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Smiley Hsu

My Quest for a 'Professional' violin

May 17, 2009 at 5:25 PM

Several months ago, I began searching for a professional grade instrument.  I created a thread in v.com that got quite a bit of traction, so I wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences during my search.  Here is a link to the thread I started:

www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm

I didn't exactly count, but I would guess that I tried over 100 violins ranging in price from $5000 to well over $100,000 over the course of 4 months.  My target price was $10-$20K with a little wiggle room, but I wanted to try instruments in a wide price range so I could make an educated buying decision.

Before I get into specifics, I wanted to point out a few general observations.  An important conclusion I have reached is that there is no such thing as a perfect instrument.  If you watch James Ehnes' film about Strads and Guarneri violins, even at the highest echelon of instruments, each fiddle has its own unique characteristics.  He does not bad mouth any of the multi-million dollar instruments in the video, but he clearly prefers some over others.  I found the same to be true.  Every instrument has its strengths and weaknesses.

For me, sound was my #1 priority in choosing an instrument, followed by ease of play, then price.  Switching any of these priorities would have changed my final choice.  I really did not care about aesthetics.  Some instruments are more attractive than others, but that really did not factor into my decision. 

Since sound is so important to me, I thought I should try to verbalize what I was looking for.  First and foremost, I want a lot of power, something that will easily project in a piano trio and a string quartet with other semi-professional musicians who play loud instruments.  Secondly, I wanted a warm, full sound that is smooth rather than edgy.  The problem I found is that loud instruments are typically bright and edgy, not warm and smooth.  And warm instruments tend to be softer and somewhat muted.  So the challenge  was to find something with a big sound, that was also warm and open.  Many instruments have power or warmth, but not both. 

Now, for some of my observations on specific makers, please keep in mind that
instruments vary quite a bit, even from the same maker, so my observations may not be indicative of all instruments from a given maker.  And there are so many makers that I wanted to try, but just didn't have the opportunity.  All the prominent makers today have long waiting lists so it is not easy to get your hands on one of their instruments.

Below, I have listed some of the "better" makers that I tried.  Next to each, I put the approximate retail price of their instruments.  The concept of sound and playability are very subjective, so even though I had my preference, any one of them could potentially produce a perfect instrument for me or anyone else.

Tetsuo Matsuda (18K)
This is probably one of the better known makers today.  Matsuda is a prolific maker and has quite a number of instruments out there, so he has a well established reputation.  If you are concerned about investment value, this would be a great choice.  If you ever need to sell a Matsuda some time down the road, chances are you will be able to find a buyer pretty readily.

I tried two Matsudas.  One was a resale, not sure about the age, but I did not care for it - the sound was not particularly good and the response was not even.  The second one I tried was brand new, and had an incredible lower register (G and D), but was quite a bit weaker in the upper register.    I wanted to try more instruments from this maker, but they are not that easy to come by.

Howard Needham (22K)
There has been a lot of hype on v.com regarding this maker, so I was most anxious to try his instruments.  I live about an hour away from him, so I was able to play two instruments that were commissioned for other people.  But it is a 2-3 year wait to buy one.  I would describe the Needham as very powerful and responsive; perhaps better for a soloist, than for chamber music; it might be a little tough to play those ppp passages.  The two instruments I tried were almost identical; at least I could not tell them apart, so he seems to achieve good consistency.  It is possible that a more capable musician might appreciate the Needham more than I did.  Or, perhaps my expectations were too high from the start, but with the price tag, and the long wait, this was not the best option for me.

Kelvin Scott (15K)
Kelvin is a great maker and a great guy.  I was only able to try one instrument from him.  It was a resale, and probably not one of his best specimens, but it was quite impressive nonetheless -- powerful and very responsive and very even.  It was similar to Needham in sound and playing characteristics but with a bit more edge.  Kelvin had two other brand new instruments that I wanted to try, but both of them sold before I had a shot at them.  Several people recommended this maker to me and I would pass on that recommendation. 

