The first time I played with silk, it was an interesting sensation. The strings felt rough and it was difficult to play. However, it maybe because the strings I played on at the time were of the dying Huqiu brand of the 70s. They were thick and coarse and hurts the fingers.
It was only a few years afterwards did I got my hands on a set of silk strings. Huqiu brand from a music shop in the US of A; online. The colouration was somewhat dark and the texture was sticky. I had difficulty stringing them on the qin. I feared that they will break so strung them with barely enough tension and the buzzing and string slapping was horrendous. After continuous sweaty attemps at trying to get them to a high enough tension, I still hadn’t perfected the art of stringing silk strings. The whole problem was down to my under-estimation of how strong silk strings were.
I then played on silk (strung on my old qin) on and off for a few months at a time. The sound was OK but it didn’t feel right. An early recording is on Youtube: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=6orMVKNAggk
The main problem with the strings was that they hurt the fingers when I slid on them. They were too coarse. I reverted my qin back to metal-nylon eventually.
The next great leap into silk strings was when the Taigu silk strings by Fred Wong came out. I bought a set from another online retailer. I tried them out and they were better than the Huqiu brand. They were thinner, smoother and less sticky than Huqiu. The colour was more light and the strings felt fine under the fingers. After re-adjusting to them, I found them rather nice. In fact, they make my old qin sound better than with metal-nylon!
Silk strings are more difficult to play with. In order to avoid scratchy sounds and buzzing, you have to play it differently from your average m-n. Plucking must be gentle and you must use more flesh in your ring finger to press on the strings. The plucking is more to the left and position must be more precise. Certainly, an added difficulty is not only in the playing but also in the physical fingers. They must be dry and not clammy or the sound and playing will be affected. And probably the most important is string quality. If you play on a set of bad strings on a good qin, the results are bad. But with a good set of strings on a good instrument, the sound is very good indeed.
So, should you now all change your m-n strings to silk? Not quite yet. There are several factors one should consider.
Ideally, you should have at least TWO qins. Why? Because this will avoid you having to change the string type around again and again. One should ideally have one qin with m-n and one with silk, permanently. Of course, if one has only one qin then a decision must be made of whether to change or not. This must be made by looking at what kind of qin it is in question.
Firstly, if the qin was made prior to the development of m-n strings (i.e. 1960s) then it is already suitable for silk and thus you must change it. This is because qins made before have been tested and played on silk so they are made with silk strings in mind. Qins made after are more or less based on m-n strings and are thus not particularly suitable for silk though you could always try. If the qin is decent enough, the sound not particularly great, one can try on some silk to see if there can be an improvement.
Secondly, if the sole qin is a very good high end m-n qin that sounds great, then it is best to keep it that way. Since it sounds very good with m-n, there should be no need to change strings. You must therefore get another qin of decent or better quality for silk.
Of course, for a good silk string sound, you ought to get a good silk qin. The only maker who specifically makes qins for silk is Wang Peng. Or get a pre-m-n era qin. Both are expensive options. But one can make do with a good modern qin as long as one has very good silk strings.
Since Taigu, Huqiu has more or less died. There are, however, one or two makers still of silk strings since then but they are difficult to get hold of. It is down to the reignition in interest with silk and the conversion back to silk by a number of players that has caused other makers to emerge and start making silk strings. Currently, I’ve heard of a maker, backed by NAGA, that is said to have made strings of a quality better than Taigu. I have yet to verify this claim but it seems to be that with more people trying out silk, the quality, demand and competition has grown. This is a good thing.
Since I obtained a good m-n qin (the ZCW) I can now use my old qin specifically for silk. After stringing it (better this time) I played on it for a few days and after more re-stringing to perfect the tension, it will now stay that way indefinately. The tone is good and I had perfected my stringing.
But I suppose the big question is; why should I use silk instead of/as well as m-n?
That question will be answered in the next installment of Silk Strings – Plucking up the Courage.