As I was packing away my violin after the last performance on Friday, a chunk of the bridge snapped off, leaving the Fishman bridge unattached (I have a suspicion I’d made a bad job of attaching the pickup a few days earlier, but that question isn’t important to this story). This left me in real difficulties: I needed to play five sets over the following two days, some acoustic, some amplified, in order to fulfill a very well paid job; my only other violin (the Harley Benton electric) can only be played amplified and at best this could only be played acoustically now, even if the bridge hadn’t been damaged in some such a way that it would give way altogether shortly; and it was already early afternoon on a bank holiday. I needed a spot of luck.
After some googling, and some unanswered phone calls, enter Ruschil & Bailly, of whom this post is largely an appreciation. Now business names of the form Surname & Surname are extremely common in Britain (especially lawyers, estate agents … ); what is more unusual about this one is that the names are actually those of the two leading players, Antoni Ruschil (who works on violins) and Florian Bailly (who does bows). And while I often refer to myself (as musician) as a craftsperson to avoid the awkward post-Romantic cultural baggage of the label ‘artist’, these two (and their apprentice, who I sadly haven’t met) fit the label in a much more obvious sense, working very individually and very hands-on with organic materials out of a single-room workshop about the size of my living room (well – our living room; I share it with three other people and two cats).
First point of recommendation: despite being a bank holiday weekend, they took in my injured violin a couple of hours after I got in touch, and had it fitted up with a replacement bridge which was both a better shape (for more even string height, or ‘action’) and better quality than the original, with the Fishman fitted, in time for me to pick it up in the morning and play the next set at 11. The acoustic sound ‘felt’ better under my chin than before, and I’m assured the amplified sound was better from out front than the day before, too. What’s more, they had found time to give the violin the first proper clean of its life, polishing off the accumulated rosin-reacted-with-varnish and heaven knows what other grime of 15 years or so mostly being played pretty hard and carted around with less care and protection than might have been ideal.
A minor interjection here, for a more personal and less professional perspective: like a lot of luthiers, violin makers and repairers, and so on, who tend to deal almost exclusively with classical (in the broadest sense) players and their equipment, amplification is not home turf to these gentlemen. But I mention that only to say that their response to my turning up with a pickup partially attached, requesting that the business end be clamped into the new bridge (that being how the Fishman works), was not reluctance, rejection or refusal but a genuine curiosity about the device, and willingness to deal with it – and, as mentioned above, a very good end result. Similarly, over my three visits (see below) we had some extended conversations about the range of playing I do; not part of a marketing strategy, simply genuine enthusiasm for and interest in the field in all its permutations. I hope you can both make it to one of my gigs some time, guys. Just bring earplugs, just in case!
My second main point of gratitude is that, as a free spinoff from having had the replacement bridge, I was able to come back at a point when I was less busy (which happened to be this morning) and spend some time on sound adjustments.
Now the subtleties of what, in construction and in setup, affects the tone and response of an acoustic violin or its cousins is beyond my full grasp, as it is that of most players. It might suffice to say ‘everything’; among what I have heard mentioned in my visits to Ruschil & Bailly are the ratio of body length to neck length, the wood (of basically every bit of the instrument – body, bridge, soundpost … ), the density of the grain (related to how quickly the tree was growing at the time) at different places, the hardness of the varnish, how parallel the soundholes are to the sides, the length of string behind the bridge (varied by lengthening the little length of gut that holds the tailpiece in place), and the position both left-to-right and front-to-back of the soundpost. I’m sure this is not a comprehensive list!
Obviously, many of these are intrinsic or more or less so to the instrument; a few are not, and in practice this morning was spent entirely shifting the soundpost. For the uninitiated, this all-important component looks like nothing more than a short length of dowel; it sits joining the top and bottom of the body, more or less under the foot of the bridge that is itself under the E string, and is held in place solely by the compression of the body when the instrument is set up, or to think of it another way by the tension of the strings, similarly to the bridge. (If the instrument is badly jolted, or all the strings get too loose, one or both may fall down; standing the bridge back up is relatively trivial, but standing the soundpost back up is more like putting up the sails on a ship in a bottle and definitely a professional job.) It’s moderately intuitive that making the soundpost closer to, or further from, the bridge will result in a more or less directly transmitted vibration travelling from the bridge to the back of the body, and moving it from high string side to low string side will change the internal balance of the instrument; but there is again, I think, more to it than this. In any case, I am in danger of lecturing on a subject I don’t fully understand.
Because the soundpost is held in place solely by tension in slightly pliable wood, it can be, and is, moved by careful taps with a small hammer, very unusually shaped so that it can be poked through the f-holes. The entire process is simultaneously hands-on and inevitably analogue, and extremely delicate: a radical move in this context would be a millimetre or two, and of course the post has to stay absolutely upright throughout (how one practises this skill I have no idea!).
Over the course of perhaps 40 minutes, I tried playing in different registers, volumes, across the strings etc. in alternation with various adjustments to the soundpost position; and the effect has been truly remarkable. I should say that the setup of the instrument (as I gather from Antoni) was by no means bad to start with. It has some features, chiefly a hard varnish, that might make it tend towards being somewhat over-harsh or tinny (though probably powerful!) if set up on default settings, so to speak. In practice that had probably been overcompensated for with the tailgut and soundpost positioning, leaving it sweet and pleasant-toned but somewhat muted. Nonetheless, I had used it like that for a wide variety of performances and recordings, including professional ones, without being told (whatever people may I suppose have felt privately) that I needed a better instrument. What has now been achieved is to gain significantly more power and projection, perhaps particularly at the extremes of range, while not sacrificing too much of the potential for warmth and sweetness when playing more quietly.
When I picked up the violin with its new bridge, I mentioned casually (in response to some rather complimentary remarks on it from Antoni) that I meant to get it valued but hadn’t got round to it. He almost equally casually estimated its value at around £1500 – causing my jaw to drop! since it was bought, albeit in Merseyside around 15 years ago, with the then fairly active stigma of being Chinese-made, and completely new so a slightly unknown quantity, for something in the vicinity of 400. While this explains a lot about the musical places I have been able to successfully go with it, I think (and a little more playing will almost certainly confirm this) that with its improved setup, it actually feels like playing an instrument of that value and corresponding quality. Here’s to playing to justify it!