April 2013

Trying out violin: Hear the colors

April 16, 2013 05:00

Looking back over the journey we have taken so far, it's amazing to see how much we have covered in so little time. Hopefully, you've been able to catch on to the scent of where we are going and have picked up some valuable nuggets along the way. But even though this may feel like a good resting point, those of you with a taste for observation may have noticed that we have not yet ventured into the most sacred shrine of violin purchasing. In fact, it's the main reason for this whole expedition! Have you figured it out yet? If you have been reading carefully, I just left you a trail of clues to our next destination. Hark! How sweet! The hills are alive with it! Of course, it is sound!

What really could have been the first stop on our quest is just now being discovered well into our travels. But you see, the enlightened path to understanding what makes a violins "good" is more of a circle than a straight line. All of the individual aspects we have discussed thus far all fit together to become one with the whole. None are greater than the other, rather they must all work equally well to produce a well-sounding instrument. That is why we took what seems to be the long way around to this point - so you could have a deeper understanding of how and why the quality of all the individual pieces of a violin are important to producing the most desired overall sound from it.

The fascinating thing is that there are so many aspects to a violin that can affect its sound. And just like when you go to a fine restaurant with the option to choose from all of the savory meals on the menu, there is no one "best" sound for a violin. It's more a matter of taste. Sure, there are specific qualities of sound that will certainly improve the overall voice of a violin, just like higher quality ingredients will result in better tasting food. But what I think may be a beautiful sounding violin may sound completely different to your ears. So how can you tell if the instrument your testing out is made poorly or just has a particular sound that isn't quite pleasing to your palate? Well, prepare yourself for a feast of the senses as we dig into discerning the answer to this question!

Let's first briefly recap how sound is even created from a violin. First you have a bow and you have the strings. The hair on the bow is stretched taut and is very smooth. If you ever tried to play a violin with a brand new bow, you will notice that hardly any sound is produced when it is pulled across the strings. That is why rosin is applied to the bow hair - to give it friction. It is this friction from the bow that causes the strings to oscillate back and forth at a very high rate, producing a sound frequency. This resonant frequency is then transferred to the top spruce plate of the violin through the bridge. The soundpost and bass bar, located inside the violin nearly under the feet of the bridge, help transfer these frequencies to the bottom plate and diffuse it across the top plate. The frequencies bounce around the inside of the violin body which amplifies the sound, but also exits through the f-holes into the open space around it to enhance its projection. All of this happens nearly instantaneously as soon as you pull the bow across the strings, thus producing sound. Class dismissed!

Ok, so now that science class is out, we can head back over to the music room. While there can be much subjectivity when it comes to describing how well a violin produces sound, I have found that there are four main areas of focus that you'll want to analyze when trying out violins - and they are tone color, playability, response, and projection. Some of these same terms are also attributed to violin strings, as they can certainly be paired with a specific violin to either enhance or subdue these same sound qualities.

Tone color

Let's start with tone color. Tone color is basically a more artistic way of saying musical expression. It's what gives a piece of music personality or emotion. And while musical expression is typically determined by the player of the instrument, the violin should be able to accurately reflect them. For example, if a violinist wants to produce a brighter or more direct sound, he/she can bow the strings closer towards the bridge. For a softer, more subdued sound, he/she can bow closer to the fingerboard. The amount of pressure applied by the bow, bowing speed, bowing position on the strings, finger pressure on the strings, different fingering positions, or specific bowing techniques are all other ways that a violinist can enhance musical expression. Surely there are more, but the important thing is that a good violin should be able to perform these expressions well.

So when trying out a violin, you can test out its tone colors by performing different techniques that you may know. Give it a powerful, long bow stroke near the bridge and listen to its resonance. Do the same near the fingerboard and you should be able to hear a difference. Try playing sweetly and softly, then try playing loudly and more expressively. In essence, you want to try and mimic the same types of techniques you will use when performing a piece. The idea is that you should be able to distinctly hear a difference between each of these musical expressions. If while trying out these techniques and they all sound pretty much the same or if the violin just sounds dull or monotone, then it is lacking in tone colors. Just like a person who utilizes voice inflection when speaking is more engaging than someone who talks in a boring monotone voice, the same goes for a violin. You want to find one that can dynamically portray the emotion that you will put into playing it.


