I was especially pleased to read the latest post in the Cardiff Arcades Project because it featured Cardiff Violins, and also because I had encouraged the project’s creator, Amy Davies, to be sure to include Cardiff Violins in the project if possible.This was where I bought a lovely violin just over a year ago. Now you can see inside the many rooms of this wonderful shop and there are more of Amy’s great photographs on Flickr, to which a link is provided.
I don’t know where this year has gone. In a couple of days from now it will be October. Yes, I have been busy but not doing anything particularly blogworthy.
Henry the tortoise hibernated on September 15th. Left to his own devices he would have done so at least two or three weeks earlier. This would have been fair enough as he had been awake since the beginning of January after all, which made it quite a long year from his point of view. The trouble is that Henry’s internal clock seems to have been out of sync with the annual cycle for the past few years. Thus he has been emerging from hibernation earlier and earlier and wanting to hibernate that much earlier as a result. There was a strong possibility that he would hibernate well before the end of August and be awake again by Christmas. Even now, at the end of September, it remains mild enough during the day for him to be outside – and there is plenty of fresh food for him in the garden. On the other hand, it is not often warm enough for him to go outside (even for an hour or two on the odd day) before late April and so, if he wakes earlier in the year he has to be kept warm, fed and given plenty of light until he can go outside. So this year I delayed his hibernation by making sure that he came out into the sun each day, if only for half an hour or so. He is now safely hidden away in his indoor winter house and, as I explained to him, am not expecting to see him before mid-January, or preferably later. He didn’t reply.
Regrettably, cycling seems to have become a distant memory. I have simply lost interest. My two bikes have not yet been sold but it is only a matter of deciding how and when. Meanwhile, I am not at all amused by the fact that the most popular post on this blog (if searches are any guide) is my review of the Raleigh IKEA folding bike; it doesn’t say much for the rest of the blog!
For several weeks now I have been helping a neighbour to regain control of her large garden which had been neglected for some years due to illness etc. I am not really interested in gardening but this was a challenge and, from my point of view, a welcome opportunity to get out in the fresh air and get some exercise. There is more to be done yet but it has been interesting (and very satisfying) to see what is left of the original garden emerging from under the jungle of brambles, nettles etc.
After a long break, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I wanted to paint again a couple of weeks ago. This has happened before of course but this time it was different. This time I knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it with a clarity that I couldn’t explain. Admittedly I think about painting quite often and try to make sense of all the (often conflicting) information that I have accumulated from books, websites, etc.. I am particularly interested in realistic portrait painting (using water-mixable oil paints) and I have started to paint again using photographs for reference. Unfortunately, I cannot post the results here as I don’t own the copyrights of the photos but that will change before long.
It is a wonder to me that any beginner succeeds in making an oil painting. No two established artists seem to agree on how to do it and their efforts to impart their conflicting information, whether via book or video, are either so poorly presented or so inadequately explained (or both) as to be almost useless and certainly uninspiring. There are exceptions of course and long may they prosper despite the ocean of mediocrity by which they are surrounded.
I must be doing something right because my pupil, Maria, is still arriving each week for her violin lesson, well over a year since she started learning. Furthermore, her progress seems to me to be accelerating. I am not a teacher, just someone who played the violin for several years in his youth and very infrequently since then. Now, of course, I, too, have been playing again for about eighteen months and one of these days I might even get quite good at it.
Having both suffered the dreary and uninspiring experience of conventional books of tuition in our younger years (for me on the violin and for Maria on the clarinet) we have avoided them completely this time. I was anxious that my pupil did not give up the effort through sheer boredom. So we have worked on the easier classical pieces and also on show music going back half a century or so and the repertoires of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Despite being less than half my age, Maria’s favourites are to be found in this category of music which, I must admit, has largely passed me by, though of course I know the tunes well enough. The violin is not the easiest instrument to learn but I have tried to ensure that the process of learning has not been stressful. On top of a demanding full-time job the last thing Maria needs is another source of stress. Fortunately she is able to drive her own progress at a pace to suit herself and the “lessons” are quite informal, relaxed and enjoyable – which is how it should be after all.
