Smiley Hsu

My Quest for a 'Professional' violin

May 17, 2009 10:25

Several months ago, I began searching for a professional grade instrument.  I created a thread in v.com that got quite a bit of traction, so I wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences during my search.  Here is a link to the thread I started:

www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm

I didn't exactly count, but I would guess that I tried over 100 violins ranging in price from $5000 to well over $100,000 over the course of 4 months.  My target price was $10-$20K with a little wiggle room, but I wanted to try instruments in a wide price range so I could make an educated buying decision.

Before I get into specifics, I wanted to point out a few general observations.  An important conclusion I have reached is that there is no such thing as a perfect instrument.  If you watch James Ehnes' film about Strads and Guarneri violins, even at the highest echelon of instruments, each fiddle has its own unique characteristics.  He does not bad mouth any of the multi-million dollar instruments in the video, but he clearly prefers some over others.  I found the same to be true.  Every instrument has its strengths and weaknesses.

For me, sound was my #1 priority in choosing an instrument, followed by ease of play, then price.  Switching any of these priorities would have changed my final choice.  I really did not care about aesthetics.  Some instruments are more attractive than others, but that really did not factor into my decision. 

Since sound is so important to me, I thought I should try to verbalize what I was looking for.  First and foremost, I want a lot of power, something that will easily project in a piano trio and a string quartet with other semi-professional musicians who play loud instruments.  Secondly, I wanted a warm, full sound that is smooth rather than edgy.  The problem I found is that loud instruments are typically bright and edgy, not warm and smooth.  And warm instruments tend to be softer and somewhat muted.  So the challenge  was to find something with a big sound, that was also warm and open.  Many instruments have power or warmth, but not both. 

Now, for some of my observations on specific makers, please keep in mind that
instruments vary quite a bit, even from the same maker, so my observations may not be indicative of all instruments from a given maker.  And there are so many makers that I wanted to try, but just didn't have the opportunity.  All the prominent makers today have long waiting lists so it is not easy to get your hands on one of their instruments.

Below, I have listed some of the "better" makers that I tried.  Next to each, I put the approximate retail price of their instruments.  The concept of sound and playability are very subjective, so even though I had my preference, any one of them could potentially produce a perfect instrument for me or anyone else.

Tetsuo Matsuda (18K)
This is probably one of the better known makers today.  Matsuda is a prolific maker and has quite a number of instruments out there, so he has a well established reputation.  If you are concerned about investment value, this would be a great choice.  If you ever need to sell a Matsuda some time down the road, chances are you will be able to find a buyer pretty readily.

I tried two Matsudas.  One was a resale, not sure about the age, but I did not care for it - the sound was not particularly good and the response was not even.  The second one I tried was brand new, and had an incredible lower register (G and D), but was quite a bit weaker in the upper register.    I wanted to try more instruments from this maker, but they are not that easy to come by.

Howard Needham (22K)
There has been a lot of hype on v.com regarding this maker, so I was most anxious to try his instruments.  I live about an hour away from him, so I was able to play two instruments that were commissioned for other people.  But it is a 2-3 year wait to buy one.  I would describe the Needham as very powerful and responsive; perhaps better for a soloist, than for chamber music; it might be a little tough to play those ppp passages.  The two instruments I tried were almost identical; at least I could not tell them apart, so he seems to achieve good consistency.  It is possible that a more capable musician might appreciate the Needham more than I did.  Or, perhaps my expectations were too high from the start, but with the price tag, and the long wait, this was not the best option for me.

Kelvin Scott (15K)
Kelvin is a great maker and a great guy.  I was only able to try one instrument from him.  It was a resale, and probably not one of his best specimens, but it was quite impressive nonetheless -- powerful and very responsive and very even.  It was similar to Needham in sound and playing characteristics but with a bit more edge.  Kelvin had two other brand new instruments that I wanted to try, but both of them sold before I had a shot at them.  Several people recommended this maker to me and I would pass on that recommendation. 

Ray Melanson (14K)
The Melanson I had was a strong contender and I seriously considered purchasing it.  Big, open sound, and very even response, second only to David Burgess.  I took this instrument to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and it projected very nicely, but in the end, it had just a bit too much edge and not enough warmth for my taste. 

Nicolas Gilles (17K)
This is another very talented up and coming maker, perhaps the next Zyg?  The Gilles violin I tried had a very sweet quality to it.  It was also very even and responsive.  The instrument I tried won a tone award in the quartet category in the 2008 VSA competition.  My only objection was a lack of power.  When I played it in my piano trio, I had difficulty hearing myself so I was struggling for projection.  Perhaps that is a common drawback of sweet sounding instruments.

