The Evolution of the Violin

This is where science and music meet: how has the evolution of the violin’s shape and features affected its sound?

“How Did the Violin Get Its Shape?” – Science Friday

Science Friday asked Dan Chitwood, a plant biologist (as well as a violist), how the shapes of objects – both living and not – evolve with time. Learn what historical and cultural forces have (literally) shaped the violin, and hear his view on a big question: does the shape of a Stradivarius really produce a better sound?

“In a way, violin shape is acting a lot like a viral meme. Shape is changing with time, and as a biologist, I really wanted to know mechanistically, why is the shape is changing with time?”

Listen to Science Friday’s program: How Did the Violin Get Its Shape?


“How A Violin’s F-Holes Influence Its Sound” – ScienceNews

Why are the f-holes in violins shaped that way? MIT scientists studies how the shapes affect the airflow through a violin, and how the shapes affect the sounds of that violin. Similar to Chitwood’s study above, these scientists discovered that the f-holes of violins may have evolved over time for a distinct purpose: acoustic power.

“The calculations could explain why Amati violins, which have shorter f-holes and less reverberating power, are preferred in small chamber ensembles while Guarneri violins, with longer f-holes and more resonating power, are favored in larger ensembles and concert halls, the scientists say.”

Read story in ScienceNews: How A Violin’s F-Holes Influence Its Sound


And if all of this talk of violins has you in need of hearing some masterful violin playing, enjoy this video of Joshua Bell:

The Suzuki Method Debate

It’s not only a matter of O’Connor versus Suzuki, of “Boil ‘Em Cabbage Down” versus “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It’s a matter of honor: does the famous Suzuki method of teaching children to play violin have roots in an inaccurate or misleading biography? One composer, Mark O’Connor – who offers his own instruction technique – believes it does.

This New York Times story examines the current debate swirling around the Suzuki method, centering not only on the instructional method but on its founder, Shinichi Suzuki.

“The bitterly traded charges of deception and unfair attacks would have been right at home in a rough-and-tumble political campaign. In this case, though, the acrimony erupted in an area that is usually much more placid: the market for children’s violin lessons. It all began when the American violin virtuoso and composer Mark O’Connor, who started publishing his own instruction books several years ago, took aim at the giant of the field: the Suzuki method, known for teaching legions of children around the world to saw away at variations of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.'”

Read article on Violin World Yowls at Challenge to Fabled Teacher



Joshua Bell & the Subway, Part II: An Experiment of Beauty and Context

Seven years ago, The Washington Post attempted a social experiment. In a banal and busy setting, would people take time to appreciate an unexpected moment of extraordinary beauty? Their accomplice was Joshua Bell. Amid the DC morning rush, Joshua Bell (incognito under a baseball cap) would play classical masterpieces on his $3 million violin in the entrance of a Metro station. No promotion. No fuss. He would look like any other street performer. It was, as the Post put it, “art without a frame.”

The experiment’s question: how many people would stop to listen?

The unfortunate answer: Very few.

Bell fills symphony halls, of course. His name is paired with descriptors like “master,” “genius,” and even “superstar.” Interview magazine said Joshua Bell’s playing “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.” But on the day he performed anonymously in a DC subway station, 7 people stopped to listen. The number of people who scurried past him? 1,070.

This article has haunted me ever since. As a DC-area native who logged many years commuting via Metro, I knew that I likely would’ve been one of the harried commuters scurrying past Bell and his music. It would’ve taken no less than Bach himself dropping a harpsichord on my head to slow my morning rush. So I’ve spent the subsequent years atoning for my busy ways. I remind myself to seek unexpected beauty, to search for the extraordinary amongst the ordinary. Perhaps it’ll be  a song, a sunset, a great laugh… or, God willing… Joshua Bell unexpectedly playing violin from a nearby doorway.

While I have appreciated many random moments of beauty, I have not – alas –  happened upon Joshua Bell and his violin. Yet.

If you live in DC, however, you can have another shot at your Joshua Bell moment. Bell has given DC an opportunity to redeem itself – he will play in Union Station during the lunch rush on September 30, 2014. Not only does this grant DC a wonderful do-over, it promotes a cause: music education. Nine students from the National YoungArts Foundation will be with him. DC folks, for the love of all things beautiful, go. Stop. Listen.

For those of us not in DC, we can learn from the original Joshua Bell experiment in the video below. It can be torturous to watch and even more torturous to ask yourself the hard question: given the same scenario, would you have stopped to listen? Or would you be among the 1,070 people scurrying past?

And then go out and notice something beautiful. Art without a frame. It’ll be there. It’s just up to us to slow down to notice.


Read the excellent Washington Post piece about the original experiment: Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.

Update, October 1, 2014: Joshua Bell was far less lonely performing in a DC train station this time around. Watch his incredible performance in Union Station, filmed by PBS NewsHour:

Karen Gomyo

“I think [Classical Public Radio] is extremely important because classical music needs as much exposure as possible. I’m always amazed at how many people never came across classical music… and actually how many people really enjoy it…  It makes me realize that it’s really a question of exposure.” 
– Karen Gomyo, Violonist

Josefowicz Wins Genius Grant

josefowicz.jpgToday the MacArthur Foundation which awards prestigious “genius grants” to individuals who excel and show potential in their fields announced 25 new Fellows today. Among them are a couple of folks who seem to be helping to redefine our notion of what classical music is all about.
Violinist Leila Josefowicz who is only 30 is getting one for broadening her instrument’s repertoire and juxtaposing the avante-garde with the traditional. As the MacArthur Foundation’s site notes, not only is she introducing noteworthy new works, she’s also inspiring them.
The other recipient is Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, who is working to broaden our appreciation of classical music and put it into the the context of our modern lives through his writings. We link to his blog, The Rest is Noise, right here at Classical Musings. Just look in the right column. Ross doesn’t draw boundaries between what is classical and what isn’t. Instead he looks at the continuum of music throughout the ages and writes about the connection between artists as different as Bob Dylan and Mozart.
It seems to me that learning to look at classical music through the lens of today in ways similar to Josefowicz and Ross makes a lot of sense and can only benefit the art form. What do you think? And do you think awarding these two winners their $500,000 prizes and giving them such honors will make a difference to the art form in the future? If you won $500,000 for 5 years, would you invest it in changing the face of classical music? Or take care of that leaking roof? Let us know.