Where there’s one, there’s two…

The Stainer is great instrument and it is more violin than I probably need right now. It satisfies almost all of my requirements.

1) The violin is definitely European.

2) It’s old – plenty old!

3) It’s whole… but there are some repairs. Granted, they are super hard to see. They are overwhelmed by the beautiful quality of the sound but they are present.

4) The sound is even and balanced. I don’t think one string overwhelms the others.

5) This instrument is definitely functional. Tune it and it stays in tune. Glide your bow across it and it will ring.

Even with the slight ding on number three, this violin is a keeper.

Yet, there was a longing for another. Yes… I am a shopping addict and a collector. One of something is never enough. I need variety in all my possessions of passion and entertainment. Even with the Stainer in hand I was back to eBay. This time I was searching for a French violin! I am extremely fond of France, especially after I had a chance to visit the Rhône-Alps and Provence back in 2007. It had been my dream for many years to ride my bike on the same roads as those covered by the Tour de France. I had the privilege of climbing Les Deux Alpes, l’Alpe d’Huez, the Col de Lauteret, the Col de Galibier, and Mont Ventoux among others. The memories I have of the area, the people, the food, and everything are deep and wonderful. I entered France with dreams and I left enchanted. There is little doubt in my mind that my affection for all things French (among other European cultures) drove me to look for a violin that was made in France. I want to recapture a bit of that romance through the violin itself.

Thankfully, France has a rich history of violin luthiery. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the word luthier comes from the French word lute and Mirecourt is well known as a hub of French violin manufacturing. Look around the internet and you will find plenty of French violins available for sale. I decided to go with a violin made by the Jérôme Thibouville-Lamy company, or JTL for short. Used JTL violins tend to be on the lower end of the price scale but most people seem to have a decent impression of them. There aren’t too many bad reviews of them. I really wanted to know how a JTL violin would sound and I was able to find some Youtube video clips. Here’s a quick list of them.

A French Medio Fino Violin by JTL

JTL demo

JTL Medio Fino II

A French Mirecourt Violin

JTL 3-4 French violin

That sure doesn’t sound bad to a beginner like me!

The JTL company seems to still exist in the present day. They may be a shell of their former selves but they do have a website.

Anyways, onto the violin! The violin I am blogging about today is JTL’s Compagnon III. It is definitely listed in JTL’s 1912 catalog on page 22 (scroll down a bit). Catalogs from other years list a Compagnon but without the III appended to it. We can guess that this violin is somewhere around 100 years old, give or take a few years. Compagnon translates to companion, partner, colleague, sidekick, etc depending on the context of the sentence. So this violin is meant to be your friend in your journey of playing music.

I bought this violin from a Canadian eBay seller. The package arrived in less than a week via Air Mail service. There was no indication of rough handling or damage to the box. I was impressed with the sheer number of stamps on the front. Stamps are always fun to look at even if you don’t collect them. (Please note that I deleted any visible address information in the picture for the sake of what little privacy we have in today’s day and age.)

I opened the box and a gaggle of newspaper, packing peanuts, and bubble wrap greeted me. Shipping a violin without a case makes me a bit shifty but I have to remember that for as fragile as violins are they are also extremely tough instruments. My biggest fear is that the package handlers will crush this package under a large load. The idea of insurance sounds good until you think about the time and money you will spend sending everything back, filing claims, waiting, etc. You might as well take on some risk and just get the package delivered as quickly as possible. Sometimes expedited shipping is better because there could be less days of handling and less chances of damage.

I removed the packing material and unwrapped the bubble wrap. It was like stripping a mummy. Underneath all that was my violin. It was relieving to see it whole. I can’t remember now if the strings were loose or not. Nothing rattled, shook, or made a funny noise when I picked it up. So far, so good!

Time for an examination. From afar the violin looked great but it wasn’t perfect. I sort of knew it ahead of time when I placed my bid. You might want to ask why and all I can is I don’t know. All of us have some missing teeth in our gears that causes thing to slip. I suppose you’re seeing my slippage first hand. 🙂 Anyways, the violin is very light compared to the Soviet boat oar mentioned earlier. Being light doesn’t necessarily mean fragile. I don’t feel like something is going to break or collapse when I handle this violin.

The first thing I noticed is the filth. I don’t know what kind of grime has been cured on here but it doesn’t come off with water. It must be a mixture of dirt, rosin, and dust. Did the violin sit out in the open gathering this yuck or was it from years of being played and never cleaned? I’d like to use my imagination and think of the latter rather than the former. Whatever the case, I want to clean it off but I know I have to be careful not to remove the finish with the soot. There are plenty of threads on various violin forums about this. People have used alcohol, spit, water, polish, dish soap, etc. I will probably start with a gentle polisher and rosin cleaner first.

