Ways of Hearing (written in 2012 for Amati)
Roger Hansell is a violin maker whose business is based in the beautiful county of North Yorkshire. He is known worldwide for his acutely observed copies. Sound has always held a fascination for him, building his own record player and listening to music on highly specialised 1960’s electrostatic speakers. He works closely with musicians during every step of the making process to recreate the characteristics of the original instruments and hone in on the particular effects that the musician is searching for.
Ways of Hearing.
Listening to a good musician play the violin is a deceptive business. Deceptive because it is full of allure and the best musicians are masters at creating beguiling sounds. Our ears are willingly complicit in the deception; given the correct cues they are more than happy to feed the brain with testimony of the beautiful thing they are hearing. All of which is great if you are at a concert, but less useful if you are a violin maker trying to get the most out of an instrument and attempting to listen critically and objectively to different facets of sound. A necessary ability if they are to make the adjustments that ensures an instrument performs optimally.
Part of the trouble, is that our brains are used to doing very complicated things. In the case of listening for a foot fall, for example, where the slightest change such as a twig breaking allows us to deduce what is happening, as the brain `fills in the story` and makes the sound meaningful. So, similarly in multiple listening to any snippet of sound – particularly in trying to listen critically to an instrument – the brain fills in what is missing and makes the sound complete. This can all too easily mean that familiarity, far from breeding contempt breeds contentment but it is a duplicitous and idle ease. To be objective we have to guard against this `story telling` aspect of the brain, but if we can once train ourselves to step back and identify the individual changes in sound, we can do the same when listening to our violins.
The little trick that I use to stay fresh in listening, is to take single fragments and listen repeatedly for just one thing – an individual component – so that we are not really concerning ourselves with the whole shape of the sound but just with one detail of it. So sometimes I may listen to how quickly the sound rises against the length of its decay. To stay alert during this it’s good to keep resetting the ears by listening to birds, for example, or finding a quiet or even a noisy part of the workshop. Listening to the tick of a clock is often quite good. Even an annoying fly buzzing around puts us in a different sound world which can be helpful for then listening afresh – like a sorbet clarifying the ear. I might start listening for individual features of the sound in no particular order for example, speed and attack or carrying power and cutting ability. How both the brightness and darkness of sound are discernible is another thing I listen for. So now, maybe we’re sitting comfortably, we’ve charged our ears with sounds of distant birdsong and the listening can begin.
If the first thing I’m on the lookout for is speed of attack, I might begin by making clucking noises ( the workshop is used to it!) and rehearsing the difference between the sounds of the words ‘sit’, ‘bit’ and ‘tit’, so as to tune up my ears to the staccato sounds on the violin. Trills are also a very good way of testing this kind of thing and I’ll have a notepad with me so that the moment an observation is made I write it down. That way the mind is not busy trying to remember but can concentrate and relax, knowing that the observation is safely stored.
These quick staccato, spiccato sounds are also a very important indication of the ability of a violin to articulate the clear intentions of the player. So one of the ways I check, is by going away, to a distant part of the workshop, often even behind a door and listening to how clearly and quickly the sounds come through. The best violins still sound consistent and legible from far away. The next thing I listen for might be to test the dynamic range. It is not just a question of pianissimo versus forte – any violin can play quietly and loudly. What’s important is that the essential core and quality of the sound is still not lost at either end of the dynamic extremes. To test this, I get the musician to make the most diminutive noise they can possibly produce with the tip of the bow well down from the bridge and I ask myself whether what I hear is still rounded and satisfying or whether, in reality, my mind is filling in too many gaps in the deceptive way I have described. One of the telltale signs of `gap-filling` will be if we experience a sense of aspiration rather than fulfillment. If the sound is trying to be something else – something over and above what it actually is – then that’s a clear sign of trouble. A sense of yearning – almost there but not quite – means that the brain is at work, trying to hear what isn’t actually there and then you know that there’s more to do on the instrument! Similarly, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the richest and most vigorous sounds the instrument can make should be complete in themselves and not leave you wishing for anything more powerful or resonant.
Testing for wolf notes on a violin is really just a laborious slog. Going up and down the G string, perhaps in micro-tones, trying to find if there’s an area that isn’t speaking quite as it should be, is of course, difficult with new violins where everything moves around so much in the early stages. If the wolf was once short of a C#, it might move over the course of a testing and also surprising things like changing the chinrest can alter nodal points and the ensuing wolf. Though changing a chinrest can give an apparent answer by altering the nodal point, the underlying problem is of course still there. Altering the set up, moving the sound post, changing the flexibility of the bridge can all offer more permanent solutions.
I’ve always found the high A and E strings challenging to my ears which are more naturally attuned to lower frequencies. But, as the high strings are often the most expressive, they are crucially important. I’ve found that the most useful thing for me is to think of the sounds in terms of metals; gold, silver, steel, titanium. Maybe this is partly because I – and often my clients – are familiar with those materials. Gold stays bright and we recognise it instantly – it doesn’t discolour with age. Silver on the other hand does, but even when it’s discoloured and black, the material is still quite lustrous. Steel is subject to all kinds of degradation, oxidising and rusting whereas titanium is lustrous and silvery white but very light in weight. When listening to the very nicest E string sound, I try to imagine it in terms of one of these metals. Sometimes I can feel that a gold sound perhaps would be brighter and more two-dimensional than a silvery one though without some layers of interest analogous to slightly tarnished silver. The thing is that there is a sort of accepted high E string sound, which to my mind is an amalgam mostly of gold and silver. Steel and titanium are there but in distinct quantities contributing to a `perfect` violin sound.
The need to be objective as far as possible in our observations by referencing familiar sounds, materials like silver, or absolutes like speed in articulation, stems from trying to maintain a high international standard in the final violin. I believe that whilst there are personal choices about which violin suits an individual player, there is certainly such a thing as a `good` violin sound and a `bad` violin sound. A good violin is one that always works without any of the faults that we’ve been talking about; obtrusive and uncontrolled wolf notes, lack of clarity and so on. But it’s also something else more mysterious and more to do with the connection between a particular player and a particular instrument. To make our listening really useful we have to be brutally honest, which is not easy, because we naturally want our instruments to suit everyone, but only a fool would expect them to do so. It is sometimes extraordinary how differently an instrument can behave with a different player. The trick lies in discerning the almost mystical connection between the two and maximising this unique and telling union.