Violin balance in duo or trio recital with grand piano

November 16, 2010 at 02:56 PM ·

Smiley Hsu said (in another topic)

"I have been to concerts where virtuoso violinists playing on strads and guarneris were drowned out by the piano.  Sitting in the audience, I remember wishing they would close the darn top on the piano.  But I agree with you, it is harder to play a piano softly, than loudly.   As much as I appreciate your feedback, it is a bit off topic so feel free to email me directly if you wish to continue this discussion."

I thought I would start a thread on this subject rather than emailing you as I think it could be of interest to many people. Hope you don't mind.

I think there are a lot of questions here which need to be considered. For starters Srads and Guarnaris aren't always that powerful and just like other instruments (and players) there is a wide amount of variation.

Having the piano lid down or closed may dampen the sound a bit but this can also have disadvantages. Sometimes the open piano itself acts as a resonator for the violinist, but this depends too on where he/she stands of course.

One problem is that a good pianist (who is not necessarily a big time soloist) should have sensitivity towards a stringed instrument and only play at full throttle where it is wise, and certainly not when the violin is in a lower register, or when the violin part should be heard on an equal level. Adjustments have to be made in a concert situation during the actual performance since the audience presence may (and usually does) effect the sound balance.

The violinist however, with a heavy handed pianist, can resort to a few tricks, and whilst these are not ideal they can remedy the situation quite a bit. One of those is of course to play near(er) the bridge and use the right amount of bow speed and pressure to get that really big sound. I often worry about it then sounding a bit "raspy" but I'm told by many people that it sounds great a few feet away and better obviously than under the ear.

This reminds me of those many occasions when a soloist has played a concerto just four or five feet away from me in the orchestra, and how many strange and obnoxious noises have come out, and yet the audience has said how great it sounded, even at the back of the hall.

So it comes down basically to projection, which is something all string players should work on.

Replies (23)

November 16, 2010 at 04:34 PM ·

Personally my opinion is leaning towards the ability of the instrument. 

(and sorry if this sounds like a bragging or boasting post...)

I've been playing on a violin with a very special ability to project above background sound. When I do this test often people will get amazed - playing in front of a pair of speakers, and have someone to operate the player so it can mute or unmute the sound. I play with a consistent volume, 2 times, one with player playing something out of the speakers, one without. The one when I play with the player/speakers will always sound louder, despite I'm not doing anything extra. 

There're also a situation where a pianist who's a friend of mine playing quite heavily on a fully opened grand piano, and me on violin (also play with lots of energy), and my another friend hearing from a distance, asking the pianist to play louder, and this was at a pretty dry music showroom with carpets around.

Another occasion is that I was asking my friend to listen to my violin today, in a medium size auditorium with lots of echo. Even though the room is contributing to my violin's sound, it was very effortless for me to play a big sound and my friend was amazed that it sounds like the sound is coming from everywhere, rather than from the violin, with very warm and rich sound, minus the bow noise or scratchy sound. It shows that if a violin can truely project, noise will not travel, but the tone of the violin will.

It really give me confident to play with larger dynamic range rather than just focusing how to play f to fff or else the sound will be drown by the piano. Ever since I play on my current violin, I almost never heard anyone asking me to play louder or saying my sound getting drown by the piano.

Of course one has to learn how to draw an energetic sound (rather than just plain loud) from the violin, a fine violin will mean nothing if the player doesn't know how to bring out the sound. But still, at least the instrument must have the ability to not just project, but also stand out.

The rest were pretty much covered by Peter, pianist must also understand that not all violin can project well and I'd say the violinist also need to know his/her instrument well too or else it'll get very embarrasing. Last year, Igudesman & Joo was performing in my country, poor Igudesman's sound got drown by Hyung-Ki Joo's piano playing most of the time, and Igudesman's sound was just tiny even though he's playing on a famed Seraphin.

PS: I'm no concert violinist, so what do I know about working with truely professional players...

November 16, 2010 at 08:40 PM ·


Thanks for starting this thread as I am interested in hearing other opinions.  To keep things simple, I will make a blanket statement. 

A pianist can drown out any violinist on a grand piano if they play too loud.

Any opinions on this statement? 

In a previous thread, Peter suggested that he can outplay a heavy handed pianist simply by playing closer to the bridge.  I would contend that depending on the passage, it may or may not be possible to do so because of bowing limitations, phrasing, etc.  Any thoughts?

November 16, 2010 at 09:20 PM ·

I'm just off to bed but a couple of quick points. It depends on the register - anything on the higher strings should cut through, but if you used the loudest concert pianist in the world on the largest and loudest grand piano then the pianist might just win out.

