“What do you want to do to my violins?”
That was the first thing Kenneth Slowik said to me when I cornered him at the Smithsonian Castle last month. Slowik, artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society, had just finished performing a set of Bach sonatas in a sold-out room.
“I thought it’d be fun if I played some fiddle songs on one of your Stradivarius violins,” I said, quickly rolling out my credentials as a writer and the fiddle player for a popular local band. “I promise to be very, very careful.”
He agreed to the idea, though I wasn’t sure he meant it.
On the cab ride home, my boyfriend expressed his doubts: “If they knew how clumsy you are, they’d never let you near those instruments.”
Even if you’re not a classical music buff, you’ve probably heard of Stradivarius violins. Made by Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari in the 17th and 18th centuries, these violins are among the best sounding and most beautiful instruments ever made. And they aren’t cheap: One Strad, known as The Lady Blunt, set a world record when it sold for $15.9 million in 2011.
These insanely expensive instruments are often owned by philanthropists and loaned to famous musicians, who subject them to the indignities of air travel and occasionally leave them on trains or cabs. That’s why some people think they should be left safely inside museum display cases. Others feel it’s just plain wrong not to play them. The National Museum of American History splits the difference, keeping its Strads in climate-controlled lockers, but bringing them out for regular concerts in the museum.
The museum’s Strads are not your ordinary million-dollar violins. Among the collection are three of only 11 decorated Strads in existence. For instance, “the Greffuhle” (named after a famous previous owner) is inset with ivory dots and diamonds on an ebony background, and embossed with a pattern of animals, flowers and vines.
A few weeks after our run-in at the Castle, it was that very violin that Slowik handed me to play.
I was standing in front of a statue of a bare-chested George Washington at the Smithsonian Museum of American History when Slowik passed me the Greffuhle Stradivarius.
“Can I put my face on it?” I said, eyeing the multimillion-dollar instrument.
It’s not as weird of a question as it sounds. Modern violins have chin rests, so your greasy face never actually touches the instrument. That’s a 19th-century invention, though, and the Smithsonian has its Strads set up in much the same way they were originally: no chin rest and with strings made of lamb gut.
With Slowik’s assurance, I gingerly placed my chin on the violin and played a note — an open A, the note that orchestras tune to.
It didn’t sound very good. I mean, it was OK, but there were no angels singing from heaven. Then Slowik had me move my bow slightly closer to my nose, and suddenly it was like I’d been transported from the noisy museum into a concert hall.
“Oh, wow!” I said.
Slowik explained that every note on the Strad has its own sweet spot, and so you have to constantly adjust where you put your bow (not to mention how quickly you move it, and how hard you press). That kind of technical skill is well beyond my reach, but I was still able to get some nice sounds out of the instrument. I tried a high A and the crystalline sound rang out across the museum.
A small crowd gathered, so I explained what I was doing there. “I’m not a real violinist,” I said. Rather, I was just there to find out what a fiddle tune might sound like on a Stradivarius violin.
I launched into a song I learned as a kid called “Bile ’Dem Cabbage Down,” which, I suppose, is about boiling cabbage. The refined voice of the Strad didn’t quite fit with the down-home sentiment of the song.
“Do you want to try the Tommy Jarrell fiddle for a contrast here?” said Slowik, explaining that Jarrell was a famous Appalachian fiddle player. Slowik shook the violin, and something slid around inside.
I picked up Jarrell’s fiddle and peeked cautiously inside, spotting two dried rattlesnake rattles.
Slowik noted that, before Jarrell bought it, the violin might have been used in the Civil War. It certainly looked battle-scarred, with bruises of darkened varnish and a thick layer of rosin dust.
But oh, was that ugly fiddle a joy to play! As I sawed away on it, the crowd began to dance. Couples hooked arms and do-si-do’d while I ran through every country tune I could think of. I would have kept playing all afternoon, but Slowik looked like he’d had about enough.
“I’ll take this one!” I said.
And I meant it. If I could borrow any instrument from the Smithsonian’s collection, I’d leave the beautiful Greffuhle Stradivarius for real violinists to play, and I’d take Jarrell’s rattlesnake fiddle instead. I think the Greffuhle would be fine with that: It seemed almost frustrated with me when I wasn’t able to make it sing. Like a mirror of truth, it immediately laid bare all of my musical and technical shortcomings. The fiddle, on the other hand, didn’t mind my less-than-precise playing. It just wanted to start a party. And together, we very nearly did.
More on the Smithsonian’s Strads