Ray Melanson (14K)
The Melanson I had was a strong contender and I seriously considered purchasing it.  Big, open sound, and very even response, second only to David Burgess.  I took this instrument to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and it projected very nicely, but in the end, it had just a bit too much edge and not enough warmth for my taste. 

Nicolas Gilles (17K)
This is another very talented up and coming maker, perhaps the next Zyg?  The Gilles violin I tried had a very sweet quality to it.  It was also very even and responsive.  The instrument I tried won a tone award in the quartet category in the 2008 VSA competition.  My only objection was a lack of power.  When I played it in my piano trio, I had difficulty hearing myself so I was struggling for projection.  Perhaps that is a common drawback of sweet sounding instruments.

Phil Perret (20K)
This is one maker that I was not able to try.  He does not make a lot of instruments, so it is difficult to get hold of one, but I have heard very good things about his instruments.  Unless you know someone who owns one, the only way to try a Perret is to put down a deposit and wait a year.  The cellist in my string quartet plays a Perret cello and it sounds great; he's also a pretty good cellist.

David Burgess (26K)
Of all the instruments I tried, the Burgess had the most even response across strings and in high positions.  They are also very responsive and perhaps the easiest to play of anything I tried.  You can push them hard and they do not crack.  Notes start right away and do not require any coaxing.  If playability were my first priority, I would probably have picked a Burgess.  I tried two instruments, one made in the late 80's and another from the early 90's.  I do not know if his newer instruments are any different in sound or playability, but his work 15-20 years ago is outstanding.  I guess if you want to try a new one, you have to pay your deposit and get in line.  One thing I noticed about the Burgess instruments was the workmanship.  The lines and attention to detail is something that really stood out.  For the most part, I did not care about aesthetics, but the Burgess instruments really made me stop and take notice.

Vuillaume (150K)
For educational purposes, I tried several instruments that were way out of my price range.  The Vuillaume is one that really stood out.  The sound was huge, warm and open.  Before playing the Vuillaume, I had an idea of the sound I was looking for, but it wasn't until playing the Vuillaume that I actually experienced it.  Unfortunately, the Vuillaume I played did not do well in higher positions.  Even 3rd position was quite inferior in sound compared to the open strings and 1st position.  However, the Vuillaume was instrumental in solidifying my concept of the sound I was after.

Laura Vigato (12K)
Last, but not least, Laura Vigato is one of many contemporary Cremonese makers.  This is the violin I ended up buying.  She must have some kind of special process that she is not telling the rest of the world about because the sound of her instruments is phenomenal - big, warm, and full, similar to the Vuillaume, but slightly darker.  Bill Weaver is the exclusive importer of Vigato violins and he usually cannot keep them in stock.  But because of the down economy, I was fortunate to be able to play 5 Vigatos.  Four of them were brand new, and one was from 2002.  All of them are fabulous, but each has a unique character. 

I seriously considered buying a new one, but finally decided on a 2002 Vigato.  One of the new Vigato's might be even better once played in, but with the 2002 Vigato, it was love at first sight.  The sound is magnificent.  Every time I take it out of the case, it blows me away.  With my old Heberlein, it was hit or miss; sometimes I liked the sound, sometimes I didn't.  But so far the Vigato has not let me down.  The sound just seems to get better and better.

Obviously, this is my favorite maker of all since it is the instrument that I ended up buying, but it would be unfair to say the Vigato is without its deficiencies.  In fact, I preferred some other instruments over the Vigato in playability.  The Vigato, with its big, lovely sound requires a little more coaxing to get certain notes started.  Also, I would say the dynamic range is pp through ff, so it is difficult to play ppp or fff on a Vigato.  But given that sound was my #1 priority, and playability was second, I am very happy with the compromise.  Also, you just can't beat the price.  At $12K, this instrument competes favorably with instruments that are many times more expensive.

