What makes a student violin a student violin and a professional violin a professional violin?

Edited: April 7, 2018, 6:22 AM · I'm curious to know because it is my belief that once I understand what makes a violin a student violin, I will know when to change my instrument.

Replies (29)

Edited: April 7, 2018, 6:36 AM · The difference is about $15,000.

A student violin is one that is good enough that the student is not held back in his or her studies by using it, and preferably the sound and response are pleasing enough that the student will be inspired thereby to practice. A pro violin is one that a pro violinist can use to demonstrate the full range of violin artistry. Generally a student cannot do that anyway, so they don't need a violin with those capabilities.

More specifically, the "professional violin" will have fewer flaws -- fewer notes or ranges (e.g., high on the G string) that don't sound right or that respond poorly. Better balance among the four strings. Fewer objectionable overtones and more pleasing ones. Faster response overall. And generally the pro violin will be a little louder overall.

April 7, 2018, 6:37 AM · Or the hands of a professional playing it.

I don't know if there is a borderline...but when you need to upgrade you'll know it. Occasionally try other instruments and when your own stops being "pleasant" for you...it's time...

Edited: April 7, 2018, 6:43 AM · Add: And everything that Paul said. Yet, I believe that the price tag may vary significantly :)
April 7, 2018, 7:03 AM · As a student you can also buy a professional antique violin if you have enough money, I have met someone who as starter bought antique Italian violin over €50,000 from auction.
April 7, 2018, 7:11 AM · Or you can search and find an old but restored instrument (German, Bohemian/Czech etc) around 800-1500 $ focusing on its response, playability and volume so you can play along a small orchestra or a piano and be properly heard, till you decide to get to this values that would get you a nice car or a small house instead.
Edited: April 7, 2018, 7:29 AM · Paul, as in there generally are no violins below $15,000 that would be good enough for performance?
I think the question of money is dependant also on other factors.
April 7, 2018, 8:32 AM · "there generally are no violins below $15,000 that would be good enough for performance..."

Sure there are. It depends what you mean by "performance." Concerto with a major orchestra?
Wedding gigs? Playing in a local orchestra? Mariachi? Pet funerals? Chitlin cook-offs?

April 7, 2018, 9:33 AM · $15000 was an approximate figure and offered partly in jest.
April 7, 2018, 9:54 AM · One has been to college, the other hasn't.
April 7, 2018, 10:41 AM · The owner's status.
April 7, 2018, 12:33 PM · Descriptions like "student" and "professional" have largely become marketing terms these days, with little or no real meaning.

I don't think I've ever seen a Strad or Guarneri violin for sale described as a "professional" violin. I wonder why? Wouldn't the buyers of these instruments place a lot of value on that description? ;-)

April 7, 2018, 2:02 PM · I would think that a student violin is one that’s mass produced, or made by multiple people, or an early instrument from m a budding luthier. A professional violin is one that is made by an established luthier by him/herself I would imagine.
Edited: April 7, 2018, 4:43 PM · In my opinion whether or not an instrument is 'professional' does not depend on how it's made, but on its playability and tonal characteristics.

I second David's opinion that this classification has largely become a marketing term these days. You can see that lots of well-known manufacturers, like Scott Cao, Ming Jiang Chu, Snow, Gliga, and Eastman all offer factory-made instruments which they call 'master' or 'professional grade' but sell them for below ~$5000. I am sure that many of these instruments cannot match the 'professional' standard, but I'm not sure whether any of them can.

I think a professional instrument is different from a student one in that it is
- very responsive,
- produces big fat effortless vibrato with just small finger movements,
- sounds more even between A and E string,
- produces better sound up high on G and D strings
- has better projection (but not necessarily loud near the ear),
- warmer and not as edgy,
- lighter weight
- very playable, can tolerate lots of incorrect bowing
- the strings don’t feel too much tensed, i.e. you need less force when you press down the strings (maybe not because of lower bridges); they don’t need to be wound too much on the pegs. I can’t confirm this, but this is true for me when I play much higher grade instruments than my own. I hope someone can help me verify whether this is true.
- last but not least, usually very high-maintenance :)

Edited: April 7, 2018, 3:31 PM · IMHO, the great dividing line is usually between instruments that are handmade by a single luthier, especially one with experience, training, and ongoing R&D in the field., and those made in workshop settings by multiple workers who specialize in individual parts. Sometimes you get lucky with a workshop fiddle, though!

There are excellent instruments in the $12,000-$15,000 range from modern makers. Look at the individually-made violins from WH Lee in Chicago (Bronek Cison and Vanna So come to mind), or by Wojciech Topa in Zakopane, Poland.

April 7, 2018, 5:38 PM · I think that professional violins aren't always warmer and less edgy than student ones because violins vary so much.
April 7, 2018, 9:59 PM · So basically, a violin is like a person: you can't label them as a student or professional without knowing it's capabilities?
April 7, 2018, 10:37 PM · To me, a pro instrument would be characterized as

- responsive, which doesn't mean easy to play. On the contrary. It means it is sensitive to bow weight, speed and contact point, hence require better control. It can respond to a light and hard play to express different response.

