Musical Identity: Defining Instrumentalist Personalities

The Borealis String Quartet. Photo by Vancouver 125.

Which instrument you play (or even want to play) somehow becomes an indelible part of your identity. Even now when I talk about my musicianship with strangers, I often hear, “Oh, I played the cello growing up,” or “I’ve always wanted to learn the guitar.”  To the former I say, “Do you still play?” to which they sometimes say no. So I respond saying, “Hey, it’s never too late to pick it up again!” To the latter, I say, “Hey, it’s never too late to learn!”

Either way, the fact that these individuals have, had, or want to play an instrument is a part of their identity which helps them both establish their background and relate to me as a fellow musician. It provides us with common ground and a shared interest.

But deeper than that, the instruments we identify with not only become associated with our identity, but even define our identity. Over time, as you play your instrument and spend time in your section, your orchestra, or your practice room, you may find that your specific instrument teaches you something or molds you in a specific way.

 

Instrument-Associated Personalities

I’ve found, as a bass player, that most bass players have similar personalities: relaxed, a little rebellious (we run off and join punk bands in high school), perhaps more introvert, “chill.” We’re often the type of people who stand at the back of the orchestra making sarcastic comments about the “uptight” violinists who don’t know when to stop practicing and take a break. (Am I stereotyping here?) Bass players usually have less competition than violinists, so we are usually less competitive individuals. Not to say we aren’t driven or dedicated, but . . . there are just a different set of demands that shape a bassist player versus, say, a violinist. Make sense? Of course these stereotypes aren’t always accurate, but still, you’ve probably noticed a difference between choir buffs, band geeks, and orchestra nerds.

This poses the question, do you choose the instrument, or does the instrument choose you? From a Kennedy Violins standpoint, it’s fascinating to observe customers choosing a violin or viola for purchase. What causes one individual to choose the rich, dark sounding Gerard with the dramatically flamed back while another chooses the Antiqued Giuliani Violin with the lighter yellow, distressed finish and a different sound altogether? What draws one towards a reddish violin, like the Giuliani Etude, and another to a dark chocolate brown, like the Bunnel G1?

Beyond choosing a specific violin, choosing which instrument to play, especially as a child, is an important decision that can shape the rest of his or her life. Helping your child choose an instrument may come down to practical decisions such as already owning a specific instrument in the home for them to begin. Do you allow the child to choose the instrument, or do you choose it for them? It’s an important decision, one that requires a balance between the child’s interests, personality, and any other factors.

 

Switching Instruments: Identity Crises

While the instrument that you associate yourself with will always be an important part of your identity, I hope to discourage the tendency to feel trapped or stuck playing a certain instrument. For example, I’ve heard of many children who want to play the cello or bass, but begin on the violin because it’s smaller, easier to carry, more affordable, or more accessible. Some never switch over to the instrument they intended to play, while others do. I’ve know of concert violinists switching to play the viola in college and succeeding tremendously. I’ve known many bassists who started on the cello and switched over. And I know of many violinists who have made excellent guitar players later in their musical careers.

Is it preferable to start on the original instrument you intend to play? Not necessarily. However you choose to define your musical identity, don’t be afraid to try something new. Renting a different instrument than you currently play from Kennedy Violins may be just the change you’ve been looking for to refresh your interest and personal development as a musician.

Photo of the Week

If you haven’t heard yet, we are having a photo contest.  Each Friday during the contest we will be featuring one of the photos submitted.  This week’s photo comes to us from Andrew Herrault.  He entered it into the “Artistic” category.  If you would like to submit your own, click here for details.  The  winner receives $200!

Photo taken by Andrew Herrault

Kennedy Violins Photo Contest!

Kennedy Violins is pleased to announce that we are holding another photo contest.  This time, there are three categories for participants to enter: Performance,  Artistic, and Humorous.  One winner will be chosen from each category receiving a $50 in store credit.  A grand prize winner will be chosen overall receiving a $200 in store credit.  The winners will also be featured in the Kennedy Violins blog and monthly newsletter.

To enter, you may post the picture on our Facebook page or e-mail it to us at photocontest@kennedyviolins.com.  Feel free to e-mail or call us if you have an questions.

Happy Shooting and Good Luck!

Photo Contest Rules

Term:
Kennedy Violins, Inc. Photo Contest begins May 21, 2012 and ends June 30, 2012, at 11:59 PM Pacific Standard Time (PST). By submitting an entry, each contestant agrees to the rules of the contest.