Conclusions:
I found that price has little correlation with sound and playability.  In fact, of the makers I mentioned above, I ended up buying the cheapest one.  From my very limited sampling, I would even say there was an inverse correlation with price; I generally liked the cheaper instruments better.  But this might be because I am an amateur and not yet ready to fully appreciate a higher end (e.g. more expensive) instrument.

A minor sound post adjustment, or different strings can make a pretty big difference.  An instrument that is a bit too edgy or warm, can be made just right with minor changes.  Obviously, there is a limit to what you can do, but for an instrument that is 80-90% what you want, you can make up the last 10-20% with minor adjustments.  For instance, the A string on the Vigato's tend to be a bit muted, but that problem is mitigated with a bright A string, like Vision.

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a revolution in the violin making world.  Some of the best instruments are being made right now by living makers.  It is an exciting time for us violinists.  Many musicians, professional and amateur can now hope to own an instrument that is just as good, perhaps better than priceless masterpieces from old Cremona.  In the longer term, I would think this might have a negative impact on the price of the high end instrument market, but only time will tell.  Unless you are buying strictly from a collectors viewpoint, I see no reason to spend 10 times or 100 times as much to get an instrument that sounds and plays about the same.

A valuable piece of advice given to me, and that I would pass on to anyone searching for the perfect instrument, is to be patient.  After visiting 5 local shops, and getting instruments shipped to me from other shops and from living makers, I would have gotten quite discouraged if not for this bit of advice.  So my recommendation is take your time, and wait for the right instrument to come along.  At the time when I tried the 2002 Vigato, I was almost in a state of despair.  I had already tried so many instruments, and I was beginning to think I would never find the instrument I was looking for, or I would have to make some serious compromises.  But, lo and behold, along comes exactly the instrument I was looking for. 


From SAM MIHAILOFF
Posted on May 17, 2009 at 7:41 PM

Smiley,

I found this blog most insightlful and quite riviting. Indeed your quest included a very in depth examination...very best wishes, and may you "both" play well together for many years to come

~SAM~


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 17, 2009 at 8:33 PM

Hi, Thanks! This is so interesting!!!   Good luck with your instrument! Long life to you two!  

Anne-Marie


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 17, 2009 at 9:43 PM

Smiley,

This blog, and your thread, were both fascinating reading and a great learning experience.  Thanks for such a detailed and careful analysis.  And congratulations!

At first I was following your thread in the hopes that some of what you learned could have applied to me in my own search for a violin, but in today's economy I found I had to limit my price range much more severely.  Still, it's fun to fantasize about shopping for, playing, and owning, an instrument like this.   Best wishes to you and your new instrument!


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 17, 2009 at 11:16 PM

greetings,

brillaint job. I think this will be helpful to a loot of people. I hope it doesn`t just get lost somewhere in Blogsville.  Your point about power versus softness and delciacy is quite significant. Last time I bought a violin I couldn`t quite get the two in the price range I wa s looking at.  I had to jump up a level price wise and found a fine violin immediately.  

Incidentally,  I did find the perfect violin.  Not a Strad or Guarneri both of which I have tried  at various times.  It wa san Andreas Guarneri.  A luthier here let me play it continuously for around six hours while he fixed my violin.   It took the combined efforts of him and his extended family to prise it out of my hands.  I don`t remember if I bit him or not but I may have done...

Cheers,

Buri


From LUIS CLAUDIO MANFIO
Posted on May 17, 2009 at 11:25 PM

Good! You've mentioned Howard Needham, he just left my house, he came to visit me here with a client.  A very nice man with a true love for his craft. I really liked his violin and we talked a  lot about wood, models. varnish, etc.

www.manfio.com 


From Allan Chu
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 3:29 AM

Congrats Smiley! Great that you found the instrument you were looking for :) 


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 4:05 AM

Greetings,

Smiley, your comment about patience just reminded me.  Have you read Arnold Steinhardts second book?  It has a number of interwoven themes,  one of which is his search for the perfetc insturment which took him many years of frustration before he ended up with the Storioni use by Roisman of the Budapest quartet.

