Sunday, December 1, 2019

Rent or Buy- Which is Best? We've Done the Math!

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,
Ivana Truong, and updated by Diane Houser

Starting an instrument is an incredibly overwhelming process and we've already written about lessons and finding teachers. Deciding whether to rent or buy an instrument can be another big part of that process. In this blog post, we'll break down the cost of renting, buying new, and buying used and work through what each situation means for a student.

Violins from size 1/10, 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 4/4

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Strings and Celebrities- It Took Some Guts

By Andy Fein, Luthier, Fein Violins
and Ivana Truong

         Gut Strings and String Choice: "Influencers" Before World War II

Catgut strings? Were they really from cats' guts? Or from the guts of anything else? Who made them? Who used them?

Before World War II and the invention of nylon, Perlon, and similar materials, natural gut core strings were the strings of choice of most violinists, violists, and some cellists.

Were they really made from cats' guts? NO! But were they made from some other animals' guts? Yes!

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A violin with gut strings, 3 are bare gut and one is wound with silver

© Anoixe / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL
In the years between World War I and II, The Hakkert family established a factory in Rotterdam to produce the finest gut strings available. They also established one of the finest marketing programs.

The family's string factory was run by the talented Jacques Hakkert, who learned violin making in Mirecourt, France and helped run his family's large music store in Rotterdam, where they perfected the process of gut string making. The Nazis murdered this talented man.

Professor Uri M. Kupferschmidt, the author of Strings and Celebrities: Hakkert's "First Dutch Stringmakers" and Jacques' grandson, is primarily known for his work on social history in the Middle East. His previous book, published in 2007, was actually on Middle Eastern department stores and their consumers. But since 2013, when he first found the Hakkert's publicity brochure that is featured prominently in "Strings and Celebrities: Hakkert's 'First Dutch Stringmakers'", Professor Kupferschmidt has been looking into his grandfather's life, the catgut strings his grandfather manufactured, and the musicians who promoted them.

Jacques Hakkert was born in 1891 in Rotterdam, a city in the Netherlands. His family owned a prominent music store that sold a wide variety of instruments, gramophones, and accessories, including strings. He was named Jacob (changed to Jacques after he went to France) Wolfgang Hakkert after Mozart and his brother, Max Richard Hakkert, was named after Richard Wagner.

Jacques Hakkert was sent to Mirecourt, France for his luthier training at age 15. He was abroad from 1906-1909, and during that time he worked at the French violin factory of Jérôme Thibouville-Lamy. Then, he apprenticed under luthiers in Mattaincourt, France and luthiers in the German cities of Düsseldorf, and Cologne. The first violin that he made is now part of the Violins of Hope collection, which has recently obtained a Hakkert bow as well. When he returned to Rotterdam in 1909, he began work on violins in his family's shop. In his lifetime, it is estimated that he made close to 100 violin and cellos as well as a number bows, though it is unknown how many.

Two years after Jacques returned to Rotterdam, his family's music store started advertising their own catgut strings and they announced the opening of their formal string factory in 1917. They started producing strings for violin, viola, cello, double bass, guitar, harp, and later mandolin, banjo, and ukelele. The strings could be spun with aluminum, steel, silver, silk, or gold depending on its use. They also produced string for tennis rackets and medical sutures.
Gut strings are made from the small intestines of SHEEP (not cats!), which have been cleaned and soaked in cold water to preserve color and strength. The intestines are then softened in an alkaline bath and then split into 2 strands. The strands are then bleached, bundled in various numbers, depending on the string, and then twisted together. They are then dried, polished and cut to length. Depending on the string, a metal winding may be added. In the second half of the 1920s, Hakkert marketed a gold-wound G string which he advertised as more durable and intense in tone. While Hakkert's general process for producing gut strings would have been similar, he stated that he modified his manufacturing to fit the Dutch climate and water, which was high in calcium salts.

Video on how gut strings are made

Sidenote: The origin of the word catgut itself is pretty interesting. The strings, contrary to the name, are not made from the guts of cats. Actually, they are made from the small intestines of sheep. One possibility is that the "cat" in catgut is an abbreviation of cattle, which are sometimes used to make gut strings. Another possibility is that catgut was originally kitgut, "kit" being an obsolete word for a fiddle. Later, the "kit" may have been mistaken for "kit" as in a small cat, like a kitten, and from there, the word evolved to catgut.

