Meeting Topic: Joint Meeting w/ ASA: "The Violin and its Discontents: Common Structural and Tonal Problems in Orchestral String Instruments and their Remedy"
Speaker Name: Sanford Field, Top Notch Violins
Meeting Location: Stage Two @ Columbia College Chicago, 618 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago IL 60605
Ten Chicago AES Section members joined twenty-two Chicago ASA Section members and Columbia College students on April 9th at Columbia College's Stage Two venue to socialize and network while eating Portillo's hotdogs and light fare and then received an entertaining presentation by Sanford Field (luthier and owner/partner at Top Notch Violins).
As the attendees moved from the reception area to the seating in front of the podium and stage, they were able to view several tools, clamps, and gear that Sanford had put on display. Sanford started with an explanation that even though a luthier is considered a maker of stringed instruments such as violins or guitars, he prefers to think of a luthier as a person who principally measures tiny, tiny things. Luthiers typically think of violin owners as temporary caretakers because violins often outlive several owners. Sanford explained that luthiers often follow three rules: 1) A good repair preserves the tone and playability of the instruments; 2) A good repair should be difficult to spot; and 3) A good repair should always, always, always be reversible because it may need to be reversed in the future.
Most commonly for violins, luthiers will adjust pegs, close open seams or cracks, fix buzzing instruments, or correct/replace bridges or sound posts. He showed pictures and diagrams of the different parts of a violin and then went into detail on several problems luthiers encounter in repairing violins. Throughout his presentation, Sanford would casually insert little facts or anecdotes that would trigger gasps, laughs, or giggles from the audience. Examples include finding a spider egg sack in one of the violins and baby spiders began to crawl out of the violin, often finding rattle snake tails inside violins (that owners would intentionally insert), and even saying that the best wood glue smells and tastes like road kill.
Sanford focused on three common problems that he has encountered with repairing violins: peg & tuning stability issues, cracks or open seams, and buzzing problems. For pegs, he said the base material is important: ebony beats maple and maple beats boxwood or rosewood. He is often able to replace warped or broken pegs with new pegs or is able to replace damaged peg holes in the peg box by filling the holes with new wood and then drilling new peg holes. Violin seams are designed to break before the wood because seams are more easily repaired than the violin body. Repair often requires special glue and precise positioning of holding clamps and fixtures. Sanford then listed twenty five things on a violin that can make it buzz. A few examples include a scroll or pegbox crack, a loose or cracked peg, strings are too close to the fingerboard, there is a foreign object inside the violin, the bridge has warped, or there is an open seam.
Sanford then described how a sound post could dramatically change the sound of the violin by being either misshaped or misplaced in the violin. Annie-Rose Fondaw gave a demonstration of playing a violin as a reference and then Sanford would move the position of the sound post multiple times to demonstrate how moving the sound post would affect the violin's sonic performance. They also demonstrated how changing a new bridge with an older bridge on the same violin affected the performance. Most of the audience agreed that they could hear the sonic differences but your author admittedly could not hear the differences (it must be because I do not have experience listening to a violin or that I was just simply impressed with Annie-Rose's overall performance).
Written By: Notes by Ken Platz, Chair