- sounds even between strings with equal volume.

- produces better sound up high.

- has fuller warmer sound that is not edgy.

- has better setup, hence can be played with a light touch with the left hand.

- has better construction, and is more stable.

I don't think pro level instruments are easier to play, on the contrary. They offer more possibilities and control, but one has to have more developed skills to bring it out. Several players who have the opportunity to play old masters instrument have commented that it took them a lot of work to adapt their technique to bring the best out of the instrument.

April 8, 2018, 2:27 AM · Don't forget set-up can bring about huge differences too! This is one aspect of the violin that I intensely dislike: there are too many parameters involved in setting up the instrument, and the player (or even luthier) simply never has the time and resources to try most of them out (combination of strings, soundpost positions, tailpieces, bows etc. etc.).

Last week I decided to change my wooden chinrest to a wittner composite chinrest. You would think chinrest doesn't affect sound whatsoever, would you but after the replacement, the sound improved!

Edited: April 8, 2018, 6:55 AM · Roger wrote, "I don't think pro level instruments are easier to play, on the contrary."

If you imply an inverse relation between playability and instrument grade, I would respectfully disagree - and this is purely common sense.

For a professional instrument, being responsive, IMO, is not only to the general bowing, but also to the bow pressure and vibrato movement, so as to produce the stylistic possibilities and volume in terms of sound.

By playability or ease of playing, I meant the instrument can tolerate varying differentials in bowing and fingering. For example, slow bowing speed would produce less scratchy sound on a professional violin than on a student one. If a difficult piece requires you to bow slow, a student instrument may not suffice. Similarly, professional violins can tolerate more unstraight and incorrectly-positioned bowings (either too near or too far the bridge). And IMO it needs to respond well to such variations to help the player access more stylistic possibilities. (again respond well doesn’t mean the sound doesn’t vary).

It takes a good player to bring the best out of a good instrument, but at the same time the instrument shouldn't make the work of a less skilled player any harder or less enjoyable. Anything like this happening would probably be due to player-instrument mismatch, rather than instrument grade.

Edited: April 8, 2018, 8:46 AM · I was recently talking to a professional violinist/teacher about this. As I understood it, effectively he found it ironic that people paid a lot of money for a violin that wasn't "easy to play" and that it forced them to compromise on the way they played (avoiding weak notes , inequality, etc). For him, a violin that was not easy to play meant that it had weaknesses that forced the player to work their way around them.

This suggests to me the idea that had these expensive (typically old) violins that are qualified as not being easy to play) been, say, modern and inexpensive, we would have just qualified them differently...namely "not so good" violins.

There is yet another degree that separates this suggestion from another: that this idea of luxury ($$$) dons expensive (typically old) violins a "new emperor's clothes" allure that separates them from subpar modern violins.

I'm aware that it's not as simple (or conclusively dismissive as that) in that conceptually "ease of playing" -or lack thereof- can be seen ftom other viewpoints. Supposedly there are violins that require more speed less weight, others can take more pressure...etc...therefor "ease of playing" needs to be denominated by the players manner of playing.

A more nuanced approach to this, I think, is the balancing evaluation of advantages that a violin affords the violinist in question in relation to compromises/certain weaknesses that are measurable relative to objective ideals (clarity of tone across position , equality on 4 strings, projection, minimum wolf tones, physical condition, ergonomic parameters)

April 8, 2018, 12:21 PM · "Responsive" and "easy to play" are often conflated with one another, when we talk about violins. There are many aspects to response, too.

Instruments that have "quick response" react rapidly to the player's input, generally speaking immediately. Sometimes this is called "easy response". An instrument that speaks easily doesn't tend to require a lot of arm weight (pressure) to speak. The opposite of quick response is sluggishness.

Instruments that are "responsive" readily modulate their sound in response to the player's input. An instrument that is precisely responsive will output exactly what the player puts in, pretty much. For instance, a responsive instrument will change tonal colors when the sounding-point is changed, when the vibrato is modulated, etc.

Instruments that are "forgiving" are hard to sound bad on. Often, instruments that are forgiving are somewhat less responsive.

Some instruments have a wide range of tonal colors. Such instruments are going to be responsive, but not every responsive instrument has that wide palette -- an instrument might be responsive but not have that many shadings. (How quickly you can change colors is different from how many colors are available to you.)

Will wrote, "Professional violins can tolerate more unstraight and incorrectly-positioned bowings (either too near or too far the bridge)". I don't think this is true at all.

A good violin is actually more intolerant of things like unstraight bowings, because the precision of response makes bad technique sound obviously bad. A skilled player will react quickly to the feedback with, "This sounds awful, I had better correct what I'm doing", though.

