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5/5-Part Series: Finding “the one” – the right instrument. Violist Brandon Chui

5/5-Part Series: Finding “the one” – the right instrument. Violist Brandon Chui featured image

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 final installment of this five-part series, I chatted with the amusing Brandon Chui, who is possibly the only person who loves Asian food more than I do – he often posts scrumptious food pics on Facebook. He plays violin and viola at Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Hamilton Philharmonic, and formerly, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

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?
It might not be as simple as walking into a store, trying on a sweater and buying it, but often that IS the way it works! It’s literally, walk in the store, tell them what you’re looking for within a certain price range, and as long as you don’t seem sketchy, they’ll show you what they have. If looking for more high-end instruments, dealers sometimes won’t show you the real goods until it’s obvious you can really play. As string players, we all have a long list of personal things we are looking for which may include new/old, sound (volume? clean? evenness? dark/bright? tonal colours?), ease of playability, physical state, craftsmanship, the look of the instrument (is the instrument a sexy beast or does the sight of it make you want to vomit?), PRICE, etc.

More often than not, you won’t find anything on that day. A week’s trial with a bunch of instruments might not find you anything. In fact, you might not find anything for weeks, or even months. The search might take you to other cities, even countries. But once in a while, the sweater fits JUST RIGHT.

Wow – it sounds complicated and fascinating. 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.
As a string player, we more or less stick to the same gear within a concert. It’s a little different for winds where they have a bit more opportunity to switch it up during a concert, or even a piece (looking at all the flute/piccolo & oboe/English horn players). That being said, I myself live in two different performing spheres: the “early music” scene, where we use different instruments and bows to recreate the sounds that composers of the 17th/18th/19th centuries might have had in their ears (eg. Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra), and the “modern instrument” scene, which is what most of you, if you have ever seen the Toronto Symphony or Canadian Opera Company, will be familiar with. Because of my work in those two fields, I have different instruments and bows appropriate to what I’m doing with a particular group.

Have you ever been loaned a valuable instrument that you had to return? Was it like a break up when you parted with it?
It’s an outlook that drives my wife crazy: I don’t care for the idea of going into a store to even LOOK (let alone BORROW) if I’m not interested in purchasing it. I don’t want to give myself that chance of temptation! Oh hell nah! Funny story about this topic, though: a friend of mine was loaned a very valuable violin many years ago for a big concert ($400,000 USD, early 2000s…not going to say any more about it, to keep my friend’s identity under wraps) and accidentally forgot it after a late-night snack at Burger King and didn’t realize it until he was five blocks away. Luckily it was still there when he went back.

These stories always make my heart leapt to my throat. So stressful. Have you ever commissioned an instrument to be custom made? What is the process, and how long does it take?
I haven’t commissioned any instruments but I have commissioned a couple of bows. Generally, each maker will have their own way of handling things – some will let you refuse the instrument/bow if you don’t like it, and others will hold you to buying it, no matter what. In the latter case, it’s a risk the purchaser takes. That being said, a string player won’t be willing to fork over ten of thousands of dollars for an instrument (thousands or a bow) made by some random person that they read about on the back of a newspaper. We all contact makers because of reputation, and/or we have tried something of theirs that we really like and are hoping can be recreated. In other words, we generally know what we’re getting ourselves into.

Wait times – one of the most popular violin makers in the States has a wait time of three to four years. Not sure if I personally would be willing to wait that long….

Instruments are expensive. Is it a matter of choosing between a mortgage on a home or a mortgage on an instrument?
Generally, high quality string instruments that we “pros” look for cost more than winds and brass. Pianos and percussion – you guys are on your own, I’m not gonna comment! But what you say, Liz, is totally true – instruments cost a lot of money, but it’s okay, because us musicians make boatloads of money so all is good! Joking aside, money matters are a big issue for musicians. Do you eat? Or do you find an instrument? Of course they’re not mutually exclusive, but more often than not, a good instrument that we feel can really help tell our story will require you to back up that Brinks truck.

In the string world, the traditional school of thought is that older instruments are better. I’m not saying whether I think that’s true or not, but fine older instruments do cost more (which leads to appreciating values and treating instruments as an investment), so many people do look for instruments by living makers, which lightens the load on the wallet.

String instruments: Like batteries, the bow is not included with the instrument. Is that a whole other search altogether?
Bows are most definitely a whole other search, and often more complicated than the instrument itself. A different bow can completely change the way an instrument sounds. Some of that can be obvious even to an untrained ear (clarity of sound, for one very simple example). Then there’s the more subtle stuff; the way a stick reacts under the player’s hand might make it easier or harder for her/him to pull the sound or articulate notes a certain way. But it gets even more complicated than that! When we get our hands on a good bow, it often takes a while before we really get to know it, to learn the subtle nuances of how the bow “drives”. Same can be said for the instruments itself, actually.

And to think, when I was a kid, I thought bows were included with all string instruments. I’ve heard a few musicians describe finding the right instrument is like searching for the right life partner. Do you agree?
Totally agree. I was lucky that my modern viola and modern bow fell on my lap, by chance. I wasn’t necessarily looking (this kind of ties into my third answer!), but once I played them for a little bit, I had to have them! As far as searching goes, that made it easy because I wasn’t on a seemingly endless and fruitless hunt. Once you have an instrument, your relationship with it is also like dealing with a life partner. Usually it’s the absolute perfect fit. Nothing can go wrong. But you wake up the next day and you feel that the instrument isn’t cooperating, completely unable to understand what you are wanting of it. At the end of the day, I’ve come to accept one thing – it’s my fault! 

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