String Instruments & Accessories

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June 14, 2018

Modern Italian violins and Antonius Stradivari

molitor-strad-finalWe often get asked about the origin of violins and cellos and, of course, the name Antonius Stradivari inevitably come up – seemingly the only well-known Italian violin master, of which there were many!

Bowed instruments had been made and played for centuries, but there is little doubt that the violin we recognize today originated in the mid-1500’s from the town of Cremona in Italy. Probably the first maker in Cremona to offer a recognisable instrument was the master luthier Andrea Amati who died in 1661. Many members of the Amati family continued to make violins, but the most famous was Andrea’s grandson, Nicola Amati. Nicola enlarged the small pattern used by his father and added refinements which are copied to this day. From his workshop, Nicola passed his knowledge on to two well-known makers Stradivari and Guarneri, who also refined and stamped their own genius on the construction of fine instruments. Antonius Stradivarius stands out supreme as the master, who made Violins, Violas, Cellos, and even Guitars – and so well known to anyone who is interested in the violin family. Other famous makers, however, emerged in Cremona, including the famous Carlo Bergonzi  the ‘makers, maker’, for such was his skill that modern luthiers study his instruments to this day.

Thus, Cremona quickly become the home of the most famous instruments throughout Europe and elsewhere, and this ‘Golden Age’ of violin making produced the greatest violins the world has ever known. Played by many famous soloists they continue to fascinate and enthral – and also fetch huge sums of money if and when they are ever offered for sale.

By the middle of the 18th century, Amati, Stradivari, Guarneri and Bergonzi were gone and Cremona lost its pre-eminence and prominence as a violin making centre. Other towns in Italy and abroad, often trained at Cremona, became more prominent. Turin became the next great Italian centre of violin making, followed by Venice, Parma, and Milan, all basically following the pattern laid down by the old Cremonese masters. Other famous Italian makers those instruments are sought after to this day – Gagliano, Gasparo da Salo, Maggini, Guarneri and Montagnana, to name just a few, and each stamped their individual genius on their instruments

In the 19th century there arose a huge industry in Germany and France to satisfy the greatly increased demand worldwide for good instruments at acceptable prices. These were exported throughout the world well into the 20th century to England, all the British colonies, USA and, indeed within Europe itself. These well-made workshop instruments emanating from many centres including Miracourt in France, Mittenwald and Markneukirchen in Germany, impacted on the Italian violin market, where instruments were still being hand-crafted by individual makers rather than on an industrial scale – and Italy lost its prominence for centuries.

The tradition, however, lived on as modern makers in Italy still focus on individual hand-craft techniques and Cremona has become once again a prestigious violin making centre. Using the patterns of the ‘golden age,’ with meticulous workmanship and skilful selection of superior tonewoods, makers are producing instruments that would impress even the great masters!  Thus, violins from Cremona and other centres in Italy are held in high esteem by today’s players, and regularly fetch the highest prices in the auctions

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April 12, 2018

Buying a new case

Buying a new case can be a daunting task.

Many student or intermediate violins, violas, cellos, and basses can be purchased as part of an outfit that includes a case that is usually consistent with the quality of the instrument; these cases generally offer very adequate protection and durability at an economical price.

If, however, you’ve come by an instrument that doesn’t have a case, you’re looking to upgrade your case for something more protective or if your current case is simply failing apart, the following notes may be of assistance – It is, after all, one of the most important accessories you can purchase for your stringed instrument.

The Shape: Perhaps the first factor to consider is the case shape that’ll work best for you. Violin and to a lesser degree viola cases come in a few shapes: oblong, ‘violin’ shaped, ‘D’ shaped or dart-style and most manufacturers will vary even these to a certain degree such as the BAM slim violin case. Violin Shaped and dart cases are usually very lightweight; these are often the cases that beginners and students choose. They’re usually available in fractional sizes and are easy on the wallet. Most makers such as BAM and GEWA are, however, now making more and more top-quality cases in the shaped version as musicians become more space and weight conscious.

Oblong cases, or rectangular cases, afford more room for accessories and are usually preferred by intermediate and advanced players. Although shaped cases tend to be lighter and easier to carry, you do have more room for accessories with an oblong case and often provision for more bows. The extra space is particularly relevant when considering how important it is to carry a shoulder rest with you.

Exterior Materials and Features: Cases today are made from a variety of materials, some are covered with a heavy-duty cordura canvas material, others are made of plastic or Carbonfiber and don’t have a covering. The canvas covering is a lightweight material which is scratch and tear resistant and provides decent protection against the elements. Carbon fibre is extremely hard wearing and also adds to the lightness of the case but tends to also add to the price.

