apr 16

Doing time with an infant violin

This post originally appeared on the ‘fiddlefish.com’ blog. It’s here for archival purposes only.


For the past three weeks, I have had the great opportunity to “break-in” a new violin from the workshop of Jeff Phillips. The opportunity was extended longer than anticipated and I will have the violin for its first months of development. The violin came looking as old as some of the Cremonese instruments I have played on; Mr. Phillips has an almost eerie gift for antiquing. It’s based on Strad’s golden period violins and shares a good number of similarities. The corners are quite pronounced and long; the upper button and the alignment pins sit at golden ratios; there is a slight tapering of the ribs; the varnish is seamless and golden; etc. My favorite aspect of it are the f-holes. They are beautifully crafted; the edge coloring makes them smile and pop, giving them some relief.

The front and back plates look so very solid; yet the violin weighs so relatively little for what I am used to. I got the sense that Mr. Phillips was quite pleased with his wood harvest for this violin when chatting him up, but I have yet to ask if he treated the wood to get it this light. My feeling is no. It’s obvious that he has access to fantastic materials. And why not! The twenty-first century ought to be the best time in which to hunt-down great wood.

With regard to playability, it’s been an experiment and work-in-progress. The violin has had some rather severe sea-changes already and I expect some more. At first, it would not speak on the upper D and G. But recently, that’s a non-issue. Generally, the violin is favorable in what I classify to be the important areas: responsiveness; timbre; evenness. All the four strings sound related and in the same “warm-sounding” genus. A scale from low G to high notes on the E string is seamless. The timbre is that of a Strad; a teenage girl with a cold (as best I can describe a Strad sound). Lastly, the responsiveness; I feel this can only be merited a bronze medal as of right now. It is responsive, but it’s not brilliantly so. Playing on the Molitor Strad earlier this year, for example, one did not need to allot time for each note to register; the violin was eager to ring on ever note before one brought the bow down. It’s not that I have to play slow with this violin, it’s just that some notes will get caught — like a fingernail in a quilt — and throw you off in fast passage-work. Legato work on this violin is an inspiration and joy — on the other hand. And I have only begun to explore this side of the violin. Eugene Ysaye said that cantabile is the most important role a violin plays. That said, this violin is fantastic.