Teaching a violin

July 7, 2010, 10:45 PM ·

I must say, I'm enjoying the opportunity to teach a new violin.

Certainly, I've taught a lot of new violinists, but I don't often get a newborn fiddle in my hands, as I did this week with the Hiroshi Kono -- a 2010 with barely-dried varnish.

It sounds a little strange. You may be wondering, what on earth do you have to teach a violin? You just play it, right?

Well, it's not so simple. A new violin is doing something that it never did in its life as a tree: making a specific kind of sound. Sure, the wind might have whistled through its branches, but really, this is something new.

In a nutshell: The wood of a violin resonates when you play it. If you can make the wood resonate properly, you can open up the the violin's voice. If you play the violin carelessly, the voice actually shuts down because the wood is not resonating. For example, it's quite possible for me to pick up one of my students' violins and to tell if that student has been playing all week, simply from how the violin sounds, as I know all their violins. The violin will be louder and clearer if the student has played it all week; even more so if the student plays consistently in tune.

Playing in tune makes the violin resonate more, so this is important.

On this new violin that I'm training, I noticed today that it feels as though the fiddle still has to learn the very basic grooves. It is learning how to resonate on the most elemental notes of the violin: the open strings and all their companions, and then notes of related scales. At this point, the violin isn't too picky and isn't really telling me much. Instead, I'm giving all the instruction. For example, it doesn't get way, way more resonant when I play a first-finger “E” on the “D” string because it hasn't really played that note any more than it's done anything else. It will even settle for a slightly out-of-tune “E,” without putting up a huge protest. But if I play a very, very in-tune “E” repeatedly, I can almost hear the violin getting the groove, learning that “E” is going to be very important in its vocabulary. It resonates more and more, and the note becomes more specific. It's like teaching a child to speak!

Has anyone else had this experience?



July 8, 2010 at 04:01 AM ·

 I was lucky enough to be the one called when a local luthier needed a bow put to the string for the first time on a viola that she had just finished.  It is a totally different experience than playing an instrument that has been hanging on a wall for 15 years (the other viola that I am trying to wake up).  Just repeating those simple notes, you can feel the instrument start to 'get it', loosen up, and try its new voice.  I didn't want to put it down.

July 8, 2010 at 05:17 AM ·

Hi- I had exactly the same kind of experience with my Guad. When I first got it, it was very hard to play and make it sound really great. The longer I started the first half-hour or so to practicing for intonation, listening really attentively to resonance, since all pitches resonate if the are perfectly in tune, the more glorious the violin sounded. My point here is that you have to "train" any violin, whether it's freshly made or by one of the great masters.   Charles Johnston

July 8, 2010 at 06:13 AM ·


How interesting that your students' violins tell you if their owner has practiced! That's a useful thing for a teacher to be able to do.

When I haven't played for a while, my violin takes revenge by speaking through its nose for a few days, but I've never thought other people would notice.


July 8, 2010 at 07:09 AM ·

Laurie: This is fascinating. The whole old vs new and the opportunity you have to form the character of this new violin compared with one that perhaps bears the imprint of somebody else. I wonder how much of a violin's tone is due to how it is made vs how it is played or how it has been played.

Bart: There's a biblical quote about your sins finding you out. Despite the demonic associations of the violin, obviously your instrument is on the side of the angels.

July 8, 2010 at 07:22 AM ·

I had a similar experience when I played an old violin owned by some friends who had not  played in a long, long time.  The first issue I had to deal with was slippery pegs.  The violin wouldn't stay in tune.  I remembered that years ago, when I was a kid, we used chalk to make the pegs stickier and soap to make them more slippery.  One of my friends at the violin's home called some neighbors until he found someone who had some chalk.  We got it, I used it, and the pegs stayed where I put them.  Then there was a real thrill as I played the violin.  It really came to life, bit by bit, as I played.  My friends kept saying, "That sounds better and better."  I felt like I was breathing life into the violin.  That's a wonderful and strong experience.  It was a real ego trip.  I wondered whether surgeons feel this way when they bring a nearly dead patient back to life.  It was a tremendous experience which I had forgotten about.  Thank you, Laurie, for writing about it.

July 8, 2010 at 08:24 AM ·

 My new violin (I've had it a year now, bought it in spring 2009) did something like this.  It was made in 2008, and I am its first owner.  But I wasn't the first one to play it, I don't think.  It was on a table to be tested and tried out and I preferred its sound to the others I tried that I could afford.  It's just a Shar Carlo Lamberti model.  I would be surprised if no one else had ever picked it up and tried it out.  

When I brought it to my lesson and played it for my teacher, one of the things we both noticed was the ringing, resonant sound when it was played in tune.  