Chjhers,

Buri


From Casey Jefferson
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 4:26 AM

Congratulation Smiley on your new life-time music partner!

Thanks for your elaborations on various works from various makers. Seldom people putting them down as words due to the risk of misleading as everybody has their own wordings on the sound they hear.

So there you mentioned David Burgess about the playability and evenness of the notes, perhaps how you feel about the sound? Also if you read his website, he can actually meet the player's need by making something different - chamber instrument, solo'ist instrument, gentle or soaring etc, perhaps the one you tried was more on the playability.

It's always a happy thing that you don't need to spend too much to get what you want. Again, congratulations!


From David Beck
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 6:33 AM

Very interesting ! The best violins are jealously guarded by their owners. "Genuine reason for sale" is seldom what it says, and no-one can buy what's not "on the market", so I think you have been lucky.


From Jim Glasson
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 10:32 AM

An outstanding post and one that should be put away for future reference when considering a new purchase.

Just excellent.

-Jim

 


From David Burgess
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 11:51 AM

Smiley was a super stand-up kind of guy, and pleasure to get to know a little bit. :-)


From Rosalind Porter
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 12:12 PM

Great story and interesting comments about your experiences with the violins - congratulations on finding your new violin "friend for life".    Any chance of posting a photo of the instrument you finally chose?


From al ku
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 1:46 PM

i think it is fantastic that smiley can finally bring a closure to the violin search (for now:)  and i really appreciate the way he critiqued those violins he has tried.  both professional and informative.  it was a delight not to read: violin A blew violin B out of water.

since he was looking for a pro level violin, i wonder if the process of testing them all (god bless him for being the general and the army), besides playing it and hearing it under the ear, if there were any attempts to play the violins in a larger hall or in front of a group...or having himself hearing others play them from a distance.  (he did indicate that he was not necessarily looking for a cutting, piercing quality if i am not mistaken, so what is the ideal setting for the violin then?)

i admit this is possibly too much to ask, but to me, i think that will be the ultimate test.  i think to compare couple finalists,   it may be worth the bother to hear them played from different angles figuratively and literally speaking.

and of course,  at the risk of embarassing smiley, but under the doctrine that it won't hurt to ask, i wonder if smiley will be game to play something (audio or video) comparing his old violin and the new acquisition.  clearly they sound different under his ears, and my conjecture is that they will come out differently on recording as well, although most likely very differently if presented live. 

i am curious to appreciate how differently they are under the circumstance...


From Ray Randall
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 2:41 PM

What a great post. Thanks for putting your search on the web.


From Royce Faina
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 5:19 PM

I am thrilled for you! Way to Go Smiley!  I'm definitely going to put your blog away in my violin folder for future reference!  Now.... what about a bow? Are you going to look for a bow to mate with your new violin?  Or do you already have one, which seems to sound like the case?

Now....... you perhaps should think of a naming ceremony and name your violin?


From Cris Zulueta
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 5:24 PM

Brilliant post Smiley reads like an article out The Strad. I too believe sound is important but after reading about your adventures would be great to see a photo of your new companion. 

Thanks for sharing your experinces.


From Smiley Hsu
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 8:12 PM

Thank you all for the words of encouragement.  Hopefully, my post will be helpful to someone.

Buri, I have not read the book.  I'll have to check it out.  Actually, my search was relatively short in comparison.  I think I just got lucky.  Like you said, people spend years searching for the perfect instrument.  Violinists are not alone in that respect. 

Casey, the Burgess violins were buttery smooth, with a warm and woodsy sound.  In the cases where I was able to try more than 1 instrument from a given maker, I found that each maker has a characteristic sound.  Some instruments may be a bit brighter or darker, but overall, I found that instruments from a given maker sound remarkably similar.