Jacques also brilliantly marketed his strings with a method surprisingly similar to today's "influencer" marketing, where companies send products to internet celebrities with the hope of an endorsement or promotion. While this method certainly wasn't invented by Jacques, it was very effectively utilized by him. He would often send string samples to celebrity musicians and ask for written endorsements. He would compile these endorsements, along with signed photographs, and use them in newspaper advertisements and marketing brochures. His father would even keep a leaflet of these testimonials in his shop for customers to browse through. By the 1920s, Hakkert catgut strings had expanded worldwide. Hakkert strings were sold in Mirecourt, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Johannesburg, and even in Minneapolis!

File:Jacques Hakkert at violin workshop Ph. Hakkert, Rotterdam, 1915.jpg
Jacques Hakkert in his workshop, 1915

Cornelis Johan Hofker / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Scroll of Hakkert's first violin
Photos used with permission of Avshalom Weinstein
Some of these endorsements were found by Professor Uri Kupferschmidt and inspired him to research and write this book. In 2013, he saw a reference to an item of Hakkert's on the internet and after investigating the listing, the item turned out to be over 140 written recommendations for Hakkert Strings by musicians and ensembles. When Professor Kpuferschmidt was in Paris, he purchased the recommendations and decided to write Strings and Celebrities, which contains a full Hakkert brochure from spring 1931. Each written endorsement is accompanied by a very thoroughly researched account of their careers, made by referencing a wide variety of sources. By researching each musician and even uncovering new information on many of their activities in the Netherlands, Professor Kupferschmidt hopes to understand how Jacques selected the musicians he reached out to. (Jacques was fairly successful in his selection, as information and/or clips of over 70% of the musicians featured in the brochure can still be found online today!) The brochure in Strings and Celebrities includes endorsements from Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Pablo Casals, and Yehudi Menuhin.

Just before the war, a new Hakkert Strings factory was opened and the production shifted to mainly medical suture. In 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and shortly later bombed Rotterdam, eventually ending in the Netherlands' surrender. After the invasion, discriminatory policies against Jews, Romani and Dom (Gypsies), and other minorities were slowly introduced and by 1942 persecution and deportations began. On July 18, 1942, Jacques received a letter telling him to report to a labor camp. He went into hiding and fled to Belgium, where he had many business relations. From Belgium, he hoped to reach Switzerland, but he was caught in Brussels and eventually killed in Auschwitz.

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An advertisement for "The First Dutch String Factory" 
stating that their string can be used for instruments, machines, and tennis rackets

Image from Royal Library of the Netherlands
Image may contain: 2 people
An image from 1917 of the temporary Hakkert string-making factory.
Strings are drying in the background

Image from Hakkert Rotterdam Facebook
Jacques' brother Max sadly met a similar fate. After his father's death in 1925, he took over the family music store and during his time as manager, he organized shows in the Netherlands for Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and many other jazz musicians. Upon the German occupation, Max was forced to give up working at the shop. Max eventually tried to escape after being forced to sell his shop for close to nothing. Sadly, he was caught on the way to Switzerland and was eventually killed in the Sobibor extermination camp. His wife and daughter were able to escape and later returned to Rotterdam and rebuilt the family music shop.

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Hakkert Music Store in 1993, the store closed in 2007

Image from Hakkert Rotterdam Facebook

Shortly after Jacques fled, the string factory was taken over by Pirazzi in a deal with unknown conditions. Pirastro continued producing medical suture at the factory throughout the war, though the factory was returned to Dutch owners in a process beginning in 1945 and ending 1948. As medical suture made of gut was replaced by synthetic alternatives, the Hakkert string factory was forced to close down. But through their music shop, violins, and, of course, gut strings, the Hakkerts certainly made an impact on the music world.

If you found this blog post interesting, consider buying "Strings and Celebrities" from Pardes Publishing for $54 or a digital copy on Amazon Kindle for $27. It's possible that soon Amazon will be offering a paperback version in the North Ameerican market. I found the book to be thorough, well-researched, and enjoyable. Professor Uri Kupferschmidt combines his family's fascinating and unique history in catgut manufacturing with his knowledge of globalization, war-time economics, and marketing. It was a great book and I would recommend reading it! And if you love the history of violin, viola, and cello playing, you'll find almost 300 pages of copies of the endorsements and background information from the performers that endorsed Hakkert's gut strings. That's an amazing amount of research from Professor Kupferschmidt!