Which leads us to the next area - playability. This simply means, how easy does the violin feel to play? Does the sound seem to come forth effortlessly or do you feel like you really have to work hard to get a decent sound out it? Does holding the neck of the violin feel comfortable or does it feel too wide? Does the instrument feel heavy or is it an ideal weight for you? These are the kinds of questions that will help you determine its playability. And while some of the factors that determine a violin's playability may be relatively unchangeable (like the thickness of the top spruce plate or the violin's particular shape) there are other factors that can easily be changed (like using different strings, reshaping the bridge, or moving the position of the soundpost). Certainly the playability of a violin can be a matter of preference differing from person to person, but the idea is to make sure that when playing a violin, it feels comfortable and easily playable for you.


Continuing on, we move to response. The response of a violin is essentially how quickly it reacts to the techniques you are using or how well it performs the way you want it to. A violin with a quick response may accentuate every little move you make while a violin with a slower response will tend to be more forgiving. If just starting out, this may be difficult to tell on a violin, but that's quite alright. I think this particular aspect of a violin's sound will cater to more experienced players who are looking for a specific reaction time from their instrument when playing. The key here is that when trying out a violin, you want it to be able to do what you want it to do. Of course, it will not play itself (even though we would like it to sometimes!) but it should accurately respond to your command. Just don't ask it to roll over and play dead. ;)


Lastly, we come to the final main sound quality of a violin and that is its projection. In other words, its power! How loud can it be played and how far will its sound carry? A violin's projection gives it strength and a commanding presence. When playing loudly, it should sound solid, strong, and clear. Have you ever wondered why orchestras always seem to have three times as many stringed instruments than the other instrument sections? Well, it's because they (especially violins) are some of the quietest instruments out of all the instrument families and it takes three times as many to equal the volume of the others. That is why a violin can never be too loud. Of course you are not always going to play it that way, but it should be able to put forth a full-bodied volume without sounding constrained or weak. Since the violin is usually right next to your ear, you may think that they all sound loud when you play them, so you may actually want to listen to someone else playing it to make a more accurate determination.

Now, before we leave the subject of a violin's sound, it is important to note that the four points covered above only represent those aspects that are the least subjective and mostly result from how well a violin is constructed. But all things being equal, there are probably hundreds of other adjectives that can describe how a violin sounds. Warm, rich, bright, mellow, nasally, clear, full, smooth, even, brilliant, deep, etc. These are all terms that can be heard in connection with describing a violin. This is where the "flavor" of sound that a violin produces will all be a matter of personal taste or preference. So you can see how many combinations of savory sounds violins are capable of producing. They color your performances, you can feel them when you play, and they breathe life into every piece of music. The important thing is to find a violin that connects with how you want to feel and whose authentic voice makes you feel alive!

Visit lukonisviolins.com for the official website of Lukonis Violins to view more of my blog posts.

2 replies

Can't buy me love?

April 8, 2013 10:34

Have you ever been to a violin shop and instantly spied that curvacious beauty from across the store, standing out from among all of the other models? Like a enchanted rendezvous from a scene out of Shakespeare, you slowly make your way to where this lovely charmer is beckoning you. Just inches away now, you get a better look at the smoothness of the neck, that perfect body, and oh those silvery strings! (Yes, we still talking about violins, remember?) Timidly, you reach out and rest this vision of perfection under your chin, bowing your first note. Your heart skips a beat and you are instantly in love! Then with a newly acquired confidence, you look at the price tag and your heart skips a beat again - from shock! This costs HOW much??

Dejected, you feebly place the violin back where you got it, knowing that this love that could have been is out of your league - and greatly out of your price range! With a sigh, you turn away and move on, with a feeling that you will have to settle for an instrument that's better in tune with your bank account.

Does this sound familiar? Well, unfortunately this is an all too common scenario that many folks may experience when out shopping for a violin, and it can really have a negative impact on a budding musician. But this does not have to be the end of the story! There are many other violins out there that are equally beautiful and wonderful to play while still remaining within a modest budget.

