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SCI Week 2: High Wire Act
Air on an E string

The real way to tell the quality of a violin is how the highest string, the E, sounds. The G, the D, even the A, can all be camouflaged to a certain extent by the skill of the player: vibrato, bowing technique and empathy between the violinist and the instrument.

Not so the E. The E exposes all the flaws in excruciating relief. A cheap violin will betray its origins when the E is played. A breathy, sometimes squeaky sound, will come out. It's even more evident when the piece includes harmonics: particularly artificial harmonics, where one finger stops the string and a second finger lightly rests almost on the surface of the string, lightly depressing it, a few centimetres or inches away, and brings out what should be a sound of peculiar clarity, almost an exquisitely perfect sine wave. On a poor violin, it can be a hit and miss affair, the pure note thin and reedy and covered almost entirely by interference and bow noise.

Alison was a lecturer. She had had a choice between studying mathematics at Oxford and music at the Royal Northern College of Music. In her younger days, she had been a promising violinist.

Football teams have youth teams peopled by talented children from round the region, often found by talent-spotters at school fixtures. Less well-known is the fact that major orchestras have the equivalent. Passing an audition into one of these youth orchestras is a major step on the road to a career in music; technique is honed through long exhausting rehearsals, with tuition provided by section leaders. In the week leading up to a concert, the rehearsal schedule is hectic. Coupled with the hours needed to practise the pieces at home, over and above normal music practice, it is a hard pace for someone to sustain, particularly whilst attempting to maintain a normal academic schedule in the hope of gaining a place in an almost entirely unrelated subject at one of the world's leading universities.

And while Alison was a promising violinist, she had seen, all too painfully, at 17 that she was no prodigy. She would never be a Nigel Kennedy, a Tasmin Little. She was on the third desk of the first violins. She could probably have had a life as a professional musician, in a good orchestra, but she would never have been a star. So she turned her back almost entirely on music and went up to Oxford.

She still played, in amateur groups, at concerts. She only practised when there was a need. Having perfect pitch and good muscle memory she could get back up to 85% of her former standard within four or five weeks, which was enough to scrape by.

She was 35 when she discovered that her beloved violin was no great instrument. Her parents had bought it for her at 13, when she had outgrown the three-quarter size, for the princely sum of £100. Less than a year later, it was valued at £800, largely because of her empathy with the instrument. She knew how to woo her instrument, to coax it to sing in a way it hadn't for anyone before. But one day she was talking to a friend of hers, another formerly promising violinist. Because she had been in high-intensity "practising" mode for the previous five weeks, she asked to try her friend's violin. Its neck was of similar thickness to her own violin's, and she could play it in tune almost instantly. Intrigued, she tried out some of the artificial harmonics she was having such trouble with on her own instrument. They sang, clearly and repeatedly.

She was 45 when her father died and she came into her inheritance. One of the first things she did after settling the estate was to go and try out violins to find one at least as good as her friend's. She auditioned them like a merciless tyrant with Monti's Czardas, the same piece full of artificial harmonics on which that other violin had sung. She might have lost her opportunity for a career as a professional musician, but at least her amateur perfomances would now (almost) meet her own exacting, perfectionist, standards.

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Wonderful! She gets to continue with even a better sound. How uplifting an experience that must be!

Well, indeed. But the frustration is immense, surely, after years of trying in vain to coax a better sound by rehairing bows, buying better strings, etc.

Very well understood. I have to admit, I was trying to keep it positive, since I don't know you very well. It was not my intention to dismiss the frustration involved. I'm not even musically talented at this point - other than having a definite listening passion. I've never "favored" orchestra, but I have listened to enough to feel that it's pretty much complete and raw emotional expression on instruments that require total discipline & restraint by the player, creating an incredibly refined, yet very emotional expression.

I wanted to convey my compassion, but not deepen your frustration. When I first read your entry my heart ABSOLUTELY SANK in angst for you, but, not knowing you, I was afraid to say "OMG! That would be HORRIBLE to find out after all those years!", and have it come across to you like life was all hopeless & lost now. I think you know it isn't, but yes, you're absolutely right. It would be infuriating.

It also, REALLY seems like one of your teachers, friends, conductors, SOMEONE along the way, should've/could've caught on and explained this to you providing you with early needed information. That way at least you would have known, even if you couldn't afford to move forward in quality, that it was an instrumental issue, and not necessarily a talent issue. It just seems like maybe you would've been around enough trained ears that they could have deducted the instrument was at the top of its performance level, as opposed to you being at yours? Maybe I'm wrong, and I do hope I haven't escalated any frustrations for you. I truly just wanted to affirm your talent and experience.

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Oh, my heart breaks for her---the opportunity of a promising career lost in part because of a cheap instrument!


But she made a violin that would otherwise probably have ended up on the scrap-heap, or as firewood, sing for years and years.

She did, which makes her a serious hero in my book...but still, for her sake, I wish she'd had a better instrument from the beginning. I suppose there's a bit of projection going on here. <3

This is a fascinating look into violins, and I wonder if she would have been a "better" musician in her youth with a better instrument...

Probably. But a bad workman always blames their tools!

Fascinating insight into the art of playing the violin.

Thanks! It's interesting, how everyone knows how many hours a day go into being (e.g.) a professional athlete and yet there's often the assumption that musicians just produce it out of nowhere. No effort, just talent. It doesn't quite work like that ...

An excellent, unique take on the topic, with a captivating story!

I'm glad she finally got the violin her heart desired.

My husband doesn't play for a living but he's a very perfectionistic pianist himself.

I know how that goes having to rehearse and rehearse. I think though that in music you are always aware that there are those out there who will be better than you. For me, it's not a reason to give it up, but I suppose that if Alison was thinking about that, she wasn't getting true joy and satisfaction out of playing. Good entry.

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