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New Violin

I’ve been playing violin since I was 7. I went to music school in my hometown, Skierniewice, and spent six years there, finishing what is called a 1st stage music school in Poland. I did not continue to a 2nd stage school and never became a professionally trained musician, but I’ve spent many years playing in different orchestras, first in Skierniewice, later in Warsaw. I enjoyed improvising jazz1 with my friends in high school, but that ended when I moved out from Skierniewice. Ever since then my only contact with the instrument was through weekly orchestral rehearsals, some practice in between those, and occasional concerts. And when I moved out from Poland in 2008, I left my violin there and did not play since then.

Having an electric instrument was always a dream. I enjoyed listening to Jean-Luc Ponty’s old albums, I was2 a big fan of Mat Maneri’s avant-garde free jazz, and of course I loved (and still love) the very best jazz violinist of all time, Stéphane Grappelli3. At some point a very good friend of mine (whom I spent many years in a couple of orchestras with) bought herself a Fender electric violin, I even had a chance to play them, but did not think of buying an electric instrument for myself back then.

Why have I stopped playing violin after so many years of practice? I guess the main reason was I did not have much time, and I no longer had an orchestra or any other kind of band I could play with. Also, at some point playing violin became a very frustrating experience. Not necessarily because my technical abilities worsened, I feel I’m more or less at the same level of playing technique as I was a couple of years ago, but because my expectations significantly outgrew what I was able to play. I kept listening to a lot of records, and each time I tried playing a piece, I was so disappointed by how bad my performance is that I simply hid the instrument back in the case and played some CDs instead. ‘I am not a professional musician’, I would tell myself, ‘it’s not my job, I shouldn’t be wasting my time on this.’

Then during one of my visits to Groningen, I met Karolina’s friend Tim. Karolina is a cello player4, and Tim sometimes plays oboe. Every second weekend or so, they meet at one’s apartment and play music. (Karolina, Tim, if you’re reading this, please skip this paragraph.) Neither is a professional musician, and, seriously speaking, neither plays good. They’re often out of tune, they miss some bars every now and then, and they make a number of other mistakes. Still, their performances are what I’d call decent, or what my friend Erik would probably call adequate. While listening to them I realized it doesn’t really matter if they don’t play like pros, because playing music together and having live music at home is simply an enormous joy. I also realized I miss that. I wanted to go back in the game, wanted to go back to playing music.

There was a problem with an instrument though. Of course I had my old violin back at my parents’ house in Poland, but the instrument was in bad shape (years of neglect) and it actually never was particularly good. One could say that you don’t really need a great instrument if you’re a crappy musician, and that’s one way of looking at it, but then again a bad instrument doesn’t really help if you’re having difficulties playing harmonics or double stops. And then I also recalled that I always dreamed of having an electric violin. I checked the balance of my savings account, looked at how cheap the euro is, went on to, ordered a Yamaha SV-200 silent electric violin, a carbon bow, a good rosin, a decent (or adequate) shoulder rest, and a lightweight case, pressed ‘buy’ and waited.

Before I tell you how the whole setup feels and sounds, let my give a few words of justification: why this violin and not other?

  1. First off, a silent violin allows me to practice technically whenever I want. While unplugged from an amplifier the instrument produces a hardly audible sound, unnoticeable to anyone in another room, allowing me to play late at night using headphones.
  2. Secondly, this instrument has a line-out socket, which makes recording multiple parts of a string quartet possible without the need of an expensive microphone (cheap mics + violin = the sound of slaughtering a cat). I always wanted to play Shostakovich’s 1st string quartet, but never had a quartet to play it with. This is no longer a problem.
  3. The SV-200 can sound any way I want. If I’m practicing Wieniawski’s caprices, I can make it sound like an ordinary acoustic violin. If I want to imitate Ponty, it produces a full-blown 70s fusion sound.
  4. And finally, some practical considerations. It seems it’s much more difficult to damage this instrument than an acoustic violin. It’s less fragile and less sensitive to temperature or humidity.

So now, how does it feel? A bit weird. The fingerboard seems to be a tad shorter than on my acoustic violin. The strings (D’Addario Zyex) seem to be easier to press (the difference is not as big as between an acoustic guitar and an electric one, but still), and of course the sound highly depends on the amplifier. The instrument doesn’t feel at all heavier than an acoustic violin, although according to technical specs it is ~100 grams heavier. I haven’t used a Kun shoulder rest before, but it seems to be better than my old Wolf Forte Secondo. The strings I’ll probably need to replace, I don’t like the sound. In fact I plan on buying a set of Dominants and some Pirastro, and compare which one sounds better. Also, I’ve tested recording a couple of minutes into Garage Band, and it sounded pretty good.

But most important of all, I played some parts of The Four Seasons together with Karolina today. We played together for the first time in many years. It was by all measures musically terrible. But it was an awful lot of fun, too.

  1. I suppose calling what we played jazz is a bit of an insult to any serious jazz musician, but that’s how we thought about it back then. ↩︎

  2. It’s not that I don’t like his music anymore, but I guess I wouldn’t consider myself a fan. ↩︎

  3. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure if Grappelli ever played an electric violin. Still, his violin sounded electric enough on some records. ↩︎

  4. She’s as amateurish as I am. In fact, we met in the 1st stage music school in my hometown, and played in an orchestra together — me as the 1st violin, she as 1st cello. Doesn’t get any more romantic and cheesy than this. ↩︎