Category Archives: Viola

Listen and learn

Listening ears

I’ve been reading a lot about our brains on music, and how supremely intertwined music is in our very being, as humans. As we listen to music, it’s not our ears that actually hear music – it’s our brains. Our ears merely convey the vibrations to our brains, and our brains, through synapse, social conditioning and training, interpret those vibrations and give them meaning and context.

Research into our perception of music and its effects on our brains has made enormous progress in the last five to ten years, with the advent of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging – where the subject’s brain is examined in real time while being stimulated or while the subject is performing a prescribed task, such as playing an instrument or listening to music). Through the use of this investigative technique, our knowledge of the brain and how it perceives and processes music has been rapidly expanding to the point where we know things now that we had no inkling of just a decade ago. For example, making music stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, releasing endorphins, much the same way physical exercise, sex or drugs do. So it really is sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Studies of the cultural effect of music, from the time we are in utero, and as we mature, show our predilection for certain kinds of music endemic in our particular cultural surroundings. We in North America and Europe have a natural affinity for Western music because it’s the music we grew up hearing, for the most part, whereas societies in Asia, for example, have a natural affinity for the music built on different systems of musical organization and which for Western ears carries little or no cultural meaning.

A fascinating documentary was made a couple years ago, “The Music Instinct: Science and Song”,   whose chief consultant is Daniel J. Levitin, a prominent American cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, record producer, musician, and writer. He is currently James McGill Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada with additional appointments in Music Theory, Computer Science, and Education. This documentary takes us on a journey that shows us the relationship between humans and sound, and along the way we hear from some heavyweights in the neuroscience field, famous professional musicians, anthropologists, neuropsychologists, and music therapists who are putting music under the microscope.

It shows us that the human fetus starts to hear at between 17 and 19 weeks. Through a series of experiments, researchers were able to determine that a baby in utero can hear music and reacts to it in much the same way young children and adults do. And so we start our relationship to music very early, when our mothers listen to music or sing, or play an instrument. Naturally, the music the mother listens to is typically culturally prevalent and is the very beginning of our cultural conditioning to a certain kind of music (i.e., Western traditional music versus Indian raga, or Lebanese classical).

Research finds that the brain actually becomes wired to hear that certain kind of music. And so, we have the very beginnings, the foundation of our musical perception. Our brains are sponges, really, throughout our lives. We’ve all heard the old saying that as we get older we can’t learn new things, but research into this field has disproved that notion. In fact, it is through music that we can affect healing by rewiring parts of the brains of stroke victims, and those suffering from neuro disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and the like. By use of music and rhythm, barriers to movement and communication can be overcome in these patients who otherwise have no other way to move or express themselves verbally. So our brains are constantly learning and adapting.

In the end, music isn’t just an academic pursuit or another activity to get your kid into. It really is part of who we are as humans. This post is just the tiny tip of a huge iceberg on the subject. Take a look at the video below, and maybe check out the whole program and find out what’s really going on in your kid’s head when she practices the cello, or learns a new scale. It’s really quite amazing.

YouTube Preview Image

Violin Nerd or Athlete?

Article by the World Renowned Violinist Clayton Haslop.

A few years ago I read a little article having to do
with repetitive movement injuries and instrumental
playing. In the course of it the writer made the
following observation.

Musicians are the athletes of small muscles.

Certainly true.

Yet, if the whole truth be told, we must also master some
pretty large muscles as well. Just think of quick
changes of string between the G and E strings, for
example. These require very precise control of the large
muscles surrounding the shoulder, and in our back.

You see the real story boils down to fine motor control,
whether the muscles behind a movement are small or large.

Now in thinking about this, and having watched and
listened to a very large number of violinists over the
years, I would like to offer an observation.

Consummate fine motor control is not simply about, say,
getting the bow from point A to point B and making it
sound good. This is simply not enough.

For one interested in REAL progress there are a couple of
additional questions that must be answered. One, am I
doing this movement in the most efficient way possible?
And two, will I be able to put it comfortably and easily
within the context of other movements coming before and
after it?

This is why, in my ‘Beginners Circle’ course, I have been
so detailed in the descriptions and demonstrations of the
skills underlying violin playing.

In order for you to progress, as I know you want to, you
must become as fully informed as I am when it comes to
these things.

In short, a real violinist leaves no room for
inefficiencies and wasted movements – i.e. ‘bad habits’
when he or she prepares for performance.

Yes, getting it right requires a little more patience and
perseverance up front – anything worthwhile in this world
generally does. Yet the payoffs down the road, in
fluency, ease of playing are huge. How could we want it
any other way?