The strings here are old and need to be replaced. I don’t know what I have on here now but whatever they are I have to say they’re tough. They look like they can pop any instant but so far they haven’t. Does anyone have any suggestions on replacements?

The body has some damage to it. First, it has a small chip in it. It’s not tragic but it’s also not small. Thankfully nothing extra is coming off. I don’t think it’s something urgent that I need to take care of.

The body has some splits and cracks to it in various places. One of the less noticeable places is on the ribs. I say it is less noticeable only because it’s not the first place that most people would look at for a crack.

The back has two major splits forming. I don’t know how deep they are or if they are growing. The first one is in between the two halves of the back and it is only by the neck. There’s a second closer to the middle of the body and off to one side. I can’t even begin to pretend that I know how to fix these.

The neck, scroll, and fingerboard are just fine. There’s nothing unusual to report there. The tailpiece has a missing chip that you can see in one of the pictures above. I wish the tailpiece had some fine tuners on it but I can get the instrument in tune just fine without them too. It looks like the pegs aren’t perfectly fitted into the pegbox but they hold. I assume that the bridge isn’t original. The action on the high E string is a bit high but that can fixed easily enough.

Last, I would like to highlight the label inside the violin. I know that many people say the label inside is not important. What really matters is the tone, form, and fit of the instrument. Although I don’t disagree with that statement I have to counter it. Would you buy a Chevrolet Corvette without it’s emblem? Would you buy a Ford Mustang without its signature galloping horse on the grille? Some would and some would not. I guess you know which camp I am in!

The Compagnon III label is in decent shape with what looks like some sort of glue dropping down its height. For something that was printed close to 100 years ago, I am happy to see it surviving as well as it is. I would be curious to know what kind of printing process was used to create this label. What kind of paper is this too? I wouldn’t be surprised if JTL used just run of the mill paper and cheap ink!

In addition to making the violin “whole”, the label is also something to view and enjoy. The JTL logo, at least this instance, is of a lyre with a violin in front of it. Rays emanate from the assembly. I like the fact that the length of the rays alternate between short and long almost all the way around the entire assembly.

There is also another label that neatly says, “MADE IN FRANCE”. I think it’s interesting that it doesn’t say “Fabrique en France”. Did special models for export have their labels in English?

So how did I do with this violin against my requirements?

1) European: Being made in France it is about as European as you can get!

2) Old: At around 100 years old I would say that’s old enough!

3) Whole: Barely. The violin has a lot of battle scars that I wish weren’t there. They look like they can be easily repaired but not by me.

4) Sound: For all of it’s defects, I have to say that I really like the sound of this violin. Where the Stainer rings, this one sings. It’s bright and loud but smoother and sweeter. fiddlepogo on The Fiddle Hangout used fruits to describe the sound of violins. It sounds like an odd way to think of tone but it works. If the Stainer is a crisp sweet apple then the Compagnon is a smooth nectarine or maybe a peach.

5) Functional: Despite being in a well used condition, this violin is very playable. I haven’t had any problems tuning it, keeping it in, and playing my beginner music with it.

I’ve spent a couple days on this post so I’m going to take a bit of a break. Play lots and play loud! 🙂

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My first “real” violin

When I bought my Soviet violin mentioned earlier here I had been e-mailing back and forth with Graham Wickham from chicoviolins.com. I was recommended this shop by a person with a handle of “fiddlepogo” on the Fiddle Hangout forums. Graham was very courteous in each and every one of his e-mails. Sometimes the responses would come with a one or two day delay but I know that he’s busy. He has a brick and mortar store to run as well. I told him where I was at in my skill level (just starting out) and what I was looking for in terms of tone (bright and beautiful). He gave me a list of possibilities and he described each one. We went back and forth a bit trying to clarify things. He sent me many wonderful pictures of his instruments along the way. Eventually we settled on a late 19th century Stainer. It’s a beautiful old violin with a bright and wonderful open string tone. The violin came with a padded case, an entry level bow, and a box of light rosin. He shipped it via USPS Priority Mail. With his excellent packing job it arrived safe and sound.

I mentioned that he sent me some pictures of it ahead of time and I’ll post them here. There’s no need for me to take my own since the violin looks identical to what is shown in these pictures. I can’t take credit for any of these photos.

