Even if you’ve been playing for years, it can be useful now and again to peruse a gear refresher. Here you’ll find some quick, easy tips about selecting strings, chin rests, cases, and bows.
Choosing the Right Violin Strings
Trying every available string on the market to find your dream strings is probably unrealistic, but you can make an educated guess about a string’s sound if you understand some of the qualities of its core and winding materials, string tension, and some general suggestions on balancing strings with your instrument’s inherent tonal qualities. Here are some things to consider when choosing new strings.
- When experimenting with different strings, it’s usually best to begin with medium-gauge strings first and then go to a different gauge only if necessary (on some instruments, the higher tension can actually choke the sound).
- Compared to a medium gauge set of the same make of string, a thinner (also sometimes called “weich” or “dolce”) string will be lower tension, with a brighter, more responsive tone, but it will be lower in volume.
- A thicker (“stark,” “forte”) string will give you a darker tone, but with a slower response.
- If your instrument is too bright, you may want a string that has darker, warmer characteristics.
- An instrument that’s too dark may benefit from a brilliant string.
- If your instrument is unclear or unfocused, light-gauge versions of brilliant strings can help.
- Different strings don’t seem to offer much volume difference, but you perceive brilliant, focused strings as sounding louder under the ear and they may project better.
- If you want to solve a balance problem by changing strings, start first by trying a different gauge on the offending string.
- Remember, there is no best string—there’s only the best string for you and your instrument, so consider your needs and examine your options.
For an in-depth discussion on choosing strings, including tonal qualities of different brands, check out this article by Richard Ward.
A Guide to Buying a Bow
Choosing a bow can be a daunting task, given the multitude of products on the market. Here are several simple points to consider when you venture off to visit your local dealer in search of the perfect stick to suit your needs.
- The three basic materials used in bow sticks are brazilwood, pernambuco, and carbon fiber. Brazilwood is a generic name given to several kinds of tropical hardwoods used for inexpensive bows, and are typically priced between $50–$200. Pernambuco is a a dense, heavy wood that comes from several areas in Brazil and is the wood of choice for the best bows (due to environmental degradation, pernambuco is now scarce). Carbon-fiber bows possess many of the qualities of Pernambuco and are also durable, helping them become more and more popular in the past 20 years.
- With two bows made from the same wood, the octagonal shaft will be stiffer than a round one.
- A good bow should become an extension of your right hand; it should flow with you as you play with little effort or thought.
- A more supple bow will have a smoother, fuller sound, but if the stick is too soft the sound can lack clarity and definition.
- A stiffer, stronger bow will give a brighter, more focused sound, but sometimes an overly stiff bow can produce a rough, edgy sound.
- The average weight of a violin bow is about 60 grams (a viola bow is 70 grams; a cello bow, 80 grams).
- Proper balance is far more important than weight; if a bow feels right in your hand, it probably is right.
- Each bow will perform differently on different instruments, so remember that you’re looking for a bow that complements your instrument.
For more detailed discussion on buying bows, check out this article by Richard Ward.
How to Buy a Violin or Viola Case
What’s the best violin or viola case? The answer is, well, complicated.
In general, the least expensive cases are made of industrial three-ply cardboard or molded plastic, and feature velour interiors, one or two bow holders, and one inner compartment. More expensive cases have better suspension systems and insulation, higher-quality hardware, more strength and durability, and built-in hygrometers and thermometers. Top-end cases combine comfort, durability, and craftsmanship—these are cases with fine wooden interior accents and bow spinners, Celsius and Fahrenheit thermometers, and steel-reinforced outer shells.
When you get right down to it, all of these cases share certain characteristics. Here are some basic features you should consider when purchasing your next case.
- Weight. Hard-shell cases offer the best protection, but they have a tendency to be heavy. If you’re just traveling to your lesson, a simple soft-shell gig bag might even do the trick.
- Durability. Some hard cases with laminated wood construction have been known to withstand a fall from a moving vehicle. Do you need something that will stand up to heavy air travel? Consider a case constructed of carbon fiber.
- Storage. Think about how many interior and exterior compartments you need. Will you be traveling with a portfolio case? Sheet music? An iPad? Do you use a number of different bows? Some cases have only one or two bow holders, some four.
- Instrument Fit. Be sure to investigate your prospective case thoroughly. Look at everything from the instrument padding or suspension system to the hardware. The instrument neck should be held in place with a Velcro flap or string tie, and it should have padding that hugs the instrument tightly in place. Adjustable cases are a good investment for growing students who may need to switch to larger instruments throughout the course of their careers.
- Comfort. Does your case include a shoulder strap, which can free your hands while you fumble for car keys or a subway pass? A case bag can provide additional padding and make heavy cases more manageable via comfortable handles and backpack straps.
For more info on buying cases, check out this full guide by Greg Cahill.
How to Select the Right Chin Rest for Violin or Viola
Ask string players why they chose their chin rest and many will reply that it came with the violin or viola when they bought it. Unfortunately, many instruments are sold or rented with chin rest models that fit relatively few people.
In fact, a well-fitted chin rest can help to facilitate better posture and support of the instrument in an ever-changing balancing act between the collarbone and left hand. But ill-fitting chin rests can cause such problems as clenching and aches and pains as well as sores, due to constant pressure of one small part of the chin rest against one part of the neck.
Here are some things to consider to help you find the best fit.
- Jaw shape and neck length. Chin rests that fit the two key dimensions of height and jaw shape can allow the head to serve as a counterbalance to the weight of an extended bow arm. This balance can keep the neck and shoulders healthy. The head will feel relaxed and players may say that they have never felt so comfortable.
- The right height. The proper height for a chin rest is one that leaves a gap of about one finger-width between the top of the rest and the jaw when the eyes are looking forward (and not looking up or down). If one must nod down in an exaggerated fashion to touch the top of the chin rest, it is too short. If the nod is too shallow, the chin rest is too high.
- Flexibility and placement. Another factor to consider when selecting the proper chin rest is the flexibility of the left shoulder joint. Players who are flexible in this joint often prefer the chin rest placed to the left of the tailpiece. A player who has less flexibility, or narrow shoulders, may prefer a chin rest that reaches slightly over the tailpiece.
- Sound and technique. A well-fitted chin rest adds a sense of security when shifting down or when performing vibrato—two techniques that can cause a lot of insecurity. And with the proper chin rest, instrument placement on the collarbone next to the neck can allow the violin or viola to create a more ringing sound.
For more details on why the right chin rest is important, and how to choose yours, check out this article by Lynne Deing.