Of course, the Hakkerts' fates show the cruelty, idiocy, and eventual futility of Nazism and the Nazi's goal to eliminate Jews. Jacques Hakkert made profound contributions to the musical life of Europe and the world. His productive genius was taken away by the Nazis, but his instruments and legacy live on. We, the Jewish people, are still here and our instruments still sing. Hakkert's descendants are still here, and the Jewish communities of Israel and the Diaspora are thriving.

You can also find references to Jacques Hakkert in Jacques Didier's book "Manufactures & Maitres-Luthiers, Mirecourt 1919-1969".

We would like to thank Uri M. Kupferschmidt, the author of "Strings and Celebrities, Hakkert's "First Dutch Stringmakers" (published by Pardes Publishing ) for generously taking his time to give us feedback on this blog post and sharing some of his photographs. We have formed a new and treasured friendship.

Also, many thanks to our longtime friends Amnon and Avshalom Weinstein for providing pictures of Jacques Hakkert's first violin. They tell me they are hoping to acquire a cello made by Hakkert for their collection of Holocaust-era instruments Violins of Hope.

Friday, July 26, 2019

All About Fingerboards!

By Andy Fein, Luthier at
and Ivana Truong
A cello fingerboard with a precisely machined metal straightedge on top. Fingerboards need a "hollow or "scoop".

The fingerboard isn't a very prominent part of the violin, but it's incredibly important and surprisingly complex. Fingerboards are constructed in a very specific way to best accommodate the modern violin and have changed a surprising amount since baroque times. Without a well-constructed, well-maintained fingerboard, your instrument can run into a lot of issues.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Online Lessons for Stringed Instruments

By Andy Fein, Luthier at  Fein Violins
and Ivana Truong

We know as well as anyone that learning an instrument is a massive undertaking. Even the first step, finding a teacher, can be overwhelming and difficult. They have to be in your area, someone who works well with you, and their rates have to be in your price range. That's why more and more students are trying to learn online, whether that's through Youtube videos, websites, or Skype lessons.

Nicola Benedetti's take on vibrato. You can use videos like this 
to compare with what you are learning or have learned to develop your playing

And teachers! If you can develop the skills to teach online or do instructional videos (and charge for them!) you can expand your studio far beyond your geographic area and far beyond the time that you can devote to giving one-on-one lessons.
Tina Guo has some great tips & lessons on her Youtube channel

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

E Strings & E Tuners- What's Best?

By Andy Fein, Luthier at
and Ivana Truong

The E string. In the world of violins, violas, and cellos, only the violin has the privilege and burden to play on the highest string. What sounds best? How do you keep it in tune? How do you keep it from hissing?

Is the E the most problematic string on your violin? Yes? Don't worry, you're not alone.

An 'Evah Pirazzi loop-end E string (right) & a Thomastik 'Special Program' Gold E (left)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Classical Music During the Chinese Cultural Revolution

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins, Ltd.
And Ivana Truong

In our last blog, we traced the movements of Jewish refugees into Shanghai and other Chinese cities and how these became the seeds for violin playing and Western Classical music in China. For a few decades after World War II, Western Classical music slowly took root in China. But there were many obstacles, not the least of which was the Chinese Communist Revolution and the distrust of anything non-Chinese by those that were suddenly in power. This tension came to a tragic head with the ill-conceived "Cultural Revolution". A time when many musicians had to hide their skills and when many, many violins, violas, cellos, and pianos were destroyed.

 During the Cultural Revolution of China, all foreign mannerisms and culture were banned, including Western Classical music. Musicians and professors of classical music were actively persecuted and instruments were destroyed. Despite this, many people studied music secretively and a few even became professional musicians after the Cultural Revolution ended.

