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Why You Need a Step-Up: String Instruments

Calling all string players! As the winter (eventually) thaws into the month of March, we enter my favorite time of the year at AMRO - Fiddle Fair! What is Fiddle Fair? It’s an annual sale where we feature our top string instruments for a discounted price. But it offers much more than just discounts.

If you’ve been playing for several years now, or even since the start of school, you’ve been growing your skills on your instrument. Bow hold? Check! Finger tapes? In the rearview mirror! Posture? Looking groovy! You’ve been sharpening your abilities - but has your violin, viola, cello, or bass improved with you?

If you’re on a beginner instrument (and if you’re renting, you are), then chances are, you’ve outgrown it by now. Beginner instruments are made to be your “training wheels” in your musical journey. On the plus side, they are affordable and durable, made to withstand the craziness of the classroom. Remember when you bumped the music stand with your bow or scroll? Your faithful ole beginner took one for the team. It’s served you well, but now it might actually be holding you back. For example:

  • The wood on beginners isn’t dried very long, and the drying is often done in a kiln. In some cases, laminate or plywood is used. I don’t know about you, but when I think “fine string instrument”, plywood isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
  • The height of the strings (aka “action” in string-speak) is set up for playing in mostly first position. On certain instruments, such as those bought from an online megastore that shall not be named, the action can be too high to play in any position. This can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome - yikes.
  • The basic steel strings are easy on the wallet, but they can sound harsh and tinny. The carving of the top and back of your instrument can contribute to this overly bright sound. Not great for all that new repertoire you’re learning!

What’s the answer, you ask? That’s where AMRO comes in! We have beautiful step-up violins, violas, cellos, and basses just waiting for you to come try. Step-ups include intermediate, performer, and - drumroll please! - a new level we call “the master line.” Sound tempting? They are! Here are some features you can expect to find in all our step-up strings.

The Soul of a String Instrument: Wood

 String instruments are special - they come from living things. The most important component of your violin, viola, cello, or bass is also the most beautiful and unique - the wood. Spruce on the top plate and maple on the sides and back plate make up what is known as the tonewood of an instrument. All our step-ups are made from European tonewoods. The selection, aging, and carving of the tonewood all help the instrument sing.

Wood Selection 

Let’s start from the beginning - the wood selection. As you might remember from science class, a tree’s trunk and limb grow in rings, adding one concentric ring each year. In colder climates, the rings are closer together, making the wood very dense and hardy. This is ideal for a string instrument, whose wood must not only vibrate but also withstand incredible forces of pressure from the strings and bridge. 

Take a look at your current instrument and see if you can make out the vertical striations running up and down the front plate. If they are closer together, that means a higher-quality piece of wood was used to create your instrument. If they are widely-spaced (or if you can’t see any lines at all), you probably have a beginner instrument in your hands. On the back of your instrument, you may notice “tiger stripes” that shift in the light, like a piece of tiger’s eye. This is called “flaming” in the maple tonewood, and it is another feature that makers look for and showcase in a fine instrument.

Seasoning

After the wood is selected, it is air-dried. I often compare the wood used for a string instrument to fine wine, or even better, cheese! (I’m from Vermont; cheddar anyone?) As with these comestibles, a plank of wood gets better with age. Luthiers (makers) will choose wood planks and stack them in the corner of the shop to air-dry. For some of our intermediate strings, this process takes 7 years, and for our performers, up to 12! 

Why take all this time? When the wood dries, it stabilizes. Just like a door that gets stuck in the summer and is drafty in the winter, a piece of wood expands and contracts with changes in temperature and humidity. Your instrument will always do this a little bit (remember to use your Dampits, my friends!), but the air-drying process helps to lessen the effects. This process is also called “seasoning”.

