The Violin's Stagnant History
Sep 5, 2019
This is an ongoing series detailing one librarian’s journey to learn an instrument using Artistworks from RBDigital, available freely through Greater Clarks Hill Regional Library. Their experiences should not be taken as universal.
These are the tales of Brunky, a 1976 German-made Scherl & Roth student violin, and me – the person who does the library webpage.
The initial lessons from Darol Anger cover the most basic aspects of the instrument – tuning, posture, and the like. I have reached the point where I’m playing open strings. Slowly, to work on bow technique. It takes thirty-two seconds for one repetition of the exercise at sixty beats-per-minute, which is how Mr. Anger recommends performing the practice, and fifteen minutes is a good rule of practice time. Accordingly, this is thirty repetitions of the exercise.
This gives abundant time to think about the instrument and its history in general. When I take an interest in something I tend to throw myself into it, and my pure frustration with tuning the violin got me started down the rabbithole of why violins are like…that.
Violin tuning pegs are not geared, they instead use friction to stay in place. This is not a reliable system, and I would really like to speak with someone in charge about it. The closest thing to someone in charge, unfortunately, has been dead for three hundred years.
Antonio Stradivari was an Italian luthier of the late 17th and early 18th centuries who revolutionized the way violins were made. His violins were larger, designed from the inside-out, and to this day have not been duplicated for sound or projection. Not for lack of trying – almost every modern violin is a copy of a Stradivarius model. If not Stradivarius, then his contemporary Giuseppe Guarneri is used as the blueprint for the modern violin. Both used friction pegs, so we use friction pegs today.
Do they work better than any other option?
No. Absolutely not.
Friction pegs are dreadful. To get precise tuning with friction pegs borders on impossible; many violins now have additional fine tuners at the tail to help get the strings in tune. Several luthiers have created improved tuning mechanisms – largely systems using planetary gears inside seemingly normal friction pegs to allow for precision tuning and remove the issues of the tuner slipping out of place. Ned Steinberg, best known for the headless basses of the ‘80s and ‘90s, has also created an alternate system which eliminates the need to wind the strings around any kind of post at all, instead leveraging the string’s own tension to hold it in place and in tune.
And yet, there’s resistance to change, because friction pegs – which require continual adjustment – are what have always been used. Just as Stradivari’s violins are duplicated. Innovation is a slow process, and always faces opposition. In the end, it’s the depletion of forests where the dense woods needed for friction pegs that may cause a change – as the wood becomes rarer, the pegs become more expensive, until economics forces a move to the mechanical pegs made of aluminum and plastic, just as carbon fiber is beginning to replace the traditional Pernambuco wood bows. So it goes.
Brunky is a Stradivarius copy, like most violins. He also uses friction pegs, and honestly if he was both actually mine and not borrowed, and had cost more than $50 to start with (seriously, my new bow cost more than this violin), I’d get some planetary tuners installed as friction pegs are trying my patience. The short length and relatively high tension of the strings drag the friction tuners out of place frequently, and whomever had last strung the violin did a poor job. However, Brunky is what I have to work with, and I’m growing affection towards him.