It is a matter of considerable irritation to me that I haven’t posted for over a month. It wasn’t because of any shortage of topics about which to write but rather a shortage of inclination. That annoys me because it is a poor excuse. After all, this blog is of no importance. It is only an informal record of sundry happenings that seem to me to deserve comment and are mainly of interest (if at all) to other family members. Therefore, there is no good reason for sitting looking at a blank screen wondering what to write simply because of fear of failing to write a perfect post.
I have two rules: The first is to write what I know about (others may disagree). The second is to write in the manner of a letter addressed to just one person, rather than a speech to be delivered to a crowd. So writing the odd post every few days should not be too difficult and I want to get back into the habit.
So what has been happening recently? Well, towards the end of March I reached one of those big deal milestones, my 70th birthday. I suppose that, on thinking about it, I was a bit surprised to have survived that long, despite popular demand. But it crept up on me, arrived, departed, and I didn’t feel a thing. We had a nice quiet gathering here of my immediate family – which was my idea (and rather quieter than others were anticipating) as I hate fuss, surprises, crowds and noisy restaurants. I received super cards (two of them made by my five and eight-year-old grandsons) some of them with badges that were duly worn. I also had great presents which included a big contribution from Granny Anne towards my lovely new violin and, from Jennie and family, a perfect mobile phone (for me anyway) that has all the features that I really wanted but is easier to use than its much less capable predecessor yet a great deal cheaper to run than the even more trendy top mobiles of the moment.
Henry, our tortoise, has been living in the lap of luxury… …Oh alright then… …in his customised “house” on the tabletop in my study (that sounds pompous but what else should I call it – hobbies room, den, lair, pit, tiny spare bedroom?) since early January when he awoke from hibernation. He has had a great appetite for sundry greens, thinly sliced apple, even the odd strawberry among other things (pampered or what!), plus nutritional supplements from our well-stocked local pet shop. During the several very sunny days recently he has been spending more and more time out in the garden, coming indoors again in the early evening. Now his house has been moved to the rear section of our garage and contains lots of hay in which he buries himself at night. So he is in no danger from frost (if there is any). Around the end of the month it might be possible to put him outside 24/7.
Meanwhile, with Henry’s “house” out of the way, I have been creating even more space in my study (hobbies room, den, lair, pit or tiny spare bedroom etc.) by reducing still further the contents of cupboards and drawers and moving the surplus into boxes in the garage. There it will be sorted, like everything else, into numbered containers and dealt with appropriately if no longer required. I have even managed to dismantle and remove a large cupboard, freeing a few more square feet of floor space. This is a “Good Thing” (to quote that excellent British history textbook from my youth “1066 and All That”).
It was a Good Thing because musical activities continue and we needed more space. I mentioned here last year that I had started to give some basic violin tuition to our friend Maria. I played the violin throughout my teens while Maria did the same on the clarinet (though a few decades later of course). It seems that our respective areas of expertise are complementary. Maria is the more fluent reader of music and has made impressive progress in following the printed music on the violin. By contrast I have no problem playing the instrument up to and some way beyond my earlier standard but, while I can follow the printed music I have some difficulty with timing. The problem is (and it is quite a nice problem) that, more often than not, I can play a piece of music by ear more easily than by following the printed music. Therefore, I have not paid enough attention to printed music. Indeed, when using printed music now I am sometimes so fascinated by seeing how familiar phrases are written that I forget to keep reading ahead. It is essential to read ahead of the notes being played unless, of course, you know that particular arrangement so well that you don’t need to read it at all. So we are not so much teacher and pupil as joint learners – and I have plenty to learn.
The sun has been shining on us for a few days now. The weather is warmer and the grass has been mowed and trimmed for the first time this year. I am not yet motivated to get out on my bicycle and it remains to be seen whether that will change. I do feel a slight inclination to do a bit of painting. We shall see.
It was not made by Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri or Stainer but so far as I am concerned it might as well be one of these top violins. It sounds good and looks good but costs a lot less to insure. To quote a mobile phone review that I was reading recently “It is well class init”!