The violin has a somewhat dark complexion with what I would say is a deep and vivid grain structure. Let there be no doubt that this violin is made of wood! There are some repaired cracks but you have to look long and hard to see them. Graham says he fixed them himself and it looks like he did a great job doing it. The tailpiece looks like it is made of hard plastic and there is one fine tuner on the E string. A plastic chin rest sits to the left of the tailpiece. I don’t know if the fingerboard and tuning pegs are original or not. They look too clean to be over 100 years old.

The scroll and peg box look well finished. There are no cracks or chips in that area. The inside of the pegbox is finished with some sort of flat black paint but it looks relatively smooth. Four wonderful strings stretch across the length of the violin waiting for a bow.

The back of the violin is smooth and creamy. Look carefully and you will see that the back is made of two pieces of wood. One of the corners of the c-ribs was chipped off and repaired. You can see the Stainer named branded at the base of the neck. It’s not a very deep branding but it’s there. You can see how deeply contoured the body is if you look at the reflections.

This violin is very loud, very bright, and very vocal! The sound of the open strings sound like they can pierce through a solid barrier in order to get a message across. It is precisely the sound I wanted. The challenge is controlling that sound. fiddlepogo mentioned to me in an e-mail that this violin will be honest with me. If I make a mistake it will tell me loud and clear! I have played this violin for a few days now and he was right. A lot of people may be turned off by this effect but I relish it. I want to know where I made a mistake so I can go back and practice that stroke or that transition or whatever it was I was doing when the error occurred. Some people may also want a more mellow violin for whatever music they normally play. It could sound shrill in some cases perhaps. That’s all a matter of taste though.

So, the bottom line here is that I take my hat off to Mr. Wickham at chicoviolins.com. He took good care of me and he was very patient with me. I would recommend his shop in a heartbeat!

I “sorta” bought a violin

I have to confess that I got caught up in a little bit of impulse shopping before I started this blog. A couple weeks ago I bought a violin from a seller on eBay. To be more precise, I “sort of” bought a violin. What I bought resembles a violin but it doesn’t seem to function as one… at least not very well. It meets almost all of my criteria from my previous post though.

1) European: The violin is a Soviet made instrument in a Moscow furniture factory. I count Moscow as a European city. Plus, being made in Moscow it scratches my Russophilia itch. I am always looking for something from my birthplace.

2) “Old”: I compromised on this one. It is has a date stamp of May 1989 which makes it only 22 years old. I would have wanted it to be older but we can’t win ’em all.

3) Whole: There are no cracks, dings, holes, or splits. It is solid which is what one would expect coming from a furniture factory.

4) Even: I wish I could answer this one but I can’t play it! Gaaah! This makes me want to add a 5th criteria which would be “Functional”.

So what doesn’t work? Specifically, it can’t hold it’s tuning. The tuning pegs slip pretty bad. As soon as I tune a second string, the first one pops out from its tuning! It’s like rolling a rock uphill only to have it roll down. I discovered this phenomena when I took it to a local luthier. It took him no more than 5 minutes before he asked, “Can you get your money back?”

Honestly, I’m not upset or frustrated. I knew I was taking a risk when I bought this violin and in this case my gamble didn’t pay off completely. Besides, this kind of stuff makes the adventure more interesting! I posted a little bit about this on the Fiddle Hangout forum. Here’s the whole story on receiving the violin.

The violin was decently packed by the seller. He charged me around $24 through eBay’s system and the USPS shipping stamp said $26. The box was big and of sufficient strength. I wouldn’t say it was pretty but it didn’t need to be. Thankfully it was shipped via USPS. I am a big fan of the USPS. They seem to put more care into the handling of packages.

The box was filled with packing peanuts from top to bottom. I hope this seller works for a company that throws these away like mine does. Packing peanuts are not alway cheap. I appreciated seeing so many of them here.

The violin came with a case. Personally, I would be very afraid of buying a violin online without one. What if the shipping box was crushed? What if it got drenched with some fluid that leaked?  I am always surprised at eBay auctions that say the violin doesn’t come with a case. Having a case is like a form of insurance. What’s the point on skimping on a case to save a few bucks only to lose a lot more money on a damaged violin?

The case is somewhat unusual because it is almost triangular in nature. All the corners are sharp. It makes it possible to stand up the case but it also means that the corners will be the first areas that will get worn or damaged. The case also has an unusual texture. It is covered in little squares with lines running through them. The squares are offset from each other and the lines inside follow the offset. In the right light the squares produce a weird polarized reflection pattern of light and dark. You can almost see it in the picture but it is much more dramatic in person.

