How to tell if my Violin is of real antique value or a useless copy

Happy 2017 to all my readers! May this year be a fruitful one. I have been so caught up with enjoying the festivities and spending time with family over the holidays that it has been ages since my last entry. Also I would really like to start with those violin tutorial videos- I’m thinking of recording the Suzuki violin school volume 1 songs as a start to the series or 30-50 videos I’m intending to put up.  So keep a look out!


Well first though I want to write about this article that recently caught my eye! I have always thought that it would be obvious when something is a copy or not to an expert till I read this interview, the examples are interesting too and we can clearly see how some of these violins could be mistakenly believed to be authentic by someone who does not have enough experience. These are REAL experts! And even so they must carry with them years of experience and a large load of violins that have been reviewed in order to build up knowledge to deem what is what and the real deal.

Certainly completely different to a professional musician who would probably be only interested in the outcome of the sound and the playability of the instrument. Having said this, I have tried real Guarneri Del Gesu and Stradivarius violins (and a cello) even an Amati! And they have indeed this vintage timbre that is just lacking in a modern instrument like mine. (I play a 1966 Italian maker modeled after a Guarneri del gesu) These days with technology for reproduction is of course debatable if time really does cause a violin to have that aged sound that new instruments do not.

I had an interesting chat recently with a local luthier, Sin Teck who had the opinion that the rich sonorous tones could perhaps be due to cracks like for example to the bass bars and new instruments being completely intact would not have those imperfections that actually in irony perfect the tones and timbre produced to give that rich quality tone only felt in old antique instruments. 

Well not wanting to veer too off course from the topic of authenticity of old instruments, the article here is certainly a good read. I have so many more articles I have read of late I want to blog about *sweats* and am really eager to share it here when I find time to! 

In my opinion about this topic, if your violin bears no name to it and you still love how it is played and the sounds it produces, music is a very subjective thing and I would strongly encourage you to keep it as a gem as much so as if it were a $10 million dollar strad! For all violins are unique just like people and no two are alike. 

Should Etudes be practised for solely technical precision or also with musicality in mind?

Three experts give their opinion in this article from The Strad magazine and all are in agreement that it is means to an end. Etudes must be practised with technical precision and brilliance as that is what the objective is – a study piece which improves one’s technique. Through these pieces, one develops the skills and confidence to emote necessarily especially during performance pieces with large technical showcase sections i.e. Concertos. 

A fourth opinion from my very own beloved mentor and violin teacher Professor Zhao Weijian of the Beijing Central Conservatory (whose view orginates from his mentor in Romania) is that even when practising scales, do so from your heart. The more practise there is to bring in your emotions, understanding phrasing the more creative colorful a musical artist(e) you can be. I cannot agree with him more! So a tip to practise seemingly monotonous pieces is not to do so robotically but whole heartedly! 

What is my Violin Size and where do I get them? – Even Adults should read this! 

In my last blog post on selecting a violin, I did not cover this. Yes it is definitely important when choosing a violin to be able to get a sizable violin that fits you well.  Just like getting the right glove to fit your hand when playing a sport like golf, you most certainly will not want it to fly off together with your swing!

1st method:

Violins come in sizes from 1/16 to 4/4 and have fixed standard measurements. The most obvious way in determining what size is for you would be to measure your arm length from your shoulder (start at the neck area end at middle of palm) to check that the size is correct. Most good music stores would be able to size you correctly with this method as there is a fixed chart for this.

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ViolinMeaurements

2nd method:
A) Estimate the size visually and using an actual violin to measure

This is the method that I favor more. I would pick out a violin that is an estimate size proportionate to the student, then let the student hold the violin in a posture like they were to play it. However, extending their arm to the end of the violin with their fingers and hand palm encircling the violin scroll. It is important at this time to make sure that their elbow is not in any angle and their arm is stretched out straight all the way. If there is an angle at the elbow while wrapping their hand around the scroll, the violin is most likely too small for them and if they are finding themselves stretching out with difficulty to grasp the scroll then the violin may be too large for them. I personally use this method and not the first measuring method as every individual has a different physique and would be best to see how they take the the instrument size visually instead of just using a ruler.

This would be a tip to all violin teachers out there to invest in getting the various violin sizes like I did so that the student will always have a correct sized violin to use at all times (and of course matching shoulder rests). I actually recently sent my daughter for her ballet class without her shoes, I was thinking it is probably a similar situation here 😄 when the kids show up without their violins which happen more often than you think!

B) Check finger posture playing at first position – is it alright to buy a violin that is slightly a larger size for the child to grow into?

