Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My Quest for a Great Rosin

Rosin is essential for playing the fiddle. A good rosin allows the bow’s horse hair to grip the strings as it passes over them. Without rosin no sound emerges. Or, if it does, it comes out in bleeps and squawks. Not a pretty sound.
Virtually any rosin can give your bow enough grip to play. And, in fact, many advanced players regard rosin with indifference. My first teacher actually said, “Oh, any rosin will do. They’re all the same.”
A wide variety of rosins exist and the different properties of each do make a difference.
As I write this, I have around me 5 different rosins and if I took the time I probably could find a couple more stuck in a corner somewhere. None of these 5 are bad. Each does what it must do. But some do it better than others. Some make my sound better -- to my ear at least. 
And this last point is important. Sound quality has both an absolute and a relative aspect. 
One either hits the note or not. Most would consider that an absolute. But the violin, without frets, will make a note that is more or less at pitch. And here the relative aspects emerge. 
As our ears ‘bloom’ -- become more sensitive to sound -- what is considered OK changes. If a beginner hits a B, she should be content. Yes, it may be a bit flat, but no matter. A few months later, the student plays the same piece, hits the note in the same ‘old’ way and feels a kind of aesthetic discomfort that the note is wrong. And makes the needed adjustment.
This is normal. Hopefully, our student had a good teacher -- one who doesn’t go all medieval when the first note is badly played. Ain’t no good demanding perfection prematurely. It just won’t work.
But, anyway, back to rosin.
My first rosin was the no-name brand that came with my first instrument. It worked. I made a sound. Groovy.
But after a while I began to suspect I could do better and tried another brand. Something from my neighborhood music store -- you know, the one in the Mall that has a 1000 guitars, 50 electronic pianos and a stack of band instruments and, oh yea, those 3 violins over there in the corner.
I noticed that this new rosin played a bit different than the other rosin. 
So, I began to find out all I could about rosin. 
-- don’t ask! Too much information (TMI!).
Next, I tried Super Sensitive Clarity -- not quite an impulse buy -- because it was a “Hypoallergenic Rosin” -- says so right on the container. The block seemed hard and didn’t really  go onto the bow easily. I used a knife to scar the surface of the rosin block -- a clear translucent surface with a look quite different from other rosins. That seemed to help. But the result never sounded right to my ear. It worked. But…. 
About this time the internet was abuzz with positive reactions to Tartini Rosin. I ordered this from my nice internet suppliers and in a few days the friendly folks from UPS dropped it at my door. 
Now THIS is what rosin is all about! It went smoothly onto the bow creating a wonderfully resonant surface. I could notice the difference! I used my block Tartini ‘Silkier’ for about a year. 
Then one day I dropped it.
Did I mention that rosin tends to fragility?
Well, it does.
It didn’t shatter exactly, but it did break into several pieces and separate from it’s attachment to it’s container. 
It still worked like a dream, but now I had a bit of a clunky time getting it onto the bow. 
Also, about this time, I decided (again) to experiment with different strings. In a moment of questionable sanity, I put a set of gut strings onto my fiddle. And learned what a real violin sounds like. I also learned how often I had to retune (every few minutes). And, frankly, that’s not what I like to do during practice time.
But, since a set of gut strings is expensive, I wasn’t about to pitch them, so I bought new rosin…. 
And yes I know that makes no sense, but the brain on music has strange notions sometimes!
I tried Pirastro Eudoxa Rosin.
Good stuff. Pirastro makes strings -- they make some pretty good strings. They also promote the idea that different strings call for different rosin. I have come to believe they just may be correct in this. And, for the gut strings, at least, the Pirastro was as good as the (now clunky container-ed) Tartini.
But, since spending most of my life tuning my strings up (or down, depending on the direction of the temperature and humidity change) was NOT part of my long range plan, after a few months I said farewell to gut and tried to find something as pleasant to hear and play as gut, but without the need for constant retuning.
Now my instrument is an old German -- well over 100 years (perhaps a lot more) and, along with many old Germans (instruments, at least) it has a warm dark sound. The idea of the steel strings -- without a core of either plastic, gut or other material that might change with temperature and humidity -- seemed worth a try.
I tried a set of chroma-steel strings from Jargar. These definitely tend to a bright sound which helps balance the inherent dark sound of my Tedesco. And they are rock solid stable! Sometimes I tweak the tuning just because I think I ought, even when they are pretty much in tune.
And, anyway, the Jargars come from Denmark and have a nice exotic ring to the name.
Only now I realized -- again -- that I wasn’t quite pleased with my rosin. But, since I already had so many barely used blocks of rosin, it seemed a really bad idea to buy still another. And I did still like the Tartini, despite the challenge of finding a convenient chunk at any one time. 
I checked the internet, hoping that rumors that the Tartini had been discontinued were false.
The rumors were true. The fellow who had developed the original Tartini formula (with a wonderful story of finding a tiny 400 or 500 sliver of exotic rosin in a case stuck centuries in an attic); that fellow had now developed a whole line of rosins under his own name. But reviews were mixed and the price had become exorbitant. $25 for a small bit of rosin! Nope. I’ll struggle along with what I have, thank you.
Then I noticed that another player whom I really respect used W. E. Hill rosin. Noticeable as a slab of black colored rosin with deep grooves from years of rubbing. When W. E. Hill says dark rosin, they mean it. I picked up a block and resisted the temptation to take a bite to see if it tasted as much like licorice as it looked.
This stuff works with my strings on at least two of my bows. I’ve had it long enough to believe I will stay with it for a while. 
But if I could just find something that plays as well as the Hill dark, but lasts even longer without needing to be replenished….

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