Most cases nowadays have decent straps. Back straps are an important consideration, especially if you are going to be walking or cycling for miles. Oblong cases quite often will have a full length music pocket which may include an accessory organizer. If you travel by tube or public transport a lot, a subway handle (on the end for vertical carrying) can be very useful.

Closure or latch mechanisms vary depending on the case and there are distinct likes and dislikes about the different options – best to try them. Cordura covered cases often have a flap over the central catch to give an extra shield against the elements. Consideration – am I likely to be caught in the rain?

An important note about cello cases – some cello cases come with built-in wheels and you should decide whether this is an important feature for you: they can be handy in big colleges or airports. On the other hand bumping a case long a gravel drive can cause the cello harm so consider your needs carefully. Most cello cases would have decent back straps or you can purchase an extra such as the BAM backpack to attach to the case.

Construction: The type (or types) of material used in the skeletal, or hidden, construction of the case directly affects the weight of the case as well as the durability and protection the case provides. Commonly used shell materials include foam, styrofoam, cellular foam, plywood, styrofoam reinforced plywood, laminated wood, injected/molded foam, foam/plywood combination, and in some cello cases an AIRTEX cellular skeleton. Gewa have an aluminium bar running the full length to protect the cello while BAM boast their ultra-strong triple ply structure. Pedi steel shield have a unique steel film in the lid making the case extremely protective.

Interior Materials and Features: Instrument case interiors can range from simple and functional to having all the bells and whistles. Whatever your selection may be, it’s important that your instrument fits securely in the case as ultimately its about protection! This is generally not a problem since most instruments and cases are standard sizes; however, if your violin, viola, cello or base has atypical dimensions eg a wider or narrower bottom bout, it does limit the choice and best to seek advice. If you have a small cello in a full size case the fractional size pads help in keeping it from moving about.

Most cases would have neck restraints; a properly secured neck strap will protect the neck of the instrument and reduce movement during transit.

Violin and viola cases are often described as being suspension or non-suspension cases. Suspension cushioned cases have a raised shelf (or shelves) that suspends the back of the instrument approximately an inch off the bottom of the case. This can provide added protection and is often recommended for violins and violas with delicate varnish. Non-suspension cases often feature an injected foam cushion molded to the shape of the instrument. These cases have a snug fit that holds the instrument securely in place. Most violin and viola cases would have an instrument blanket.

Additional case features may include between two and four bow spinners (or holders), accessory compartments, hygrometers for humidity level monitoring, string storage tubes, and vapor bottles for increasing case humidity. One we would highlight is the hygrometer – if you do travel widely and it is likely you will be going from warm to cold to damp to dry conditions, it is advisable to have a built in hygrometer to keep a watch on the humidity.

This is a whistle stop tour of cases and clearly doesn’t cover every possibility of every case. At Caswells we have in excess of 200 cases in stock and nothing beats bringing your instrument along and trying it in a selection until it finds the perfect companion! Failing that, give us a call and we’re glad to be of help.

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April 06, 2018

Should a beginner upgrade the strings on a student Violin or Cello?

Should a beginner upgrade the strings on a student Violin or Cello?

Just been asked the question, and the answer is yes, the better the strings the easier it will become to make a good sound, even before you have begun!

This especially applies to adult beginners! You have bought the best instrument you can afford and happily avoided any of the cut-price VSO’s made of plywood. If you have spent up to £175, chances are that the instrument is strung with poor quality factory strings. Upgrading then is definitely recommended. If cost is a factor there are now some very good and inexpensive wound strings for example Alphayue or Ascente which greatly improve beginner instruments. The old favourites Piranito or Dominant are always recommended and will always make a marked difference to student instruments. It also makes sense to learn from the start how to restring an instrument and how to tune it.

If, on the other hand you have bought a better instrument then it will undoubtedly be strung with upgrade strings in any case but not necessarily – it is always good to ask the question.

For young children starting out on their first instrument the guidelines are perhaps not so rigid. Again, if you have purchase a small low-cost instrument it would certainly improve playability to upgrade the strings, but many parents opt to give the child a few months trial first. Once they have got past ‘Twinkle twinkle…’ and are putting in some reasonably serious practice – the time has come to upgrade. The strings named above do offer small sizes, and it is very important to stick to the correct sizing. The marked improvement in sound often gives a renewed impetuous to carry on.

Teach them from the beginning how to tune because over tuning can result in broken strings, which is a pity when you’ve just spent £45 on a new set. One recommendation is to invest in a clip-on tuner which helps tuning correctly an easy job. I note that some teachers even leave the tuner on the instrument to help with intonation rather than use dots on the fingerboard, but that could be cumbersome on the tiny instrument.

