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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

3/5/2013 Know Thy Instrument

I hate black boxes – gleaming silver whatchamacallits that are covered with little invisible question marks. I like to know what is going on inside. What makes this difficult is that we live in a world of black boxes. Cell phones, washing machines, TVs, stereos, computers, automobiles…how many of us actually know all of the intricacies and inner workings of these automations that we depend upon on a daily basis? Perhaps a few engineering types that are fountainheads of technical knowledge but for the majority of us they remain enigmatic devices. If there is ever a problem we take them to our neighborhood whatchamacallit repair person or just replace them with the latest greatest gadget that is vastly superior to its predecessor of four months ago and which is guaranteed to make our life truly worth living.

This is one area where the new generation has it over us. Most kids are absolutely fearless when it comes to technology. In the age of the Internet, knowledge about any black box, thingamajig or gadget is just three mouse clicks away. Somewhere someone knows how to reprogram your cell phone to display Chinese characters and they are willing to share.

What does this have to do with your violin or cello? I am often surprised by how little some accomplished musicians know about their instruments. To many they remain just another black box. I think that this is an area that could be improved upon. Violins, violas and cellos are deceptively simple things, just assemblages of wood and strings, but there is a hidden treasure within of hundreds of years of experimentation and tweaking that has made them what they are: instruments of exceptional beauty and power. How many of us have taken the time to study up on the history of stringed instruments? How many have learned the name of all the different parts and why they are designed the way they are? How about strings, bows, accessories? Aren’t you just a little curious? I am.

I am not suggesting that we all become accomplished luthiers (people who build and repair wooden stringed instruments). I am suggesting that all musicians should have a working knowledge of what makes their instruments tick and that they should know how to make simple adjustments and know how to care for their instruments to keep them safe. I really think that a little knowledge is a powerful thing. When it comes to stringed instruments a little background on the history and construction of our instruments can give is a greater appreciation of their heritage and also some insight into how to get the most from them. There are plenty of books out there. The Violin Owner’s Manual has a series of articles published together in one small volume. It is available from String Letter Publishing and Hal Leonard. The Violin World is also a winner from Norman C. Pickering. Other books abound. Strings Magazine sometimes has informative articles. There are good resources from the Internet and even some instructional videos on

A word of warning here. Don’t get over your head and try invasive repairs on your instrument. I think that those are things that are better left to professionals. Doping a slipping peg, re-stringing and upgrading a tailpiece should be procedures that are well within the grasp of anyone who is slightly handy with their hands.

I believe that with a greater knowledge of your instrument you will ad a deeper dimension to your appreciation and even to your playing. At the very least it will give you increased confidence and some juicy factoids to drop at dinner parties. “Did you know that the Lady Blunt Stradivarius just fetched 15.9 million at action?” Enough said and I need to scoot. I have an atomic powered pencil sharpener that I need to reprogram.

Keep practicing.


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