Why does a "better" violin sometimes sound "worse" to the player?
I started thinking about this when two of my young violin students moved up to the next-size violins. Tuning the new fiddles, I was very pleased. The sound was far better than their previous instruments. The reason was likely twofold: First, bigger violins tend to have better sound because there is more room to resonate. Second, the quality of the instrument was clearly higher. The difference was obvious: they'd gone from scratchbox instruments to violins capable of singing.
So I was a little surprised when one of them announced with a frown, "I don't like this new violin."
Well change is difficult...but that was not it.
"I don't like way it sounds," she said.
Then I recognized the phenomenon. A quality instrument will magnify the good; but it will also magnify the bad. Conversely, the bad violin can be a little bit like the gauze lens that puts a soft focus on the movie star, muting every blemish. Sometimes you don't really want to see all the details that a high-definition image can reveal!
Sometimes a better violin is exactly what a student needs to start stepping it up. It might feel bad at first, to realized how much improvement is needed. But a good violin can help you recognize exactly where those improvements are needed, and how to make them.
Here are some of the specific things that a higher-quality violin may reveal for you, and how:
Clarity: Everything will sound clearer on a better violin, including your intonation, the tidiness of your bow strokes, the accuracy of your string crossings. The only drawback: if you have developed some sloppy habits, the better violin will clearly reflect the imperfections! But the good news is that if you pay attention, a better violin will also help you to discern such problems, allowing you to correct them.
Resonance: The instrument will ring more. This can help you with your intonation - but it can also make you realize that you have been playing out of tune! Any violin will ring especially well when you play a perfectly in-tune E, A, D or G anywhere on the instrument. The better the instrument, the more this effect is evident, and the more you can "tune in" to your pitch.
Quality of tone: In addition to hearing more resonance, a better violin will produce more "overtones," which are secondary tones produced by any given note. The presence of these contribute to a sense of fullness, richness and character in each note. If you are accustomed to the absence of overtones, you might be disconcerted by their presence and by the "thicker" sound.
Response: You'll hear your notes sound a little faster, and also, a better violin will respond with more clarity to effects such as vibrato, trills, mordents, etc. If you have an under-developed vibrato, it will show. But also, a better violin will reward your efforts at vibrato, which will make a lot more sense to you on a violin that is responding to it.
Craftsmanship: Ideally, a better violin will also serve you better: the pegs will work better, the fittings will be made of materials better than plastic, the instrument will look more attractive, etc. Sometimes it's "just aesthetic" and doesn't directly affect your sound or playing, but these considerations can make it more enjoyable to play, which means you be happy to practice more!
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