January 7, 2012 at 9:16 PMIn a blind taste test, violinists can't tell the difference between old violins and new ones, according all the hype surrounding a recent study about player preferences among new and old violins published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. journal.
I was one of those violinists (don't judge me!) Yes, during the Violin Competition of Indianapolis in Sept. 2010, I went to a hotel room so that I could spend one glorious hour with two Strads, a Guarneri del Gesù and three cream-of-the-crop moderns. Here's the evidence:
Headlines across the world proclaimed this week that "Concert Violinists Can't Identify the Sound of a Multi-Million-Pound Stradivarius" and "Study Shows Even Professional Musicians Can't Tell Old Master Violins from New."
Well, that's a little irksome.
Now a lot of you found it easy to pick the Strad in NPR's Strad vs. Modern test, in which the beginning of the Tchaik concerto was played on a Strad and on a modern fiddle. And guess what, I got that one right, too.
But it wasn't actually our task to pick the Italian in this study -- it was to pick our preference.
I was happy to serve as a guinea pig for this study; and I'm not a bad choice for the taste test. I've played the violin for 35 years; recently my regular violins were a modern fiddle (for some 10 years) and for the last five years, a mid-1800s Italian. I've tested a good number of Strads and Guarneri del Gesùs, and I'm a competent violinist with a degree in music from Northwestern University.
Upon arriving, I was fitted with modified welders' goggles, and I entered a darkened room. I was then presented with 10 pairs of violins. For each pair, I had a minute to play whatever I wanted on the first violin, then a minute to play whatever I wanted on the second, without switching back and forth. After playing each for one minute, I was asked to choose which of the two I preferred. Then on to the next pair -- 10 times altogether. I thought I was testing 20 violins!
As it turns out, I was testing 6 violins, just paired up differently each time. One always was an old violin, the other was a modern, and they used different combinations against each other.
A few things to know about the six violins involved: there were three moderns, two Strads and one Guarneri del Gesù. To quote directly from the full text of the study: "The new violins were each by a different makers and were between several days and several years old. They were chosen from a pool of violins assembled by the authors (*of the study, that would be Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, Palmer Morrel-Samuels and Fan-Chia Tao) who then selected the three that they felt had the most impressive playing qualities and contrasted with each other in terms of character of sound."
As for the old violins: one was a Guarneri del Gesù (circa 1740) and two were Antonio Stradivari (circa 1700 and 1715) "These violins were loaned with the stipulation that they remain in the condition in which we received them -- precluding any tonal adjustments or even changing the strings." That means that, whatever happened to the old violins during their trip -- if they got jostled on the airplane, etc. -- there was no soundpost adjustment, no bridge adjustment, no check for open seams. If the strings were a little older, they were a little older.
The study stated that "although the instruments were not all set up with the same strings, all had the very typical combination of a steel E with metal-wound, synthetic core strings for the rest. All strings appeared to be in good condition." Well, okay, they looked good. Have you ever had strings that looked good and sounded bad? But I digress. My concern is this: it sounds to me like the older instruments were not optimized -- by either selection or by luthier adjustments -- while the new moderns were.
The test was not over after the 20 violins, which were really six violins. After that part of it, the six violins were laid out on the bed, and I was given 20 minutes to play with them as I liked. My task was to choose which of these violins I would take home if I could, and also to decide which of the six was "best" and "worst" in each of four categories: range of tone colors, projection, playability and response.
According to the results of the study, one of the Strads was fairly universally disliked, but beyond that, the results were like a coin toss. I have to chuckle here because, if I'm comparing my answers (which I was given by Claudia Fritz) and the study, it appears that I liked the Strad that did not compare well for others against the moderns. My guess is that it reminded me of my familiar Italian at home: sweet and actually not extremely projecting. I'm an orchestra player, after all!
However, the instrument I liked best at the end of this ordeal was one of the moderns (Modern 1), and I said, "I like the feedback it was giving me, a consistent sound over the strings, you can make it sweet. It has potential." (Interesting that I would say it has potential, yes? I suspected it was a modern.) But looking at my comments over the course of the experiment, I rated that same violin best in terms of playability, worst in terms of projection.
Of the del Gesu I said, "It has a more complicated personality." Of the Strad that others didn't like but I did: "Good projection and not as harsh as M2." Basically, I thought Modern fiddle 2 sounded "harsh" compared to the Strad; I think my ears were not liking "loud" that day!
Overall, a lot of us were very inconsistent; the only consistent thing was that a good number of people did not prefer the 1700 Strad.
I was not asked to identify specifically which was the modern violin and which was the old violin; only which I preferred. If people are concluding from this study that "professional violinists can't tell the difference between modern violinist and old Italians," then I think we need a different study in which violinists are actually asked to identify that.
