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Comparing Strads and Moderns, with Phillip Setzer, Cho-Liang Lin and the Paris Experiment researchers

By Laurie Niles
Published: October 21, 2014 at 14:34

How do modern violins compare to the best Strads, when played side-by-side?

One of the most memorable events in Indianapolis last month was when violinists Phillip Setzer and Cho-Liang Lin took time from their duties as jurists at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis to perform on Stradivari violins and great moderns, including prize-winning moderns from the Violin Society of America's instrument contest, which took place at the same time. Not only that, but violin maker Joseph Curtin and researcher Claudia Fritz, known for their experiments with modern and old instruments, provided context by presenting some of their thoughts and findings during this event, called "Violin Quality and the Paris Experiment," which was as much a concert as a lecture on Sept. 20 at the Indiana History Center.

Phillip Setzer started by performing his own arrangement of the Schubert Song, Du Bist die Ruh, first on the 1714 "Jackson" Strad, then on Setzer's own violin made by Sam Zygmuntowicz, which was based on the Jackson.


He played with pianist Chih-Yi Chen. Frankly I was distracted from the task at hand (trying to discern the difference between the instruments) by Setzer's gorgeous playing. Across the board was his sound, intimate and personal in the beginning, and then flowering and growing through the piece. And what a beautiful vibrato, with such loose fingers! In this case, I couldn't help but think, for the audience, the player makes the music. For the violinist, the instrument is the partner, and an artist's opinion about the instrument has to be connected to whether or not it easily makes the music as he wants it. He may have to try harder to produce his voice and his interpretation with one than the other, but the audience may not discern this when the artist is such a fine one.

Following Setzer's performance, Curtin talked about the myths and beliefs surrounding old vs. new violins. "Stradivari and Guarneri del Gésu are, for me, the greatest makers we've known yet," Curtin said. But their legacy of excellence sometimes causes modern violin makers to live under a kind of paternal cloud, hindered by the feeling of a "varnished spruce ceiling" of violin making. "It can paralyze a young maker."

Curtin challenged some long-held beliefs about old violins vs. new. Among them:

1. Violins improve with playing; the longer and better they are played, the more they improve.
2. Any competent violinist can separate old from new violins by playing them.
3. The best old Italians are quiet under the ear but out-project seemingly louder new instruments in the hall.
4. Strads and del Gésus have distinct voices.
5. The sound of the best old Italians have never been reproduced in newer violins.

These beliefs have evolved over time, and "we rely on what great violinists from the past have said," Curtin said. But are they true? "Scientists don't believe or disbelieve, they just want to test this." What do recent "ear-witness" accounts suggest?

Curtin and French National Centre for Scientific Research researcher Claudia Fritz led the controversial 2010 double-blind study that was held in conjunction with the previous Indianapolis competition.

"We agreed there were limits to the study -- it was the first one we did, and we had to learn from it," Fritz said. Curtin and Fritz took the results and the criticisms, and they devised a new study, to be done in a concert hall with top players and more instruments. The "Paris experiment," as they called it took place in 2012 at two locations on the outskirts of Paris, France, with 12 violins, six old and six new; and 10 soloists with international careers. There were two sessions, an hour and fifteen minutes each, and participants were allowed to use their own bows. They played in a small rehearsal hall, then in a 300-seat hall, with reduced lighting and wearing welding glasses.

Claudia Fritz and Joseph Curtin, who is holding welding glasses like those used in the Paris Experiment

In the concert hall, they were allowed the feedback of one friend, and they were permitted to have the violins played for them, so they could hear them from a distance, not just under the chin.

Their task: to choose a violin for a hypothetical solo tour, next week.

What were the results of the Paris experiment? Well you can look at them in great detail here, on Claudia Fritz's website.

But here is what Fritz and Curtin spoke about in September: First, "the choices were highly individual," Fritz said. Six participants chose new violins, three chose old, and one waffled before choosing old.

Despite many news media headlines emphasizing A Strad? Violinists Can't Tell as the conclusion, this wasn't the main focus of the study, Fritz said. Violinists were not asked to focus on discerning whether the instruments were old or new for most of the experiment; this task took place at the end of the experiment, when the violinists were given 30 seconds with each instrument to guess if it was old or new. The soloists did not guess better than chance-level.

"We did that at the end because we wanted to focus on preference," Fritz said. Certainly, whether the violin was old or new was not obvious to the players in this context.