If you have been following along with these series of posts from the beginning, you should now be able to find and identify a good violin fairly accurately. But how much should you pay for one? Well, this is a loaded question, isn't it? To be honest, this is one of those questions that does not have a direct answer because there are so many different facets to take into consideration. On the one side, you have to determine the true monetary value of the instrument. On another side, you will need to see through the perceived value of the instrument. And yet still on another side, you are going to have to weigh these values against your personal finances and what comfortably fits your budget. As you can imagine, we have quite a task ahead of us. And while this post may end up being a little longer than usual, I believe it to be a most important one. Let's face it, even though shopping around for a violin may be fun and exciting, the majority of people are truthfully just concerned with the bottom line, as they should be. So let's just jump right into unraveling this seemingly complicated tangle of why violins are priced the way they are.

First, we are going to take a look at the true monetary value of an instrument. As mentioned in a previous post, violin making is a form of art. It is a craft, a creation, a technique. And like any crafting profession, there are masters of the trade. They can have many years of accumulated experience or they can be prodigies, gifted with a natural talent. Their attention to detail is astounding and their expertise is unmatched. They carefully choose the tonewoods which allow each violin to achieve a perfect resonant frequency. Every cut and movement of the carving blade is made with exacting precision. The shape and curvature is specifically measured to achieve a particular desired sound. Each joint is pieced and glued together flawlessly. The varnish is evenly and smoothly applied without a noticeable blemish and each fitting is meticulously adjusted and perfected. And oh, the pure resonant sound they produce when the final work is complete!

These master luthiers almost seem to have some supernatural ability to bring inanimate pieces of wood to life, giving them personalities and melodious voices of their own. These are the new violins you will find being sold for many thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. And rightfully so! Just like any masterfully created work of art, you are paying for the renowned expertise of the artist, the name on the label inside of the instrument, and their time in creating such a treasure.

The upper price tier is also reserved for older instruments of equal quality but more importantly, their survivability. Because a violin is made of wood, it is still subject to the natural decay of the elements, as well as the use & abuse of its owners. Just like a well-made and maintained structure will stand for an innumerable number of years, so will a violin, given equal attention. And just like a heirloom piece of furniture, a violin can achieve the status of an antique, thus raising its price. These violins also tend to have increased tonal qualities as the wood & varnish age to perfection like a fine wine.

Is it any wonder why these instruments are priced and prized so highly? For these violins, I believe the maker or owner deserves the right to price them as they wish. But the only problem is that when out shopping, we as customers tend to have this unjustified reasoning that ALL violins with a higher price tag are like the ones mentioned above and we really don't think to question their true value. This is just an estimate, but I would venture to say that the type of violins described above represent 5% or less of the total that are out there for sale, and they are mainly targeted towards professional musicians who demand such exactness for their profession or otherwise wealthy collectors.

But what about the other 95% of violins and their prospective players? I think this is where you will find the widest range of prices based on the differing levels of craftsmanship mentioned above. So what's a decent price for a "good" instrument? $600? $1200? $8000? While certainly I mean no disrespect to the many fine violin makers out there, I believe the answer to this question lies more in the next area of focus - the perceived value of a violin.

So what exactly do I mean by the perceived value? Simply put, this is what we think a violin should cost, based on our own biases, preconceptions, experiences, or cultural influences. I provided a great example of this in my previous post when I mentioned violins made in China. Made in China - what thoughts or feelings do these words instantly bring to your mind? Well, it depends on what part of the world you were raised in or where you currently live, doesn't it? Generally speaking, those living in Western society may hear these words and think of cheaply made mass-market junk while those living in Eastern countries may think of cost effective daily essentials. Another example, one person may consider $5000 to be a relatively cheap expense to toss away on a violin for their child who may not even like playing it, while someone else with an inborn natural talent and love for music scratching a menial living may see $5000 as the investment of a lifetime.

Another cultural bias is the value we place on our time. How much do you get paid per hour? How much is my time worth? TGIF!! Shoot, I hope the kids' soccer game will be over in time so I can make my hair appointment! These are all things you may hear in a Western society, where again, generally speaking, a very high value is placed on time. While many Eastern societies tend to place more value on things like community, family, or excellence. I certainly do not intend to stereotype or fit people into a certain way of thinking, but the fact remains that the price or value we place on things is largely dependent on our own perceptions.