Crack open the case and you will be greeted with a plush and fuzzy blue interior. It’s a bit overwhelming to see because it has a reflective quality to it. You almost forget that there’s a violin inside. Oh, wait! The violin! Yes, it’s in there. The seller placed a thin foam sheet under the strings and over the neck. There was also a piece of foam sheeting under the tailpiece. Finally, the violin was wrapped in a thin sheet of plastic bubble wrap and some cardboard. It sounds kind of flimsy but it worked out OK. The violin wasn’t shaking around or going anywhere.

It’s a full size 4/4 violin. I don’t know what the finish is but it looks like a thick, bumpy, yellow lacquer. This finish seemed to be pretty popular in the late 80s for the Soviet Union. My mother’s aunt mailed me a chess set in the mid-80s and it was covered in the same stuff. Maybe it was just cheap to make and easy to apply. Remember, this is Soviet Union we’re talking about here. They make violins in a furniture factory. You have to think about synergies here between building a kitchen table and violin. Using the same lacquer seems logical enough to me.

I don’t know what kind of wood it is made of but I imagine it’s nothing traditional or fancy. Everything is cut very rough and there appears to be very little work put into smoothing out the surface. You can see the roughness around the c-rib. My  local luthier says that these are signs of a machine made violin. Again, you have to remember this violin came out of the Soviet Union in 1989. Whatever machines they had were probably nothing more than big template tracers with rough milling bits on them. There were probably plenty of manual operations involved (like fixing whatever bandsaw was being used). The f-hole is also pretty bad. It almost looks like it was punched out instead of cut out. The notches in the middle don’t even go all the way through.

Continuing the Tour de Roughness, we look next at the scroll. You have to take the tuning pegs out to really appreciate just how rough it is inside. The entry point of the milling bit is obvious. What isn’t obvious to me is how the ramp up to the nut is so rough. It’s as if the milling bit was manually raised and then lowered to different points along the ramp to get the bulk of the wood out. Then the worker took a chisel and just hacked away at the resulting staircase. Yikes! Really? In some ways, this violin is so rough that it’s almost amazing and fun to look for all these features.

The last stop in our Journey of Roughness is the nut. It looks like something that was hand whittled with a pocket knife. Quite honestly, that could be exactly what happened. Someone needed employment and they were placed in this factory. This someone had no idea how to run any of the machines but they knew what the output should be. Being of little skill but of plentiful spirit they put this highly intoxicated person to work. A couple incorrect cuts were made “here” and “there” but there’s still plenty of room to make more.

More!

The fingerboard is not made of ebony or some other dark wood. It is definitely some kind of light wood that was heavily painted. The same goes with the tuners. The fingerboard has a chip on its underside and the chip exposes the natural wood color. Looking at the tuning pegs you can see the natural wood in the holes for the strings. You can also see how the tuner pegs have been radially compressed from the holes in the peg box and from the tension of the strings. This seems to indicate that they are made of some sort of soft wood. I would say that the wood is soft and porous. Being porous would help the wood absorb the black pigment better. It’s less likely to rub off that way.

One thing I didn’t mention much of is the documentation. It comes with a little booklet that is traditionally known as a “product passport”. Every official Soviet product had one. It signified that you are buying an official and legal product (vs. grey market or black market). It usually indicated the government set price, the government issued article (or product) number, which factory it was made in, etc. The document sounds fancy but it’s nothing more than cheap paperwork that someone stamps off on because they have to and not because they want to. I love the opening page. Here’s how I translated it.

“MMP

The Republican Industrial

Association of the Production of Musical

Instruments”

Followed by the logo… then, in bold caps…

“The Moscow Factory for

the Production of Musical

Instruments and Furniture”

The address and telephone number of the factory is given next and the word “passport” is drawn in beautiful cyrillic letters below the address. It begins the sentence below. All together it would say:

“Passport

for Bowed Musical

Instruments”

It sounds so formal, so serious, and so industrious. I can imagine a bureaucrat with a thousand medals on his chest reading these words slowly and thoughtfully in a deep and meaningful voice as he fights a hangover from the night before.

For as rough as this violin is, I don’t want to give up on it. This instrument wants to be a violin and I want to help it along. Maybe I’m just getting a spark in my head because I see a fun and interesting challenge ahead: making this instrument stable and playable. I have no idea what it really sounds like. If I’m going to consciously toss something aside then I’d like to do it knowing that I did all I could to make it right.