Tips for Adapting to the Playing of Open Gut Strings

By Guy Weddle


  When I first tried playing the open gut Tricolore strings about 2 1/2 years ago, I had some trouble with squeaks and squawks!  This was more than a little disconcerting, but I was determined to discover a solution.  After all, if Heifetz used these strings exclusively, there had to be an answer.  “Must be something I’m doing wrong,” I thought. 

  The obvious thing to do was to add more rosin.  After all, I had become used to using the minimum rosin necessary, and for years had been using the same type of perlon strings.  My rosin routine was a comfortable and unquestioned habit.  I merelyrosined up a little if I felt the need.  I knew that I used less than most other violinists, but I liked not having it cake up and stick onto the string windings; and I felt that I got a cleaner sound without over rosining.

  However, with my utter inability to control the sound with my new open gut strings, I had to think about things.  First, I tried more pressure, then slowing down the stroke for more “traction”.   Didn’t work.  So I gave in and added more rosin.  Still no joy.  I added a lot more rosin… way more than I was normally comfortable with.  That did help, but the rosin didn’t last long before I lost contact control with the strings again. 

  Being persistent, I continued to play with these strings.  There were other issues.  My hearing was not the same!  You see, I used to be a studio player in Miami.  For about 13 years, I did a lot of studio recording with small string ensembles.  Tuning was absolutely critical; because in those days (pre-digital) you pretty much got out whatever you put in.  “Garbage in, garbage out,” was what the peoplein the booth would say if they didn’t like our work.  Another popular saying was, “May the Force Be With You!”.  Corrections were limited to “punching in” and adding reverb.  Essentially, it meant playing very accurately re: pitch and rhythm.  Not only could they isolate the strings on playback, but they could take it down to the individual tracks and microphones.  No faking or hiding.  IF you made a mistake that you thought would show up, it was better to wave the take off and admit it openly, rather than waste a lot of time while they tracked you down!

  The sum total of my recording over that timewas probably something under 500 full length LP’s, so I did gain a lot of experience in this genre and in the venue of the many recording studios around town at that time (1970’s and 1980’s up until digital recording came in).  Usually, at the beginning of the day, the concertmaster or leader would spend considerable time listening to the tracks already laid down (done) and work at devining the best “A” that would fit.  That was frequently an effort, because there might be a Rhodes piano which had different tuning from the Grand Piano, and there might be other issues: say a very sharp bass guitar, or some other instruments which did not agree.  In the worst cases, it might not be even possible to tune to the track.  The next thing to try was to simply use the grand piano, even if it wasn’t on the tracks.  It was usually well maintained in the studio.  Of course, some studios did not have a grand.  Lots of honest attempts were made to solve this problem.  Sometimes the strings would put our tracks down and the previously recorded tracks would have to be done over to comply with our tuning.

  My purpose in going off on this tangent, is to explain something about listening and ear training.  I was using Dominant strings for most of this time period, so my ear was used to tuning and playing with their sound.  Since they were so stable, I eventuallylearned that if I fixed my tuning to my tuning fork in the morning, that I would be set for the day, even out on my playing jobs.  In the studio, after waiting for sometimes 5 minutes of searching for the “A”, it always turned out to be exactly the “A” 440 that my violin was already tuned to and I was already “there”.  This was so consistent, that I gained confidence that it would always be so, and it was.  With this concentrated effort on” in tune” playing which was required for studio work, I began to work on my ear, so that I could have what is sometimes referred to as “Absolute Pitch”.  In other words, an ability to “hear in ones mind” the exact pitch of the “A” 440, for instanceIt is simply an accurate pitch memory.  Similar to perfect pitch, but more specifically for an exact tuning of a pitch. 

  I was thrilled to develop that skill in my 30's.  I hadn’t considered it to be possible.  I found that it IS possible if you just could find out how to listen and practice it without allowing any variation, i.e. always tune and play at the same precise pitch.  This was possible for me to do because the same people in the studio were the same people I worked with all day, every day as a free lance violinistFor 25 years, I was able to accurately tune my violins to a precise “A” 440 without any external reference at all.  I was tested from time to time with a tuning machine.  I was always there, and it was easy.

  When I started using the Tricolore strings, I found, to my horror, that my beloved skill had abandoned me!  I was tuning all over the place… usually very far to sharp.  However, as I said before, I was very determined to use these strings because I know that Heifetz is right, and if I have a problem with that… it is MY problem.  Something for “him to have known, and for everybody else to find out about”.

  To make a long personal story short, I eventually regained my ability.  It took several months, actually.  The dramatically increased richness of the tone of Tricolore strings was confusing my ear, and I had to be patient as I learned to hear through it all for my fundamental of 440. 

  I would suggest that you can accomplish this with patience, and by continually checking with a good tuning fork.  Keep it handy; and as Mr. Heifetz said, “No Compromise”.  Check, also, your recordings, especially of “himself”.  Most of his things were accurately tuned, and you can tune up and play along.  Then check the fork, again.  This is something that I think really helps train ones ear to be sensitive and accurateAnd it is fun.