Whatever the route taken just be sure to get well set-up instruments which have had the bridge properly set, the pegs moving smoothly and decent strings fitted.

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April 06, 2018

How to Tune Your Violin or Viola

A very useful video on How to Tune you Violin or Viola by D’Addario.

Key points are:

Tune quietly – if you over-bow or over pluck it may distort the sound and be incorrect

Tune slowly – the cause of most breakages, especially on new instrument is over tensioning the string. If you tune slowly until you are just above pitch and then bring it back you will avoid snapping the string.

Tune frequently – practice makes perfect and makes playing more enjoyable!

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February 02, 2018

Cello sizes for young players and smaller adults

Just off the phone from a mum who wants her son to begin playing Cello. Obviously the first question fired at me is, ‘what size must I get’? After a lengthy explanation and details such as age etc, I finally asked her son’s height – which turned out to substantially less than even an average child of that age. I had to start the whole process over again, learning once again that age is not a good guide to choosing a Cello size, especially with our diverse population in the UK.

What then to look for? Through the years we have put forth various theoretical approaches to this question using age, height, length of arm and hand size, which are all very pertinent. But here I intend to stick my neck out and say that the only safe and sure way, is to get the Cello into playing position with the pupil.

Get him seated so that his (I hate his/her, so will alternate!) legs are parallel to the floor and the knees bent at 90 degrees – some prefer a slight tilt so that the knee is actually lower than the hips. Get the cello with spike out so that the lower bouts are clasped between her knees with the lower curve tucked into her left knee. If the size is correct the upper rim of the body should rest easily on the breast bone, at an angle of 45 degrees.  The tuning pegs will be more or less level with the left ear, especially the lower peg.

This should suffice to get an idea of the correct size, except only for a final check, using the arm and hand size. The left hand should clasp easily around the neck and the fingers be able to reach easily to the C string. Should her hands be exceptionally small you may have to consider a smaller Cello.

It is common sense to check this with your teacher as some have very strong views on the subject. I, on the other hand sometimes, depending on age (Say 12-ish!) and when they are considering moving from ½ (which he has been on for far too long) to ¾, may advise parents to go full size – within reason.

Alternatively consider hiring the next size (3/4) to bridge the gap until you are ready for full size

Adults of smaller stature are catered for as well. Here is photo showing five sizes of Cello for adult players. They are on level stand to convey the relative sizes. The first is a rather big ‘Rogeri’ copy, the second (still full size) is standard ‘Strad copy’ labelled Johan Stohr; the third is a slim and slender ‘Guadagnini’ copy by Hidersine; the third is a 7/8 Cello by Westbury and finally a ¾ Elysia.

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January 16, 2018

The New Larsen Virtuoso for Viola – A Complementary Balance

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The New Larsen Virtuoso for Viola – A Complementary Balance – Available soon

If something works then why change it? Since its original launch back in 1995, the Original Larsen Viola A string has become almost the default choice for viola players.

Offering  excellent projection  with  a  broad  spectrum  of  sound  colours  combined  with  a  long  lasting and consistent performance.

With the development of our new Virtuoso Viola strings, launched in January 2018, the focus has been upon creating a new offering for viola D, G and C, built upon the firm foundations of the tried and trusted A string.  Finding a balance of qualities to complement and mutually enhance something old with something new:

‘A golden, open and clear tone with a nice balance of warmth and brilliance.’

The  new  Virtuoso  for  Viola,  available  as  individual  strings  or  as sets  in  Medium and  Soloist  variants,  achieves  that  complementary  balance.  The Medium set delivers a rich sound texture whilst the Soloist is more focused and brings greater volume to the instrument.

Please note: The Original A string, medium is supplied as the ideal partner for both Virtuoso Medium tension and Soloist combinations packaged as sets.

String Details

The Original Viola A string is based upon a solid steel core, wound with precision rolled stainless steel flat wire. The Virtuoso Viola D, G and C strings build upon a synthetic multi-filament core and are wound with pure silver

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December 14, 2017

I have Grandpa’s old violin – is it worth fixing?

I have Grandpa’s old violin – is it worth fixing?

