hard work.  Your passion to become better will evolve into one of the great loves of your life that will accompany and enrich your life’s journey forever.   Happy practicing!



Music Education under constant threat

In another post for Oregon Music News I wrote about Mount Hood Community College’s music department’s troubles, I outlined the kerfuffle set off by the elimination from the catalog of the transfer program with a music emphasis. This was done without notice to the music department staff or instructors and was discovered accidentally by another member of the college staff, who alerted the music department on April 27th of this year. The instructors and staff were completely blindsided by the news.

This came at a time when the college was in the midst of contentious contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, with a potential strike looming, instructors facing termination if they participated in the strike, and students facing potential cancellation of end-of-year events for which they worked, studied and practiced all year.

During this same time, the instructors of the music department, all seasoned, successful instructors, were advised that they could no longer engage in recruiting for the school (what the…?), they could not take the students to performances outside the narrowly defined MHCC district, and they could not themselves participate in festivals and contests as adjudicators outside the district. This means they couldn’t take the band to West Linn to play in a jazz festival, they couldn’t play at the Silverton Wine & Jazz Festival, instructors were not allowed to adjudicate a contest in Boise, etc.

When instructor Susie Jones got verbal approval to take the Jazz band to Taiwan this Spring, she took the band on a hugely successful tour without using any taxpayer money. And when they got back from Taiwan, she was informed that the trip wasn’t approved and was called on the carpet for taking the trip. Nice…

The strike was scheduled for May 12, if the negotiations failed to produce an acceptable contract.

On May 10, the music department instructors were then informed that all 30 talent grants they had at their disposal to help bring gifted students unable to pay full tuition to the school were cancelled. Again, without notice, warning or even discussion. They were simply told they were cut off, 100%.

May 10 was two days before a possible strike and after the instructors had already done the limited recruiting they could do for the year.

At a recent meeting of the MHCC District Board of Education, 22 people signed up to speak in defense of the music department and to plead for the reinstatement of the talent grants.

Speaker after speaker offered comments about how important this music department is in the larger scheme of things; how attending this school changed their lives; how many, many alumni now earn a living in the music industry, in symphonies and opera orchestras, recording studios, Las Vegas and cruise ship house bands, national tours of major recording stars; and how much prestige the music department brings to the whole school.

One of the first speakers was nationally and internationally renowned composer, educator and 23 year member of the faculty, Dave Barduhn, who offered his request to reinstate the talent grant program for the department. (It’s ironic and very telling that although the board expressed “deep appreciation” for all the work and glory the music department brings to MHCC, the chair of the Board, Brian Freeman, has no idea who Barduhn was, nor did he know how to pronounce his name).

Here are Dave’s comments:

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Many others followed, including alums Gary Hobbs, Paige Baker, instructors Susie Jones, Mike Klinger, retired Portland-area high school band director Herb Kost, and current students of the department. Mike Oft, the parent of an alum, offered a list of alums who have gone on to national and international prominence in music, including his son Toby, who now plays principal trombone in the Boston Symphony. That list can be viewed here. Each and every speaker was passionate, well-spoken and concise in their arguments and each had a unique point of view. They brought their thoughts and feelings about their time at MHCC, and they confirmed the fact that MHCC Music was known around the world – from Estonia to Argentina, according to Paige Baker.

Arguments from other prominent musical figures in the Portland community spoke passionately about how the program produces not just good musicians, but great musicians who become assets to the community and how a thriving artistic community creates jobs and income and goodwill and makes a community better for having the arts.

Having a great college where people can go to find expression in a smaller, more intimate setting, benefits everyone. This place helps people find their muse.

The most recent development was the removal of private instruction from the catalog, a requirement in just about all music degrees, and the cessation of a program designed to provide financial incentive for the department to find ways of generating income independent of the school budget. Most of the funds currently in that program were then rolled into the school’s general fund.

While the board and the Vice President of Instruction are busy paying lip-service to “appreciating” the music department and all it does, they’re then turning around and killing the program and taking the money.

So what is really going on here? Why the shoddy treatment, the back-stabbing and public statements that are the opposite of the actions behind closed doors? No explanation seems to be forthcoming. The board and administration are bent on killing a wildly successful and respected music program that brings students from all over and creates national-level talent that enhances the community, and which creates national standing for the college itself. And they are proceeding unilaterally, without discussion, warning or public input much of the time.

One of the speakers at the board meeting suggested that the board turn their thinking upside down and, rather than kill the department, make it stronger, build it up and support it. Even though Mr. Freeman thanked everyone for their comments, offering to take them into consideration and perhaps reconsider their decisions, it doesn’t seem like that will happen.

The taxpayers, the people whose work in the community supports the college and pays the administration’s salaries, need to wake up and take a stand. It’s their college, their community, their money.

The alternative – Mount Hood Community College without a thriving music department – will make the community – their community – a much poorer place.

Music education needs the support of the community, whether an individual has a kid or other relative in school or not. Music makes the community a better place for everyone.





Wood v. Carbon Fiber bows

Whoever thought that space age technology would be something that I would apply to my life as a classical musician? But, here I am, faced with a big decision over wood v. carbon fiber.

I have discussed before that I’m always trying to find a way to make my violin sounding better and stronger without having to trade it in for a completely new instrument. Musicians tend to get attached to their instruments as people do with their pets or other sentimental pieces of their lives. So, when I wanted a richer, deeper sound from my violin, I took the first obvious step and tried a variety of strings. As with most things, I soon discovered that the more I invested that I seemed to prefer that type of string. We reach limits, though, so I’m somewhat decided on which strings I prefer… for now.

But, now, there’s a new twist to this quest for more sound. I was presented with an opportunity to try some carbon fiber bows. Normally, I’m the type of person who would have been the first to try this, so I’m not sure why it has taken me so long for the non-organic approach.

There are SO many options when it comes to carbon fiber bows from basic ones intended for students to top of the line race car professional grade bows. Given the choice, I opted for the race car — The Diamond GX bow made by Coda, since my pernambuco bow is a pretty high performance bow as it is.

Like I’ve said, my goal with the new bow is to get as much sound from my instrument as possible. That takes a lot of strength and pull from the bow. Only recently have I become unhappy with the amount of give that my pernambuco bow has. I push it harder and harder until it eventually can’t really draw out more sound and slumps like a tired, old horse. How can I blame it?

When most people think about carbon fiber, they think of something surprisingly lightweight. Holding a carbon fiber bow isn’t really different than a wooden bow. The weight and balance is similar to a typical bow. The biggest difference is in the playability from the frog to the tip. It is consistent and strong all the way through with essentially no weak areas. It is a pretty incredible feeling to demand the most from a bow and get exactly that. Even finite and technically challenging passages feel almost effortless.

One of the other advantages of the carbon fiber option is the “green factor,” preserving forests, etc. Not only does the carbon fiber option help save tropical forests, Coda bows are also made in Minnesota. These bows don’t stop at being made of carbon fiber. They are also wrapped in a kevlar braid, as in bullet proof vests! Check out our selection of Coda bows from Kennedy Violins. We have them available in a variety of levels for violin, viola, and cello.

So, the final verdict? I think I’m going to try this carbon fiber option for awhile and see how things go. After all, I do have an empty bow holder in my violin case. Why not add to the collection? The pernambuco bow will always be there if I decide to take a relaxed Sunday drive.