  Back to the rosin and bowing problems.  The upshot of it all is that having tried different pressures and bowing speeds, it still took 2 or 3 days before I felt comfortable.  I came to realize that there is a certain amount of oil used in manufacturing these strings, and that sometimes, there might be enough of a residue that it could interfere with the friction of the bow hair and rosin on the string.  Let’s realize that it is NOT the bow hair that makes the string go; it is the rosin.  You could rosin a coat hanger and get it to sound, if you wanted to.  Oil, however is anathema to bow hair and we don’t want it.

  My first suggestion when using open gut strings which are unvarnished, would be to wrap the bowing area with some tissue as soon as you take receipt of the strings.  Wrap them up and leave them for a week or two, if you can.  The tissue will wick up oil residue and that will make the new string work well right away. 


                                                 “If you find that you have this issue, try the tissue.”                         


 Do NOT use any solvent, such as alcohol, as it will continue to attack the fibers of the string and ruin it in short order.  If you just don’t have time to wait for the tissue method, go ahead and use the string right away and simply be prepared to “rosin up” more frequently.  Apparently, the rosin itself removes any excess oil present, and the problem goes away on its own.

There are still bowing issues with these strings; but this is where the good stuff starts.  If you watch Heifetz, a logical thing to do since he is certainly playing these strings, you may notice that he sometimes uses an extremely fast bowing speed, and other times a very slow one.  I believe that the open gut strings require a different bowing pressure and speed than the outer wire “E” or the wound “G”.  Further, you should begin to notice that Heifetz generally plays “lighter” on the outer strings, and applies more pressure and speed on the inner strings.  This technique alone would help account for some of his individuality and unique tone production.  He simply cannot be accurately imitated without using the same string setup.

With traditional, ordinary wound strings, it is just the opposite.  We have to be careful with the “D” and “A”.  We tend to play lightly on them and to play very hard and demonstratively on the outer strings.  This has become a cliché and is a bad habit in terms of taste and logic.  The logic aspect is that higher and lower notes get an agogic accent by virtue of their being different and outstanding.  In other words, they will be heard strongly WITHOUT any emphasis.  Over doing anything is usually in bad taste.  That brings us to the middle register where Mr. Heifetz used open gut strings.  I do hope you see the logic in this choice.  His magnificent renderings of “Clair de Lune”, Beau Soir, Gershwin arrangements, and everything else done in the middle register is uniquely beautiful and was done on these strings. Think of the opening of the Scottish Fantasy, for instance.  I cannot imagine other strings providing the richness (alluded to earlier in my article) for that and innumerable other passages.  The Bach Chaconne cannot sound as soft and sweetly with wound strings, regardless of who plays.  These strings are essential to his rendition.  Many people have mistaken the sound of these strings to be the sound of his Guarneri del Gesu violin. 

So, to sum up: in general, use more speed and pressure on the open gut strings.  This will, of course, imply changes in left hand pressures; but that will have to be in another article.  I do have a few things to say about how to play these strings with the left hand, and am anxious to share with you when I can. 

Use an appropriate amount of rosin.  I think that Heifetz probably used the light Hill rosin, if that makes a difference to you.  I have not had a chance to explore different rosins.

Realize that when the strings are clean and working at the optimum, that they offer superior flexibility, dynamics, and tonal richness for your tonal palate.  Take a long time to discover these wonderful characteristics.

Give your ear as much time as it takes to develop and enjoy what these strings have to offer.

Finally, there are excellent violinists who prefer finding the thinnest strings that will work on their fiddles.  I believe that the medium Tricolore should work on most violins but these are not thin strings.  They do, however, have a softness and flexibility which is remarkable, given their comparatively large diameters.  These different characteristics will demand adaptation if one is used to playing on very thin strings.  The tonal result will also be quite different. I highly recommend these strings to everyone, not because of my humble opinions and experiences; but because Mr. Heifetz used and recommended them to his students.  I don’t seem to be able to think of any, unfortunately, who followed him in this.  More is the pity.

In a future article, I hope to share some knowledge about bow construction, and how that should affect effective bow divisions.


The Third Finger in Violin Playing

By Guy Weddle

 

I recommend to use the third finger as a base of support for the fourth finger. This is logical as they are anatomically connected.  It is silly to expect them to act independently, therefore.

 Playing thirds will help to strengthen the whole hand in time, as will playing some fingered octaves.  Allowing the third finger to move as if it were in use when playing simple octaves is good, also; meaning that the distance between fourth and third is maintained as a whole step for each simple octave.  That would be the same position for the four fingers as the first tetrachord of a minor scale. To further explain: the third and second fingers touch at all times, while maintaining the distance of a whole step between the third and fourth fingers.