David Beck, you have a point.  Perhaps the best instruments are being hoarded by the owners.  Case in point, if my house catches on fire, I'll grab the family photos and my Vigato violin, but if I don't have time to grab both, I'll grab my Vigato and run.  Anyone is welcome to try it, but if you want to buy it, don't even bother making an offer.  This instrument is not for sale, EVER! 

By the way, I purchased the instrument from renowned Suzuki teacher Ronda Cole, who was forced to downsize to a ¾ instrument due to a shoulder injury.  She was very sad to let it go, but she has not played it for a couple of years.  If not for her injury, I doubt she would sell it.

David Burgess, the feeling is mutual.

Rosalind and Cris, I'll try to get a few good shots, and post back.

Al Ku, that would be embarrassing.  Remember, I'm an amateur.  Perhaps I could post some audio clips of a few simple scales for comparison.  I'll write back when I do.

Royce, finding a bow is my next project.  In a way, I feel even more lost than searching for a violin.  At least with the violin, I have a pretty good idea of what I like, but since I've never owned a decent bow, I'm not sure if I have the chops to properly evaluate professional bows.  But that is the subject of another journey.
 


From Royce Faina
Posted on May 18, 2009 at 8:22 PM

For now..... enjoy your violin!  the journey for the bow will come when the time for that journey is right.  I have a bow that's 160 years old that's sweet.  When you are looking I'll mail it to you if you are interested.  It's pernambuco, has a unique quirk that's easily adapted to but it plays realy well!


From SAM MIHAILOFF
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 12:10 AM

I've got a bridge for sale...unique quirk also

vidbridge.gif (20602 bytes)


From Michael Snow
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 1:29 AM

Yes, congratulations!

A photo WOULD be nice. What style is it? The one photo I found on the Internet of a recent violin of hers looks gorgeous. Maybe I should get one as a second violin . . . (if only I had the money right now!)


From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 1:31 AM

In my search for a violin I played a Jacob Stainer (multiples of my price range) and felt like it was all edge. It was almost painful. I felt much the same about the Hellier Strad.  I was told that this is the quality that makes a violin sound reach the back wall. 

The hell of playing a violin is that only you can make your sound and you have to have the violin right under your ear to do it.  Everyone else hears it further away.


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 4:35 AM

Smiley, this is a wonderful blog.  Your writing is so vivid that I can almost hear each violin you describe.  You also stated what you were looking for well.  This is important because selecting a violin is so subjective.

I'm so glad that you found the right violin for you.  A violin that you love more each time you take it out of its case is just fantastic.  I hope you and your violin have a long and happy relationship.


From Royce Faina
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 10:07 AM

Sam- You are hilarious!  Of all the posters You are a Unique Quirk! }:^D

I was hoping that smiley would ask, "Quirk?" Then I'd give him a list of 20 or so things then conclude, other than that it's a Great bow!


From David Burgess
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 11:40 AM

Corwin Slack wrote:

"In my search for a violin I played a Jacob Stainer (multiples of my price range) and felt like it was all edge. It was almost painful. I felt much the same about the Hellier Strad.  I was told that this is the quality that makes a violin sound reach the back wall."

A lot depends on what you're accustomed to playing. One player can find a violin too open and blaring, and lacking subtle colors, while another player can find the same violin "closed" sounding. These disparate impressions are usually easy to understand once you play the instruments that each player has been using for many years. Few players can free themselves completely from using their familiar instrument as a "yardstick".

There are some violins which do quite well in a hall without sounding particularly loud under the ear. Researchers are still trying to fugure out why this is.


From Ray Randall
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 2:45 PM

I played a violin for a friend that was soft under the ear and blasted out the back wall. To me that's a problem. If the last row of people can hear the instrument, but you can't over the orchestra then what good is it? I played that violin at a rehearsal and couldn't hear myself play, but the base players waaaaay over there heard me clearly over the orchestra.


