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"Going Home" -- Dvorak and America

dvorak resized 600

Dear Joe,

Dvorak's String Quartet No. 12: Is There Anything American About It?

Dvorak Quartet No. 12 "American"

In this week's letter to the violinist Alberta Barnes, I try to figure out what's so American about Dvořák's String Quartet No. 12. 

SHAR's 3rd Annual String Quartet Competition

SHAR Quartet Competition

SHAR Music is proud to announce the winners of its third annual Quartet Competition!

Letters to a Violinist: Mendelssohn's Octet

Felix Mendelssohn

What are we actually hearing when we listen to classical music? In a new series of blog entries, our resident violinist Alberta Barnes will assign our resident writer Joe Chapman (and classical music novice) a work by a famous composer. Joe's letters to Alberta will respond to the work without recourse to musical terminology, and Alberta's responses will explain what, exactly, Joe is hearing. Have a favorite composer or work you want Joe and Alberta to write about? Leave a comment below and they'll tackle that one next! 

Which Instrument are You?


Each orchestral instrument has a unique personality. Which one is most similar to yours?

Are Stradivarius Violins a Big Scam?

Countess of Stanlein

In today's post, I ask the big question: is the string community just fooling itself by paying so much for Stradivarius cellos and violins? If you'd like to contribute to our blog -- as a Suzuki parent, player, or teacher -- email me at  

 Although I'm not a musician -- I'm a writer -- I've found myself fascinated by the recent discussion of Bernard Greenhouse's Countess of Stainlein Stradivarius cello. After Greenhouse's death, his daughter and son-in-law Elena and Nicholas Delbanco sold Greenhouse's cello for more than 6 million dollars. That's a lot of money, and though money isn't everything, it is how we mark the value of objects. (Even John & Paul give us contradictory wisdom on this one: "Can't Buy Me Love" and "You Never Give Me Your Money" don't exactly send the same message.)

I can't but think, too, that maybe there's a bigger question behind my fascination with Greenhouse's cello: as artists and musicians, what is our relationship with our instruments? I guess I'm not just talking about consumer objects but more so the instruments through which we make art (though there is certainly overlap).

I'm attached to my writing desk and my computer. I'm attached to my fancy leather-bound journal and a certain type of pen. I know writers who are even more particular. A dear friend and mentor from graduate school once admitted that as a young writer she absolutely needed two tables (one for her typewriter and one for the books necessary to her project), a pot of coffee, and a pack of cigarettes. And so I wonder about the things that I think I need. Do I need to write at the same desk and with the same pen? Do they affect my writing?  

I'm not sure this line of thinking carries over as neatly as I would like into the world of high-end instruments. A quality pen is much less essential to writing than a quality violin is to making music. That said, the comparison to writing does bring up questions for me and everyone else salivating over Greenhouse's Stradivarius cello, namely whether the Stradivarius violin simply produces better sound than other violins or if we've falsely come to believe that. 

There's more to complicate the question. An experiment by the National Academy of Sciences found that 8 of 21 players, in a blind test, preferred to take home newer instruments rather than old ones.  To add insult to injury, a Stradivarius violin came in last place: it was the least preferred instrument. Of course, there were a few problems with the experiment -- a limited number of test violins were used and the experiment was carried out in a hotel room with predictably poor acoustics -- but the results are still troubling. The Stradivarius came in last place? Seriously?

Instruments made by the famous Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari are said to be capable of subtler expression, and Greenhouse, of course, agrees. In “The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess of Stanlein ex-Paganini Stradivarius Cello of 1707," written by his son-in-law Nicholas Delbanco, Greenhouse says: 

The quality of sound is something that one wears, that adorns an individual as though it were a beautiful piece of apparel. The ear can be deceiving sometimes; sometimes I’ll pick up one of the lovely modern celli in the morning and be very happy with it, but in the afternoon I’ll ask what could possibly have pleased me.

And here's how Daniel J. Watkin in his NY Times article "Selling a 300-Year-Old Cello" describes Greenhouse's playing: 

In a Beaux Arts recording of Schubert’s Trio in E flat, the elegiac opening measures of the Andante con Moto movement convey everything beautiful about his playing. The vibrato is light and warm; the notes taper elegantly. The drop in the 15th measure to a low G sounds like a cat jumping onto a carpet.

I love that Greenhouse discards modern celli like unsatisfactory lovers. But what I find most interesting is how individualized both Greenhouse and Watkin approach playing. Greenhouse equates quality of sound to one's clothing, something that's worn, and Watkin's idiosyncratic metaphor compares Greenhouse's drop in the 15th measure to "a cat jumping onto a carpet." These metaphors suggest that the quality of one's playing is like style: if it's done right, no one else can pull it off.

Greenhouse and Watkin would surely scoff at any objective test of the quality of an instrument's sound. I agree. It's a little absurd. The player and the instrument are in a relationship and the result is their style of sound. If the player is a master player, the sound will not be better or worse in any scientific sense, although aficionados will of course disagree on the quality of the style. 

Now that I think about it, though, the upshot of all this is that when a master player passes on his instrument, we lose a style, a voice. Meaning, no one else will be able to play the Countess of Stanlein cello quite like Bernard Greenhouse did.  

For Violins, Too, the Weather Outside is Frightful

SHAR Offices

A few timely tips on string instrument care and maintenance.

Here in Michigan we're lurching toward the heart of winter: snow on the ground for four months, ice-encased cars, and the early-morning cacophony of salt trucks and snow plows. But even if you don't live in a winter wonderland like we do, we thought this would be the perfect time to share a few of our instrument care and maintenance tips.