Playing in circumstances where a pianist is heavy handed and pretty loud can be addressed by playing as I've desciribed, but of course if you have a quiet pp passage then a pianist can easily drown you out unless you change it to ff and belt the hell out of it. Not vert saitisfactory though musically.

My point is that a lot of string players have such small sounds that the piano is going to overwhelm them even when the pianist is sensitive and plays quietly. I see and hear this all the time.

One of the things audition panels for orchestral jobs look for is a big sound. Players think they have to play every note perfectly and be in tune, but the odd mistake and off intonation is usually ignored in favour of that big sound.

November 16, 2010 at 11:04 PM ·

I know I don't have much experience but I would agree with Casey...   It's maybe the instrument.  A good instrument will play as loud and resonnant as one wants.   If I could humbly take myself as an example... I am a 5"9 very delicate amateur violinist girl with weak upper limbs (under average in strengh tests for girls) and with my new Guarneri modal violin that happens to have a very good projection, a few tricks of my own (gut strings, my personal setup that mutes much less the violin, I beleive, than a rest + constant focus on muscle relaxation/tension),  I never had problems with beeing buried under the piano.  Some will say it's because the pianists never play lound with students but I disagree...  I have had Russian women that play with much character and energy as accompangists and I have always told them that I like so much a solid piano!  They play so well, I want to hear them.  (and I let them their place when it's their turn to play too... one has to be respectful with pianists too ; )  

I now practice at university and their are many male students much taller and stronger than me. (of course, far far better players than me too...) but there is one thing that I have, to my surprise, as good as them despite only beeing an amateur : projection and sound production.  How can one explain this if it's not the instrument?   I am, in no way build to compete with them physically, yet, my ears don't lie to me: I can envy many of their skills but I don't have to envy their sound production...   Perhaps, when one has a minimum of technique, the good instrument makes all the difference for sound production (it won't give you talent though lol) but still, it's better than nothing! 

At totally another level... to those who tell that a pianist can bury or crush any violinist with a grand piano if he wants, I would advise them to listen to Oistrakh and Richter's performances.   Richter is about the most powerful, fierce pianist you can find and Oistrakh is perfectly able to stay competitive with him in terms of sound production.  (ok, he was a genius but he still was a violinist too ; )  

Just my two cents, not saying I'm right.  It's just what I saw/listen/observed.  I would agree with Casey...

anxious to see what others think on the topic.


November 17, 2010 at 12:20 AM ·

The piano that Beethoven and earlier composed for was a much weaker instrument than the one we are accustomed today, which was designed in the 19th century to cope with the demands of the likes of Liszt and to have the ability to play over the larger and more powerful orchestras that were now coming into existence.

The writing in Beethoven's cello sonatas, certainly the first four, reflect the fact that in his time the cellist would not expect to be outplayed by a piano in the ensemble (duo, trio or quartet), Today's players would do well to bear this in mind.

Generally speaking, if the pianist cannot hear the other instrument(s) in the ensemble than he or she is playing too loud.

November 17, 2010 at 12:53 AM ·

What about the 'trick' (read about elsewhere on of tuning the violin slightly sharp so that it sounds just that bit more brilliant.  Does that reallly work?

November 17, 2010 at 01:08 AM ·

Yes, it does.  If the string tension is slightly higher then a correctly pitched G on the E -string, for example, will sound that just that bit more brilliant.  You've just got to be careful with the open strings.  If it's an important "E" than it might be better to play it as a fingered E instead of an open E which may clash with whatever the piano's doing. And think about that open G – if it's sharp you can't do anything about it except smile at the audience :), but if it's going to be a prominent open G in what you're playing then you may prefer to keep the string at its correct pitch. Of course, if you're all a string trio or quartet the issue won't arise.

However, I'm personally not all that keen on tuning up to a slightly higher pitch for added brilliance.  I suspect the resonance of the instruments will be slightly reduced, the strings will feel that little bit harder under the fingers, and it puts a little more strain on what may be an old instrument, not to mention the strings themselves.  If brilliance really is required then I'd rather go down the route of searching out strings that can provide the brilliance at the correct pitch, or having the violin's setup adjusted.

November 17, 2010 at 04:43 AM ·

I've read on the other thread about Smiley's instrument wasn't able to be heard. To be fair, the camera was quite close to the players and not neccesary closer will capture the true power of the instruments.

I've heard Kavakos' playing in my country and the sound was phenomenal, I can hear everything he played that was accompanied with the orchestra and I'm sitting about the 6th or 7th row. However, watch the video below, and his sound got drown gradually when the orchestra is getting louder!

(Oh and Kavakos was playing on the new Strad since earlier this year, he sold his Guadagnini and the already great sounding Falmouth Strad...Not sure how the new Strad compared to his older one?)

PS: During the Kavakos' concert, there were some orchestra-only pieces played in between and there was concert master solo on one piece. Poor guy, I hardly hear what he played until he reach some high notes and I can hear he's working so hard and there's only so much his sound can project. I have no doubt he's a great player, but why is this huge difference? Hmm...

November 17, 2010 at 06:00 AM ·

A few of points to consider:

1. Projection/big sound is up to the player (and of course the instrument).

2. Being physically stronger does not translate to more power on the violin sound. It's not how much force you can generate, it's how much of it you can use to make the string vibrate.

3. Playing loud but mushy doesn't "project". Notice how succinct the great players phrase their music. That's part of "standing out". Play with "attack" so to speak.

November 17, 2010 at 07:00 AM ·


Regarding your point #3, what if the player is playing slurred running notes? It's not possible to articulate each note with attack. I've read comments about great instruments having the ability to have the notes pop out easily and the player doesn't need to do anything special.

November 17, 2010 at 07:31 AM ·


Playing with "attack" is a figurative word, not necessarily with force/speed of the bow. You can play slurred notes with precision and you can still articulate/project. For an extreme example, listen to how Oistrakh plays the Sibelius 1st and 3rd movement. Notice how he uses dynamics, emphasis, slight delays of certain notes etc. all within a slurred fast run. We have all heard the story how some professional player able to make someone's violin sound fantastic/articulative so the majority of the effect is the player.

It's easier said than done and for us mere mortals it can be hit or miss depending on the day. It feels pretty good to play when things are aligned! ;) I guess that's the reward to keep trying to play and search for that feeling... Some days I can barely play 5 minutes and able to tolerate it!

That's why pros are pros, they can do it on a consistent basis.

November 17, 2010 at 08:21 AM ·


But we're talking about live situation here, recording can tell you something but it'll never represent the real situation where one is sitting a distance from the player/pianist/orchestra. I'm sure Oistrakh will sound magnificent in live but judging by just listening to recording can be very misleading.

For example I heard Igudesman on youtube so many times and his playing is fantastic, but was pretty disappointed when I listen to him live. I've also heard my professional violinist friend playing live, and it was recorded and I listen later, it was very different indeed.

November 17, 2010 at 09:23 AM ·

I've been surprised at times by ten-year-old beginner violin students on cheap violins who could shoot out notes like laser beams when they found just the right finger placement and just the right touch of the bow.   Did nothing for my migraine.

November 17, 2010 at 09:52 AM ·

I have made an observation. Please kick me if I am right and correct me if I am wrong.

I have observed that speed and amplitude of vibrato also  influences how sound is perceived in a piano-violin duet. I suspect, that a very quick vibrato might end up sounding as accents instead of vibrato (and that can sound ugly) when it gets smeared out by the piano, while slower vibrato easier gets focus even with piano, and can indicate nice sound.

I also noticed that sometimes my sound gets better projected if I play pianissimo than if I play forte, which is very strange. (I put a small Zoom on some 8 m distance from me and the piano when we practice.)

November 17, 2010 at 01:30 PM ·

I've read on the other thread about Smiley's instrument wasn't able to be heard. To be fair, the camera was quite close to the players and not neccesary closer will capture the true power of the instruments.


You raise an interesting point.  The venue for the Beethoven in my profile was a church chapel.  On stage, the balance sounded good.  In the back it also sounded good, but near the front, the strings were drowned out.  I know this because we did a dress rehearsal, and I placed a Zoom recorder at various locations in the chapel to check the balance.  At first the piano lid was wide open, but we decided to close it part way to achieve better balance.  I guess that's why we have acoustic engineers.  They figure this stuff out and make it work. 

Another odd experience I had many years ago.  I performed in the Kennedy center with my youth orchestra.  It was the strangest thing.  On stage, it sounds like you are the only one playing, when in fact, the balance is ok.  Perhaps the same thing happened in the Beethoven recording.  I could have played louder, but since the balance sounded good on stage, I didn't.  I guess the lesson is, in some venues, one must play out of balance (either too loud or too soft) in order to achieve proper balance.


November 17, 2010 at 03:24 PM ·

@Casey: again, that was an extreme example. My points still stand in live situation. I do agree that a great violin is necessary for big sound/projection but the major factor is still the player with all else being equal

@Lena: vibrato (and the infinite variations of it) definitely helps

@Emily: sorry about your migraine! ;) I'm sure that student felt bliss at that time though, lol

Interesting topic everyone.

November 17, 2010 at 06:45 PM ·

"I've heard Kavakos' playing in my country and the sound was phenomenal, I can hear everything he played that was accompanied with the orchestra and I'm sitting about the 6th or 7th row. However, watch the video below, and his sound got drown gradually when the orchestra is getting louder!

(Oh and Kavakos was playing on the new Strad since earlier this year, he sold his Guadagnini and the already great sounding Falmouth Strad...Not sure how the new Strad compared to his older one?)"

I have to say that I couldn't believe how small he sounded, and on a Strad! (Well, there are Strads and Strads).

My guess is that he was taking a day off and not bothering much. It looked that way. I see buskers playing on the Tube (Metro) here that look and sound like that. (Some sound much better).

November 17, 2010 at 08:02 PM ·


I hope you don't mind a little bit of public criticism (even humiliation) but we all have to face it at some time and quite often a lot of the time. At least I hope its constructive.

I listened to the whole of your Beethoven trio movement on headphones this time, and there is really a problem with your projection. Even in the bits on your own without piano it just does not come across, and I don't find the pianist particularly heavy handed and his clarity and articulation was good.

I think you could "lead" more and also use more bow - and with the right pressure and bow speed it could sound much better. (Watch the intonation though especially in first postion on the E string).

Please ask the cellist to stop looking at the camera, it's rather unprofessional!

As to the violin, who knows, it might be OK or it might be part of the problem.

At least you haven't had Ida H ask what was the violin being played on, and the player said "I think its a Rocca" and IH said "they are usually pretty good" as she took the instrument, took of the shoulder rest, and played. A rather big sound came forth. She handed it back saying "it wasn't the violin." (I actually witnessed this in a masterclass - and I don't really think it was meant to be humiliation, but she didn't realise it might be).

So you need to work on projection. In fact we all do!

November 17, 2010 at 08:29 PM ·


I appreciate the feedback.  I wish I could blame it on the fiddle (that would be convenient), but I'm pretty sure it is me because if you handed my fiddle to Vengerov, I'm sure he'd make it do wonders.  I have been working on tone production recently, but I guess I have more work to do.  It is a lifelong struggle for sure.

So where are your videos?  The ones where you drown out the heavy handed pianist :-)  Perhaps I can learn something by watching your playing. 


November 17, 2010 at 08:45 PM ·

Well I spent half a life time playing to microphones and another half messing with them recording other people.

Now I only play live and not for recordings. However, I was told that some of the concerts I play in (but not the with the trio) get recorded. But I certainly don't want to hear them. Once you have played it - it has gone. I recorded a freinds concert recently, a very good pianist, and he was depressed with his playing and the instrument. I always hear musicians saying how bad their recordings are (even when they are not) - but that's how it is, they are never good enough.

And as for video, I haven't had my video camera out for about 8 years now, and i want to keep it that way - even though my wife want's to use it on herself and her pupils.

As I've said before, people on video on the Internet fall into two categories (1) the brilliantly gifted and (2) the majority (99%) -  who advertise how bad they are. You can guess which one I would be in.

November 17, 2010 at 08:53 PM ·

There's also this subcategory of brilliant musicians who use horrible recording setups, so we'll never get to hear how truly wonderful they sound.  I saw a video last week of a friend playing flawless Bach on a Strad, and the recording setup destroyed his sound completely.

November 17, 2010 at 10:33 PM ·

In the 1950s I saw Yehudi Menuhin playing Bartok 2 live to an audience of 2000 in Bristol's Colston Hall.  I was near the back and heard every note he played, and above whatever the orchestra was doing.

Many years later I saw a very elderly Segovia giving a solo guitar recital to a packed house in the same Colston Hall.  Again, everyone could hear every note he played.  As with Menuhin he of course didn't use a mic.

And again in the same venue, Pierre Fournier coming across the orchestra in Dvorak's cello concerto.

All good examples of projection.


November 18, 2010 at 02:20 PM ·

Well, I am not at all a brilliant musician or so, but I have to admit that I discovered two days ago, that half of the reason why I developed such complexes over my violin sound (when listening to it on recording) comes from that me and my pianist were using a really bad setup of recording. New placing of the recording machine, changed my sound totally...and I recognized my sound for the first time!

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