Friday, October 3, 2014

Bridges...A Violin Post

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had started teaching private music lessons again. This has proven to be interesting and fun in many ways.

Some I expected. I always enjoy working with my students, seeing them go from little to no knowledge of an instrument to learning basic rhythms in just a few short weeks! Seeing the light bulbs go on as they recognize things, or something suddenly makes sense. 

Some ways, have surprised me. Like teaching in the age of mobile technology. At a lesson with one student, she brought her iPad so I could explain how to use the metronome app that I had recommended she download. I did and then we practiced with it together several times. 

She seemed more relaxed when we played her exercises together I noticed. So I asked her if she knew how to record sound only on her iPad (which, of course she did, she's nearly twelve after all). And I offered to record myself playing the exercises, so she could listen and play with them at home while she practices. She eagerly agreed, and she went home with an amazing tool that didn't even exist for me as a student. I had tapes that came with my Suzuki lessons, but I couldn't listen to my teacher play it, at the speed I needed to be able to practice at.

So I foresee some valuable applications of technology to bridge gaps that used to prove more challenging for both teachers and students. For example, considering that my/my mom's trusty wind up metronome is now a rusty broken one (an extremely sad discovery for me after unpacking it a few months ago, by the way), but I have no need to go buy a new one. There are about a dozen (probably more) free metronome apps available. And my pitch pipe is now my three-year old's flute, because I've had a variety of tuning apps on my phone for several years now. Several of which actually measure to the pitch of my instrument and tell me precisely when it is tuned to the proper tone. In fact, the app I currently have, is both a chromatic tuner and metronome in one! And it already goes with me wherever I go.

The drawback of our techno age however, is that it can feel all the more disappointing when we don't make video-game speed progression as we learn new skills. Learning an instrument takes time, plain and simple. My current students, however, are not deterred by this and have been making steady progress! 

One student, however, has an instrument that was being "temperamental". And it came to a head last week when we were questioning and examining everything, but clearly her efforts and technique were valiant and proper! While still somewhat of a beginner student, she has several years of playing, and on and off informal instruction.  After much observation I became convinced that it was in fact the violin that was out of sorts and definitely not the student. I had already suspected as much. I asked her to leave it with me for the week and I would see what I could do.

I had some significant suspicion about the bridge in particular. Primarily that it was too high. Four days of research, and a great deal of measuring eventually confirmed my suspicions. But now we had another problem. 

We do not have a luthier nearby. Not any closer than a two and a have hour drive, that is. Not to mention the fact that the repair itself would likely have cost as much as what her parents paid for the whole instrument.

After several long conversations with various mentors, and weighing the options, I explained the situation to her mom. And so, after obtaining her mother's permission, I embarked on a new challenge in my lifetime of music and instrument care. That of filing down a bridge by myself.

I gathered my supplies, which are actually incredibly basic and common.  
  • a ruler and measuring tape
  • my hubby's disc sander
  • 180 grit sand paper for the sander plus a short strip of the same grit for finishing, 
  • a wash cloth
  • a box blade
  • a spare bridge would have been ideal, but, since I did not have a spare - a small, slightly domed toy just a bit taller than the bridge itself made a decent substitute placeholder (height is more important than shape, though the bottom should be mostly flat, no sharp edges, not overly round as at least one string needs to be able to rest on it and hold it in place when tightened)

I secured the placeholder under two strings to ensure the sound post would not fall down once the bridge was removed.

I held the disc sander secure with one hand and repeatedly made passes over the sander with the top of the bridge, following the curve of the bridge carefully. 

When the top had satisfactorily been filed down to the desired height, I turned the bridge face down to taper the top of the bridge face. When I was happy with the even taper across the front, I made about two more passes along the top edge again, to even it out.

Next I used another bridge to mark where the grooves for the strings needed to go.

A box blade smoothly pressed into the wood, and when moved side to side to widen the grove just a bit, made easy work out of cutting the grooves.

A light touch up with sandpaper by hand made the face super smooth to the touch and easily removed any remaining pencil marks.

All done!
Next I placed the bridge back under the strings, positioned it back into it's upright position and re-tightened the G and E strings to hold it in place. Then I could release the placeholder. Before fully positioning the bridge, I used the sandpaper to very lightly sand the feet to mold to the body underneath. 

Then lots more measuring, tweaking, and micro-adjustments to make sure it was in just the right place. I tuned it up very carefully, and then played a variety of rhythms and songs to check that all the strings, tones, and finger positions were in tune and staying that way. 

The change in sound quality was amazing to me. It's astonishing that just a couple of millimeters extra bridge height was causing the sound to be distorted, making the instrument sound tinny and dull, putting extra pressure on the strings which was causing it to go out of tune even between notes, and making it nearly impossible to achieve proper finger placement due to having to press the string down with excessive effort. My student immediately commented on how much easier it was to press the strings down.

It passed the initial test, which was being able to remain decently in tune overnight and through our half hour lesson. Hopefully, that was the only cause of the difficulties. We shall see in the next few weeks. But no matter what happens, I certainly learned  a lot, and enjoyed the challenge!


  1. Excellent Job on the bridge work and Great Teaching skills. :)

    1. Aww, thanks! It was an exciting challenge. :)

  2. Wow! What you did for that student wasn't just fix her bridge, but you gave her practically a brand new instrument. Like you said in the post, she'll find things a lot easier to do and learn. She really has an opportunity to fly, thanks to your efforts. That's just so cool! Thanks for sharing this adventure.

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad it worked, I was really nervous. She is a good musician and really deserves the chance to see where her talents might take her, so I'm glad I could help fix her very moody instrument!

  3. Very impressive! And you listed it out so easily for all of us to attempt. :p Lol.