This is something, however, that my old violin (~150 years old, probable German factory violin, I'd owned it for 30 of those years and had been playing it regularly) did not do, and never had done that I could remember.  Buying and using the new violin has been part of my ongoing work to improve my intonation, and especially my ability to hear and distinguish good intonation from bad, over the past couple of years as I've restarted violin.  My teacher thinks the new violin has been very helpful in teaching *me*.  I have mostly been thinking about it that way, as opposed to the other way around--I don't think I've been teaching it.

So I am wondering if this quality is something more like an inborn "talent" for a violin--something that all violins can do a little bit, but that some do much better than others, and that can be improved further by teaching and practice.  Perhaps modern makers are paying more attention to this quality and building it into even reasonably priced student violins.  

July 8, 2010 at 09:38 AM ·

Okay, Laurie, tell us how one trains the hapless student violin played by a youngster who doesn't know what being in tune is and plays that way for a year or two.  Just let the violin get better as the student does?  Guess I can blame my violin for half of my problems :)

Related question:  Does repeated plucking of notes that are in tune also help the violin?

July 8, 2010 at 01:50 PM ·

Kristina, yes, that's exactly how it feels!

Chalres and Pauline, I agree, It's definitely true that a violin needs training, whether it's new or old, especially if the old violin has not been played in years. And yes, some violins are more responsive, have better wood, are better made, have more potential for "opening up" and achieving a good voice. Some really reach a point and can't go farther.

The perpetually careless student tends to shut his or her instrument down. If they have a bad enough instrument, it never gives them the kind of feedback that would make them want to try to create this resonating sound and form a voice with the violin. That's why I cringe when parents tell me of their plans to get their child a $70 VSO to see if they are "serious" or if they "like it." Some kids can get past that, but it's kind of a circular vortex: the fiddle doesn't respond, the student doesn't respond, the fiddle gets less responsive, the student gets less responsive, and pretty soon everyone is asking, "What's the point?"

Certainly I agree with what Karen said, your fiddle can be one of your teachers!

July 8, 2010 at 01:50 PM ·

Kato Havas apparently used to diagnose her students' current problems by playing their instruments.

I'm currently doing the break-in with two new instruments.  One is clean as a whistle-- sonically as well as cosmetically-- but could use some relaxation as well as richness of sound.  It resonates beautifully while in tune-, but could be a bit sweeter as well as faster-sounding in high positions.  The other is sweet, fast, and powerful, but doesn't always tell you when you're very in or out of tune.  It doesn't give false warnings, so tendinitis or sour playing isn't a worry.  It just sounds beautiful no matter if you've missed the note or not and sometimes I wish it didn't.

One thing that I find helps in each case is playing slowly, loudly, on the bridge.  Rostropovich did this with scales to warm himself up and  generally liven up his instrument.  In more particular situations, where the instrument responds a bit slowly to a passage, I find that doing it slowly, in forte ponticello digs the groove a bit deeper, making it easier to produce next time.  Some of that might be my fingers and ears doing better, of course, but I think the fiddle does get improved in the process as well.


July 8, 2010 at 06:26 PM ·

 ok, that might explain why my previous violin (the one I had from when I started learning to 4 months ago) did 'ring' when played in tune but not so much...

for the first 2 and a half years of my learning I was not taught intonation and I dread to think how out of tune I was all the time, then I started with my current teacher (a year ago) and finally after 2 and a half years started to 'understand' the 'real meaning' of being in tune and learning to be in tune, now I do play much more in tune then I ever did in my learning journey, I got a brand new violin 4 months ago and this one rings like there's no tomorrow when played in tune! totally different from my old one, I wonder if it's because I played my old one out of tune for so long it never really had a chance to 'open up'???

But then I have a question, if a violin is not played in tune and does not 'open up' properly, if put in the hands of a better/more experienced player, will it ever open up again? or is the 'damage' forever???

July 8, 2010 at 07:35 PM ·

 My violin sounds the same no matter how much I play or played it. It only changes sound when I put on new strings and play them in.  No label in the body, maybe it is a Rip van Winkle.


July 8, 2010 at 10:50 PM ·

This echoes my own experience somewhat, although I've never had a newborn instrument.  My three date from 1869, 1883, and 1921.  Each of them, on first tryout, had a more closed-up, nasal sound; but after a few weeks of playing -- oh, what a difference -- a great opening up.

I've experimented with string combinations to bring out the sound still more.  So far, the 1883 violin sounds best with Pirastro Eudoxa A-D-G and Pirastro Gold Label E.  This combination accentuates the instrument's viola-type tone on D-G and gives a full-bodied, ringing top register on E.

July 9, 2010 at 06:15 AM ·

 The violin is very honest to tell your teacher how much time you practice!

