Today, our ongoing “Face to Face” series introduces us to, perhaps, one of the most diversely gifted members of the Kennedy Violins team, Liz Lambson.
Liz Lambson: string bass player, artist, luthier, and writer–and somehow she plays all these roles at Kennedy Violins! She grew up in Colorado Springs, studied music and English at Brigham Young University, and moved to the Portland area about four years ago. Besides working at KV and freelancing as a classical bassist, Liz is also a mom of two little boys.
1. How long have you worked at Kennedy Violins?
Two years. Time flies!
2. What is your favorite thing about working at Kennedy Violins and why?
Working at Kennedy Violins in itself has been my favorite thing. By far, this has been the most fulfilling, rewarding, and enjoyable job I’ve ever had, and I constantly feel so blessed to work doing something I absolutely love. As a luthier and writer, I get to use my skills and knowledge as a musician in an artistic, creative way that is both fun and intellectually stimulating. Win, win!
I especially love working with my hands, which is why lutherie is such a great fit for me. I love the feel of sawdust and wood when I’m carving bridges and nuts and smoothing down fingerboards (click here to learn more about our professional set-up). I even enjoy washing my hands after work and seeing how much grime rinses off! There’s something strangely fulfilling about getting your hands dirty while getting up close and personal with these instruments. It’s like gardening, but we’re growing violins instead of snow peas or something.
3. What is your favorite instrument/product that Kennedy Violins carries and why?
That is a tough question. All the violins have different features worth loving. As one who works on the instruments, I have two favorites: the Ricard Bunnel G2 and G1 violins and the Anton Gerard violins. The Bunnels are fun because those are the ones I do the most finish work on, so each one is like a little craft project–and I am a die-hard sucker for crafts.
As far as the nicer violins go for more advanced players, I really love the Gerards because they are so, so beautiful with their tiger-flamed one-piece backs. The flame is just so stunning. And they sound great.
4. What is your favorite band/musician/composer?
While I love music by classic composers (especially Bach) and modern musicians (from jazz pianist Dave Brubeck to the folky Fleet Foxes to bust-a-move Beyoncé), my favorite and most meaningful musical experiences have been with musicians I know personally and with whom I’ve had the privilege to perform.
With that said, my favorite pop artist is Fresh Big Mouf, my favorite band is Fictionist, and my favorite composer is Christian Asplund. Each of these artists has been so influential when it comes to my own musical development and understanding of creativity.
5. If you didn’t play the bass, which instrument would you play?
I would play the bass. Which I do. I seriously think the bass is the best because 1) it’s so versatile and allows you to play any style of music (classical, jazz, rock, folk, etc.), 2) it’s so big it can beat up any other instrument, 3) it can serve as a boat in a flash flood situation, and 4) I play it, so you can trust me.
6. What are you looking forward to most in the upcoming year?
I’m actually moving to New York soon. (Don’t worry, I’ll still be working and writing remotely for KV!) I’m excited to check out the East coast music scene and meet new people.
7. What is something interesting that we don’t already know about you?
I’m half black and half Korean, which means I can make both family-recipe gumbo and family-recipe chajangmyeon (noodles with vegetables and black soybean paste).
8. What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t working at Kennedy Violins?
Eat French fries with my boys.
As a luthier at Kennedy Violins, I spend hours a day staring at fingerboards–sanding them, smoothing them down, looking for the scoop (see below). As you can imagine, a stringed instrument would be impossible to play if there were no place to put your fingers. So, naturally, one of the most important parts of a violin is the fingerboard: the long black piece of wood that (hence the name) is a board on which you put your fingers.
IS IT EBONY? AND DOES IT MATTER?
The main reason ebony is used for fittings (chinrests, fingerboards, nuts, pegs, end buttons, tailpieces) on stringed instruments is not because it’s pretty or exotic, but because it’s STRONG. Each time your press a metal-wound string down in contact with the wood, the wood has to be dense and strong enough to be a firm platform and hold up to potential wear over time. For example, imagine if your teeth were made out of balsa wood instead of enamel. Each bite would wear your teeth away in no time.
SHAPE & CONSTRUCTION
If you look at the fingerboard, it may not look very special at a glance. But while this standard part may look like a simple addition to the body of a violin, it must be made with detail and meticulous precision in order to function as it should.
When you look at the fingerboard of a violin, you’ll notice that its not flat like a fretted fingerboard on a guitar or mandolin. The reason why the fingerboard is convexly arched on violins, violas, cellos, and basses is because these instruments are bowed rather than exclusively strummed or plucked.
Think about it. When you’re playing a bowed stringed instrument, you’re normally playing one note at a time. Playing one note at a time means your bow is only touching one string at a time. If the fingerboard were flat and the strings level, drawing a bow across the instrument would cause all the strings to vibrate at the same time.
Therefore, the arch of the fingerboard (as well as the bridge) must be precisely shaped and measured so that individual strings may be played with ease.
2. Scoop By just looking at a fingerboard, you probably won’t even notice the imperceptible dip in the length of the violin. While there is a convex arch across the width of the violin, there is a concave scoop along the length.
