Thursday, November 22, 2007

No need for the rack

Fiona is playing a sixteenth-sized violin. It was once a better-than-average-quality Suzuki Nagoya sixteenth, with a repaired belly crack, but the crack has opened up a bit and some of the tone quality has slipped. The fingerboard alignment and curvature needs an adjustment, as it's too flat (and so the bridge is too). And all told our luthier figures it's hardly worth putting the couple hundred dollars in that would be necessary to fix it up properly, especially since we're hoping she'll outgrow it before too long.

Erin was very petite, even more so than Fiona, and she was 6 1/2 before she moved up a size from this instrument. But even at that age she wasn't quite at the level in the repertoire as Fiona is now at 4 3/4. We're hoping Fiona will grow into the lovely tenth-sized instrument we have waiting for her much sooner than age 6 1/2. I had been jokingly instructed to put her on a rack to stretch her every night so that she could move up around her fifth birthday.

Why the urgency? Well, this teeny violin is really tough to get a decent sound from. It's really difficult to build an instrument this small that has any tone or playability. The upper two strings of a sixteenth-sized violin often sound kind of okay, but when you move to the D and G the physics just doesn't work. The strings are so short that they need to be very slack to make the required pitches. And the result of a fuzzy, inconsistent sound and almost no projection. Fiona's violin works fine for A- and E-string pieces in the first half of Book 1, but gosh, the late Book 1 and Book 2 pieces have been a struggle in terms of tone quality. She's learning quickly and playing well. It seems such a shame that no matter how hard she works, the sound quality is so poor. Even I can't get much decent tone out of it. Full slow bows on the middle strings are the toughest. The only solution seemed to somehow get the kid to grow.

But in the last couple of weeks, Fiona's managing to get more out of that violin than I thought was possible. She's getting a consistent rich long-bow sound that's mostly free of creaks and squeaks and meandering pitch and timbre. Her "Two Grenadiers" is sounding really polished, and now the tone quality is matching the technical ability much better. Even the nasty finger twister passage in "Gavotte from Mignon" is sounding like it should. Last night at group class she performed a nice clear "Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus" for our local Suzuki community.

Maybe we don't need the rack. Maybe she doesn't need her limbs surgically elongated. Maybe it's not impossible to get a half-decent sound from the lower strings on this tiny instrument. I'm so impressed with what she's doing on it.


  1. I'm always amazed at what kids can do if allowed to explore. They are young, quick and fingers very nimble. And often they do tend to get more out of a short practice than a longer one!

    On the other hand. Did you know that there are generally no sizes for Chinese instruments? The little kids just cope.

  2. Wow, that is a lusciously beautiful bowhand! Just gorgeous!

  3. How do you measure if kids are big enough for the next size violin Miranda?

  4. Hi Jane, it's not an exact science for me. I go for arm reach as the primary indicator and look for an angle in the elbow that's close to 90 degrees in first position. That usually translates into the wrist crease of a fully extended arm being close to the tip of the scroll on the new size. However, I'll relax that requirement a little depending on the kid. If they're advanced for their size and well set-up, and I don't think their posture is in jeopardy, I might let them move a bit sooner. If they have broad shoulders and relatively short arms I might do the same. Finger length and finger strength also mitigate the choice a little.


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