Caring for our instruments
‘Our instruments are a huge part of our lives. How they are sounding affects how we feel as players. We’re happy when they sound good and frustrated when they don’t,’ Gillian Ansell, viola player with the New Zealand String Quartet explains.
Looking after the instruments – their tools of the trade – is an important job for the Quartet. When you go to a concert, you probably only think about these things if a string breaks or you see one of the Quartet clearing a broken hair from their bow.
The stringy bits
Strings wear out – over time they can fray or start to unwind. The Quartet check them regularly and change them when they spot a problem. However, sometimes they break unexpectedly. This can happen if they rub against a rough spot on the bridge or the ‘nut’ of the fingerboard. And strings can’t always handle violent pizzicato!
Sometimes strings need to be changed because they ‘go false’. Helene explains that, ‘I know there’s a problem if the resonance of the string changes when you lift the bow off it. For example, if I am having a hard time tuning my violin, I test for this by playing a short note on an open string, while damping down the other 3 strings. If the pitch doesn’t stay true, then the string has “gone false” and needs to be changed.’
Even though the Quartet regularly replace the strings on their instruments, there can be surprises. For this reason, they keep ‘worn-in’ strings on hand. It takes about 90 seconds to change a string, except, Gillian says, in the middle of a performance ‘when it seems to take ages!’
Helene remembers a time when a breaking string saved a performance. ‘We were playing Schumann’s Quartet in A Major in Germany. In the middle of a soft section of the divine and touching slow movement, someone’s cellphone went off. Yikes! There went the atmosphere! And what do you know, a few bars later my E string snapped. I wasn’t playing loud, it wasn’t a pizzicato spot, the string just went. I think it knew we needed to make a “clean break”! So I went offstage, changed it, and we started the movement again. No cellphones this time, only a very special hush in the hall.’
Earlier this year, Rolf was rehearsing before an important concert in Ottawa. ‘I was jolted by an enormous snap sound while plucking – it was the first time in my life that a C string has broken while playing.’ The C string is the lowest and thickest string on a cello and the least likely to break. It can be up to 2 years before Rolf changes a C string, whereas he replaces the highest string on his instrument about every 2 to 3 months. He managed to find an old C string to replace it just in time for the concert.
When only the best will do
Shopping for the right equipment takes the place of souvenir-hunting, particularly when the Quartet is touring overseas. This involves long conversations with technicians and luthiers about the latest advances, trying out new strings, bridges, bows, rosin and other essential equipment. For example, Gillian’s viola case was hand-made in Cremona to her specifications – straight from the spiritual home of stringed-instrument makers.
Insuring against surprises
The regular maintenance of the Quartet’s instruments is the responsibility of Ian Lyons, a Wellington-based technician who is something of a hero for the quartet. Helene says, ‘We’re really lucky Ian decided to make his home in Wellington – he has great ears and makes our instruments sound their best.’
Ian sometimes helps with emergencies, but also does general maintenance including:
- re-hairing the bows about 3 times a year
- adjusting the sound post – the small round dowel that sits between the top and bottom of the instrument transferring the sound and supporting its structure, known in French as the âme, or soul, of a stringed instrument
- planing the finger board, which gets tiny hollows in it from fingers pressing on the strings
- replacing or re-seating the bridge.
Rolf concludes, ‘We have learned to treat our instruments like experienced mothers – the way we take them out of the case, the way we swing them in the air, the care we take when brushing off rosin. We choose the right strings, get a good sound-post set-up, check the string height and the condition of the fingerboard. It’s important to make sure the bridge is straight and that the resonance is helping us to play in tune. All this reflects how much we cherish our instruments – they give voice to our musical expression.’