A new approach
I will not bother the patient reader with the stumbling blocks, the occasional blindness, nor the moments of blind good luck, that have kept me busy from 1986 until 2003 during my quest after a way to shape not only the violin, but its sound as well. What I do want to communicate is the mighty relief upon having found something that worked. Up to that moment making a string instrument felt almost like a game of blindman’s buff. During the game you have at its best only a very indefinite idea where to head for. The moment you can see again, the game is over. You have to put up by and large with the sound as being produced by your latest creation.
After having done some teaching before, quite informally but enjoying it, by 2004 I realised the possible benefits of my recent change of approach for future students. That was the summer of the first summer-week. After that week it was clear that teaching this way was an attractive proposal to both parties involved, so much so that the founding of the DSVM in 2014 was more or less inevitable.
Imagine: your violin has been played for the very first time, in the white, and you cannot wait to amend the most striking shortcomings, the start of the process we call voicing. Where to start scraping the outside? Sounds barbarous, after having bestowed that much thought and loving care on the arching, but there is no getting around, it’s the only way to shape the sound efficiently in situ, without having to take the instrument apart. As to where to scrape the old masters are of no great help. Their thickness patterns are unpredictable. So much so, that even Vuillaume, who has had an unprecedented access to first hand information, has never been able to come to general conclusions about their graduating techniques. Starting to scrape just somewhere and listen to what happens, for me anyhow never has been an attractive proposition. You do not want to spoil a violin, let alone a double bass after all that work, by scraping at random.
If we could only suggest a violin that it was thinned a little somewhere, without actually having to do it. In that case one can first hear what happens, and afterwards decide if thinning that spot was a good idea. Why, we can. The theoretical support may be lacking somewhat in finesse, it works on workshop level. Observe first that a wooden membrane, or part of it, lowers in frequency if it is made thinner: weight loss is linear, but stiffness reduction quadratic. A second way to lower the frequency of a wooden membrane, or part of it, is by adding weight, without increasing stiffness. The conclusion is appallingly simple: by fixing a small weight somewhere to the plate of a violin, it should by and large behave as if it was thinned in that place. After dozens of instruments I can assure you: it does so.
By carefully playing and listening, and scraping accordingly, one can get the best out of each instrument. A strong and dramatic g, a healthy d, no obstreperous notes on the a’, a radiantly ringing e’ are basics. The limits to further refinement are put by the abilities and imagination of the player. And, of course, by the innate potential of the instrument. Maybe one can turn “a 1$ instrument into a 10$ one” this way, but that is besides the point.
The method of the DSVM aims at producing instruments of high potential quality, that will come to full bloom after careful voicing. Teaching as well as making, with the perspective that the sound can be shaped this way, is a remarkably relaxed occupation. Beginning students often are bewildered to learn that various measurements and forms (not all!) are, within limits, subject to choice, taste and other variations. But after a while, the thought that small deviations from the pursued measurements or form, intentional or otherwise, will seldom spell disaster for the sound quality of the instrument, becomes quite comforting. Another bonus is, that one can to a great extent do completely without the gigantic pile of 19th century superstition concerning old wood, bass-bar, sound-post, tailpiece, finger-board, ground and varnish, bridge etc., as well as without modern theories about wood treatment (water, steam, mould), tuning free plates, making bench copies and the use of the computer.
And one can stop drawing from the well-nigh inexhaustible reservoir of “what, will happen to the sound if I do…?” Because of the complexity of the violin as a whole, there is almost never a straightforward answer to questions like that, not to mention the utter impossibility to explore the question experimentally. Imagine that you have to change one parameter in two otherwise completely identical violins. Worse even, imagine two completely identical violins… Apart from all this, the order of magnitude of the intended effect is seldom comparable to the effect of voicing.
This is not to say that we can do away with the subtleties of the craft. The difference between a good violin and an exceptional one is subtle, but not to be overlooked.