So how does this pertain to the price of violins? For one, where the violin is made or sold can certainly affect the price. I have been personally told by a Chinese luthier and businessman that even though they may be master craftsmen, their violins will be cheaper because the price is not determined by how much time it takes to make it, rather the quality of the finished instrument. In contrast, luthiers in Western countries will oftentimes count how many hours it takes to make an instrument and determine a cost-per-hour price tag for the finished product. This is neither a good nor bad thing, it's just a difference in cultural economics. And quite frankly, it takes much less U.S. dollars to live comfortably in China than it does in the U.S.

This same principle also goes for selling violins. Most violins will be cheaper to buy from Chinese luthiers than from American or European ones. So buying wonderfully made violins made in China and selling them in America for a profit makes good business sense, which is what a majority of violin shops do. And regardless of whether you see a recognizable or top manufacturer's name on the inside label, many of those suppliers have also moved some of their workshops to China for the same reasons mentioned above. Quite simply, they can get the same top quality violins made there for a fraction of the cost. But because they know your cultural biases, they will still charge you the same price as other violins to increase their profit margins. Also, since many master Chinese luthiers do not place much value on their time, they often will not even place a maker's label on the inside of the violin, which allows for the more unscrupulous sellers to place their own label in it! So guess what, that brand new $6000 violin in the store that sounds soooo much better than that other new $600 one you may have tried from somewhere else may in fact be made by the same person, at the same time, in the same shop, and may actually even sound very much alike.

This leads us right into the other main perceived value - how much you think a violin is worth and your perceptions about money. When looking at violins, do you think that a higher priced one is automatically better than a lower priced one? Do you care where it was made or who made it or just that it is made well, plays easily, and sounds good? Do you believe that if you do not purchase a violin from an established violin shop that it can't possibly compare to one that was? These, my friend, are all questions you must answer yourself, as they are all based on your own preconceptions. But I will help you out by telling you that they are all based on false premises. I personally have purchased violins for a few hundred dollars that I (and everyone who plays it!) love! I have also played violins for many thousands of dollars that I wouldn't even consider giving to a 5-year-old beginner. Ok, maybe that's a bit harsh, but you get the idea. ;)

The point I am really trying to make in this long-winded section is that the price assigned to any one violin and the price you are willing to pay for it will largely be determined by the perceived value of both the seller and the buyer. Sometimes it will be accurate and sometimes it will not. But the purpose of all the posts previous to this one is to help you see through the veil of these preconceptions in order to determine its true value and thus, whether you feel the price of the instrument is justifiable in your own mind.

Which brings us to the final, and I must say, the simplest of the three determinations of how much you should pay for a violin. Quite frankly, how much do you have to spend on one? This is really the most important question and probably should have been asked near the beginning. However, I first wanted to shake your mind free of any paradigms that may have held you back in the decision-making process. I especially wanted to point out that even though you may believe that you don't have a lot of money to invest in a new or used violin, this alone will not prevent you from acquiring a really good one! This was the position I was in when I first started looking for my own violin, which is the primary reason I began investigating and researching the subject instead of settling for the only ones that seemed available to me at the time.

My advice to you is to look at your own personal finances and choose a set price that you would like to spend on a violin. It can really be any price you wish. Then go searching, equipped with the knowledge you acquired from this blog and other helpful sources. I can almost guarantee that you will be able to find what you are looking for because I myself have done it...multiple times! And while I tend to focus mostly on those who may be limited on funds (with the global economy being as it is), I certainly do not want to dismiss those who may have a great deal of expendable income. Just as someone with little financial means shouldn't feel limited in their purchasing options, neither should you feel ashamed or held back from buying a higher priced violin! I purposely did not put a lot of weight on that end of the price spectrum because in my experience, there is certainly no shortage of great violins in the $1000's price range and you should be able to find one that suits your needs pretty readily.

I hope this post helps you in determining what you should pay for a violin. It really is one of those topics that can be highly subjective. But only you know what is best for your own wallet. The good news is that you can find a good violin that you will love to play no matter what your budget is! Can't buy me love? Oh, yes you can!!

Visit lukonisviolins.com for the official website of Lukonis Violins to view more of my blog posts.

