New York Times headline says, "A Strad? Violinists Can’t Tell." USA Today's headline said, "Violinists can't tell new violins from old, study shows." The Daily Mail: "Is it all just a fiddle? World's leading violinists CAN'T tell the difference between a Stradivarius worth millions of pounds and a modern instrument."The
They are talking about a study by Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, Hugues Borsarello, Indiana Wollman, Fan-Chia Tao, and Thierry Ghasarossian, whose results were published online April 7 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study was conducted in September 2012 at the Auditorium Jean-Pierre Miquel (Coeur de Ville) in Vincennes.
Even the study itself, entitled "Soloist evaluations of six Old Italian and six new violins," claims, "The current study, the second of its kind, again shows that first-rate soloists tend to prefer new instruments and are unable to distinguish old from new at better than chance levels."
Is that really what this study proved? I thought it might be a good idea to read the actual study and look at the details of the process and supporting information.
Here are some thoughts, after doing so.
First, the luthiers and social scientists who did this study picked a nice group of people to participate: the 10 soloists who tested the violins were: Olivier Charlier, Pierre Fouchenneret, Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, Ilya Kaler, Elmar Oliveira, Tatsuki Narita, Solenne Païdassi, Annick Roussin, Giora Schmidt, and Stéphane Tran Ngoc. (That's seven males, three females). Based on the information given, two of those people normally play new violins, one plays both a modern and a new; and seven play old violins.
In two 75-minute sessions, players were asked to evaluate 12 violins -- six old, and six new -- and choose which one they would want, if they were replacing their own violin. In the final seven minutes of the last session, they were given violins in rapid succession and ask to identify which were old and which were new. The whole experiment was "double-blind," players wore goggles and could not see the instruments. The study listed no information about the preparation of the violins; whether the makers of the new instruments were hovering nearby, ready to adjust the soundpost and bridge, whether luthiers even looked at the Strads before they were used (this was a problem in the first test). Also, we don't know how old the strings were on any of the violins, and if they were all the same age. That can make a huge difference in the perception of a violin, whether the strings are brand-new; new but nicely broken in; or just plain old. I'd be curious, and maybe there's an answer for that.
When it came to preference, six violinists preferred new violins and four preferred old ones. The players did not do better than the roll of dice when it came to the seven-minute guessing game at the end.
What does all this prove? To me it proves that new violins do better than 300-year-old ones in brief, blind tests. I'm not in the least bit surprised by this. Time and time again, violinists tell me that the 300-year-old Italian violins, such as the Strads of the Golden Period, take time to learn to play -- years, even. The rewards come over a long period of active partnership, which also involves experimenting with set-up, strings, etc. If the period of time is a couple of hours, then I would imagine that yes, new violins would be easier and more preferable. Even so, just 6 of the 10 soloists in the study preferred them. It was nice, though, that the players had a bit more time to evaluate these violins than in the first study.
The soloists certainly were not given much time, when it came to identifying which violins were old and which were new. In fact, that part of the experiment took place for a total of 7 minutes, at the very end of the second of two 75-minute sessions. Instructions for the players were: "We will now present you with a series of violins one at a time in random order. Play each for 30 seconds then guess what kind of instrument it is." In other words, at the point where they would have the highest amount of fatigue from playing all these violins, they were given a half-dozen or more violins in rapid succession, in random order, and asked to identify them as being old or new in 30 seconds apiece.
You can tell me how legitimate that sounds to you. I welcome your thoughts, and certainly I'd recommend that everyone read the actual study before letting the headlines do the thinking.
Let me add, I would agree with many people who have said that the present moment is also a golden period of violin making. There are some amazing luthier/artists out there whose extraordinary work deserves the highest praise and whose instruments deserve to be in the hands of the finest players. I also respect the old Italian instruments for what they are: shining examples of the art of lutherie that have withstood the test of time.
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