For me, my violins (from that first crappy little student rental I learned on to my latest acquisition, an entry-level electric fiddle) have always been holy. Their voices have differed. Their shapes and colors have shifted over time, and they’ve always fascinated me. Some have been reasonably good, others have been definitely bad. All are precious.
My beloved old musical friend is beautiful to me as much for its quirks as for its voice. It was built in the style of a Stradivarius (c. 1700) by Scherl & Roth in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t made simply to be another student-quality Strad copy. Its interior tag says so: “Roth by Scherl & Roth”, an instrument that not only invokes the venerable Stradivarius but also the more recent Roth — both Italian and German traditions, in a single instrument. It is not equal to the best of either of those traditions, to be honest, but it represents their inspiration gracefully…and oddly, for what is essentially a nice factory piece.
Its scale length is, for no discernable reason…wrong. It is subtly longer, somehow, in proportion. The difference is almost impossible to see. The eye does not instantly notice the strangeness of it. The build of the whole instrument is graceful, somehow more delicate than similar instruments, but it doesn’t seem oddly proportioned until one either a) measures it, as my various violin repair and maintenance providers have periodically done (much to their consternation and occasional amusement), or b) plays it, either immediately before or immediately after playing an instrument of more usual shape. My left hand knows this neck, my fingers understand this fingerboard perfectly, and are at first baffled by other necks and other fingerboards.
Some maker or team of makers experimented or erred (or both), and the result is something unique. It doesn’t necessarily sound better than another comparable instrument. Yet it has grown with me, forcing me to learn to play differently, to play better, and it has consistently rewarded my improvement and punished my failures. It has been an eccentric and beautiful teacher. If I have finally begun to feel and hear and understand its limitations, it is because of everything the instrument itself has taught me.
When I call it eccentric and beautiful, I mean not only its voice or its oddities of proportion, I mean its color and its shape and the feeling of its varnished surface under my hand. I mean the weight of it under my chin, and the indescribable scent of the thing. There are subtle crackling lights in its varnished surface, and the striped quality of the wood itself is enchanting. It’s not new and perfect anymore, and that is a considerable measure of its charm. It is elegantly worn where a well-loved and much-played violin should be. Even when I’ve polished and cleaned it, I find myself hoping that it will resist the improvements of cleaning, so that its graceful decay remains intact.
Someday, I’ll scrape together the finances to acquire a “good” violin, the kind that one takes out a loan to purchase after testing dozens of candidates from different makers. I’ll invest in a finer bow to fit that “good” violin, and my left hand will learn the length of a new neck.
On that day, however, I will not be trading in my eccentric and beautiful old teacher. We still have songs to play together, after all, and I want to see it catch the sun in its aging varnish again.