At the end of the session, Cho-Liang Lin and pianist Rohan de Silva treated us to the "Blues" movement from Ravel's Sonata for Violin, played once on Lin's own 1715 "Titian" Strad, then on the new violin by Collin Gallahue that had just won a gold medal at the Violin Society of America's competition that week. Lin had chosen that violin from among a number of the winning violins: "I loved them all," Lin said. "I felt more comfortable, knowing how to produce the sound on this one," he said of Gallahue's violin. He attributed that comfort to the fact that it was based on a 1735 del Gésu model, so it felt similar to a violin that Lin owns and regularly plays on, a Zygumunotwicz based on the same model.


Of course we in the audience didn't know which violin was which until afterwards; I had the impression that the second violin (which turns out to be the modern) sounded a little darker, but both performances sounded great and I would not have been able to guess which violin was the modern and which was the old Italian. The performance with Gallahue's violin had the added fun of a string breaking in the middle of all the strumming in that movement. Lin had to stop, run back and switch violins, then complete the piece.

Thank goodness there was another fiddle waiting in the wings.

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The Week in Reviews, Op. 53: Leonidas Kavakos, Isabelle Faust, Simon Michal in Concert

By Robert Niles
Published: October 21, 2014 at 13:36

In an effort to promote the coverage of live violin performance, Violinist.com each week presents links to reviews of notable concerts and recitals around the world.

Leonidas Kavakos
Photo courtesy Decca / © Daniel Regan

Leonidas Kavakos performed three Brahms sonatas in recital with pianist Yuja Wang.

  • The Telegraph: "He has a naturally noble sound, thanks to his fabulous bow control which can sustain an even unblemished line from tip to heel. It felt exactly right for Brahms, whose own control over his musical materials was equally iron. And in the slow movements, where Brahms relaxes and indulges his taste for rich sonorities, Kavakos’s clean, pure line kept sentimentality at bay."

Isabelle Faust performed the Britten with the San Francisco Symphony.

  • San Francisco Chronicle: "Faust give the piece a thin, laborious reading, in which mournful respect was replaced by grim hectoring."
  • San Francisco Classical Voice: "Her performance and technique were as striking as her bright red, serape-like blouse that evoked the spirit of Iberia."
  • Examiner.com: "Britten’s concerto is as technically demanding as it is intensely expressive. Fortunately, Faust approached the concerto with a solid command of technique (as solid as the technical dexterity she brought to her recording of the Berg concerto). Equally, important was her chemistry with Denève, responsible for providing her with a context based on Britten’s deep understanding of every instrument in a full orchestra."

Simon Michal performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3 with the Juilliard Orchestra.

  • The New York Times: "Czech violinist Simon Michal played with freedom and deep tone. It was a little fussy at times, but his nonchalance and ability to shape a phrase suggested a talent we will hear more from."

Pinchas Zukerman performed the Beethoven with the IRIS Orchestra.

  • The Commercial Appeal: "His performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major was a testament to the ways virtuosity can be expressed."

Valeriy Sokolov performed Bartok's Second Violin Concerto with the Ulster Orchestra.

  • Belfast Telegraph: "Intense, vibrant, technically superb, Sokolov exploited every nuance of genius in Bartok's music."

So-Ock Kim performed the Mendelssohn with the York Guildhall Orchestra.

  • The Press: "So-Ock Kim is not your typical violin virtuoso. She has all the ammunition, but she spurns fireworks for their own sake. So her account of the concerto was off the beaten track – and all the more refreshing for that."

Laurence Jackson performed the Bruch with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

  • Birmingham Post: "It was a performance of grace and good taste – a little too much of the latter perhaps."

Please support live music in your community by attending a concert or recital whenever you can!

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What I learned from practicing every day for a year:

By Kate Little
Salt Lake City, Utah
Published: October 20, 2014 at 20:34

Practice can be defined as a task that is achievable. Holding oneself to an unachievable standard can be stressful and counterproductive. My definition of practice included the following:

  • I must be alone.
  • The environment has to be clear of distractions, particularly electronic ones.
  • My head has to be clear of distractions.
  • I have to choose at least one challenging task and work to improve.
  • I have to be paying focused attention in the moment, and I have to be making progress.

Excluded from my personal practice definition were any sort of rehearsal or jam session, playing through pieces for fun or enjoyment, or performing pieces for others. Also excluded was any particular time requirement, or particular directions from the teacher. I allowed myself to decide each day’s practice content and length. To count as practice, I required myself to make progress at something on the violin solely via my own effort.

The smiley face stickers really do make a difference.

It is easier to maintain the momentum of practicing every day than it is to restart practice after taking a break. Once I let myself say, “I'm tired and have too many obligations. I’ll practice tomorrow,” it is easy to say the same the next day and the next day and the next, and all of a sudden a week has gone by with no preparation for the next lesson. Rather than the effort it takes to restart, it is easier, even at the end of a long day, to find something that can be worked on, even if for only 15 minutes.

