Last October I mentioned that I started playing the violin with Louise Petits Pois. Initially I was pretty hesitant because I’ve only ever played classical music and a little bit of Irish traditional. But I’ve really wanted to find people to play music with since moving to Poitiers, I’ve always wanted to branch out from classical, and then this opportunity sort of fell into my lap. I’m really happy I took the chance because since October I’ve added the violin part to about eight songs and we play about once a month in concert.
Last Thursday for the fête de la musique we were invited to play at the Place de la Liberté in Poitiers for about forty-five minutes. I tested out the electric violin on stage for the first time and it was a bit strange, or déstabilisant as the French might say. On my real violin I don’t have any sort of pick-up so I play into a microphone, and the disadvantage is of course that I can’t move around, look at the band, etc. Also on a stage, linked up to a sound system, the natural resonance of an acoustic violin can send feedback (des Larsen in French). Even while not playing, the strings can vibrate in response to the vibrations in the room and that can sound into the speakers. It’s a bit strange.
My parents gave me an electric violin when I graduated from high school that looks like the Performer series on this page:
Mine is the maple color so not exactly like the one featured. Also, just fyi, Zeta went out of business in 2010 or 2011 so this violin isn’t made anymore. Mine has never gotten much use because I stayed in classical music for so long, but when I started playing with the band I resolved to bring it to France and finally put it to use. Violins are easy to carry onto airplanes and flight attendants never ask questions about them so I brought it back this April. Unfortunately the Fender amplifier had to be left behind for obvious reasons. Sad.
Thursday was a bit weird as concerts go because we had exactly 45 minutes, including the time to open up the instruments, get onto stage, and do a quick sound check. Usually we have over an hour to do all the preparation. So here are a couple of things I learned from Thursday night about playing an electric violin:
1) Do not trust a simple strumming of the strings to decide that it is in tune. DISASTROUS. At least, I felt it was—the bandmates didn’t notice anything, but I was awfully out of tune, mostly because when the instrument is unplugged, you can barely hear it. Our guitarist has a tuner that you can plug an instrument jack directly into so from now on I’m tuning it like that. Also, contrary to logic, electrical instruments can un-tune themselves during concerts just like acoustic instruments.
2) The electric violin is heavier than the acoustic one. Fortunately Thursday night we only played forty minutes, and the instrument is heavy on the shoulder, not on the fingers.
Last night we played at a neighborhood fête for the feu de la Saint-Jean, and we played for a good hour. The heaviness of the electric violin, plus the fact that there was a jack hanging off of it, made it awkward to hold onto for an hour. I wonder if in the future I might alternate between the two.
All in all the electric violin is pretty cool, but as I’ve read and heard, it lacks the natural oomph of the real thing. Especially in the upper registers, the sound is much thinner, which undoubtedly bothers me more than anyone listening. Our guitarist kept telling me that it’s the same for guitarists—the electric instrument is far less satisfying than the acoustic one. All this in spite of the fact that this Zeta model has a bigger box than many electric violins, allowing at least some natural resonance.
I also have the habit of resting my hand on the instrument when I do pizzicato (=plucking the strings rather than playing with the bow), and because of the shape of this particular electric violin, there is NO VIOLIN where I’m used to resting my hand. Not a big problem but a small surprise in the middle of the concert. (Not having an amplifier in France, I don’t fiddle around on this instrument at home.)
Our next concert is August 4th and we hope to really get to work before then so we can give a good one. As for myself, future musical projects include: 1) Getting an amplifier, 2) getting a microphone for the violin, 3) bringing back the family banjo (much trickier to get onto an airplane than a violin), and 4) learning to play it.