From Ihnsouk Guim
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 3:18 PM

 That's a good point. What good does it do if you can't hear yourself playing? More importantly how do you learn to play if you don't know how you sound? 


From David Beck
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 4:57 PM

FAO Corwin Slack and David Burgess :-

Maybe you know already that there was once an English maker called Tinney -  seriously, Bristol area, I think. I've not noticed any of his work at dealers or in auctions. 


From Royce Faina
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 5:04 PM

Come to think of it, back in the early '80's when I was a music major at Del Mar College I was renting a copy of a Amati from the college.  I could barely hear myself above the orchestra but my parents and brother in the audience said that they could hear me.  Other family members said the same.  I just politely smiled and blew it off as them teasing me.  My mother to this day still tells people this!  I guess I can believe it now!


From David Burgess
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 5:34 PM

I wish I could shed more light on it. Some of the pretty good Strads are that way. Even very seasoned players can be fooled about how an instrument will sound from a distance, compared to under their ear.


From Smiley Hsu
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 5:53 PM

I have to agree with David Burgess.  Some instruments (not all) sound different under the ear than from a distance.  In my opinion, both are important. 

As an amateur musician who spends more than 90% of my playing time alone in the basement, the sound under ear is VERY important; perhaps more so than the sound at a distance.  If the instrument sounds good under ear, then I am more inclined to want to play it, and I will enjoy my practice time more.  After all, I am mostly playing for myself, not others.

On the other hand, a touring pro who performs with orchestras and makes recordings might have different priorities.  I would imagine they would put a much higher emphasis on the sound that the audience hears.

During my violin search, I passed on over 100 fiddles, but I am certain each and every one of those fiddles has a place and an owner.  That is the great thing about music.  You can have 100 different opinions and all of them can be right.


From SAM MIHAILOFF
Posted on May 19, 2009 at 8:00 PM

Smiley nailed this...ok, everybody, open your window and shout

You can have 100 different opinions and all of them can be right.


From Smiley Hsu
Posted on May 20, 2009 at 2:24 AM

For anyone that is interested in seeing the fiddle I bought, here she is.  It is a Del Gesu copy.  Because I bought it from Ronda Cole, I have affectionately named it the "Ex-Cole."

http://www.actionsystems.com/downloads/smiley/vigato_front.jpg
http://www.actionsystems.com/downloads/smiley/vigato_back.jpg
http://www.actionsystems.com/downloads/smiley/vigato_scroll.jpg

The maker, Laura Vigato, believes in doing things the old fashioned way, just like they did in the old days.  So you can see the brush strokes of the varnish on the front.  I'm not sure why the back is polished.  I'll have to ask Bill Weaver about it next time I talk to him.

 


From SAM MIHAILOFF
Posted on May 20, 2009 at 2:48 AM

re: photos

just the way it should be...Smiley, you are a proud new Papa...


From Cris Zulueta
Posted on May 20, 2009 at 6:06 AM

Smiley, If sound was your number one priority a beautiful one piece back is an added bonus. May you enjoy many great years of discovery with your new family addition the "Ex-Cole."


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 20, 2009 at 11:53 AM

Wow, beautiful!  It already looks like a good old one! (I don't know if this is in purpose or not and what is wonderful is that it plays wonderfully!)  You can tell from 1 km that it is not a 100$ violin! You will look like the first solo violin of a famous orchestra with this!!!  Good luck! 

Anne-Marie


From Casey Jefferson
Posted on May 20, 2009 at 3:16 PM

Lovely violin - except the f holes, I believe the irregularities of the outlines are done on purpose, or did del gesu really had such workmanship?


From Rob Olsen
Posted on May 20, 2009 at 6:28 PM

I've been following Smiley's adventures in search of the violin. I think it was very generous to share these opinions and experiences with everyone. Its a load of work to find a new violin.

This is certainly excellent information with something many can benifit from.

Many thanks!

 

 

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