But do violinists prefer one or the other, or can we conclude that all things are equal, based on this study?
I think we can conclude that, with a very limited amount of playing time and under circumstances that are a lot like those in a violin shop (a dry room, lots of testing), we are just as impressed with the tonality of great new instruments as with the tonality of great old ones. Also, different violinists look for different attributes. I'm an orchestral musician, with small hands: I probably prefer something colorful over something loud; and something that fits my hands over something unwieldy for my particular body-type.
This study certainly doesn't tell us what happens between a player and a fiddle over a long-term relationship, and this is an important factor. Even over the course of this short testing situation, people's opinions changed and evolved. It's sort of like dating; that chemistry on the first date could be the prelude to a blissful, 40-year union. Or, on the third or fourth date, you could begin discovering that your new beau has unbearably bad breath, hates classical music and just wants to watch re-runs of the "Dukes of Hazzard" and listen to Asia.
Modern violins can improve with age, or they can "lose their sound," as I've heard so many people lament, and as I've experienced myself. Old violins have their antique value and can lend a certain wisdom to a person's playing, but they can be inconsistent in their tone from one day to the next and difficult to play, a complaint I've also frequently heard. (People don't tend to voice those complaints too publicly, when borrowing a $10 million violin from a benefactor, but there you have it.)
Honestly, I have no issue with the idea that a well-made modern can sound as good as a $8 million Strad. The moderns I played under these odd circumstances were just beautiful-sounding. The old Italians were, too. This is good news for us violinists, because virtually none of us can afford a multi-million dollar Strad.
During the same event when this study took place, another more informal "study" was done by those who did this one. While jurors were deliberating over the outcome of the Indianapolis violin competition, the audience that was gathered was asked to evaluate some moderns vs. old Italians. Indianapolis Symphony Concertmaster Zach De Pue played four pairs of violins, allowing the audience to decide which they liked best of each pair, based on playing excerpts from "Scheherazade" and Strauss's 'Don Juan.' Each pair included one old and one modern violin. The votes were very close each time, but ultimately the audience chose one modern violin and three Strads, from the years 1699, 1714 and 1715. Several more tests and votes narrowed the fiddles to the one the audience liked best: Jimmy Lin's 1715 Strad. (Was that non-preferred Strad from the study in the mix? I'm guessing it was, and it was the one not-preferred).
None of these violins were "bad." As I said, it was a close contest.
I want to state that I absolutely support modern makers, who are artists themselves and who deserve our attention and support.
But let me also offer some perspective about these extremely exceptional old fiddles and why we hold them in very high regard:
Yesterday I stood with my daughter in front of a 250-year-old painting, The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough. No little Internet replica can lend a clue as to why this painting is great. There it was, high on the wall, larger-than-life, this boy staring out at us from 1770. No photo could have looked so real; I can't fully explain what captivated us so thoroughly. We stood and stared. This painting was made before every human currently standing on the planet; how could it have survived so well, so long? I had the same feeling, when I held the Vieuxtemps del Gesù -- how could this beautiful object remain so pristine, so intact, after so many years? The wood -- it was probably standing in a forest for 200 years even before it was carved by the master into this object. But there was an added dimension: here was the violin played by Vieuxtemps and so many artists after -- what music it has made! And it isn't through making music; I raised it to my shoulder and played it -- such an easy and satisfying response -- it lives. This object made by an artist from centuries past not only has survived in body, it has survived in soul.
Not so scientific-sounding, eh? But we are artists, and history and imagination are part of it. We can make history as well.
It is unfortunate that the people reporting on this study drew the wrong conclusions from the study. I suppose it makes a juicier headline.
I voted "yes" simply because I have read such amazing descriptions of the sound of certain Guarneris and Strads, with analogies I've never heard applied to modern instruments. But of course those examples were also biased--the player knew exactly what they were playing.
I sat next to Joe Curtin at an earlier, much more informal version of the test you took part in. It was at the annual Oberlin violinmaking workshop that I visited one last time as I was finishing up "The Violin Maker" in 2006. As I recall, Joe spent a lot of time just shaking his head as the moderns were played beside the famous old guys. Neither he nor any other of the well-respected violin makers assembled that day could reliably distinguish the old from the new.
Though the book is years behind me, I still enjoy visiting your site.
Whilst I agree that some old Strads and D G's may be hard too play and take time to get used to, some contemporary instruments can be like that too. My new fiddle took a couple of weeks to get used to and I expect I will need the next few months to feel that I know all its secrets and whims.
In the end it is not just the instrument, but our chemistry and how we relate to a certain instrument. It takes time to get the best sound - that could be weeks, months, or a couple of years.