"Incorrectly-positioned bowings" don't exist in quite the same way on great violins. Indeed, one can argue that these are not incorrect positions at all; it's just that some violins can't handle them. On a great violin, you can generally bow right over the fingerboard or right by the bridge, or really anywhere, and still get a nice tone. Indeed, your valid placement/bow-speed/weight combinations are often much broader, resulting in a much wider variety of tone colors that you can use. However, there may still be "sweet spots", where being in a particular "lane" can make a significant difference in tone quality and projection, especially for notes high up on the strings.

April 8, 2018, 12:29 PM · Lydia, can you expand a bit on the idea of wider or narrower range of colours? Are colours in this sense related to dynamic shadings (and the relation of bow speed, weight, position on the string)?
Edited: April 8, 2018, 1:46 PM · Color is the tonal output of the violin. It's not related to the decibel output of the instrument, per se. You can play something with a "piano attitude" that gives the listener the impression of softness, while still carrying to the back of the hall in terms of sheer decibels, for instance.

Many instruments will give you different ways, technically, to get the same general color. Really high-quality instruments will give you subtly different shadings rather than something that's absolutely identical, when you try each of those approaches.

Think about a painter's palette -- does it have just one shade of blue, or a dozen different shades of blue? The analogy applies to sound shadings, too.

Sometimes you want the same general tone color while having another quality, like projection. For instance, my violin (which is a fantastic instrument) allows me to play a bit more towards the bridge, with a slow bow and no weight, in order to produce a lightweight, classical, "Mozart" sound, that nevertheless cuts through and projects. Normally, playing without much arm-weight near the bridge is an invalid combination, but it works on this violin. On this violin, to get that same sound for a Mozart symphony, for instance, but blended into a section, I'd use a fast bow relatively near the fingerboard.

The responsiveness of my violin demands that I play more precisely. For instance, if I do not keep my bow-speed the same throughout the stroke, you'll hear a significant crescendo if I speed it up, and a significant decrescendo if I slow it down -- even when the change is relatively small. When I first got this violin, I ended up spending significant time working on drawing a more even stroke, because while the effect was minor on my previous (still very good) violin, it was significantly magnified -- enough to bother me -- on this violin. But it also means that I can effortlessly make large dynamic changes. (Interestingly, violinists in the audience sometimes come up to me post-performance to inform me that they can tell that my violin is incredibly responsive.)

April 8, 2018, 1:17 PM · Very interesting Lydia. Thank you
Edited: April 8, 2018, 8:57 PM · Lydia, so in your experience, a good violin is less tolerant of unstraight bowing but more tolerant of slow bowing and contact point (near bridge or fingerboard)? This is interesting that I’ll definitely pay attention to the next time I try a good violin.
April 9, 2018, 11:04 AM · Violetta !

There are some wonderful descriptions here. Interconnecting pictures and sounds with typed or verbal descriptions can only go so far, especially when we consider the subjective area of preference.

We need these certainly, especially the ways in which some say a good violin responds to the player.

For me a big factor is the sound or tone alongside the way the violin plays and responds. If it doesn't sound good with fairly good technique and we don't like the sound this isn't good.

My next purchase will be a lot like dating. I will try a lot of good violins out or violins that are perceived to be good or "better" than the "average" violin.I will believe my ears and how it plays over anything said about it or above the price.

In the end it's all of the other information that brings us to the place we think we want to be. It's in the actual experience between you and it that really matters. I have three so far and I don't really like any of them very much. I haven't "dated" very much either. The process takes more time than I realized in the beginning.JMHO.YMMV.

Edited: April 13, 2018, 8:21 AM · Of course it's true that great violins can be harder to play, and that includes many in the £10K to £20K range.

If you haven't played on a violin priced at over £10-£15 thousand, how do you know? You are just guessing.

I've heard of several Strads and del Jesus that are "difficult" instruments - but very rewarding once mastered.

April 13, 2018, 10:16 AM · This is the first time that I have posted on this message board, and felt compelled to do so to pay Lydia a compliment regarding her eloquent and very helpful posts in this thread. Lydia, thank you very much, you have provided an outstanding explanation of Responsiveness, Ease of playing, Forgiveness, Sluggishness and a variety of other playing characteristics and how they apply to the instruments tonal color, Palette, and applicability to a variety of playing levels. Your explanations should be used as a “go to” reference for both makers and players.
As a maker that may not be making an instrument for a specific player, we are constantly facing the conundrum of exactly how to best “voice” the instrument to meet the broadest possible market. In our case, our primary target has always been at the “step up” level so we focus our instruments to be somewhat “forgiving” and “easy playing” while attempting to provide enough “responsiveness” and overall “tonal color” to satisfy players at all levels, a tough challenge at best. It’s actually easier to focus an instrument to the two ends of the spectrum; precisely responsive or forgiving and easy playing, than it is to hit a “sweat spot” that satisfies both and thus provides an instrument that a player can grow and advance with over a broad range of capability. Explaining this to prospective buyers is often a challenge, but Lydia has done an excellent job of helping to clarify this.
Thanks Lydia!
April 13, 2018, 11:29 AM · Thank you!


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