From which you will gather that I am rather pleased with my new violin which was purchased a couple of weeks ago fron Cardiff Violins.This was in response to a burning desire to find out what I would sound like when playing on a good instrument rather than a poor one that probably would not justify the expense of attempts at further improvement. After several weeks of debating (mainly with myself) the sheer extravagance of buying a decent violin, I decided to take the plunge.
I am even happier now that I have been back to the same establishment to try out a selection of bows and to buy a pernambuco bow which works well with the violin.
The old outfit was cheap and cheerful – an early 20th Century “Stradivarius copy” from Prague teamed up with the cheapest bow available in our nearby town several years ago. It is not a total disaster and would be improved further by a better bow. As it stands it will suit a beginner for the first couple of years.
The new outfit, hand-made and properly set up with Pirastro Obligato strings, is much more responsive and sounds a lot better, as well it might – the strings alone cost more than the old outfit is worth complete!
I have three violins (and three bows) in the house at present and have taken the opportunity to do some fairly unscientific comparative testing. The results have been predictable and entirely subjective but interesting just the same. There is my new outfit, the old outfit, and a typical, almost new, student outfit which has had little use so far. It was interesting to discover that although my old violin is not in the same league as the new one, it sounded a lot better than usual and played more easily with the new bow, as did the student violin.
Apparently, modern student violin outfits vary widely in quality and many are just awful. Part of the problem is that they are inevitably cheap, factory built instruments for which inferior materials tend to be used. There are some rather good factory-made instruments in, for example, the £300-£400 price bracket. I tried a couple of these from China recently and was pleasantly surprised – though I shouldn’t have been surprised as there are also some rather fine violinists from China as well. Another important factor is that the low cost (of the cheapest outfits) rules out any possibility of their being set up correctly before landing in the optimistic hands of their novice owners. The fact that many general-purpose musical instrument shops have no-one on the payroll who has more than a vague or incomplete idea about setting up a violin doesn’t help. On the other hand, a violin specialist may well stock some inexpensive beginners’ kits, while avoiding the worst of them, and will do some setting up for a modest charge so as to give the customer a better deal whilst protecting the vendor’s reputation. It was particularly interesting to note that the student violin that I have here, with its own bow, was capable of producing a reasonably pleasant tone. This was unexpected, although, admittedly, it required more effort than on the other instruments and it isn’t something that I would expect a beginner to achieve in the first few months.
To start playing the violin again, after a break of around 50 years, has been an interesting experience. There were parallels with riding the bicycle. I found that I had not forgotten how to do it but I wobbled a bit at first. On the violin this took the form of failing to control the bow and playing a bit out of tune – apart from that it was fine! Well, I did remember a few tunes but it took a while to regain “the touch” – to the extent that I ever had it!
So what next? Well after many hours of practising scales and arpeggios and improving my sight reading, I have been considering how to move further ahead. For starters I decided to treat myself to a better violin (with the help of a very generous contribution from Granny-Anne – by way of an early birthday present!). While the old violin was by no means a disaster zone, there was no scope to improve it further and it was time to find out what a good violin would sound like in my hands.
Meanwhile I have been looking at sources of tuition for would-be violinists. I do not rule out one-to-one lessons from a well qualified and recommended teacher but not just yet. If possible I want to avoid the plethora of long-winded and tedious beginners’ books which abound in all the music shops – but perhaps they really are more suitable for absolute beginners, and very young ones at that. I didn’t find anything inspiring by way of online tuition for much the same reasons and the video-based tutors (that I saw) failed to convey any sense of enthusiasm. In stark contrast there are some really inspiring guitar tutors online.
For the time being I am trying to devise a plan of action of my own, which will keep me busy for 2-3 years at least. There needs to be a plan, with milestones along the way, probably loosely based on the ABRSM grading system, because already I have one informal pupil and there may be more -but that’s a story for another day.
I have altered the new violin by increasing the micro-adjusters from one to four and by adding a central chinrest, which seems to suit me better but time will tell.
The old violin that I have been playing for the past several months has been improved with a new bridge and better strings but whether it can be improved further is far from certain, even given expensive professional attention. After a great deal of online research and much deliberation I have taken the plunge and bought a new violin.
There is a lot of detailed technical information about violins on the internet and it is worth researching, not just out of interest, but for the sound practical reason that it will assist informed choices between the various alternatives that will be available when buying and it will also help a buyer to distinguish between facts and sales patter.