It is important to also check that your four fingers can reach all notes COMFORTABLY in the first position. And that the pinky does not have to stretch unnecessarily. Just like shoes, you will not want to buy a size too large for your kids that it is likely they might fall down wearing them, it is better to buy a violin at a suitable size for the child to use comfortably and to be able to learn well without the added frustration to deal with a badly sized instrument. If one is using a violin too small, it will also be frustrating as the bow may seem too short and the finger positions and elbow positions are undermined and incorrect so it is also important to upgrade the size in a timely manner.

How about getting a bow at 3/4 size and violin at 4/4 size?

My answer is not to mismatch sizes.  Do not buy a violin and bow of a different size. I have encountered more than a few students whose teachers have given such advice. The violin and bow should be the same size as that is what it is intended to be. Using a shorter bow does not give a “baroque effect” as a baroque bow in construction and shape is different. If your arms are shorter than average, then there are ways to deal with this without resorting to get a different sized bow. One way would be to use less of the tip of the bow and just the parts you can reach – do not bow further if your bow stops moving in a straight line and starts to curve inwards towards you.  (To check this you could look In a mirror) Or you could swing gradually your violin towards the front while bowing downwards to reach the tip of the violin bow.

Violin sizes for Adults

Lastly a word for adult beginners, the size for an adult is always a full size 4/4 violin unless you are particularly petite than you would use a 7/8 instrument. (Most kids at the age of 12 are using a full sized violins) Do take note that using a 7/8 instrument limits your purchase as most good violins come in full size and the selection for 7/8 is much less. For this I would recommend if you have a budget to get a violin made in the 18th century as they tend to somewhat be slightly smaller in size. Or choose a violin with a thinner fingerboard (width) if you have small hands.  Some French made violins have a thinner fingerboard which may give an advantage to someone with small hands) Whatever the case, I would highly recommend going to a large violin shop with a big selection and if you can, you could try the good ones like Bromptons violins or Tarisio where they have an excellent selection of instruments ready for purchase or by auction (so it could be a good deal). They also have valuations on most of them and appraisement certificates which certainly helps with certainty of investment. Not mentioning a very large price range to their violins and bows and even some rare beautiful cases. If you were to consider a more inexpensive violin in the 1000-2000 range, Belcanto Violins does occasionally carry stock of 7:8 size Violins.

Do like this and like and comment on my Facebook Page “Belcanto Violins” and let me know what other violin related topics you would like me to write about! Thank you for reading 😃.

Guide to Choosing and Selecting a Violin (for the first time)

How do we Price our Instruments?

At Belcanto Violins, we price our instruments based on 2 factors: 1) Maker’s Experience & 2)Wood Quality. Of course, the longer the Maker’s Experience and better the Wood Quality and aging of the wood, the better the sound. We team our makers according to our Series, our Makers in BV5 and 7 Series would have more experience than those of BV1 or 3 Series for example. As the Series progresses, the original Tonewoods, we purchase would also correlate with the price and quality. Be assured that our Instruments are well valued at an International Standard and please note that they should not lose their value as long as you upkeep the instrument well.

How do I Upkeep My Instrument?

1. Always tissue off your rosin and perspiration from your strings and violin after use.
2. Always leave a desiccant in your case if you live in a humid country and leave the violin in a room with a humidifier if you live in a drier climate.
3. Loosen your bow when not in use.

Before even learning the violin, you may want to purchase one to try out yourself. These days with online violin tutorials you will be able to learn a far bit without formal lessons.

Here is some advice I can give in selecting a new or second hand violin.

1. PRICE

This is always important as violins can start at $100USD new and into the millions. So it is important to set a budget for yourself. Obviously, the higher the budget the more options you would have. On the other hand, the higher the price does not mean the better the violin. For example, if you are at an auction house, a $15,000 violin bow could sound out just as good as a $5000 violin bow due to its history and maker.  Most importantly, it’s best to set yourself a budget that you would like to spend on your new found hobby without burning a hole in your pocket.

At Belcanto Violins we do make sure that our Violin Series 1-7 are priced comprehensively according to the quality and sound of each instrument to make selection easy for our customers even if they have to purchase them online.

2. APPEARANCE

Colour and lines 

I’m not trying to be superficial, but it is important that you like the way your violin looks. There are many shades of varnish your violin could be in, some skew to being more reddish, some brown, dark brown or even orange. The varnish colour does not affect the sound at all but if you are a first timer on this instrument you may want to choose something pleasing to your eyes. (since it will be sometime before you will be able to play something pleasing to your ears 😊)

On violins for a more advanced student from BV3 series onwards or our BV1 special edition, there are also natural wood lines (like a tiger back) some are closer together and thinner and some are broader and further apart. This is a matter of taste and completely subjective to each individual.

Cracks

Important factors while checking the appearance besides the shade of wood you would like your violin to be, would be to check for cracks. If there are minor and superficial chips and varnish flaws it may be acceptable as we are working with natural wood, and a used instrument would have naturally have some evidence of being played. While major cracks may be expensive to repair.

This is especially important when checking on a second hand instrument or antique piece. Be rest assured our violins on consignment or Antique Instruments have been thoroughly checked by our European Luthiers and will come with the warranty that they are free from cracks and damage.

Fingerboard and f Holes (sound holes)

Next, check if the fingerboard is straight and glued on well and if you are getting a second hand violin, make sure that the fingerboard is not too worn out, when you move your hand up and down the board there shouldn’t be too many grooves and crevices along it and should be smooth. Make sure that the f holes are symmetrical on the same level. You could use a ruler at this time to assist you in case of a parallax error.

Bridge

And how is the level of the bridge? Too high or too low as this will affect the sound. Note that the bridge of the violin is not glued onto the violin and if you are at a specialist violin shop, you could ask them to carve it to a suitable level. To deduce this, simply bow on the 4 strings to check for buzzing sounds which may be an indication that the bridge may be too low and is vibrating against the fingerboard. If you have some prior skill and are able to press onto the strings you could test the height of the strings by pressing on them. If on the higher registers there is too much resistance, then the bridge may be too high or either the fingerboard angle may have sunken due to humidity. An unsuitable bridge level is the most common problem that I encounter with my students’ violins.

Pegs and Fine Tuners

Move the pegs gently clockwise and anti clockwise. If you can move them in a way that they are smooth and the strings can hold its tune, then the pegs will not require any peg soap for lubricating them or chalk to make them have more resistance to stay put. Make sure of this before you purchase your new or second hand instrument as tuning is very important to learn the violin well and correctly.

As for fine tuners, most Professionals only have at most two fine tuners on their violins as the fine tuners do affect the sound and weight of the instrument. At a beginner level, I would recommend to use a tailpiece with inbuilt fine tuners, especially more so for students with smaller instruments half size and below as tuning the instrument will be easier and less frustrating on the long run.  We have incorporated fine tuner tailpieces into our BV1 series. Do also make sure you move the fine tuners clockwise and anticlockwise to test that they work fine and do not require oiling or a change.

3. Sound

Now that you have established that the violin is something you like to see and proud of to display, you will need to test the sound which is equally if not more important. A violin’s sound does differ in different players’ hands so it is best even though you may have no experience in playing the instrument to try it out yourself (or for your child).

If absolutely you cannot play the violin, get someone to demonstrate it for you. We have embedded our audio clips in our catalogue for your choosing purposes. All clips have been played by the same person to ensure accuracy.

4. Chinrest

There are so many types of chinrests and as our physiques differ, do find one that is most comfortable for you. Make sure that the angle of the chinrests is comfortable and suitable for you individually. Do make sure that you test out the chinrest of the violin with a suitable shoulder rest that you are comfortable in. Our chinrests have been specially designed to angle at a certain curvature for the player to have the most comfortable and best playing posture. We also have an array of recommended shoulder rests at our Accessories Page to compliment with the chinrest support.

5. Bow

The more advanced violins may not come with a bow as this is a separate art completely. Someone who makes the violin is called a Luthier while someone who makes the bow is called an Archetier. However, if your violin comes with a bow. Make sure that it is straight. You can put it on a table and see if it is level. Make sure too that the horse hairs are sufficient and clean. On cheaper bows, it is not cost effective to change the hairs and would be actually cheaper to buy a new bow than to rehair. Do note not to touch the hairs of the bow as human oils from our fingers will affect the way rosin sticks onto the bow and is an irreversible effect.

At the most basic BV1 series bow we make sure that it is made robust and strong with a thicker yet light structure. We also have added hairs for a lasting quality. Our other bows are made from specially selected Brazil and pernambuco woods to ensure responsiveness and dynamic quality of sound.

Hairs of the different series bows are also carefully selected and sourced to ensure that the bows grip firmly on the strings and are good quality and lasting.

Practising Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin

This work from Johann Sebastian Bach is a staple for every violinist.  I have been playing and learning these pieces since I can remember.