Who may enter:
Any  resident of the United States of America or  Canada (participants under 18 must have additional waiver signed by a parent or guardian)—except for individuals affiliated with the Kennedy Violins, Inc., including employees, interns, volunteers, and their immediate families (children, siblings and spouses) and others living in their households—are eligible.  Kennedy Violins, Inc. will determine winners’ eligibility in its sole discretion.

What to enter:
The Photo Contest categories are drawn from those subjects of special interest to Kennedy Violins, Inc.

The three categories are:

Performance-the photo must feature a group or soloist performing or doing something connected to performance (i.e. tuning, warming up, etc.).

Artistic-The subject of the photo should be artistic while still featuring a stringed instrument.

Humorous-This category is for more light-hearted entries.

Photographs must have been shot by the entrant since January 1, 2010.

Cropped photos are eligible in all categories. We do not accept digitally or otherwise enhanced or altered photos. Minor adjustments, including spotting, dodging and burning, sharpening, contrast and slight color adjustment or the digital equivalents, are acceptable. If the judges determine that a photographer has altered his or her photo, they reserve the right to disqualify it.

For a photo in which a person is recognizable, you must secure a model release from the subject or, in the case of a minor, the subject’s parent or guardian and provide it to Kennedy Violins upon request.

Photographs that have won any other contests or have been published in magazines and newspapers are not eligible. We define winning as having won a grand prize or 1st place in a single category. Photos that violate or infringe upon another person’s rights, including but not limited to copyright, are not eligible.

How to enter:
Please submit photographs through our Facebook page at www.facebook/kennedyviolins.com or by e-mailing photocontest@kenendyviolins.com. We do not accept photographs submitted through the mail. Submit no more than three (3) photographs per category. We do not accept more than one contestant per e-mail address. You must indicate the category to submit your annual contest entry to the monthly competition.

High-quality scans of non-digital photographs are acceptable. Digital photographs should be taken at the highest resolution possible. Use the on-line entry form on our website. Complete a separate form for each photo submitted. Photographs must be in a .jpeg, .jpg or .gif format. Files submitted may not be larger than 2,048k (2Mb).

Kennedy Violins, Inc. reserves the right to disqualify incomplete entries and/or contestants who are unable to submit the correct format.

By entering the contest, entrants grant the Kennedy Violins, Inc. a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual, non-exclusive license to display, distribute, reproduce and create derivative works of the entries, in whole or in part, in any media now existing or subsequently developed, for any educational, promotional, publicity, exhibition, archival, scholarly and all other standard Smithsonian purposes. Any photograph reproduced will include a photographer credit as feasible.  Kennedy Violins, Inc. will not be required to pay any additional consideration or seek any additional approval in connection with such uses.

Entry deadline:
All entries must be received through the Kennedy Violins, Inc web site by 11:59PM Pacific Time on June 30, 2012.

Judging:
Judging of the annual contest will be conducted by a panel of experts selected by Kennedy Violins, Inc. Winning photographs will be announced on kennedyviolins.com in July 2012. Decisions of the judges will be final.

The contest is void where prohibited or restricted by law. Kennedy Violin, Inc. reserves the right to cancel the contest or modify these rules at its discretion. Decisions of Kennedy Violins, Inc. will be final.

Prizes:

One grand prize winner and three honorable mention prize winners will be selected from all eligible entrants.

The grand prize winner will receive: $200 store credit

The 1st place prize winners in each category will receive: $50 store credit

Winners must sign a release and license and will be responsible for paying any taxes they may owe on a prize.

The Fine Art of Tuning

A cello section tuning.

In high school at the beginning of each concert, like all orchestras, we would take some time to tune.  Once the squeaking and squawking settled into a common A natural, our conductor would say, “Thank you very much.  Our first song was ‘The Fine Art of Tuning.'”  The audience, slightly confused, would laugh and we would move on to the actual concert.  His comment, while quite dry, actual holds a lot of truth.  The concept of may seem like simply matching pitches but there is “fine art” to it that I see even advanced musicians missing out on.  In my experience there are two main things that will help you master the fine art of tuning: a strong pitch reference and good tuning habits.

A Strong Pitch Reference: Unless you were born with “perfect pitch,” you will need a reference to the correct pitch.