Finally, it will become immediately clear that moving the left elbow to the right will cause the fingers to move higher over the fingerboard and at the same time will cause them to curve into an arch, which we all know is a natural form of strength.  This last mentioned positioning i.e. from left to right and back, of the elbow, is extremely important to helping keep the hand and fingers in a consistent form for playing on each of the four strings.  Toscha Seidel, who was of short stature, shows this principle in some of his photos.  It is more obvious in short limbed players.

 

Take advantage of films on youtube and watch the best left hand technique players.  See how they do it, and never forget that the best model is Heifetz.


A System of Intonation

By Guy Weddle

 

I want to describe a system of "musical" or "just" intonation and how to work at it on the violin.  It is an issue, today, as many students rely on a digital tuner, which would be tempered.  Tempered is not the correct intonation on a violin; and since the open gut strings change in pitch frequently, having a definite and specific technique for intonation is all the more essential.  The Heifetz way of having a steel "E" and Silver wrapped "G" sandwiches the open strings between two more stable ones; and that is most helpful.

Now, what should you expect, and what do you need to watch out for when doing this experiment?  Are there any tips for doing it right?  Yes, and I am going to offer up some ideas for getting started right here.

First off, these Tricolore Strings are made from Natural Materials.  That means that they need to be treated appropriately when installingand when playing, as well; especially the open or unwound gut strings.  Let's consider how they lookwhen you get them out of the package.  You can see the semi-transparent material (yes it is actual gut from a sheep, just as they used in Paganini's time) and you can see how strands of this material are wound together.  There is a pre-tied knot and little washer, all ready to go up under the tailpiece.  Pretty straightforward so far...

Now for some advice:  When removing and replacing strings on your violin, it is a very good idea to protect the finish under the tailpiece.  A tissue or handkerchief will serve to keep the string from hitting or scraping the varnish unnecessarily. 

    1.  It is a good idea to have a tweezers or hemostat at hand just in case you need it for pulling the new string through the hole in the peg.  Some violins have a narrow pegbox and some have the "A" peg far up enough in it to make it difficult to maneuver.  But first, let's get the string threaded through the slot in the tailpiece.  It is OK to bend the string about a 1/3 to 1/2 inch from the end of the string to get it started.  That part will go through the peg in a second, anywayDon't however, bend or crimp any other part of the string.  Keep it just as it was when it came out of the package. 

    2.  Next, pull the string through the slot and set the knot end and washer in place.  Remember that they probably will slip out of position while you are getting the other end through the peg hole; so we will come back and check that before starting to wind the string up to tension. 

    3.  Push the end through the peg hole and pull it through so that about an inch or more is available to make a couple of twists.  Hold the twist together and push that twisted string up against the pegbox. Give another turn on the peg.  Now, before you continue, check back at the tailpiece to see that the knot and washer are exactly where you want them; and when you have it right, gently pull up on the string with one hand to keep it there while you turn the peg to take up the slack.

    4.  OK, we're almost there.  If you have it right, you should be able to see that the knot is secured under the slot in the tailpiece, and that the string in the pegbox is winding nicely and straight on the peg from the outside toward the center ie. up the peg.  Doing it this way creates friction against the wall of the pegbox and prevents the peg from slipping and letting the string go down.  Looks nice, too.

5.   All the preceding would apply to any kind of string; but now is where things are a little different. Since the string is made of gut instead of a man made material, it should be treated kindly and gently during the stretching process. Our goal is to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time while doing as little injury to the string as possible. My suggestion is to plan ahead a little. It doesn't take long to change a string or two i.e. "A" and "D" open gut strings, so why not start in the evening. This plan will give the strings overnight to settle in. Allow 1/2 hour for getting the new ones on if you've never used open gut before; although it probably will only take 5 or 10 minutes. After that, it is a matter of gently returning the string to a given pitch, which we will do numerous times. At first, let's say we get it up to about a Fourth under the final pitch e.g. A - B for the "D" string and E- F#  for the "A" string. Let's just leave it like that for 5 minutes or so. Go make some decaffeinated tea or coffee and come back and tune it up again to the same pitch. Then again, and again, leaving a few minutes between each time. Next, raise it on up to say a tone below, e.g. up to C for the "D" and G for the "A". When that falls lower, then go ahead and tune it up to 1/2 tone below pitch, again. After 20 minutes or so, you can bring it to full pitch. If you allow about 2 hours for all the stretching, you can leave it over night. When you get up in the morning, the stretching will be mostly done. Go ahead and tune up to pitch. The strings should quickly settle into their true pitch and your reward will be that you have a perfectly made string, in excellent condition and ready to use. The tone should be pure and true. You will also probably get a little longer use of the string, having treated it this way.   

    6.  One final suggestion which is important.  I learned this from an old violin maker who was born in the 1890's!  He taught me to always put an opposing support against any force.  In this case, when you push the peg into the pegbox, support it with your other hand by putting your hand opposite the peg you are pushing.  In other words, don't hold the violin by the neck down where it is mortised into the body of the violinIf you are unlucky, you might just push the neck right out of the violin!  Glue does sometimes dry out and fail in that mortise; but in any case, just form the habit of pushing against your own hand.


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