Family will be supportive once they realize that you are serious, that practice is not negotiable. At least mine did. It was great when we got to they point where they’d say “Can I make dinner, Mom, so you have time to practice?” or “Do you need me to take your carry-on so you can take the violin?” Their support has been crucial.

You don’t ever have to ask yourself, “Do I feel like practicing today?” or “Do I have time to practice today?” Those questions are already answered with a resounding “Yes.” The only questions to ask each day are “When?” “How long?” and “What?” Once you get going with practice-every-day, it’s not that big a deal. If this is something you want to do, and you turn it into an achievable, enjoyable task, the habit is easy to develop.

Practice can be a meditative escape from our high-paced, digitized, electronic world. Practice can be a time to relax and reconnect with one’s authentic, unenhanced potential. Practice can be a time to challenge oneself to see how far one can expand one’s personal capabilities. The rewards of self-discipline, skill, self-knowledge, and music last for your lifetime. They are always yours and can never be stolen away.


P.S. October 21, 2013 – October 20, 2014: Thank you to The Weekend Vote & the Adult Starters – Violin/Fiddle Facebook group for their inspiration.

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Laurie's Violin School: What Violin Should You Buy?

By Laurie Niles
Published: October 20, 2014 at 12:25

Why get a nice violin for your student, if you aren't sure that he or she is "serious" about the violin?

If you enroll your child (or yourself!) in violin lessons, you should be serious enough about the endeavor to try to ensure success, and having a decent instrument is one part of that equation (along with adequate practice time and space, and a good teacher).

All violins are NOT created equal. One can see that just from the price range: about $20 for the cheapest Internet imports vs. tens of millions of dollars for an old Italian Stradivarius. There is a lot in between! Price does not always correlate with the "best" violin for you, particularly when one gets into the $10,000+ range. But below a certain point, a lower price does point to a certain amount of corner-cutting. Anything below about $1,000 for a full-size, and you need to watch what you are buying. Actually, no matter what, you need to watch what you are buying!

First, what's the problem with a cheap violin? If you'd like the long answer, here is the article I wrote about it. In short, if the violin is of bad quality, it's not very fun to play. It's nearly impossible to use the pegs and fine tuners. So it's out-of-tune most of the time. You put your fingers in the right places, and it's still out of tune. You try to use the bow the way your teacher says, and the sound is still squeaky, thin, tinny. The pitch bends. It's not pretty to look at. It smells funny. It feels funny. You try really, really hard to make it sound nice, and it never does, because it's impossible to make it sound nice.

What makes for a "good" violin?

1. Sound. Does it have a pleasing tone; does it respond to vibrato; does it resonate?

2. Fit. For a child, make sure you are getting the right size violin. (Here is more information on determining that.) More advanced students will want to consider: Does it fit your hand? How thick is the neck; can you get around the fingerboard easily? Does it feel particularly heavy or unwieldy? Not all violins are exactly the same shape, so it's important to get the right one for you.

3. Ease of tuning. Do the pegs work? Are they made of plastic or wood? Do they turn easily, or do they stick and slip? Are the fine-tuners metal or plastic? Do they work? Do they appear like they'll hold up under hundreds of tunings?

3. Set-up. Is the bridge set up properly? Is the bridge well-crafted or does it look thick and cheap? Is the soundpost in the right place? This greatly affects how the sound functions. You may need the help of your teacher or of a trusted violin maker to determine this.

4. Composition of the violin. Is the bottom made of maple, the top made of spruce? Is the fingerboard made of ebony or something similar? Those are the basics, and there are variations. But a violin made of cheap, improperly seasoned wood will not sound as good or hold up in the same way.

5. Craftsmanship. Is it made well? Are the seams glued properly? Is the purfling inlaid or just painted on? Is the finish and varnish attractive? Does it smell weird? Sure, some of this is cosmetic. But year-over-year, the sturdiness and beauty of good craftsmanship makes a difference.

How about a cheap violin that is old? Or one that you found in the attic? Keep in mind, when it comes to violins, old is very often (but not always) better than new. Time helps weed out really bad violins -- if it is a truly horrible instrument, people tend not to bother keeping it. You may be able to fix up an old violin and have it sound very nice. You may be able to buy an old violin for cheap, but still wind up having a nice violin. But watch out: you also may have to spend a lot of money to fix it. If the violin has cracks or open seams, you'll need to have a violin maker repair them. You'll need new strings, possibly a new bridge, have the soundpost checked, get new tuners or pegs, etc. So be prepared to pay something for repairs if you want to use the fiddle in the attic, and have a violin teacher or maker look it over and tell you if this will really be worthwhile before you commit.

I hope this helps, and I invite you to add any more considerations to the above list!

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