The Myth of Violin Fragility & A True Confession

I am going to tell you the truth. The fragility of violins is something of a myth.

Of course, violins will be broken if you drop them on a tile floor or if something heavy like a car or a human smashes down on top of them. Really there are myriad ways to damage a violin enough that it would need to be repaired by a luthier or possibly given a proper burial. Cremation, anyone?

I suppose it may depend on the instrument itself, whether its glue and components are of the highest quality or not. Let’s just say that while a violin is certainly breakable, it is not as delicate as a glacier lily.

We learn to take loving care of our dear violins, to wipe them carefully, to change strings regularly, to have the sound post adjusted from time to time or the fingerboard planed, and little dings cosmetically enhanced.

Confession

Here comes the confession. (I am admitting to my innate clumsiness and am sharing some of my most humiliating moments here, so please cut me a little slack.)

I have broken my dear, lovely baroque violin twice in my adult life, quite severely. Both were accidents, and each time seemed as though they would be the kiss of death.

The breakage was not light, either time. The damage was truly horrifying on both occasions.

The first time it happened I was 21 years old and I had just been admitted by Roman Totenberg to the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts for my undergraduate diploma. Living in a tiny studio apartment which had a little foyer when you opened the door, I had my music stand in this space. Here is where I did the thing that no violin learner or player should ever, EVER do. I left the violin hanging on the edge of the stand. This is a terrible thing to do and don’t you ever do it! In the morning when I was stumbling around in the dark only half awake, I bumped into it and it came crashing down on the antique tile floor. The sound it made was shocking, with the wood splitting, and my heart breaking.

The department head was willing to give it a try

First, I was petrified at how stupid I had been to let this happen. Second, I made myself numb to the financial impact it would have on me, being a student with basically a zero-sum bank account. Nevertheless, I took it around town (Boston) having it examined by various strangers who were the famous reputable luthiers willing to help me. The prices they were demanding were all far out of my budget (again, I had no budget so this was doubly painful), and to add insult to injury, their prices came with the clause that there was no guarantee that a fix would hold up.

Exasperated

Finally, exasperated, and ready to give up, someone mentioned to me about the North Bennet Street School of Violin Making. As a last resort, I tried not to get my hopes up too high, but actually the department head was willing to give it a try, to glue it without removing the top, also with no guarantee. I cannot recall what I ended up paying but it was a fraction of what the others had demanded. In the end, it worked! You could see some small lines where it was glued, but in the many years since, it has never once opened along those cracks.

Since I am opening up my heart here and sharing my clumsiness in the public blogosphere, I will now tell you about the second time this happened, in Germany. This time it was at the end of teaching a lesson.

Trying to convince myself that the damage was not too bad

The child had finished, she was already packed and ready, and there was something she had asked for that prompted me to open my violin a second time. Only the problem was that this time, having been distracted by something else, I did not close it properly and zip it up. So, when I finally did intend to leave and picked the case up by its handle the whole thing went plummeting down onto the floor. This floor was wood, but that was not soft enough to cushion such a blow. My face must have conveyed the utter loss I felt in the moment, for the student yelped out “Ms Buckley, is everything okay?!” (It wasn’t.) I just lied and said don’t worry, it would be okay, probably trying to convince myself more than her.

I did not know what the future would hold in this case, as the break seemed much worse than the earlier one. But I did know a fine luthier, Susanne Müller, who lived in our county of Böblingen, near Stuttgart. I took it to her in fear of the worst, but she was willing to try to salvage the instrument. She also would not guarantee anything, but I was only able to hope for the best once again, as I did not see any other way forward. This time the bill was much higher, but it was absolutely worth every penny.

A second miracle

It was returned repaired and glued back together with some rib-stitches (ouch!). In the end, to my sheer amazement, it never sounded better. I am definitely not saying to go out and break your fiddle, (but if, in the off chance it should happen, try not to worry too much unless it’s smashed to smithereens).

Wood, in my experience, is an incredibly forgiving, long-lasting, and malleable material. We should be so grateful for the wonderful, time-enduring trees which gave us the raw material for our beloved fiddles.


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