Image from The Red Detachment of Women, one of the operas promoting Mao and his values

Monday, April 1, 2019

Jewish Violinists Brought Western Classical Music to ...... China

By Andy Fein, Luthier, Fein Violins, Ltd.
and Ivana Truong

At the recent Violins of Hope event, which Andy attended, the violinist Xiang Gao was invited to perform “Shalom Shanghai”, a concert and musical telling the history of the violin within China and emphasizing the importance of the Jewish people within that history. The story of Jewish refugees in China is both incredibly important and surprising. Since the story isn't told much, we thought we would share it!
Image result for shanghai sonatas

Monday, March 18, 2019

Violins of Hope- Violins From The Holocaust Refuse To Be Silenced

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins and Ivana Truong

Several years ago I wrote a blog post about a circle of friends that extended from my hometown of Cherry Hill, NJ to St. Paul, MN to Tel Aviv, Israel. One of those in the circle was Amnon Weinstein, a wonderful violin maker and restorer,  from Tel Aviv.

Violins of Hope decorated with Magen David inlays

image from Violins of Hope Pheonix website
That previous blog post was written in 2011 and mentioned a project of Amnon's restoring violins (and violas and cellos) that had been played by Holocaust victims and survivors.  The instruments' survivals are a testament to the actuality of the Holocaust and to the fact that even though the Nazis tried to silence the Jewish people and our culture. THEY DID NOT SUCCEED.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Who Killed The Composer? Leclair's Mysterious Murder

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,
and Ivana Truong

Who killed composer, violinist, and dance master Jean-Marie Leclair? His ex-wife? The gardener? The Duke of Gramont? His son-in-law? His younger brother? The hard part about figuring out who killed Leclair is that he was disliked by so many people that the list of possible suspects with some kind of motivation was pretty long.  When he died in 1764, it seems not too many people were sorry to see him go.
Jean-Marie Leclair, the elder

         A beautiful duet with Perlman and Zukerman, Leclair's "Sonata No. 5"

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The 'Adelaide' Guadagnini - A Violin Beloved in Australia

By Andy Fein, Luthier, Fein Violins
and Ivana Truong

In early February, a 1753-1757 Guadagnini violin was given on a 3-year loan to Australian violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto. Guadagnini, who we have written about previously, is considered one of the greatest Italian makers, only exceeded by Stradivarius and Del Gesu.
Natsuko Yoshimoto plays a violin.
Natsuko Yoshimoto with 1752-57 Guadagnini "The Adelaide"

Photo by Claudio Raschella

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Keeping Your Musician's Body and Mind Healthy

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins &
and Ivana Truong

Playing music isn't typically thought of as a physically taxing activity, but musical injuries are surprisingly common. And the mental stress of getting to the upper echelons of musicianship (and staying there) can take a tremendous toll on your mental well being. Overuse or improper use of muscles often cause injuries like Tendonitis or Carpal Tunnel and keeping yourself in the right mindset to perform at your best can be surprisingly hard. To keep playing as long as possible, it's important for all musicians to take care of their body and mind,  as well as their instrument!

A bronze cast of a woman "playing" the violin which is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. In addition to not making any sound, playing the violin this way seems very uncomfortable.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Keeping Your Musician's Hands Healthy in Winter

By Andy Fein, Luthier at Fein Violins,Ltd.
and Ivana Truong

If you're a musician and you live in a climate that experiences a cold and dry winter, then you know the constant fight to keep your hands and fingers from drying out, cracking, and becoming painfully stiff.
Musician's Hand Salve from Joshua Tree Skincare
I (Andy) feel eminently qualified to discuss this very subject. Because:
1) I play the violin, viola, and several other instruments.
2) My work as a violin maker/restorer causes constant roughening of my hands from tools, wood, files, and sandpaper.
3) I like to do indoor rock wall climbing as well as mountain biking all of the year.
4) I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota. As I'm writing this, the outside air temperature (without any windchill included) is about -5F (-20.5C)
5) I live in a classic Craftsman style modified bungalow house built in 1939. That means a tiny kitchen with NO DISHWASHER. Actually, if you could see me writing this, I'd say "You're looking at the dishwasher!"

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Oldest Line of Violin Makers in America

by Andy Fein, luthier at Fein Violins,
and Ivana Truong

The mid-1500s is very early in violin making history. The earliest violins, violas, and cellos still in existence were made by members of the Amati family circa 1540. So, usually, when we think of very early makers of violins, violas, and cellos, we think of Italy, Germany, and France. To that category of early makers should probably be added The Tarahumara or Raramuri, as they call themselves.
Tarahumara violin, made in the late 1800s, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art