-A tuning fork is the classic tool for tuning.  It is a piece of metal cast into a specific u-shape so that when struck, it emits a particular pitch. *NOTE:  Never strike a tuning fork on your instrument.* I’ve seen this happen which is why I have to say it…

-For beginners, an electronic tuner is useful because they can either emit the desired pitch or show you digitally what pitch you are playing.  There are even some that clip directly on the instrument.  I suggest investing in a tuner that doubles as a metronome.  It’s less to carry around!

Pitch pipes are lightweight and easy to use as well.  All you have to do is blow.  The down side is that if they get dropped or beat up, the notes on the pitch pipe will get out of tune themselves.

Pianos are best used in a band setting.  They aren’t exactly portable like the other options but they are the best choice if you are going to be playing with a piano (I’ll explain that later).

-If you want to be super tech savvy, there are several apps for mobile devices that turn your phone into a tuner.  Just be careful which one you get, the free ones aren’t always accurate.

Clockwise from top left: a chromatic pitch pipe, a tuning fork, a violin pitch pipe, and a mobile app.

Good Playing Habits: some of this may seem like common sense, but it’s good to be reminded.

-The best habit to have while tuning would be listening. It’s not enough to simply look at the tuner see that you are in tune (or worse, just play a note and turn the pegs until you are tired of it or the rest of the group stops tuning).  Listen to what it sounds like to be in tune and out of tune.  On a stringed instrument, you will need to listen to the intervals between the strings.  Traditionally, violin, viola, and cello strings are tuned in fifths (sounds like the beginning of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”).  If you are playing in a group, listen to the other players and “agree” with their tuning.  At times, the people you are playing with may have instruments that aren’t perfectly in tune and can’t be tuned without great difficultly.  I’m not talking about stubborn viola pegs or sticky clarinet keys, but a 250 year old pipe organ or a tinny house piano at a bar.  Your instrument may be perfectly in tune on its own, but if it doesn’t match the instruments you are playing with you will sound out of tune.

-Having strong fundamentals is another habit that will make the tuning process easier and more effective.  In the violin family, a good bow hold is key to quality sound production.  If you don’t have a strong bow hold, you won’t be able to produce a good sound to tune from .  Also, applying too much or too little pressure with the bow can cause the note you are trying to tune to go in and out of tune.  Long and steady bow strokes at medium volume are best for tuning.  Likewise, having the correct shape and placement in the left hand directly impacts the intonation of the notes you are trying to play.  I hate to say it, but it’s best to practice scales over and over again to strengthen tuning in the left hand.

-Lastly, take the time you need to make sure you are in tune.  I remember when I first started tuning my own instrument, the time it took to get it right was frustrating and felt like everyone else I was playing with was getting in tune faster.  Yet, I know that my stand partner and my teacher always liked it when I took an extra 30 seconds to make sure that I was in tune.

Other Helpful Articles: How to Install Strings and Keep Pegs from Slipping, Strung Out on Strings, Beginner Basics, Stringed Instrument Care and Maintence Part One, and Part Two.

Common String Instrument Repairs

 

Photo by Isabelle Plante

The first time I was traumatized by a broken instrument was in the third grade. My dad propped my rental bass up, leaning it standing on its endpin against the side of our van on the morning of a performance. Propping a bass up standing like that is like asking for a death wish. He walked away, only leaving it to slide over, slamming on the concrete.  The entire neck snapped off. I thought it was finished, completely totaled, and ready to throw in the scrap pile only after we paid thousands of dollars for the irreparable damage.

Well, little did I know that the neck could be glued back on with a seam barely visible to the eye. What I thought was a complete catastrophe turned into no big deal. Well. It was a big deal. It was a miracle in my eight-year-old eyes.

 

Wood: The Ideal Medium

Over the years as I’ve done string instrument repair and setup, I’ve come to appreciate the brilliance in making objects out of wood. Almost anything made of wood can be easily repaired or cosmetically restored with the right tools and materials: a little glue, micromesh, sandpaper, a variety of wood stains, varnishes, replacement parts, and the like. Some repairs are trickier than others, but most are far, far from impossible, and usually fairly simple.

So if something breaks on your instrument, it’s likely not the end of its life. Keep in mind, violins are like legos with parts that can be either repaired or replaced.