A building model
But there is no need any more to accidentally end up below a certain level, and that level is a comfortable way above average. And is not the high general level of production one of the hallmarks of classical Italian violin making? So, in spite of the basically relaxed approach at the DSVM, the actual making is not treated casually. For the regular instruments we have developed models that reliably produce a good sound.
- Form, proportions and lay-out are for the most part inspired by Gasparo Bertolotti. Especially his lower sounding instruments, violas, basses, have a nice deepness of sound, and relatively few problems with wolf-notes.
- For arching on the other hand inspiration stems from Guarneri del Gesu and Guadagnini. Their arching shows an efficient distribution of stiffness where resistance to static load is required, and flexibility where resonance is to be generated, resulting in good dynamics and a wide range of tone-colours.
As this type of arching can be described in just a few very simple geometrical terms, I have come to consider it a generative principle. The use of arching templates is thus actively discouraged, in favour of learning to understand arching in these simple terms. Once understood you can, with some practice, do a beautiful arching with help only of a small straightedge and a ditto spline, and thus can easily adapt to the arching height and C-bout width at hand.
The choice of wood
The choice of wood is given some thought too. First we try to keep the variation in physical qualities, typically diverging as much as 30%, between somewhat narrower boundaries. Most relevant properties, in terms of density and elasticity, tend to move however largely in line with the specific density. Measuring a piece of wood and weighing it gives a sufficiently reliable indication of its specific density. Thanks to modern research, we have an idea of the kind of density favoured by the old masters, to go by. So, like they had to, we dispense with the Lucchi-meter, with up to now encouraging results. Secondly we routinely observe each piece carefully in the traditional way for orientation, regularity and straightness of the growth-rings, run-out and attractiveness.
Although we do not know that tapping free plates actually was practised by the classical Italian makers, there is no technological reason why they should not have done so. The elaborate version, with visualized Chladni-patterns and octaves all over, has kept me busy for years, without consistently producing excellent violins. The basic version however is still being practised at the DSVM. It gives one a reasonable estimate of the elasticity of the blade (is this more or less the right thickness to start with?). It also gives one a helpful hint about the strength of the bass-bar. You can hear the original quality of the 5th mode slowly return during the process of thinning the bar. We stop at the moment that most of this quality is back again. Experience over the past years seems to indicate that a slightly underdimensioned bass-bar may be a source of wolf-notes, especially around b-c (violin) over most octaves.
A living and developing craft
Now we come to speak of it, a school is not only a good place to hand down experience, but also to gather it. Compared to a maker and the occasional assistant, a school keeps many hands busy and has a vast pool of projects under construction. Although we do not conduct quantitative experiments, many qualitative ones are embedded in all kinds of projects, like the bass-bar one mentioned above. As the students are under no obligation to use the models of the school, we learn steadily about other models, which is a very enlightening experience. E.g., apart from the school model, four other cello models are being made at the moment. With so much varnishing going on, the techniques and colour management are being refined constantly. Voicing itself is of such recent origin, that we know only the rough contours of it yet. Virtually each completed instrument has contributed to a deeper understanding of its possibilities. As the majority of students comes in with the idea of learning a wood related craft, we have dedicated musicians at hand to assist with voicing.
Now and then, though, a professional musician enters, and when it comes to voicing the benefits of being a trained musician become crystal clear. Although the master is supposed to hand down his wisdom, it is the indispensable contribution of the students that makes it into a creative process. Wisdom is not a static body of learning, it is constantly evolving. It is in this sense that we try to pick up the tradition of the old masters. But, most important, we aim at the integration of music and craft, the key to understanding the golden age of Italian violin making. Let me conclude with recommending the reader a book that I have come to know quite recently: “By Hand & Eye”, written by Geo. R. Walker en Jim Tolpin (ISBN: 0985077751). Although it is about cabinet making, and design in the time of the craftsman, as opposed to modern design methods, it illuminates in various ways the problems of modern violin making, as opposed to traditional. It gives deep insight into how craftsmen dealt with the relationship between set rules and creativity. A literal eye-opener, that I cannot find words for to recommend it strongly enough. From this book: