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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Has your violin improved with age, or the opposite?

February 25, 2012 at 2:49 AM

Can a violin become more responsive over time?

This week a reader asked this question.

Certainly, a violin can get more responsive over time. Or, it can shut down.

It depends on two things: the quality of the violin, and the quality of the playing that is occurring on the violin.

I've spoken before about teaching a violin: a good violin will "open up" over time, but you'll improve its voice most by playing it frequently, playing it in tune, making the wood vibrate, etc.

However, some violins can hit a dead end, or even lose quality in their sound, and it's not always the fault of the player (though sometimes it really is). Luthiers can help me with this one, but as I understand it, if the plates on the violin have been carved too thin, the violin can start with a nice big sound but then fail to improve, and even lose sound over time.

Has your fiddle gotten better over time, or the reverse? Or would you say it's stayed about the same?

From Jim Hastings
Posted on February 25, 2012 at 3:41 AM
Yes, more responsive over time -- for each of mine.

I currently play on three older hand-made fiddles -- two from Germany; one from France. The German-built instruments had a more closed-up sound when I first tried them. But I could hear the potential. I gave them time -- 2-3 weeks for each, as I recall -- and they opened up. These two fiddles give a pronounced viola tone in the contralto register that I really like -- and not at all muddy or dull. I exploit this with darker-sounding D-G strings.

The French-built instrument was more open to start, as I remember. With a new set of strings and some regular playing, it, too, gained resonance and power over time.

Each of these instruments serves as the primary fiddle in rotation for about 3 months. But I still tune and play the others a little each day, even when they're not primary. Related to playing in tune: I am picky about keeping each instrument tuned consistently to A-440 and starting a warm-up session with opening bowing to open up the instrument's voice. I'm confident that this makes a positive difference.

From Sean Gillia
Posted on February 25, 2012 at 3:51 AM
My daughter's violin is six years old. Choosing a response to the question was impossible because it's grown better and then worse, but in a subtle way that I took half-notice of -- and then better again. The last "better" happened very recently when I brought the violin to its maker for the first time (he's relocated to New York) for a checkup. He examined it and played it, and was not thrilled with what he was hearing, particularly the G string (I think he used the word "fuzzy"). He worked for a bit with the soundpost, but that didn't help. He played one of his other newer violins to show me the difference in sound. He examined and measured things. For one, he told me that the fingerboard had dropped too low, and he was also not thrilled with the bridge (I'd purchased his violin from a well-respected luthier who had replaced the bridge with one of his own). Too low, he said, and too thin on the G side. I asked him why someone would carve a bridge that way. He said doing this had opened up the sound, but that he hadn't brought it back and focused it -- or something like that -- it seemed to make sense when he said it. (I am in no way passing judgement on the original luthier who sold the violin -- a) because I don't know what I'm talking about, b) he's a great guy with a great deal of experience and a well-deserved great reputation, and c) I imagine that the newborn violin he was working with has changed in the ensuing years.) In any event, he said he would (not sure of the exact term) pull the neck down and raise the fingerboard, experiment with a new bridge, change the tailpiece (and chord), plane the fingerboard, and attempt to improve the sound. When I left, he gave me a loaner for my daughter (the new violin he'd used in his demonstration). A dangerous thing to do because she fell in love with it -- said it was much easier to work with, to get the colors and dynamics she wanted, especially with solo Bach, for some reason. I hadn't asked him his current price but suspected it had to be higher than what I'd paid six years ago. In any event, it doesn't matter because when I returned to his shop, I found my daughter's six-year-old violin completely rejuvenated. I'm not great with terms for describing a violin's sound, but to my ears, the sound on the G string (and the others, for that matter, although they'd been fine before)had a richness, clarity and punch that hadn't been there before (or hadn't been there for some time, anyway)...maybe the word is focus...or power. The guy knows his violins. And we're not done. He's going to do an adjustment in a recital hall, which he said should improve the sound further.

So that's the story -- better, worse, and now better than ever. And prettier, too, because he cleaned it.

From Steve Reizes
Posted on February 25, 2012 at 4:47 AM
It's kind of hard to say on mine as it's an old violin already (made c.1795). It did open up and become much clearer and responsive in the first 6 months I played it, since then if it has gotten better, it has been hidden behind my improvements as a player.
From Viran Vuu
Posted on February 25, 2012 at 4:58 AM
My violin personally is not that old. It was made in 2009ish. It has opened up and I myself have improved on my bowing skills. Now it is still a very fickle instrument as I can feel a day to day difference in the sound because of the weather, pressure, and humidity. It loves the 60-70 degree weather best. That is when I don't have to work hard to make it ring and sing.

As for the other question, about carving thin and the problems with it. Through my reading and time socializing at the local violin shop, it is my understanding that it is not necessarily that the plates lose sound/tone but that the thinning of the wood reduces the woods resistance to warp and bent with the string tension. If you go by a local public school orchestra inventory, you will see many instruments where the fingerboard has gotten closer to the body of instrument. The lower of the string height, the less direct tension on the top of the violin, the less direct vibration to the violin from the string. Too high of a string high cause choke sound and hard playability. It becomes a matter of balancing how much wood is necessary to keep its shape. Too thick wood makes the instrument to heavy and dull in sound (more mass, more energy to vibrate). That is just my take from a logical stand point from what I learn so far. I am originally a trumpet player that now teaches orchestra in public school.

From Danielle Martin
Posted on February 25, 2012 at 5:17 AM
My violin is a baby (just under 15 years old)--and well-made, not thin at all. It'd be a big surprise if it didn't open up.
From Paul Deck
Posted on February 25, 2012 at 1:09 PM
My violin was made 2006 and purchased about three months ago from someone who was storing it, not playing it. It's a perfect candidate for an instrument that will supposedly "open up" with time. And it does seem as if its responsiveness has improved in that time. But the reason I voted "no change" (there was no option for "I don't know") is because I can't tell whether the violin has changed or whether my playing has changed in subtle ways that accommodate the violin's particular idiosyncratic response. I would challenge those who voted "yes" to consider this possibility and ask how you would rule it out. A good theory should exclude other plausible explanations.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on February 25, 2012 at 1:23 PM
I've only had my current violin a little less than 3 years. It was made in 2008 and I bought it in 2009. The biggest change I noticed was when I changed strings. I got some sample Warchal strings from the maker who was offering them to members and they were much different--brighter and louder--than the Zyex I had on before. I didn't like that at first, but then I got used to it, and they seemed to settle in and mellow out. I'm due to change them again in a few months and I'm planning to put Zyex back on. I think that will be another pretty major-sounding change, but I was happy with those strings when I had them and they are easier to get than Warchal. Anyway, I find the difference in string sound seems to overwhelm any differences I might hear from the violin "opening up", at least so far.
From elise stanley
Posted on February 25, 2012 at 1:47 PM
I should start with a disclaimer: perhaps this question should only be answered by veteran players - I have been playing for only a relatively short time since returning (2008)and hence its not really possible to differentiate changes in the violin from changes in me :)

I'll try and make a sensible comment anyway. I bought my violin new - it was made in 2010 and I may have been the third person to play it, other than with the luthier of course. The instrument has been played an average of 2.5 hrs a day with whatever skills I have - and like Jim I take care to tune it to 440 each day. Tone wise (for the limitation above) I think it has opened up - it has certainly not deteriorated. However, I have been able to compare the violin with several others of different ages made by the same luthier. In my case these may be a better comparison since the skill change is no longer a factor. I find the older instruments to have a somewhat sweeter, if a little quieter sound. Perhaps that is where mine is destined.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on February 25, 2012 at 7:10 PM
I voted "improved" but was asking myself some of the same questions Paul Deck was. My violin was made in 1999- handmade in Germany- and I think I bought it in 2001. It sounded great to start with and has only gotten better. Part of that is definitely from finding out which strings suit it, and I'm sure my technique has subtley shifted to bring out the best in it. I also play a Chinese viola I bought new about 5 years ago. It sounds better each year, but I am still developing viola technique. Even so, I think the resonance and clarity have improved.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on February 27, 2012 at 9:50 AM
Playing a violin is like tending a garden.
From Adalberto Valle-Rivera
Posted on February 27, 2012 at 3:06 PM
Certainly improved over the last 11 years with me, BUT it's a 120 year old instrument anyway, and was recently repaired and fitted with a new soundpost. Incredible change for the better.

Used to live in an humid environment; after I moved out of there, its tone improved considerably, and after the repair/setup, it's really sounding phenomenal. The variables above might have played a bigger role than any "maturing" of the woods, although the woods have(even visibly) changed for the last 11 years. But yes, despite these variables and considerable age, I feel my violin is an even better sounding instrument today than it was on 2001.

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