 

Hypochondriac Instrumentalists

As I’ve become more familiar and comfortable with these common “injuries” inflicted upon stringed instruments, the less they freak me out. In fact, they don’t freak me out at all because we work with them every day. I noticed that people tend to be hypochondriacs when it comes to their personal instruments, especially when they don’t know what the cure or fix is for the damage done. You can take comfort in the fact that your violin like an organic piece with the ability to heal with a simple cast, like for a broken arm, or some basic “surgery.”

Take furniture for example. It can last for hundreds of years when made well and maintained. I was thinking the other day, it seems people are really comfortable glueing a table leg back on or assembling their own IKEA furniture, but if something happens to their violin (which is made of the same basic substance: wood), they panic.

 

Common String Instrument Repairs

So to shed a little light on the subject, here are some of the most common repairs we deal with in the Kennedy Violins instrument shop including a) the problem, b) how serious it is, and c) how it might be fixed.

 

  • Open Seams: An open seam is simply an opening somewhere between the ribs (the sides) of the instrument and the face and/or back. Open seams are one of the most common repairs and are usually VERY simple and relatively quick repairs when done correctly. Open seams are fixed with melted hide glue, an extremely strong and water-soluble substance that allows for instruments to be easily taken apart and put back together. Hide glue can set in as few as 4 hours, although leaving clamps on for 24 hours is pretty standard. The only time open seams can be a problem is if they’ve been open a very long time in intemperate conditions that may have caused the wood to warp. Warped wood can be a problem if the plates/ribs no longer fit together well or there’s a stress point at the seam wanted to pull itself open again. Still, even a warped open seam is repairable, just may require the face or back of the instrument to be removed and reglued.
  • Crack in the Face: Cracks in the face, back, or ribs of a violin can be more serious than an open seam. Like a broken arm, a crack may be an incomplete fracture or a complete break/crack through the wood. Either way, cracks can be delicately filled or glued/clamped back together with special clamps that arch across the top or back of the instrument.
  • Cracked Scrollbox: Here’s a fairly common and frustrating malady. The pegs, which are held in place by friction in the scrollbox/pegbox can put so much pressure on the scrollbox (especially if pushed or forced in too hard), that the wood can crack on the edge of hole the peg fits in. It’s a challenging spot to glue because it’s such a stress point. If glueing or splinting the scrollbox doesn’t hold, the entire neck and scroll may need to be replaced.
  • Loose or Detached Fingerboard: A very simple fix. Old glue is removed or scraped off and the fingerboard is reset in place with hide glue.
  • Cracked Chinrest: Depending on the location of the crack, the chinrest can either be glued and sanded so the crack is nearly invisible, or if the crack is around the brackets at a stress point, the chinrest can easily be replaced.
  • Scratches: Scratches can be either buffed out, touched up with a matching varnish color, or filled with wood filler or clear coat. Fine scratches are very easy to buff out with micromesh or pumice/rottenstone polishing powders mixed with paraffin oil on a soft cloth.
  • Chipped Corners/Edges: If the wood chip or corner isn’t lost, it can easily be glued back in place. If the piece is lost, a new piece of wood could be carved or shaped to replace it. If the chip, gouge, or hole is small, wood filler could also be used to fill in the gap. Gouges or chips in ebony surfaced can actually be filled with ebony dust mixed with a clear glue, then carved and sanded until level and smooth.
  • Warped Bridges: Especially in humid conditions, bridges warp over time from the pressure of the strings forcing down on them. Tuning strings over time also pulls the bridge forward (towards your face as you hold it in playing position). It’s important to occasionally eyeball your bridge from the side and pull it back to standing perpendicular to the instrument face. Warped bridges can actually be boiled, pressed, flattened, and dried back into shape, but replacing the bridge is usually the simple and affordable fix.
  • Nut with Grooves Too Deep/Wide: Nuts, the small, shaped block of ebony with four string grooves at the top of the fingerboard, are easy to recarve, remove, raise, or replace if necessary. Sometimes the grooves in the nut get too deep after rough strings saw across them over time. If the strings are too low you may end up with strings buzzing against the fingerboard. This is a quick and easy fix.

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If you have any questions about your instrument’s playability, even if it’s not a Kennedy Violins instrument, feel free to call us at 1-800-779-0242 with your questions! We are always happy to help you identify and necessary repairs to your instrument or recommend an upgrade to one of our Kennedy Violins violas, cellos, and violins. And with our lifetime warranty, we can promise you any maintenance necessary to make your instrument last for years to come!