I think the good news is that we can buy new instruments from excellent makers for a reasonable price, and that these instruments can hold their own against any competition from the old masters.
Many thanks for sharing your insights into the double blind tests. Being a violin maker for over thirty years now the magical and illusive nature of violin sound has always fascinated me.
There is something extraordinary about old Italian instruments that modern violins don’t quite have yet. That sense of awe knowing that Kreisler, Elman, Milstein and others would have played on them. Their musical imprint is left behind. Sensitive players will always tune in to that and it will draw them in. Conversely a new violin is a blank slate and I am amazed how each player can be a part of its history molding the sound.
For me the most imminent part of ‘testing’ violins is in a hall. I know this has been clichéd numerous times but it is beyond belief to see how the ambience or acoustical qualities of a hall can either enhance or decrease a violins warmth and roundness. This has very little to do with ‘loudness’ and ‘volume’ but more to do with a richness or sweetness that captivates you and gives you goose bumps.
When musicians come to visit my workshop and we are trying out instruments I always encourage them to avoid trying to compare them against each other but rather to try and find the hidden essence in each one independently. This tends to open up a whole new dimension as one then truly listens without any involvement from ones logical and analytical mind. No two people are the same and no one is better or worse than anyone else, maybe the same could be applied to violins as well.
I do still have one burning question, though. Okay, maybe TWO burning questions: What are some of the names on the newer violins? And, if this study was performed in order to bring attention to masterful works of modern-day luthiers, why are we not hearing their names? The group conducting the study should release the names. They should shout them from the rooftops, no? Not knowing their names is just anti-climactic if you ask me.
Thanks, again, Laurie!
Buri, so true about the time it takes to learn to play an old fiddle, I can even say the same of my Gagliano. It has been my main teacher for the last five years. The pieces I already knew, I now know differently. I sounds like an insane person when I say this, but the violin has wacked me upside the head a few times, as if saying, "What, you're playing this like THAT? No no, listen to me!" But now I can go to a modern instrument and get something different from it.
Royce, noted. Any excuse to get more new boots is excellent. Robert might not like it, then again, he might!
Christin, your burning questions about who made the modern fiddles that tested so well against the Italians: Everyone was sworn to secrecy on this point. Also we were just plain not told. You'd have to beg Joseph Curtin for that info. But let me give you a few recent recommendations from interviews I've done lately (very lately). Mark Fewer speaks very eloquently at the end of the interview we did this week about his violin by Ann Arbor maker Feng Jiang (who, incidentally, was one of the luthiers present at that Indianapolis Competition where the study took place). Also, Mikhail Simonyan very much loves his Christophe Landon fiddle.
I suspect any really good violin will place more demands on its player, not fewer, if the zenith of its capabilities are to be reached. This is what makes "playability" or "responsiveness" nearly impossible to measure on a double-blind basis, and it calls into question whether these are even well defined quantities.
The take-home for me is that, yes, there are people alive today making darned good violins.
I wasn't so concerned about the moderns being cherry-picked and the Italians not being cherry picked, for the same reasons Lisa states. I was concerned, though, about the moderns being optimized with new strings, a careful check on the soundpost placement, etc., whereas the older fiddles were not.
"Headlines across the world proclaimed this week that "Concert Violinists Can't Identify the Sound of a Multi-Million-Pound Stradivarius" and "Study Shows Even Professional Musicians Can't Tell Old Master Violins from New."
Well, that's a little irksome."
I can't agree more with you Laurie! And as soon as my mailbox will stop filling up so madly, I'll post on my website the real story behind the curtain, for which I could use the same title as yours, except that I would remove "sound" as the idea was not just to study violin sound (for which listeners could have done the job) but the whole experience of playing (for which we definitely needed players).
I'm indeed annoyed by the extrapolation of our results/conclusions in the media, the transformation of what we wrote, what we actually
studied and ... what, in some cases, we told to journalists! And as most people don't have access to the full paper, it would be important to spread the real conditions of the test (which you, Ariane and John have started doing, for example with comments like "But it wasn't actually our task to pick the Italian in this study -- it was to pick our preference") and to explain as well our different choices along the experimental methodology.
Edition on January 13: A webpage is finally available about the study
In addition to the complete paper (livened up with some pics!), you can read our responses to the most frequently leveled criticisms.
One question though (and I ask that you all forgive me should my humor be inappropriate during such a weighty discussion): what's so bad about the band Asia?
Samuel, I was waiting for someone to bring that up! Actually, I associate Asia with being a teenager in the 80s, lol. Might not be too unhealthy, as an occasional guilty pleasure, but all the time? Really gotta move on, in that case!
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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