We offer a few tips below on basic instrument care, including and temperature and humidity advice, from our "Instrument Care & Maintenance" guide. For more instrument care tips on pegs, strings, and periodic inspection you can check out the full guide linked above. Though it probably goes without saying, we want your violins, violas, cellos, and basses to sound as full, rich, and precise as they should (and to look as good as they sound).  

Special thanks to our SHAR Apprentices for their hard work compiling these informational videos and guides over the years!

Instrument Care and Maintenance

One of the most exciting things about having a stringed instrument is the beautiful music one can make with it. Learning about such everyday matters as proper care and maintenance can, as a result, fall by the wayside. Players, teachers, and parents alike all too often and all too easily find themselves thinking of care as repair. However it is a fact that both the time invested in careful handling and the money spent on preventative maintenance are considerably less than the inconvenience, cost, and potential loss of value incurred in fixing damage due to accident or neglect.

Whether you presently own an instrument of which you are proud, are searching for another instrument, or maintain a collection, we invite you to familiarize yourself with instrument care and maintenance procedures so that stringed instruments can continue bringing beauty and joy to you.

Handling an Instrument

When handling a stringed instrument, one should constantly be aware that the varnish of a fine violin, viola, cello, or bass is very fragile. Players should avoid putting their hands directly on the varnish of the instrument whenever possible. While playing, care should be taken to protect the instrument from damage by jewelry, buttons, and zippers. While in their cases, violins and violas should be protected against possible damage by using a blanket or instrument bag.


The recommended method of cleaning is to use a soft cloth to remove rosin dust, oil, and dirt from the instrument immediately after each use. Special treated or untreated cloths may be purchased specifically for cleaning instruments. If a treated cloth is used, one should take great care not to use it on the strings or get it near the hair of the bow. Other cloths may also be used provided they are soft, lint-free, and non-abrasive. There is a wide variety of polishes and cleaners available for stringed instruments. However, if an instrument is properly maintained, these products will not often be necessary. If using a polish or cleaner, always test for compatibility with the varnish in a small inconspicuous area of the instrument. On a related note, using commercial or household solvents near an instrument is to be avoided since, in some cases, even the vapors can cause serious damage. SHAR Products sells a variety of cleaning supplies; visit the SHAR Cleaning Department (General Accessories area).


Humidity control should be of great concern to players of wooden instruments. Bowed string instruments in particular are made of a number of pieces of wood of different types and grain direction which can be susceptible to fluctuations in humidity. Too much or too little humidity can be the cause of arching distortion, cracks, neck projection problems, glue joint separations, strings which are too high or low, soundposts which are too loose or tight, and many other problems. Here is a guide for maintaining the proper level of humidity:

Actual Humidity Outside Recommended Humidity Inside
Up to 20% 30%
30-40% 30-40%
40-60% 40-50%

In climates with severe seasonal temperature and humidity fluctuations, maintaining consistency can be a difficult task. While several case or instrument-held humidifiers are available, it is most advisable to humidify or dehumidify the environment in which the instrument is kept the majority of the time. It is important to remember that humidifiers for use inside the case or instrument are only effective when the case is closed. Once the case is opened, all of the humidified air quickly vanishes. Humidity is most easily measured with a wall-mounted hygrometer kept in the same room in which the instrument is stored. Smaller hygrometers are available, but their readings may not be as accurate. The Stretto® hygrometer is highly accurate and we recommend it. Instruments may, of course, be taken from their properly-humidified environments in order to be played for reasonable periods of time. This can be done without harm as long as the instrument is returned to its environment of proper humidity before the wood loses or gains an undue amount of moisture.


In addition to damage caused by drastic humidity changes, instruments are also susceptible to damage caused by rapid fluctuations in temperature. While in colder climates it is often impossible to avoid subjecting an instrument to low temperatures, it is important to make certain that the rate of temperature change is as slow as possible. This may be accomplished by allowing an instrument to warm up to room temperature inside the case. Excess heat may soften the varnish which can pick up impressions of shoulder rests and case lining fabric or, in extreme cases, may "alligator" or cause the instrument to stick to the inside of the case. Instances of excess heat can happen at any season and are most often caused by leaving the case in the direct sun, next to a heater, or unattended in either the passenger or luggage compartments of an automobile.

Cello Match-Making: An Interview with SHAR's Hans Anderson

Hans Anderson

I sat down with SHAR Violin Shop Manager Hans Anderson on Friday, November 4th to talk about SHAR's new John Cheng line of violins. Hans and I met early that morning in one of the rehearsal rooms, which, with its hardwood floors and vaguely Victorian furnishings, seemed like a fitting place to talk about a line of violins. Before talking about the John Cheng line, though, I first asked Hans to share a little about himself as a musician and his approach to selling instruments. I found our discussion so interesting that I decided to post the interview in two parts on our blog. In this week's post, Hans shares his thoughts about the relationship a player forms with an instrument. In next week's post, Hans and I will talk about SHAR's new line of John Cheng violins.

Notes from a SHAR Apprentice - Cases

Christine Beamer, Hilary Lewis, Katherine Thompson - SHAR Apprentices

When you're picking out a violin case you usually have three choices of materials - compacted foam, wood, or carbon fiber. There are benefits and drawbacks to each type as well as structural factors which contribute to safety and weight of each case. So, to break it down simply, here are some facts about each type of case:

Liebenzeller Rosin, for Violin, Viola, Cello and Bass

Liebenzeller rosin

There's been lots of buzz online about Liebenzeller rosin, and now it's finally available again in the US from SHAR!

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