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What's in a name?

April 1, 2013 07:04

There was a time when the art of violin making was a carefully guarded secret, strictly passed down from master to apprentice. This special knowledge was sought after by kings and royals, nobles and courtiers, whose influence was renowned and their wealth immense. Composers and violinists were like rock stars of their day, requesting the finest of instruments for their performances. There was no internet, no television, no radio, no automobiles, no airplanes, no video games, or just about any other popular modern form of distraction or entertainment. But this period in history was filled to abundance with live music, theater, and art. And if you happened to be fortunate enough to be a maker of violins at this time, your craft was in high demand and so were those willing to pay a pretty penny for one.

Fast forward a few hundred years, obviously many things have changed. But there are still remnants of these bygone days that have clung to and followed the violin into these modern times - some of them deservingly so, but others seem to have fallen into an irrational resistance to change. While its beauty, prestige, and versatility have lived on through the ages, making or playing the violin is no longer an art form restricted to the upper classes of society. But many folks still believe they have to pay a kingly price for a good one, as if they were only available to the social elite.

If I asked you to name any 5 television shows, or 5 makers of automobiles, or 5 pop singers, could you do it? I would undoubtedly think the answer would be yes. Now, what if I asked you to give me the names of 5 luthiers born within the last 100 years? Not as easy, is it? In fact, I would guess that over 90% of people reading this wouldn't be able to do it. But when out shopping for violins, what's the first thing we do? Look at the name on the label inside the violin!! Like we even know who it is most of the time! Don't worry though, I'm guilty of it too. And I'd say any honest person would tell you the same. But why do we do it? The answer is simple and it's the reason you could readily supply the names of TV shows, cars, or pop singers - it's because we have been trained to!

Today's marketing and media industry is centered around brand recognition and we have been so programmed to believe that if we do not recognize the brand, then it must not be any good. We do this so often when shopping at the grocery or department stores that we don't even realize we are doing it any more. And unfortunately, this same pattern of thought carries over into shopping for a violin as well. Many folks seeking a violin will make their decision solely based on looking for a name they recognize, which is more than likely very few. This will greatly limit your choices, possibly passing over some wonderfully crafted instruments that may be perfect for you!

So here is a quick test: if you had to choose between a $600 violin made in China and sold online, and a $6000 violin made in Italy and sold at your local high-end violin shop, which do you think would be the better instrument? If you just cringed after even reading the question, you have been programmed. You probably just focused on the key buzzwords in the question to immediately formulate your decision. But the truth of the matter is, the above description is not nearly suitable enough for choosing a violin. In these modern times, finding a fine quality violin is no longer tied to a certain place where it was made, the method through which you purchased it, whose name is on the label, or even the price!

You may not be aware of this, but a vast majority of new violins you will find for sale are coming out of China - and I'm talking about the really good ones being offered in most shops! Need proof? Check out the names of the latest winners from the Violin Society of America's 20th International Competition! The simple truth is that the paradigm of what you might think about violin making has changed, and if you are stuck in the past then you'll be missing out on a lot of exceptional buying opportunities. We are in a new Age of Information, and so it's time to leave behind the opulent airs of the Renaissance and break free of the chains of the controlling mass media. Knowledge is the new reigning monarch when it comes to buying a violin, and it will be your most useful ally.

That is really the sole purpose of this blog - to empower you with the knowledge of violins so that you can shake off long past traditions and pierce through modern influences in order to find an instrument you love. If you only have a small amount to spend on an instrument, or live in a remote place where there are no violin shops, or don't know the name of single violin maker, you should feel assured that there ARE "good" violins out there for you! All you need to know is how to find and identify them. And when you do find a violin you love to play, you should never feel ashamed when comparing it to someone else's. If you found yours through the careful comparison and selection process using the information provided in these posts and the person next to you spouts off a fancy name and high price for their violin but otherwise can't tell you a thing about it, who do you think will be more confident with their purchase and appreciative of their instrument?

It's this subject that will be the topic of the next post and probably the one you've been looking for since the beginning - money! How much should you pay for a violin? Well, put your wallets and pocketbooks away because the answer may surprise you!

Visit lukonisviolins.com for the official website of Lukonis Violins to view more of my blog posts.

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