The scoop in the fingerboard leaves room for the vibration of the strings. Imagine pressing a string down on a completely flat fingerboard with a flat bridge. The string would lie flat along the length of the fingerboard making contact at every point, giving the string either no room to vibrate at all or just enough to buzz.
When luthiers (violin makers) plane and carve the scoop into a fingerboard, they start by placing a straight-edge along the length. They slowly carve a dip into the fingerboard until it meets precise measurements. This will keep the strings from buzzing when played.
3. Smoothness Fingerboards (as well as every part of the violin) are smoothed with wet and/or dry sandpapers, micromesh, steel wool, and scrapers to be extremely smooth to the touch. Who wants to press their fingers down on rough, splintery wood? Ouch!
Smoothing and scraping out any bumps also prevents buzzing. If you sight down the fingerboard, it should look smooth, not wavy or ripply.
CRACKS & IMPERFECTIONS
Most cosmetic imperfections on the surface of a fingerboard can be corrected. First, check and see if your fingerboard is made of ebony or a white wood painted black. If the wood is anything other than ebony, it will be approached differently because it is coated with a finish. A fingerboard not made of ebony lessens the value of an instrument.
1. Cracks For cracks, the key is depth. Is the crack large enough that it opens when you put pressure on either side, the fingerboard will need to be either 1) clamped and glued, or 2) replaced. Fingerboards are typically glued on with hide glue, a water-soluble glue used by luthiers so instrument parts can be removed, repaired, or replaced.
2. Chips, Scratches & Surface Cracks Because not all pieces of ebony are perfectly smooth, and some may be splintered in the planing process (especially if the wood grain isn’t forgiving), one trick luthiers use is filling imperfections with a clear glue (or even fingernail polish) mixed with ebony dust. Black dyes can also cover any discoloration in the wood.
So next time you pull out your violin, take a look at your fingerboard. Look to see if its ebony or wood, then look for the scoop, observe the shape, and check its smoothness. Who knew there was so much to it?
The bridge, which connects the vibration of the strings to the body of the instrument, is held in place only by the tension of the strings. No glue or adhesive is necessary or even desirable. (Photo by CavinB)
You’ve seen it before. Intermission commences at the junior high orchestra concert. The suspect, a rather uncoordinated violist (who shall remain unnamed), trips over a cello and the audience gasps as it faceplants on the ground. The bridge goes flying. The strings go limp. A harried seventh grader fights backs tears as she runs to her fallen instrument thinking all is lost, her life is over, and her parents will surely disown her. And to top it off, it’s a rental.
This is usually the time in life when a young musician realizes that 1) string instruments aren’t invincible, and 2) bridges aren’t actually glued on. Who knew?
From food to furniture to clothing to vehicles, the modern era has redefined the production of life’s staples through the use of assembly lines, man-made materials, and machines. But when it comes to string instruments, there’s a reason why violins aren’t made of plastic, commercially manufactured and slapped together with duct tape.
For one, that would sound terrible. Really terrible. But has it ever occurred to you that your instrument is supposed to come apart?
For example, did you know . . .
The bridge is held in place by the pressure and tension of the strings. As strings stretch and tighten over time, the bridge may even lean towards the fingerboard and can be adjusted by hand. And if you were to *remove all the strings at once, the bridge would simply fall over.
*This is not recommended, especially while changing strings. Replace strings one at a time to keep the bridge properly positioned and tension on the sound post.
The tailpiece is suspended and held in place by the tension of the strings.
The sound post (the wooden dowel seen through the f-hole) is also held in place by friction and the pressure and force of the strings on the face of the instrument. Loosening or removing all the strings creates the risk of the sound post falling, which can greatly affect the sound production and quality of your instrument. The sound post can even be moved to affect the sound of the instrument for better (or worse!).
The endpin is not glued in but can usually be pulled out by hand.
Tuning pegs aren’t glued or secured in place (obviously, as you have to turn them) but are simply held by the friction created by raw wood on wood. If the pegs are difficult to turn and are sticking (sometimes creating a cracking or creaking sound as you turn the pegs), applying a substance called peg dope acts as a lubricant.
The face, ribs, back, fingerboard, and neck are glued in place using a water-soluble adhesive called hide glue. Hide glue, which is actually made from animal hides, has been long-used in woodworking and lutherie. The water-soluble characteristic of hide glue allows instruments to be easily taken apart and put back together without damaging the wood, which aids in both assembly and repair.
So why are violins meant to come apart? If they weren’t, parts couldn’t be replaced or repaired easily, especially without sacrificing the entire instrument. Fingerboards, nuts, bridges, tailpieces, endpins, and even necks can be replaced and restored as individual pieces of a larger and beautifully crafted puzzle.
At Kennedy Violins, we take great pride in upholding the historic tradition of handmade string instruments. As each violin, viola, cello, and bass is hand-crafted, setup, and inspected by professional luthiers, you can be confident that every piece of your instrument is expertly constructed and in its place. Top that off with Kennedy Violin’s Lifetime Warranty and you can expect your instrument to truly last a lifetime.
And that’s even more impressive than your nephew’s Lego collection, if I do say so myself.