All the best,

Clayton Haslop

P.S. Here’s a link to check out, if ‘taking it from the
top, to the top’ sounds like an idea whose time has come.
Enjoy!

http://violinblueprint.com/beginners-circle-course/

Clayton Haslop made his professional solo debut at age 20
under Sir Neville Marriner and the Los Angeles Chamber
Orchestra touring six major cities of the western United
States. These critically acclaimed performances not only
lead to numerous engagements with orchestras, they also
resulted in his being appointed founding violinist of the
Los Angeles Piano Quartet at Marriner’s recommendation.

Haslop is active in the motion picture industry as solo
violinist and concertmaster on such films as Avatar, Up,
The Matrix films, Titanic, Ratatouille, The Curious Case
of Benjamin Button, Star Trek, The Incredibles,
Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, and The Perfect Storm.

As a student Clayton Haslop was coached
extensively by the legendary Nathan Milstein.

Sheet music is just a click away

What I like about playing my violin is that it is really a “social” instrument. I don’t consider myself a soloist, but I do enjoy making all different kinds of music at various levels with other people. I practice not only to improve my own abilities but also to contribute to the success of a group. It’s a pretty amazing way of communicating. Performing is fun, but it is still about getting together with friends and sharing music with people you may or may not know.

At Kennedy Violins, we often receive calls from customers who just received their new instrument and are looking for sheet music or other methods of getting started. We recommend that you take a look at sheetmusicplus.com. Sheet Music Plus offers all kinds of music from beginners’ books and DVD’s to the big classical concerto pieces to ensemble works. There are songs geared toward religious settings, holidays, ceremonies, movie soundtracks, pop and rock hits, and fiddle tunes.

With enough searching, you can even discover some websites that offer free sheet music. There is music available at all playing levels, and there are some pieces that are for small ensembles. It’s just a matter of clicking and printing. Here are a few examples:

Violin Sheet Music — This website is easy to use and has a variety of genres listed across the top. Some pieces even offer the piano accompaniment.

8notes.com — It is easy to pick songs to play based on playing level.

The Violin Site — Browse by composer and find other links to other sheet music sources.

And, using today’s technology, there are even YouTube videos that provide sheet music corresponding with sound.

YouTube Preview Image

Before you know it, you will be able to take that new violin, viola, or cello and become part of a quartet, a bluegrass group, a folk band, or whatever your heart desires. Getting involved in music is different than picking up a book to read. It means finding someone to share it with.

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?

Early Portland Youth Philharmonic

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:

YouTube Preview Image

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.

How to Prevent Slipping Violin Pegs

YouTube Preview ImageI was originally going to entitle this blog “how to install violin strings”. However, after a brief perusal of the Internet, I found a disturbing amount of misinformation about the problem of slipping violin pegs and I decided to write about that instead, since this is a pressing problem that we hear about everyday at Kennedy Violins. Unfortunately, the vast array of videos and articles available to the unsuspecting public, will ensure that slipping violin pegs will continue to plague violinists for years into the future. Since slipping violin pegs are mostly caused by improperly installed strings, addressing the problem of slipping violin pegs will have the added benefit of demonstrating how to properly install violin strings as well.

Violin pegs slip for two basic reasons: Unfavorable humidity conditions and improperly installed strings. Properly installed violin strings will compensate for most normal fluctuations in humidity and will enable your violin pegs to not slip. I am a professional violist and my pegs may begin to to slip about once or twice a year at most. My viola is rarely out of tune and when it is, it is usually just a little bit flat because of constantly stretching strings. I have observed many professional players in the groups I perform with, struggle with slipping violin pegs, so this problem is not specific to amateur players. There are many very good professional players, instructors and even violin makers, who never learned how to properly install strings and have struggled with their violins for many years as a result. Most of the information you will see and hear, will tell you to use “peg dope” or “peg drops”. Using these products is like taking Tylenol for a headache that is caused by you banging your head against a brick wall. The Tylenol may offer a temporary fix for your headache (slipping pegs), but the best course of action, is to deal with the root of the problem and stop banging your head against the wall! In other words, install your strings correctly, and you will rarely have to deal with slipping pegs.

There are two forces at work that prevent pegs from slipping. The most commonly known, is the friction that is caused by pushing your pegs into the peg holes while you turn the pegs. Since violin pegs are smaller at one end and bigger on the other, a “wedge effect” is created by pushing the pegs further in the hole and this creates a friction that will assist in preventing peg slippage. The second and most important force, is created by winding your violin strings against the sides of the scroll box and this creates an additional wedge effect. When done properly, this will make your pegs as tight as you want them. You can make your pegs so tight that the pegs will not want to turn unless a tremendous force is applied. Of course this is not ideal, but I mention it to demonstrate the power of this second force when applied effectively. If you rely solely on the method of pushing your pegs in while you turn them, you will assuredly diminish the life of your violin, because you will eventually enlarge the peg holes and will have to have them filled and re-drilled, or you’ll have to purchase over sized pegs and have them custom fitted to your violin. You can avoid all of these circumstances by simply following the 4 steps below.