Carving

Last but not least - the carving. Our step-ups are hand-carved from top to bottom. The luthier will plane each part of your instrument to exacting specifications, often spending hours to come within a measurement of millimeters. The luthier will also adjust their carving technique to each unique piece of wood they use for the instrument. How do they do this before the instrument is even assembled? Through lightly tapping the wood. It may sound magical, but a trained ear can tell when a wood plate is acoustically at its best. It’s one method that our fearless leader, AMRO Band & Orchestra Manager Leslie York, uses when he hand-selects our step-up instruments.

Selection, seasoning, and carving - all of these contribute to a string instrument’s unique voice. You’ll hear the sweetness, warmth, and complexity immediately. Non-musicians will, too. A lot of folks don’t realize how noticeable an improvement the tone of a step-up is until they hear it with their own ears. Be warned, though - after you play a step-up, you won’t want to play your beginner instrument ever again!

The Strings, Bow and Case

Behold, the other main factors that contribute to your happiness as a performer! We take care to match each instrument with strings, a bow, and a case that live up to the quality of the luthier’s workmanship.

Strings

Dominant strings complement most of our intermediate step-ups, while our performer-level instruments come with Evah Pirazzi, Kaplan, Larsen, and other sonorous brands. Pro Tip - With our Maintenance plan, you get a free change of strings every year. I wish I had that option for my violin! (I bought it in Burlington, VT, while in high school. Not throwing shade - I love it. But I do wish I could put AMRO’s Maintenance plan on it).

Bow

Most of our step-up strings come as outfits including a hand-picked case and bow, with some exceptions such as the new Klaus bass (where you will choose your own French or German bow). Intermediates come with a carbon fiber bow, which has been one of the string world’s biggest areas of growth in the past few decades. These bows combine the flexibility and agility of pernambuco wood with the strength and durability that will last years. I own three different carbon fiber bows, and I love them! 

Our performer instruments come with bows made of Brazilwood or pernambuco wood - the latter being the traditional material of a fine bow. If you are currently playing with a beginner fiberglass bow, put on your seatbelt! It will be like going from driving a milk truck to driving a Ferrari. 

We also sell “a la carte" bows of carbon fiber, Brazilwood, and Pernambuco. I highly recommend always having a secondary bow, just in case you find yourself in need of it on the eve of a performance or audition. Each bow will show you a different side of your instrument. Plus, advanced techniques such as spiccato, ricochet, and saltando won’t be quite as difficult.

Case

Last but not least, you will bring your new step-up instrument home in a deluxe case. Hand-selected by Leslie, our step-up cases are more functional, with interior and exterior storage compartments, analog or digital hygrometer (to remind you to use your Dampit!), tube for extra strings, and straps. This is where we at AMRO get to have a bit of fun, stylewise. We have even dubbed one case “The Alice Case” for its playful stitching. Violinists and violists, prepare to look and feel cooler as you carry your case to your performances. Cellists, you will breathe a sigh of relief when you place your prized cello inside a hard-shell case - with wheels!

 

It’s The Little Things

Here are a few more features that will make you fall in love with your new step-up.

  1. Varnish that is hand-applied in many layers, allowing your instrument to resonate more freely and making it one-of-a-kind.
  2. Tuning will be easier with high-quality tailpieces and fine tuners and pegs that are easy to turn.
  3. Real ebony fingerboards, pegs, and chin rests (some beginner string instruments “cheat” with wood that’s painted black, to mimic ebony). Some step-ups are fitted with boxwood or rosewood pegs, chinrests, and tailpieces, to beautiful effect.
  4. Action that is set up for playing in any position, with easier access to higher notes.

Whew! After all that talk, I feel like some playing - perhaps some Mozart on the bestselling intermediate Klaus violin, or some Paganini on our master-line Bing Li. Or maybe some original jams on the performer-level Alissia, named after yours truly. There is indeed an instrument for everyone here at AMRO, and I hope you’ll stop by to try a few during our Fiddle Fair this March. We on the Orchestra team are excited to help you find your forever friend!

Today's blog was written by a member of our very own Band and Orchestra Sales Team, Alice Hasen!

Posted by Amro Music at 4:58 PM
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