There are also a lot of retailers’ web sites and these seem to divide into three groups. The first group seems to comprise the upmarket dealers who rarely if ever have an instrument to offer at less than £1,200-£1,500 and whose average price is a few thousand pounds higher – all well above my budget! At the other extreme are the general purpose high street music shops or their online equivalents, whose violin stock may amount to no more than a handful of very cheap, factory-made, beginners models. Then there is my third group, the genuine specialists who make and repair instruments and, one can safely assume, know what they are talking about. I have known for some time that we have such a specialist in the city but, for reasons that I cannot recall, I was under the impression that they belonged in my first group and would not be any help to me. The fact is that my “groups” are an oversimplification. Our local specialists, Cardiff Violins, clearly cater for beginners who are not looking for the very cheapest instruments but I am sure that they cater for the high end of the professional market as well.
In a prompt and friendly reply to an email from me Cardiff Violins confirmed that they could indeed supply a variety of violins and bows within my limited budget so I phoned for an appointment to visit them. The appointment was necessary only because I needed some time in one of their practice rooms to try a few violins. On arrival, with empty violin case in hand, I found the small reception area crowded but it was immediately apparent that I would find none of the pompous stuffiness that I so detest but instead a friendly, family business atmosphere.
I was shown into a medium sized room whose walls were lined with hundreds of violins. Here I explained what I wanted and was given ample time to try a selection of violins. These included a couple of factory-made Chinese instruments about which I can honestly say that I was surprised at how good they sounded. However, I didn’t like the colour and finish which looked too red and too synthetic for my taste. Even so, one of these violins was at the top of my list for some time, bearing in mind that I also wanted a bow within the same budget.
Then I was shown a much more expensive violin. To me it looked like an older violin which was free of any damage or repaired damage but which had been nicely revarnished. I was assured that it was both new and hand-made. It sounded, even with me playing, far superior to the others. A serious decision was needed. So I decided to do without a new bow – for now anyway – and to put my whole budget into the violin. It was a good decision.
The new violin is shown in the picture above. I don’t know how true this is but it seems that more expensive violins are supplied with a single fine-tuning adjuster fitted on the E string, whereas the cheaper ones have a full set of adjusters. Well, I was amused to note that my violin came with a single adjuster – not only that but it was gold-plated to match the metal parts of the chinrest. It was a nice touch but I do like a full set of adjusters and I am going to fit a central chin rest soon on which the metal parts will not be gold-plated. I think a central chin rest will suit me better and will enable me to dispense with the shoulder rest that I have been using and which has not been a great success.
I spent some time yesterday evening playing my new toy, with which I am highly delighted. I have never owned a violin that sounded anywhere near as good as this one and have therefore nicknamed it (note the impressive originality) “The Strad” – with due apologies to the magazine of the same name.
My violin was an inexpensive old thing about 3-4 years ago, with no particular claim to fame. The label within mentions Antonius Straduarius so I concluded that the instrument was a cheap copy of the great “Strad” and there have been many thousands of those.
It was not the most encouraging of experiences when I started trying to play again earlier this year. First, not playing for the best part of 50 years had undermined my physical coordination and intonation. Secondly, the instrument itself sounded harsh, when it sounded at all. A lot of practice has brought me back to somewhere near my earlier capabilities though I am not sight-reading quite as fluently as before. I am gradually improving the instrument itself while recognising that it might, just, become acceptable for my purposes but that is probably the best I can hope for. A new set of Dominant strings brought about a vast improvement in the sound, which has now been helped further by a new bridge, suitably modified. While it may seem illogical to spend very much on a bow for a violin of doubtful pedigree, I am beginning to think that my violin is a better instrument than I had thought previously and deserves better than the really cheap bow that is showing its limitations already. Even the “cheap Strad copies” varied considerably in quality and perhaps mine is not so bad after all. Admittedly, it seems to me to project itself rather well – or to put it in more down-to-earth terms, it is loud. On the other hand, something approaching a quite pleasant tone is beginning to become apparent It will be interesting to hear how it changes over the next couple of hundred hours of practice.