Speed Dating with Wolves

April 18, 2009, 7:31 AM ·

A certain violin shop came to Boston yesterday and set up in a conference room in the Boston Cambridge Marriott.  This hotel is one block away from where I work, in Kendall Square, Cambridge Massachusetts.  Later that afternoon I had to call NIH, proofread a proposal, go to a meeting, go to a seminar, have dinner with the speaker.  I was hoping I'd be able to come back later, but, if not, I was going to make the most of these 30--oops, 29--minutes.

The apprentice lays out the violins on the tables, attaching shoulder rests to them if you want to use them.  One of the tables has affordable instruments (one doesn't).  To be honest, none of them looks as nice at first glance as the violin I own now.  None of them is quite the right color, none of them has the beautiful flamed one-piece back that mine has.  This is indeed like speed-dating:  first step, unfairly size up your potential partner based on superficial appearances.

Fortunately, except for the apprentice and all the violins looking at me, I'm the only one in the room right now, so my self-consciousness doesn't completely overwhelm me.  Twenty-six minutes.

I pick up the one on the affordable table that looks the prettiest and play a G major scale.  Like my own violin, it is dissatisfying on the G string.  It sounds like it is straining, a little bit of the flavor of a rubber band stretched across a matchbox. I put it down. I'm not going to spend that kind of money to get what I already have. I tell the apprentice, as I already told him by email, I want something with a deep, rich sound in the lower register.  He suggests two others.  Both a little too red-looking, a little too wide-grained.  But affordable.  

Now that he's got all the shoulder rests attached, I just pick them up in a row and start playing the opening to the 1st violin part of Cappricio Italien.  I don't play it that well in tune just off the top of my head, but it's not too bad. It gives me the flavor of playing sul G, of shifting to 7th position.  And then I get to the C, the one that would be a 2nd finger on the A-string in first position.  It sounds really odd.  Scratchy. There's that rubber band and matchbox again. (Maybe it's just me--I'm not very good.  At least nobody else is here and the apprentice is humoring me). I try again and it's no better. "Is that a wolf?" he asks.

"Maybe."  I've never heard a wolf before. I don't think my current instrument has one. But here I am in 7th position on the G string, and somebody on violinist.com told me that was where wolves hang out.  I play it for the apprentice. "Yep, a wolf."  "Cool!  Fascinating!  I've never heard a wolf before."  I play the wolf a few more times. Then I realize that I have only 20 more minutes, and I'm not buying this one either.  

The next one I pick up has a wolf too, in the same place.  Now this is getting creepy.  Maybe it IS just me.  But the next one doesn't. In fact, the next one is kind of like my viola, only smaller.  I play the whole Capriccio Italien opening. Then I try a Handel sonata with a bunch of string crossings.  I play some of the 1st violin part of the William Tell overture:  ricochet, spiccato 16th notes. The bow seems to be doing everything I need it to do. I'm intrigued, but I'm not necessarily in love.  

Next.  This one passes the CI G string test, but not the Handel string crossings. The bridge/fingerboard are too flat. I hit the wrong strings when I don't want to. Next.  Another rubber band/matchbox deal.   Next. Scratchy, too.I only have 5 minutes left.

Out of all of these, there was only one that I really want to consider further. The one that was "like my viola only smaller."  Now I look at the tag. It is a Carlo Lamberti model, and it's reasonably priced.  I ask the apprentice to set it aside for me and run back to call NIH. I pick up some lunch on the way.

Unfortunately, I don't get back to the hotel again that afternoon until I'm on the way to the seminar.  I can't stop long. There is a teenager there now, playing an instrument off the non-affordable table. Two adults are listening and giving advice. My apprentice sees me, and suggests we go to the room next door so I can play some more.  No, I can't stay.  I'm so sorry.  (Aargh.)  Can I take the Carlo Lamberti I reserved home for a trial?  My lesson is a week from Monday.   

"Play some more double stops," says one of adults.  The teen starts playing the 3rd movement of the Bruch concerto.  She's self-conscious too, hits a few out-of-tune notes, but generally she's an excellent, accomplished player.  

While she's playing, I fill out paperwork, get the Lamberti and two bows in a serviceable, but slightly beat-up tank-ish looking case.  Just the fashion accessory to take to a Brain and Cognitive Sciences seminar!

Later, as we're waiting for our table at dinner with the seminar speaker, because there was a mix-up about the reservation, the concierge asks me what and where I play. It turns out he's a local freelance musician (not on violin). I feel a connection.  We get the table.  

Now, the next morning, the real "getting to know you" process begins.  

And an auspicious violin omen greets me upon checking my email:  I won a Tasmin Little CD!  I have been entering these violinist.com CD contests for, like, every day for the past year.  I would recognize the names of the winners, week after week, but mine was never one of them.  I'm psyched!


April 18, 2009 at 05:30 PM ·


A nerve-wracking pursuit -- reminds me of a kind of song that was en vogue when I was a kid:

we rijden met de trojka door het eindeloze woud (we ride a troika through the endless forest)

het vriest een graad of dertig, het is winter, en vrij koud, (it's minus 30 -- celsius -- it is winter, rather cold)

de paardenhoeven knersen in de versgevallen sneeeuw (the horses' hooves trample the freshly fallen snow)

't Is winter in Siberië en nergens is een leeuw. (It's winter in Siberia, and lions are nowhere to be seen)


I hope you won't let yourself be pursued by the wolves, and that you can take as much time as you need to try the violins out before you throw them to the wolves.

Good luck,


April 18, 2009 at 08:24 PM ·


Dance with the Wolves 2?  Never thought that one would have a sequel.