Phil Perret (20K)
This is one maker that I was not able to try.  He does not make a lot of instruments, so it is difficult to get hold of one, but I have heard very good things about his instruments.  Unless you know someone who owns one, the only way to try a Perret is to put down a deposit and wait a year.  The cellist in my string quartet plays a Perret cello and it sounds great; he's also a pretty good cellist.

David Burgess (26K)
Of all the instruments I tried, the Burgess had the most even response across strings and in high positions.  They are also very responsive and perhaps the easiest to play of anything I tried.  You can push them hard and they do not crack.  Notes start right away and do not require any coaxing.  If playability were my first priority, I would probably have picked a Burgess.  I tried two instruments, one made in the late 80's and another from the early 90's.  I do not know if his newer instruments are any different in sound or playability, but his work 15-20 years ago is outstanding.  I guess if you want to try a new one, you have to pay your deposit and get in line.  One thing I noticed about the Burgess instruments was the workmanship.  The lines and attention to detail is something that really stood out.  For the most part, I did not care about aesthetics, but the Burgess instruments really made me stop and take notice.

Vuillaume (150K)
For educational purposes, I tried several instruments that were way out of my price range.  The Vuillaume is one that really stood out.  The sound was huge, warm and open.  Before playing the Vuillaume, I had an idea of the sound I was looking for, but it wasn't until playing the Vuillaume that I actually experienced it.  Unfortunately, the Vuillaume I played did not do well in higher positions.  Even 3rd position was quite inferior in sound compared to the open strings and 1st position.  However, the Vuillaume was instrumental in solidifying my concept of the sound I was after.

Laura Vigato (12K)
Last, but not least, Laura Vigato is one of many contemporary Cremonese makers.  This is the violin I ended up buying.  She must have some kind of special process that she is not telling the rest of the world about because the sound of her instruments is phenomenal - big, warm, and full, similar to the Vuillaume, but slightly darker.  Bill Weaver is the exclusive importer of Vigato violins and he usually cannot keep them in stock.  But because of the down economy, I was fortunate to be able to play 5 Vigatos.  Four of them were brand new, and one was from 2002.  All of them are fabulous, but each has a unique character. 

I seriously considered buying a new one, but finally decided on a 2002 Vigato.  One of the new Vigato's might be even better once played in, but with the 2002 Vigato, it was love at first sight.  The sound is magnificent.  Every time I take it out of the case, it blows me away.  With my old Heberlein, it was hit or miss; sometimes I liked the sound, sometimes I didn't.  But so far the Vigato has not let me down.  The sound just seems to get better and better.

Obviously, this is my favorite maker of all since it is the instrument that I ended up buying, but it would be unfair to say the Vigato is without its deficiencies.  In fact, I preferred some other instruments over the Vigato in playability.  The Vigato, with its big, lovely sound requires a little more coaxing to get certain notes started.  Also, I would say the dynamic range is pp through ff, so it is difficult to play ppp or fff on a Vigato.  But given that sound was my #1 priority, and playability was second, I am very happy with the compromise.  Also, you just can't beat the price.  At $12K, this instrument competes favorably with instruments that are many times more expensive.

Conclusions:
I found that price has little correlation with sound and playability.  In fact, of the makers I mentioned above, I ended up buying the cheapest one.  From my very limited sampling, I would even say there was an inverse correlation with price; I generally liked the cheaper instruments better.  But this might be because I am an amateur and not yet ready to fully appreciate a higher end (e.g. more expensive) instrument.

A minor sound post adjustment, or different strings can make a pretty big difference.  An instrument that is a bit too edgy or warm, can be made just right with minor changes.  Obviously, there is a limit to what you can do, but for an instrument that is 80-90% what you want, you can make up the last 10-20% with minor adjustments.  For instance, the A string on the Vigato's tend to be a bit muted, but that problem is mitigated with a bright A string, like Vision.

Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a revolution in the violin making world.  Some of the best instruments are being made right now by living makers.  It is an exciting time for us violinists.  Many musicians, professional and amateur can now hope to own an instrument that is just as good, perhaps better than priceless masterpieces from old Cremona.  In the longer term, I would think this might have a negative impact on the price of the high end instrument market, but only time will tell.  Unless you are buying strictly from a collectors viewpoint, I see no reason to spend 10 times or 100 times as much to get an instrument that sounds and plays about the same.

A valuable piece of advice given to me, and that I would pass on to anyone searching for the perfect instrument, is to be patient.  After visiting 5 local shops, and getting instruments shipped to me from other shops and from living makers, I would have gotten quite discouraged if not for this bit of advice.  So my recommendation is take your time, and wait for the right instrument to come along.  At the time when I tried the 2002 Vigato, I was almost in a state of despair.  I had already tried so many instruments, and I was beginning to think I would never find the instrument I was looking for, or I would have to make some serious compromises.  But, lo and behold, along comes exactly the instrument I was looking for. 

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