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2/5-Part Series: Finding “the one” – the right instrument. Violinist Jonathan Crow

2/5-Part Series: Finding “the one” – the right instrument. Violinist Jonathan Crow featured image

Photo: Julian Haber


All week: five-part series, Monday to Friday, on a few musicians’ searches for “the one” – their musical partner, their instrument. Today: violinist Jonathan Crow.

As a piano student, I took the competition, master class, and piano exam route, which meant my main concern was learning to adjust to whatever instrument was available on site, and making adjustments very quickly upon the first few notes. That is the life of a pianist – jiving with a strange instrument, and sometimes not having access at all to practise when you’re on the road. It wasn’t until I befriended some string players in university that I learned about what THEY went through – the search for the perfect instrument, and finding the means to borrow or purchase it. Then there were other things, like carrying it around, and not losing it (like the 1999 incident when an exhausted Yo-Yo Ma left his cello, worth nearly 3 million US, in the back of a New York City cab. He got it back the same day). It seemed like a search for a soul mate, and once you find it, it’s precious cargo you must keep an eye on. It’s a foreign concept to this former piano student whose worst nightmare may be a distractingly squeaky pedal.

I spoke with a few musicians in this five-part series all week, about the trials and tribulations of finding “the one”. For the second  installment of this five-part series, I chatted with Jonathan Crow, violinist and “sometime violist”, who is a member of New Orford String Quartet, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Chamber Soloists, and is concertmaster of the TSO. He also teaches at the University of Toronto.

Finding the right instrument isn’t a matter of walking into a store, trying a few out, and buying one. There’s more to it than that. What’s involved when finding the right instrument?
I think this depends on where you are in life- are you looking for an instrument that will get you through university and a few professional auditions? Is it the first full-size instrument you’re looking at as a teenager? Or is it something you want that will be a partner through a large part of your career? … A student still looking at a career path will be searching for a different sound than a professional who has already played on a few great instruments and wants to find his or her own voice.

This sounds like finding the right bicycle or car. Do you have different instruments for different concerts or even different pieces within the same concert program? Or just one that you use for everything? I sound like I’m asking about winter tires vs. all-weather tires.
I know some performers do switch back and forth regularly, but I stick to one instrument at a time. I spent the first 15 years of my professional career on one violin, and only recently switched from my first full-size bow (which my parents bought when I was 12)! It’s tough to go back and forth when you aren’t used to it.

Have you ever been loaned a valuable instrument that you had to return? Was it like a break up when you parted with it?
I think it’s always a good thing when you are sad to give back an instrument- if you’re happy to return it the fit probably wasn’t very good, for you or the audience! I have had to return a great violin that I played on for a few months while my violin was being repaired, but as sad as I was to give up the instrument, I luckily had a couple other options to use at the time.

When I studied piano, the only other accoutrement to worry about was the bench. But that lasted as long as the performance. For string players, there are bow issues! Like batteries, the bow is not included with the instrument. Is that a whole other search altogether?
It’s a totally different search – bows are even more personal than violins, and every bow works differently on every fiddle. I used one bow for 25 years and have gotten so used to it that I couldn’t play on anything else! Only this year did I manage to find something that fit my technique and also pulled a great sound out of the fiddle I’m using now.

What instrument are you playing on now?
A Guarneri del Gesu on loan.

Oh wow – that’s amazing. I’ve heard a few musicians describe finding the right instrument is like searching for the right life partner. Do you agree?
Ten years ago I would have said absolutely! However, I’ve used about six different violins in the last three years, and have realized that every instrument has its own pros and cons- as well as quirks. Some instruments are affected a great idea by weather changes and humidity, and others sound the same every single day. But having the chance to play on a few different great instruments has made me a better violinist – more flexible, and perhaps more inquisitive in sound production as my ears have been opened up to different tone possibilities. I like to think that my playing is now more interesting than when I exclusively used one fiddle for about 15 years.

Susan Hoeppner:

Tomorrow: cellist Cameron Crozman.

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