All About Rosin for Violin Strings

Violin rosin: Everything I just discovered at the adult weekend music camp

There was something special about the people who attended the Bathurst Adult Strings Workshop. They had a zesty give-it-a-go-attitude towards playing dramatic Vivaldi and the less frightening Purcell. Lots of fun, yoga and pizza. So the music part of the weekend gets a big thumbs up, but the second best part of the whole weekend was learning more about rosin for violin strings. Really? Well yes. Rosin turns out to be interesting stuff.

The whole group at the music camp listened to a ‘rosin chat’ given by Andrew Baker who was one of the tutors for the weekend. He’s a violin teacher and music education researcher who is associated with the Mitchell Conservatorium in Bathurst. He has discovered a passion for the rosin used on the bows of our string instruments.

When it comes to string instruments he appreciates the hand made element of the violins, violas and cellos. He loves the look and feel of an instrument that has been lovingly handcrafted using the best quality materials. Everywhere you look on the violin you see perfection. From the masterly handcrafted scroll to the beautifully antiqued varnish on the wood, even the velvet in the cases and the careful shaping of the bows. The instruments and accessories, and everything to do with string playing has been carefully honed for centuries to make the experience of playing better. In his research, Andrew has followed the modern innovations in the making of tailpieces and shoulder rests and so on with a growing awareness – and to some extent, annoyance, that rosin doesn’t receive the same care and attention. Even the little cardboard rosin boxes that disintegrate over a short space of time, started to annoy him.

He started looking into it and collected as many different rosins as he could find from around the world. Comparing them became more than a hobby. He learned how rosin is made, how resins and other ingredients differ from country to country due to environmental conditions and distilling techniques; why different rosins suit different string types, different bows, and different playing techniques.

(You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, but I knew none of this before the Bathurst weekend workshop for adults.)

So Andrew decided to make his own rosin. Following the ethos of the violin making tradition, he sourced beautiful Australian specialty timbers to use as the casing, and sourced and distilled pine resin from Australia to use as the base ingredient (the first rosin to do so!) He narrowed it down to two recipes: Supple and Crisp. He blended this Australian Resin with Leatherwood beeswax (sourced in Tasmania) and a range of international resins, hence the name Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin.

leather-wrapped-rosin

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin – handcrafted by Andrew Baker

In Andrew’s exploration of Rosin making, he realises that different rosins feel and sound different on the string. One that works well for the beginning of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto may require a different ‘blend’ to that used for the second violin part of a Mahler symphony. And with the limitless variables of playing techniques, bow weights and strengths, string and instrument types, as well as playing contexts, Rosin should adhere (pun definitely intended) to the needs of the player – an ideal that can be achieved through creating individual blends for each player; which is the focus of Andrew’s investigations.

To store the rosin, Andrew then uses Australian Deer Leather to wrap the rosin, protecting it from damage.

At the workshop, Andrew gave us some acetone to take the current rosin off our bow so that we could try out his Australian hand made stuff. I chose his viola supple rosin to try out and it made a positive difference to the sound (but maybe it’s just because I’ve never once cleaned the rosin off my bow ever before). It would be worth trying it out again.

Here’s some of the questions we asked Andrew Baker:

What is violin rosin made of?

Rosin is made from tree sap, or resin, and mostly it’s from pine trees.  The resin that comes from the tree is distilled and purified. Each rosin maker has their own recipe, some even add gold, silver, lead or copper flecks, apparently ‘it adds to the grip on the string’.  The mixture is cooled then poured into molds to form rosin cakes.


What’s the difference between rosins?

Generally, darker rosin is softer and stickier, and gives a bigger sound for cello strings. Lighter rosin is good to use in humid weather and also gives a smoother sound but it also produces more dust (you have to clean your violin strings and violin more often.)

Also if you are a bit of an allergic person, then watch out for the rosin powder. You can buy a special rosin, which should reduce or eliminate the problem.

How to apply rosin to your bow

You want to end up with an even coat of rosin over the entire length of the hair. Not enough rosin and you won’t get a good sound from your violin.  Too much rosin and you will coat your bow and violin with a fine coat of white sticky powder.  

Use long slow strokes to apply your rosin along the bow. Press the bow gently against the rosin and move it in both directions. Change the position of the rosin as you go along.

 

How often should I use rosin on my bow?

It probably depends on how long you spend playing your instrument but many people rosin their bow too often. Rosin should be applied maybe once per playing session or you may get a more harsh sound. When it comes to rosin: less is more.


Several members of Innominato-Strings attended the annual Bathurst Weekend adult strings workshop 2015. Andrew Baker was one of the violin tutors and he’s working hard to make the best violin rosin possible. The workshop was a blast and we played a lot more music than we bargained for over the weekend. Read more here.

 

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