We have written something about this earlier but here are further details and tips on how to evaluate your instrument. The above question I have heard more times than I can shake a stick at. Often, sorrowfully, it is Grandpa himself who has throughout the years treasured his ‘Stradivarius’ violin – only to be told that it is a very good German copy from the last century! Nice enough violins in their own right but not worth the untold thousands of pounds that was anticipated. So how to go about making the decision to put the old violin up for sale and, quite frankly, who can you trust anyway? In the world today, there are only a handful of real experts who are qualified to evaluate a really classic old ‘master’ violin – so in this article we are only treating of the multitudes of German and French workshop fiddles that flooded out of Europe during the 19th and early 20th century

Put very simplistically the quality of workmanship will be the thing to look for which will tell you if your violin is worth taking in to the shop and getting an experienced eye to evaluate it. There are also numerous websites where you can read all about it – but have the following information to hand

  1. The Back – Take a general look and get a feel for the instrument and then turn it over and look at the back. Is it a one-piece or two piece back? Is the wood (usually maple) nicely flamed and are there signs of wear where patches of varnish have been worn through. Is the button well-made and symmetrical?
  2. Check the purfling back and front. This is the thin black line which is (usually) inlaid around the edge, following the outline of the instrument and neatly into the corners. This should be even and well worked. It is easy to see if this has been done carefully but check for ‘drawn-on’ or painted purfling which is often a giveaway
  3. The Front. Now go to the front and again examine for careful workmanship to the corners, and the F holes which should be carefully made and matching. Look at the quality of wood. The grain should be even and narrow or perhaps widening out to the edges – indicating a fine choice of wood. Look at the fingerboard – are there signs of wear indicated by a pale wood appearing through the black. This indicates that the fingerboard has been painted black and is not true ebony
  4. Look carefully at the side or ribs for evenness and good workmanship. At the button end has it been well finished off and the ribs well aligned
  5. The scroll is often an obvious sign that a violin is good and has been well made. Is it symmetrical and well executed curving cleanly towards the pegbox? Are there still chisel marks and does the fluting continue all the way round or do the grooves just disappear. The quality of the scroll carving does not affect the tonality the instrument, but is a very good marker that the violin is a good one because makers often made a point of paying attention to this detail.
  6. Lastly, with a strong light behind you peer down through the ‘f-hole’ and see if you can see a label. This may or may not be genuine but is an overall component of the evaluation process. There are literally thousands of ‘Strads.’, ‘Amatis’ and the like out there, but if, fortuitously, your violin carries the name of one of the famous German or French makers it is certainly worth seeing to.
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November 29, 2017

Caswells Christmas Prize Givaway 2017

Our Christmas Prize Givaway 2017 is running from the 24 November until Christmas Eve 24 December 2017. Any orders placed on or between these two dates will be entered in a prizedraw* to win one of 20 fabulous prizes worth in excess of £1000 combined.

Every order has an equal chance of winning and the winning orders will be drawn on the 27th December 2017. Winners will be notified by email.

Caswells Christmas Prize Givaway 2017 prizes:

1 x set of Peter Infeld Violin strings (Supplied by Hidersine, Barnes and Mullins)

1 x EDM-1 plus a BAND pickup for violin (Supplied by Headway Music Audio)

1 x P&H  carbon composite violin bow (Supplied by Stentor Music)

1 x set Larsen Virtuoso violin strings (Supplied by The Sound Post Ltd)

1 x set Larsen Crown Cello strings (Supplied by The Sound Post Ltd)

1 x Bio Violin case without pocket (Supplied by Gewa Music)

1 x Too hot to handle oven gloves

3 x Snark Touch screen metronome

10 x Boxes of Chocolate violins

Judges decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into regarding prizes. Prizes will be dispatched 30 days from the date of the original order placed.

Carbon Composite violin bow

* The draw is open to anyone – for FREE entry please email sales@caswellsstrings.com and you will be entered in the draw

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November 15, 2017

How to Restring Your Cello

How to Restring Your Cello – a very helpful video published by D’Addario Orchestral Strings:

Key points:

  • The instrument is reliant on the tension of the strings so do one at a time otherwise you risk the bridge and soundpost moving or falling over
  • Add graphite to the string contact points
  • How do I know when its time to change my strings?
  • Make sure you remove excess rosin from the strings.
  • Can I put full size strings on a smaller instrument?

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November 08, 2017

How to Restring Your Violin or Viola

How to Restring Your Violin or Viola – a very helpful video published by D’Addario Orchestral Strings:

Key points covered:

  • The instrument is reliant on the tension of the strings so do one at a time otherwise you risk the bridge and soundpost moving or falling over
  • Add graphite to the string contact points
  • How do I know when its time to change my strings?
  • Make sure you remove excess rosin from the strings.
  • Can I put full size strings on a smaller instrument?

Products seen in this video: Kaplan Vivo Violin string set

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