My teacher sometimes even knows that I practice once throughout the week before the lesson or I practice for a couple of days per week.  I get my violin from my teacher and it's 15 years old.  He always says he finds the sound is getting more beautiful.  He teaches me whenever you start practice, play long bow on open strings.  So the violin gets warm up exercise, to open its voice, then goes to scales, arpeggios, etudes, and real piece of music.  I think this is true, from the violin's perspective as well as in terms of the level of difficulty.

Angela Choi   


July 9, 2010 at 07:58 PM ·


Interesting that you purchased a Hiroshi Kono.  I just bought one a couple of weeks ago as a second fiddle.  He makes some really nice fiddles; about as nice as anything I've played for under $3000.


July 9, 2010 at 08:13 PM ·

I remember reading years back that when one the last century's great players - was it Szigeti? died and another great player acquired his instrument, that he'd found that if he was bang in tune, it "rang" and sounded effortless, but if he was a fraction off, it sounded dull. It seems likely that the wood does get used to resonating at certain frequencies - maybe this is one reason why old instruments tend to sound better than new ones?

July 9, 2010 at 09:41 PM ·

Perhaps some of our makers could contribute an opinion. 

Is this a trick one learns to do with a knife, or do you first try to do no harm and then get your work in the hands of an excellent player?

July 10, 2010 at 03:41 AM ·

I am in agreement. What I don't understand is the recent research I've heard about, from New Zealand, that maintains that a new violin's "voice" is as it will always be. This view tends to be held by makers, I suspect.

Nearly 20 years ago I bought a particularly well-wooded Lucci violin that had been little played. I think the dealer had doubts about it because of the unusually robust construction. An hour's strenuous playing with a heavy bow and it would sound like the best violin ever. Then, next day, I'd need to start all over. Frustrating for some years, but now I don't want to part with the violin.

I have bought a few new violins recently. I was interested to confirm or not, whether all that advice above is correct, because early in my career I abandoned new violins after a few years and began to use "old". 2 years for "oomph" to come out of the fog !

Spohr tried several unused "Strads" and declared that 10 years of use was necessary to overcome "woodiness'. I found that after 10 years regular orchestral use one absolutely new violin, bought in 1994, transformed the instrument. Other players stopped giving me those sidelong looks suggesting that I was an idiot, and compliments on the sound began !

A big sound, near the bridge, in-tune double stops, will open the violin up. As Hills note in their Stradivari book, top players ensure the string continues resonating after the bow leaves the string - that's to say, crushing the sound has to be avoided.

A colleague, years back, had worked in Hill's London shop. He had had the opportunity to try a Ruggieri violin, formerly owned by a top soloist and concertmaster. He reported that, yes, the fiddle seemd to play in tune.

One violin I owned seemed to push me back off the note for quite some time - it fought back ! The effort to overcome the will of this violin put me off it. I sold it.

July 10, 2010 at 08:12 AM ·

 I read an article in the Strad magazine about an experiment where two identical violins were made from the same piece of wood by a renowned luthier. The one violin was hung in a glass case at the museum and the other was played every day by a professional musician. After three years the same two violins were played in a blind-fold test and the distinguished audience could not tell tell them apart !  I believe this was an on going experiment.

Every one has his own story. The power of auto-suggestion can not be over estimated, and it can even make one lose perspective.

July 10, 2010 at 10:08 AM ·

  • "Distinguished" folk are typically grey-haired and in the grips of hearing loss !
  • 3 years wouldn't make much difference for the audience, in any case. Spohr suggested 10 !
  • I'm beginning to suspect that the player discerns an improvement in efficiency and sound under the ear, and that for the listener there's not a lot of change ever ! Also, that newer fiddles need players of higher calibre to sound well. Older violins can sound OK even if played in a casual sort of way, unless, of course, previous players have ruined them.

July 10, 2010 at 04:00 PM ·

A fascinating concept. I'm not entirely sure when my Stentor was manufactured, most likely this year. But I can tell you for free that it's very unforgiving when I don't hit a natural, The open strings are nice and clear (as long as I keep an eye on the bow and stop it creeping up towards the bridge). But the moment I got for an E and hit E flat it's like I slide the tourte on, quite spooky, but at the moment handy as my spade-like hands are still learning where to stop the strings to hit the notes (I'm sure if any dogs lived onboard they would be in fits each time I play twinkle twinkle). Just practicing my bow strokes is a pleasure as the violin gets it's lungs and fills the room with nice clear tones.

July 11, 2010 at 10:29 PM ·

Well, I'm sorry, but I'm a complete sceptic about all this. I think the idea that violins can quickly "get better with playing" is just an old wives' tale dreamed up by violin dealers (you may not think this violin is perfect now, but just buy it and spend a few weeks playing it, and then you'll realise just how good it is!). In reality the dealer is just hoping you get used to playing it.

There is no scientific evidence that playing a violin makes it better temporarily (and that it then reverts to its former state if you cease playing it). 