Even though most of the music is composed only in the first position, it is ever so challenging with the half position changes and use of second and even fourth positions. It has to be also stylistic sound meaning that Bach hardly wrote any expression to it. So one can have a wider room for interpretation.

Unlike many other conventional pieces where identifying a theme and phrase after another would be more obvious due to the changing rhythms in the composition, in Bach’s composition like many other Barouque Era pieces have more or less the same rhythm throughout with little rests in between. Here is the Fugue from the second Sonata in A minor that I am currently working on to see what I mean about this:

The phrases occur in almost repetition and you can play each phrase with a different zest and feel but of course not too much so that the piece does not sound comical but tasteful.

The preceding Grave (alike to the First sonata in G minor-Adagio) had its different challenges with the semiquavers and  demisemiquavers (16th and 32nd notes), every beat had to be calculated in an ever so precise manner to add up to the 4/4 timing, not too late or early.  I don’t find such similar type of practise in other genre of violin Repertoire.

I love in these pieces, that there is so much room for interpretation.  They are like Bible verses where they can be digested again and again always in a different angle to be explored.

The quality of it being a solo violin performance without any accompaniment is that not only being rhythmically precise, the phrasing and intonation has to be also ever so precise. On the whole, I have certainly improved much of my playing in harmonic intervals (double, triple and quadruple stops) because of practising these. I feel like whenever I practise, I’m like a conductor, conducting a choir (being in alto section in church choir at a young age has given me an advantage to be sensitive to this), always listening to the precision of the weight of notes and that they sound accurately in tune and controlling my speed of the bow to execute the exact sound that I want to achieve for every note. -the polyphonic texture certainly does come alive!

I love it! And if I could, I could go on for hours practising Bach. 🙂

A tip on practise would be to conquer Bach in short phrases or sections. In every piece of this work, be really disciplined not to move on to the next section till it is really 120 per cent precisely executed. As you would find sections thereafter easier and easier to play.

Connections to get into China’s Central Conservatory of Music


I recently came across this article and it does hit close to my heart.  As Beijing is the China’s cultural Centre, it is most sought after to get a placement in the Central Consevatory of Music. That is the number one place that every Chinese musician aspires to be. And there are so many people in China so, so many musicians. 

I was really fortunate to have connections to get to learn from the Chief Examiner but also not without an audition and more to show than just being good at the violin. 

Preserving a placement as his student also took not just perseverance but resilience and a no quitting attitude. I remember practising 10hours a day for a month only to be shot down and sent home for “playing” the violin and not “practising” the violin.  I quickly learnt that my toughest audience was my Professor so any feeling of stage fright during concerts dissipate and I not just got better and more skillful with the violin but also more confident with my instrument. 

For the full article click here

Rescued Violins Bring back Holocaust ‘Escape’ Tales

I read this article and it reminds me of the thoughts I had while I was playing my German made violin dated during the holocaust. (I have kept it in storage now as it has a more mellow and dark tone that is not my preference)  I often wondered how and when it could have been made during the precarious war times in Germany and who commissioned him to do so; the first tunes (perhaps haunting tunes?!) and audience it was played to.  If opportunity permits, it would certainly be interesting to be able to trace its origins. A reminder that when we own an antique instrument it is not just a violin but a piece of history.

Click here for the full article

Congratulations to 6 year old Olivia for winning Silver Medal at the 2016 Hong Kong International music competition 

Then 5 year old Olivia had only been learning the violin for a couple of months when she embarked on taking her ABRSM violin grade 3 Examinations.


(Us rehearsing an exam piece: Pagnini’s Theme from “Witches’ Dance”.)


Her recent performance at the competition in Hong Kong. Very proud of her. These competitions certainly help with getting rid of nerves. The more you perform the more practise you get! A big thank you to her mom for sharing with us this recording footage. 

The secrets of Teaching – Dorothy DeLay

Here is a very useful article on teaching the violin – Dorothy DeLay is one of the most renowned teachers of the Juilliard School. She is responsible for the successes of well known recording violinists out there like Gil Shaham, Midori, Sarah Chang, Shlomo Mintz just to name a few. 

I have read her biography “Teaching Genius” written by Barbara Sand, actually twice as I was trying to decide whether or not to do my enrollment in a music conservatory and be a musician for real.  It was an insightful read to discover life in a music conservatory, though I was a little disappointed that there weren’t many pointers on actually learning the violin, which it isn’t such a book I suppose! 

She has a unique way of teaching which makes a student work hard at getting good while enjoying the process of becoming successful. She also understood clearly the business of being a professional musician and was good at it. One of my heroes for sure. 

Click here for the full article from The Strad Magazine