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Secret Compartment

I’ve been learning to play fiddle on an instrument which was given to my big brother (the trout), Salvelinas Fontinalis, by our grandfather, when Salvelinas was a boy. After a bad experience with a nasty teacher, my brother packed away the fiddle (he may have thought it was a violin back then). When we got it cleaned up, and had a new tailpiece with micro-tuners installed, Salvelinas reckoned it hadn’t been played in over 60 years.

Grandpa knew what he was doing when it came to violins. He played and as well he made and repaired them. He also passed that craft down to my uncle Gene, who became well-known in the Chicago area for his instruments. This instrument has an old label inside. It says Giovani Paolo Maggini. Made in Germany.

This violin was certainly not made by Giovani Maggini. He was an Italian instrument maker who lived from about 1580-1630. He set up shop in Florence, where he made instruments until the plague got him. My fiddle was made in Germany, and is in the style of a Maggini instrument. Apparently violins which are copies are often labeled this way. I read on a forum somewhere on the internet that there were quite a number of Maggini copies made in Germany for the student market. On the same forum, one poster suggested they are not well-loved in classical circles but are well-enjoyed among folk fiddlers.

The fiddle came in a somewhat beat-up but serviceable case. When I see fiddlers with fancy padded nylon cases for their fiddles I sometimes think something like that would be a safer option for carrying around my instrument. On the other hand, my case has a certain character and dignity which I like.

I hadn’t realized until recently that there is a compartment at the top of the case. I guess the original handle tab for the compartment has long broken off. When I opened it up, I was surprised it contained some goodies.

There are two cakes of rosin, which were each wrapped in its own little black cloth. One of the cakes is dark and the other is light, and both seemed to have survived the ravages of time very well.

Rosin comes from pine trees. It is tapped, much like we tap maple syrup. Sometimes it is mixed with sap from other trees like spruces or larches. It gets cooked up and poured into molds. Rosin which is tapped during maple sugar time is the amber, harder stuff. In the summer and fall, it is darker and softer.

It’s the application of rosin to the bow of a fiddle that makes the whole deal work. There are apparently plenty of differences between cheap and high quality rosin in terms of both sound and dustiness. I’ve read that the dark rosins are better on lower strings and the lighter rosins better on higher strings – but I’ve yet to see a fiddler use two different rosins. I also read that dark rosin is too soft to use during really hot weather. There are also rosins with additives like gold or silver, each of which helps produce a particular character of tone. I’m still at the stage where I know if I put some rosin on my bow I can play. Maybe one day this level of detail will become important to me. For now, I’m not too worried about it and I’ll happily use the rosin from the secret compartment.

There have also been some strings sitting in the compartment for 60-odd years. One, an E string, is labeled Heinl. Geo. Heinl and Company have been operating a violin shop in Toronto since 1926. There are two other strings in the compartment, but only one is labeled. It is made by a company called Imperial of “the finest gut”. I think the other is a gut string as well, although it is unlabled. Both are in glassine envelopes.

I wonder what time has done to the gut strings and if they are still usable. I don’t have any sense of what a gut string is like on a fiddle compared to other strings. I know on banjos, players use a kind of nylon strings which simulate gut banjo strings. They have a mellower tone and a little less volume than steel strings and some players love them.

I’m making some progress on the fiddle. For me at least it is a more difficult instrument than banjo. This is because there is a small fingerboard which is fretless and because it takes time to develop a feeling for bowing the instrument. I’m confident in time I’ll get the hang of fiddling a bunch of old time tunes.


  1. Salvelinas Fontinalis

    Many folks become confused about the difference between a violin and a fiddle so in the interest of clarity I want to explain the difference. It is simple really. A violin has strings. A fiddle has strangs.

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