1. Insert the ball end of the string in the fine tuner or hole in the tailpiece and insert the other end in the peg string hole.

2. While keeping a small amount of tension on the string with one hand (to prevent the ball from coming out of it’s place on the tailpiece) turn the peg with the other hand to wind the string.

3. This is the most important step. The hand that is keeping tension on the string, should also gently pull the string over towards the peg, so you are directing the string to wind against the side of the scroll box.

4. As the string winds on the peg, it will begin to squeeze against the sides of the scroll box. The more you turn the peg, the more the string is squeezed. Because the string is being squeezed, it pushes against the side of the scroll box and make the peg very tight. If you gently push the peg in while you turn it, you can control the tightness of the peg in the hole. The more you push the peg in, the tighter the peg gets and it will not push back out of the hole because the squeezed string is preventing the peg from moving.

Eventually, the portion of the string that is squeezed in between where it’s inserted in the peg and the side of the scroll box will begin to relax and the peg may begin to slip. If this occurs, all you have to do is rewind the offending string and your problem is solved. Generally, your peg should remain tight for quite some time. However, if humidity conditions change for the worse, you may have to rewind your string, but it only takes about 20 seconds to do so and this is a much better alternative than the continued struggle with chemicals and other various magic potions that have been devised over the years.

The reason why dry humidity conditions effect violin pegs so much, is because when the air gets dryer, the pegs will contract and the holes they fit into, will expand. This problem primarily occurs in the winter season in areas that get especially cold. People usually keep their home furnaces on almost all of the time in the winter and this dries the air out. Once the air gets overly dry, violin pegs begin to slip. The easiest and least expensive way to compensate for the dry air, is to use a humidifier tube . This simple device is basically an elongated sponge. You can soak it water every 1 or 2 days and insert it in your violins f-hole. The sponge releases small amounts of water in the air and this is generally enough to compensate for just about any dry area that you would normally subject a violin to.

At Kennedy Violins, we string up thousands of violins every year for our customers and because they live in a variety of differing climates, some customers pegs will be very tight when they receive their instruments and some may even be a little looser than is ideal. However, any string can be rewound in a matter of seconds, so it doesn’t matter where a person lives, anyone can experience the joys of a violin that is peg slip free!

Accessories for Every New (Violin) Outfit

Purchasing an instrument seems like a daunting task, and the most difficult part is over once you decide which instrument you want to get. Right? Perhaps…

There are many accessories available for anyone who has purchased a violin from Kennedy Violins – from the earliest beginning student to the advanced or professional performer. At Kennedy Violins, all violin outfits include a variety of the following, depending on which instrument you purchase: bow, case, strings and rosin. But, beyond the basics that come with every instrument, there are more options available.

What many people don’t realize is that they can improve the tonal quality of their instrument by making a small upgrade to a higher quality set of strings. For customers who order upgraded strings at the same time as their instrument, we can install the strings for you and provide the default strings as a back-up set. Our highest recommended strings are Helicore by D’Addario. While they have a steel core, they still produce a warm, clear sound. The steel core means that the strings will stay in tune and maintain a high level of performance for a longer period of time.

Shoulder rests are required by most teachers. Shoulder rests not only help fill the gap between the shoulder and the instrument, but they also promote proper posture. Good posture prevents aches, pains, and even injuries to the neck and back. The options for shoulder rests are vast. Younger students can get away with something simple like a shaped sponge held on with rubber bands. More advanced shoulder rests consist of a padded, curved bar that clamps around the lower bouts of the instrument. We recommend the Portland Acoustical Shoulder Rest. Not only does the curved wooden bar make it more visually appealing, but the maple also helps the sound carry while it resonates around the instrument.

Most people who are new to stringed instruments and live in drier climates do not realize that it is important to keep the instrument well humidified. Areas that get extremely cold and dry in the winter tend to be even drier, due to forced air heating systems. When the humidity level dips below the 40-50% range, instruments can suffer from going out of tune easily or having the back or belly panels separate from the sides. Damage to an instrument from low humidity levels can be easily prevented by using a humidifier, such as the Damp-It system. If your case didn’t come with a dial hygrometer, there is no need to worry. The Damp-It system comes with a simple color changing indicator and chart that will help you decide when the air is too dry.

Every teacher will be pleased with a student who owns a metronome to help them keep a steady beat while they practice. When you’re choosing a metronome, you should consider including a tuner as well. A good example of a metronome/tuner combination is Music Doctor TM-100D.

And, finally, a folding music stand is a great option for any musician.

Also, cellists – don’t forget an end pin anchor! As a teacher, I find that many beginning cello students who don’t have an end pin anchor continuously struggle unnecessarily.

As with any new venture, it is easier with the proper tools. Keep an eye out for upcoming blogs that will cover these accessories with more detail.