String Bank

I received an email today with the subject “Tarisio Trust 2016 Winners & Audience Voting. Vote Now!” and clicked the link, fully intending to vote. Back in March, I learned about the Tarisio Trust Young Artist Grants designed to support string-based projects designed and implemented by young artists. The Tarisio website describes the program:

“Launched in 2015, the programme this year will be awarding five, $5,000 grants towards creative projects – which we define as a one-off activity such as a digital creation, tour or recording. We are calling on you to be entrepreneurs, producers, communicators, finance managers and of course…musicians. We have kept the brief as open as possible. You will need to devise and execute a string-focused project that is both creative in concept and artistically of the highest level. Award winners will be able to work with us to publicise their project and can benefit from access to our instrumental and archival resources, as well as the marketing of the grant as a whole. Some examples of suitable ideas for grant applications include: performances cycles/tours/festivals; online platforms such as websites, blogs, digital tools; and innovative recording or videoing projects. The more creative the better! Applications will be judged on grounds of originality, innovation and artistic merit, as well as demonstration of a detailed communications strategy and a strongly project-managed schedule.

Grant Details and Eligibility: Applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 30 (inclusive); If you are applying with an ensemble, the average age of the ensemble members should not exceed 30; Your creative projects should be centred on stringed instruments; Projects can be both live and/or digital; We like to see well-considered marketing, press and social media strategies; Applications with a performance element will need accompanying audio/video clips; We discourage applications where the grant money would be used for personal promotional materials; Award winners’ projects must begin no later than December 2016.”

Two of the four artists selected so far caught my eye. The first was Arlen Hlusko and her project “Philadelphia Performances for Autism” which will offer interactive concert series for children with autism. Arlen is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music here in Philadelphia and, in addition to her work with Play On, Philly! Arlen was a substitute Teaching Artist with The Philadelphia Orchestra’s School Partnership Program this year.

The second project of interest to me is The String Bank, proposed by John Mietus (bass) and Jonathan Sussman (violin/viola). When I saw this project listed as a grant recipient, I was immediately frustrated that it hadn’t occurred to me to turn something that I have been doing for over 6 years now into a streamlined process worthy of funding — but, of course, I’m also too old to apply for a Tarisio Trust award. I have collected used strings from musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra to give to my students in Pennsylvania and New York, not just because some students could not afford replacement strings, but because the initial quality of professional strings is often vastly superior to student strings. For example, a professional violinist might typically use a set of Evah Pirazzi strings (approximately $80) while a student playing on a rental or school instrument might only ever have access to Red Label or Prelude ($15), Spirit! ($35), Dominant ($50), or similar. Mietus and Sussman’s String Bank project will collect old/used strings from professional musicians and distribute them to aspiring musicians from underprivileged or underserved communities.

Professional violinists and violists who are regularly employed and playing often will typically change their strings once every few months, if not more frequently. As strings are played on, they continue to stretch until they’re “dead.” A dead string has lost its original richness and brilliance and has suffered a general decrease in resonance. Harmonics on dead strings sound in unpredictable ways or in unfamiliar locations, and some dead strings may whistle or buzz. “False” strings may also be deemed “dead” since there is a definite — audible — and sudden drop in pitch when the open string is plucked or bowed. Professional violinists, violists, cellists, and bassists must constantly assess the virility of their strings, especially since a significant challenge when performing in ensembles is matching intonation. It is for these reasons that professionals may remove a string from their instrument and discard it entirely.

Teachers who have experience with student musicians from poor schools and struggling communities — or are simply uninformed about the need for new strings — know that students can go for very long periods of time without ever replacing a string. Public school students who rent instruments from a local music shop, accruing credit toward an eventual instrument purchase, often have an advantage over their peers who purchase each fractional instrument along the way in regard to strings because rental instruments are regularly serviced by the rental company. When a student is ready for a full-sized instrument (4/4 violins and cellos, 15.5+” violas, 3/4+ basses) — usually during junior high school — families begin to purchase instruments of better quality than rentals for their children with the intention that these instruments be used through adulthood (or until a finer instrument can be afforded). Unfortunately, if students and families are not properly guided through the care and maintenance process, strings can be played on for years and years. It was not uncommon for me to have 12th graders playing on the strings that their violin came with when they purchased it in 7th grade, provided they hadn’t snapped or unraveled!

I love the String Bank idea, and I hope these two young artists are very successful in making professional musicians aware of the usefulness of their discarded tools, supplying students with much-needed equipment, and streamlining the process so as to better serve more community music-making. As it turns out, I didn’t vote for the fifth winner. So many good choices!