October 9, 2009

One of these things is not played like the other... Comparing period and modern violins (Part 2)

Now that we have some idea how a baroque violin is built differently than a modern one, we've asked David Wilson to explain the differences between playing period violins and modern violins:

"What makes a baroque violinist? Having period-appropriate equipment (violin and bow) is the beginning, but playing the baroque violin also calls for very different techniques than the modern violin.

"While watching the violin sections of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra perform, the first thing you might notice is that the baroque violin is held differently. The end of the violin rests on the player’s collarbone at one end and is supported by the player’s left hand at the other, rather than being held between the chin and the shoulder like a modern violin. The result is that the player’s head is free to assume a natural, relaxed position while playing."

Click to watch a video in which you can see how period violinists hold their instruments (you may recognize all of the musicians, they all perform with PBO!). Compare this to how modern violin teacher and professor Todd Ehle instructs his virtual students how to hold their instruments.

"The leader and soloist for PBO’s October concert set, violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch, is one of the leading proponents of the 'chin-off' approach to baroque violin playing, in which the player’s head never touches the violin. All changes of left-hand position are accomplished by means of a graceful ballet of sliding and pivoting.

"Another important difference lies in the way energy is transferred through the bow and onto the strings. Modern technique (using a modern bow) involves (to a certain extent) a 'levering' motion with the wrist and fingers of the right hand to press the hair of the bow against the strings. To do this ergonomically, the right elbow is characteristically held at about the same height as the wrist. In contrast, a baroque violinist thinks more about using gravity to transfer the weight of the right arm through the bow and onto the string. As a result, again for ergonomic reasons, baroque violinists tend to play with the right elbow noticeably lower than the right wrist."

Click here to listen to period violinist Rachel Podger explain some more of the differences between playing period and modern violins.

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