Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thoughts on Accessories for String Players

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts on my relationship with D’Addario and giving away some strings sets to a few students.  There was a comment on that post that asked me to give some remarks about the importance of strings and other accessories for parents that aren’t string players so that they can make more informed choices with making purchasing decisions.  This is a response to that request.


The question started with strings.  So, here are some thoughts on strings.  First, families have to start from the perspective of budget.  I know, I am the father of three string players.  Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I am affiliated with D’Addario Strings as an Educational Specialist.  That said, I am affiliated with them because I love their product and play their product.  For almost all of my remarks in the post, you will see one recurring thought:  You get what you pay for!  So, with that said, here are some more thoughts on strings.  First, they all sound different.  And, in the end, sound and tone is what really matters when playing an instrument.  Tone is what keeps you coming back for more. If a player doesn’t like the tone of their instrument, they are less likely to practice, less likely to play for others, and less likely to continue.  You get the idea.  Tone is everything.  Even among the D’Addario products, there are a broad range of price points on strings and a broad range of tonal offerings.  Some strings are brighter, others are sweeter.  Strings also come in a variety of compositions and tensions.  These all impact the tone.    My advice is to try out several types of strings over a period of months and see what you like.  When you find one you really like, stick with it.  Strings do wear out after a period of time.  So a great sounding string today may not sound so great in 6 or 8 months.   For students, I would recommend changing strings every 6 months to one year.  Many professionals change strings much more frequently.  The strings may not even look worn out.  It is the tone of the string that wears out more quickly.   Listen to the instrument when they put on new strings.  It should sound more resonant, and “live.”

Here is my “cut to the chase” advice: If your student is in their 3rd or 4th year of instruction, playing on a “step up” full size instrument, playing in a competitive youth orchestra, competing for regional or all-state opportunities, or performing in solo recitals, they should be playing D’Addario Helicore or Zyex strings or strings of another brand of a similar quality.  They should also be changing strings every 6 months or so. Plan for $50.00-$60.00 each time they change strings.  D’Addario sets range from around $20.00 for their Pro Arte sets to around $50.00 for the Helicore or Zyex sets.  I play D’Addario Helicore strings on my acoustic violin and D’Addario Zyex or NS Design Electric Strings on my electric violins.


Many folks also don’t understand the importance of a good bow to the string players’ tone.  Bows also come in a wide variety of compositions, qualities, and price ranges.  A bow can greatly impact the tone of a violin and a sub-par bow can really hinder a young player’s development.   Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I play Coda carbon fiber bows exclusively and have a relationship with the company.  I find that in the price range up to $1000.00, Carbon fiber really gives the player the best “band for the buck.”  There will be others that disagree with me and really advocate for wooden bows at all price points.  Pernambuco bows are certainly the most sought-after, particularly in the over $1000.00 price range.  You will also find bows made of Brazilwood in the lower price range.  Many folks go right to the bounce strokes when trying out new bows, but there really is more to the bow decision.  I am always thinking about an even tone from frog to tip when trying bows.  I play long tones and listen for power and evenness at the tip and lightness and control toward the frog.  Of course, balance and lightness are also very important when it comes to spiccato or sautillé strokes.  In the end, a better bow allows for a broader range of subtleties on the instrument.   I do not advocate for the under $50.00 fiberglass bow, even for beginning students.  Spending a couple hundred dollars on a carbon fiber bow, even for younger students, should pay huge dividends.  The bow will impact the tone and ultimately, students will want to play/practice more! The Coda Bow Company is on the forefront of research and design in all categories.  I recommend them highly and play their sticks. In the end, like everything, it comes down to budget and getting the best product for your hard-earned money.  Your local luthier can probably really enlighten you on this subject.   I use a Coda Joule Carbon Fiber bow for my improvisatory work and a Coda Custom carbon fiber bow for my classical work.  I also have a Richter Pernambuco stick in my case that I have had for many years and still use it quite often for classical performances.


Yes – even the rosin they use makes a difference.  Rosin is the material that affects the feel of contact and friction of the bow to strings.  I did a quick bit of web research and, wow, there is a bunch of information out there!  I tend to like darker rosin.  I am not sure why. It just feels better to me.  I started using it when I was 12 years old or so and have loved the feel of it ever since.  Rosin comes in two basic colors, amber or light and dark.  There are many brands and manufacturing processes associated with rosin.  But, again, it has a huge impact on the way the bow feels against the string.  So, I recommend trying several out over a period of time.  Amber rosin, for me, just doesn’t give me the same touch that dark rosin gives.  The good news is that rosin isn’t that expensive.  It ranges from $2.00-$10.00 or more at the top end.  I use D’Addario Kaplan Dark Rosin exclusively.   I recommend giving your child a new /different rosin for every birthday and Christmas (or other gift-giving holiday) until they find one that really makes them happy.  Then “stick” with that brand. (Please excuse my pun.)

I am sure that there are other accessories that will come up as a result of this post so don’t hesitate to ask me to add to this if you have further or related questions.  I hope that all of this is helpful at some level. 



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