Age is bound to gradually change the properties of the wood (and probably the varnish too), and the vibrations caused by playing may produce some change to the wood in the long term, but the idea that playing can TEMPORARILY change the wood just seems to me to be an illusion. Maybe the students who haven't practised enough have simply let their fiddles get out of tune!

July 11, 2010 at 11:20 PM ·

Agreeing with Oliver, there are tons of stories where the dealer asks a prospective client to "break-in" a violin for him.....the client returns after a week or so claiming the violin really came around, opened up and was  much more vibrant and alive......problem is, the dealer'd done the same thing with the same violin to several previous clients, and sold them an upgrade violin....The player simply adjusts to the new tool.  With a new/different  bow, the variables and learning curve is extended. However, all of the stories, concepts, mythical or not, are fascinating violin lore.

July 11, 2010 at 11:20 PM ·

Agreeing with Oliver, there are tons of stories where the dealer asks a prospective client to "break-in" a violin for him.....the client returns after a week or so claiming the violin really came around, opened up and was  much more vibrant and alive......problem is, the dealer'd done the same thing with the same violin to several previous clients, and sold them an upgrade violin....The player simply adjusts to the new tool.  With a new/different  bow, the variables and learning curve is extended. However, all of the stories, concepts, mythical or not, are fascinating violin lore.

July 11, 2010 at 11:22 PM ·

I am an absolute beginner but I own a violin that hasn't been played in 70 years. That being said this discussion is very interesting to me. Is my low skill level perhaps a detriment to the violin? According to my instructor the violin is better than a school violin. In fact he has praised it more than I had hoped for. It sounds very good when he plays it at least to my untutored ear. The opinions seem to range widely here. In my hands it seems to do exactly what I ask it to do. It seems neither hostile nor forgiving. If I hit the note or miss it I get what I ask for but it does ring like a bell when I hit it. It almost seems to come alive in my hands. My imagination? Perhaps. Harmonics and resonant frequencies form the scientific foundation of this discussion but I'm afraid it goes beyond my limited knowledge of the subject.

 - Dale

July 12, 2010 at 12:58 AM ·

Well well, a violin with a personally. I consider my-self a very open minded person.  Lets looks at the facts. Violins are made out of wood.  There are many types of wood. Wood from the lower part of the tree is different from wood from the higher part of the tree. Then there is the craftsmanship of the violin maker. Then you must consider the strings. Then there is the bow and bowing arm. At last, there is the musicianship of the player. So there are many, many facts that determined how a violin will sound. The wood of the violin is dead wood.  It is not going to talk back to you. What makes a violin work is the player.  At least, that is my 2 cents.

 - Rob


July 12, 2010 at 12:47 AM ·

Several years ago, my husband wanted to buy me a very special violin. So the word got out and dealers from everywhere began bringing me old Italian violins to try out. I tried about 10 different violins by the same maker and one of them (the first one I'd tried) really stood out in my opinion. I tried that same violin again months later and instantly recognized that exciting sound I remembered. So eventually that's the violin we purchased. But by that time it had traveled to another state and spent time in a different climate, and when I finally played it again in my own home I was shocked at how different it sounded. Had I made a mistake? The other 2 times I'd played it (once in my home and once at a luthier's shop) it had instantly impressed me. This time it just sounded ordinary (well, a lot better than ordinary, but ordinary compared to how I remembered it sounding). Well, I kept my hopes up, thinking it was probably the weather and lack of playing and sure enough, within a few days (actually more like a few hours of solid playing), it was right back to being the same wonderful violin I remembered. I've had the violin for several years now and travel with it alot, and now and then it seems to need to "adjust" to a change in climate. The good news is that a few hours of playing will always bring it back to where it sounds it's best again (and it sounds really good even when it's not at it's best!).

July 12, 2010 at 02:44 PM ·

 This is a very interesting blog. As of noon today I have read every comment. I thank Laurie for posting it and all those who posted interesting comments. 

As a "beginner" ( less than 6 years into this instrument) I too am concerned about this phenomenon. 

Can a violin get better if it is played constantly correctly?  If violin is played correctly, is the violinist getting better or is the "wood" learning to produce a better sound? There seems to be a difference of opinion. I am leaning towards the skill of the violinist and / or the amount of productive practice. (This I am certain of since I have increased my practice time significantly since February)

Also are all under $800 violins considered "vso?" Ideas?


July 13, 2010 at 04:21 PM ·

 I have to agree with you Kim.  It is the player who must warm up  and then, his/her playing is going to sound better. The violin is not going to produce a magic sound until the player puts their finger in the right spot on the finger board. And don't forget,  we have to warm up our ears.  The more you practice, the more you train your ears. The better you can hear, the better you sound.

So the question is:  Does the violin warm up when it is played, or do our ears warm up?

- Rob

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