April 18, 2009 at 09:02 PM ·

I didn't understand fully, did you buy it or not at the end?  Wow, a funny experience to speed date violins!!! :)


April 18, 2009 at 09:12 PM ·

Dances With Wolves was a good movie.  I loved that Dun horse!

Anyhoo, I would suggest that you not go by looks alone.  Sound, playability, and condition are the big three hallmarks.  Any resemblence to Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves would be an added bonus. (Insert smiley face here).

April 18, 2009 at 09:52 PM ·

Anne-Marie, No, I didn't buy it.  I just have it here at home for a 7-10-day trial. I'm going to take it to orchestra rehearsal next Wednesday and show it to some violin-playing friends, and then to my lesson to discuss with my teacher.  I can send it back if I don't want it, nothing lost.  That's why I thought it was worth just taking it home and giving it a whirl.

Anne, I agree that I shouldn't make this decision based on looks.  In a way, thinking back, that's what got me into trouble with my current violin.  I've owned it for about 30 years, I thought it was beautiful back then, and I still do.  It was by far the best-looking instrument I tried.  But over the years I've grown dissatisfied with its sound in the lower range, and I really need something that sounds better if I'm going to take my violin playing up a notch. I like the way my viola both looks and sounds, so I think (hope!) the combination is possible.

The "wolves" are just a reference to the wolf tones I found on those two instruments.  I read about wolf tones for the first time on violinist.com a while back, and had never actually heard one or felt one under my fingers until yesterday. 

April 19, 2009 at 12:44 AM ·

Nicely written - lots of fun to try violins and you sum up the experience really well!   How do you feel now you have the instrument back home?   Do you reckon you will fall in love?  I have to admit that in a situation like that I'd have been totally unrealistic and made my way to drool all over the "unaffordable" table!

April 19, 2009 at 12:57 AM ·

Karen, for the look aspect, you make me think of myself...  My first good violin was such gorgeous.  It was Caramel/honey coulor and the tail/chin piece, pegs were not in ebony, they were in the other caramel type color wood also often use to mach with it.  It looked like an old good violin, very distinged, chic and prestigious... The only finetuner was golden.  It looked such professional.  It was noticable amongst all other students usually cheaper instruments.  But I trade this lovetrub for my actual one who has A SOUND.  Much better, powerful, round but is so red with ebony accessoires (looks way more "student" even if nice but I am a student! lol).  It's back is beautiful and very striped but no one sees it.   But I do not regret have trading the look for the sound! Good luck!


April 19, 2009 at 01:30 PM ·

Love the entry...can't wait to read more about your adventures in violin shopping.  Have fun and report  back what you decide on this one. 

April 19, 2009 at 04:48 PM ·

I love all your descriptions here - you'll have to keep us posted on how you like that trial violin!

April 19, 2009 at 06:13 PM ·

Thanks for sharing your experience.

The violin business is semi-populated with with wolves, but also goes in the opposite direction to include those who are so modest that they will never be given proper mention compared to their merits.

"Speed dating" was a great description.  :-) The time allowed to try a violin before buying is generally around two weeks.

At least violins don't put up "facades" which take as much time to see through as human complexities do.

On second thought............ :-)

April 19, 2009 at 07:07 PM ·

Can I nominate this as the best blog title of all time?

April 19, 2009 at 07:43 PM ·

I thought Carlo Lamberti was manufactured in China for Shar Music in Ann Arbor.

April 19, 2009 at 09:40 PM ·

David, you're right.  Shar music came to the Boston area and had a day showing violins in a Cambridge Hotel.  They sent me an email about a week before the event.  I think I'm on the email list because I bought my daughter's 3/4 size there, as well as some accessories over the years.

I figured that in my current price range (post-stock-market-investment-crash-and-burn) I'd be likely to find the best value in a modern violin made in China.  I'm not looking for investment purposes; I'm looking for something to play in orchestra, at church, and outdoors.  This instrument will also log many trips on the MBTA (bus and subway) and may also travel by bicycle. 

Interestingly, although I picked up this violin because I liked the way it sounded on the G string, and it didn't have a wolf that I could find, here at home it sounds quite nice on the D and A as well.  I'm thinking about the Farmers' Market again (it's becoming more of a production this year because my daughter's teacher and I might play some duets there, as well as my daughter and another one of her teacher's students) and so I got out my fiddle book and played through some tunes, and they all sounded pretty nice.  So did the 3rd mvt. of the Mendelssohn that we played last fall.  The first violins have a lovely melody in that movement, and it sounded lovely on this instrument.

It might be the new bow, or it might be the violin--I'm not sure yet--maybe a little bit of both.  But this Lamberti violin is much more "playable" than my current one, in the sense that it doesn't take as much effort to make it ring out.  When I've seen pictures or videos of myself playing the violin in the past, I've never really liked what I see.  I don't look relaxed, I look tense and a little jerky.  I rock my body back and forth too much, and don't even realize that I'm doing it at the time.  And I've sometimes been told that my playing is either "square" or "beat-y".  I'm now wondering if at least some of that "tension" and "square-ness" is a consequence of having to work too hard over the years to get a satisfactory sound out of the instrument.  I should record myself playing the two and just watch the body language . . .

April 20, 2009 at 09:33 AM ·

Ha ha, I second E. Smith's suggestion.  What an apt description for the experience.  Judge it on looks, then a quick first impression based on little data...


I'm glad that I didn't choose any of the violins I was introduced to via "speed dating" at various shops...I spent a full week with mine before committing!  I'll admit his gorgeous, fiery looks and brilliant, powerful voice attracted me, but I'm sure there's much more to him that I haven't even discovered in our few years together.

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