Watch the Indianapolis Competition Livestream

'Waking' a brand-new instrument

August 19, 2011 at 07:59 PM ·

 I'll be receiving a brand new (as in, fresh off the bench) instrument sometime within the next few months.

I would appreciate suggestions from makers and those experienced with the process: what is the best way to 'wake up' a new instrument? (don't like the term 'breaking in').  

Thank you.

Replies (97)

August 19, 2011 at 08:25 PM ·

For me, I really like to play pieces in G, D, A, and E.  Brings out all the ringing notes and harmonics in the violin, and really helps it "learn" its notes.  I've figured out that E minor is the best violin key because the natural form has all the ringing notes, and the dominant is a harmonic.  Sometimes, I even practice son filé on 3rd finger G, D, and A to help quicken the process.

Scales & arpeggios also work wonders, as long as you are dead-on in tune.  A good mezzo-forte will do the trick, and I like to crescendo up and down.

August 19, 2011 at 09:10 PM ·

I guess you mean son filé?

Play a lot in every position dont play to fast and listen a lot to the diferences in sound.

August 19, 2011 at 09:10 PM ·


Here are some thoughts... It doesn't really matter what you play, but more how you play.  It is very important to play the instrument the way it wants to be played and responds.  Of course, different models require different things.  The danger is to use too much pressure on an instrument, which will inhibit vibration and essentially close the sound.  You have to listen to the instrument and learn to co-exist with it.

It is also important to take good care of it.  Keep strings fresh and in prime condition (you are better changing more often than not).  Also, you will want to make sure that the sound post fits well, and it may require changing during the year (violins, like all wood, move around quite a bit in the process of settling) and make sure the set up is good.  If you can, use a bow that matches well the instrument as it will help too.

My own two cents on the matter, for what it may be worth.

Good luck and cheers!  This is indeed an exciting time!

August 19, 2011 at 10:55 PM ·

Simon:  thanks for catching the spelling error! Fixed. :)

August 19, 2011 at 11:51 PM ·

 Dr. Marjory,

I just picked up a baby instrument myself. One performer I know told me he puts on ear plugs and plays as loudly as possible, mostly thirds. I find that playing in the highest positions, especially on the G string helps, and a luthier has told me the same thing. Low frequencies require the instrument to vibrate with the most motion, and playing high on the G gets both lower tones (relatively) but mixed with lots of overtones.

Also, I listen to what notes need opening up and work them. On my instrument, B-flat is resistant, so I beat on it incessantly and without mercy.

I'd add that being "dead on in tune" may actually work against the process and prevent the instrument from opening up. You can hear and feel this in vibrating, especially on relatively open notes, like open-string tones. As you bend the pitch off the resonant notes, you can sometimes hear lots of resistance. I think getting the in-between notes does help.

August 20, 2011 at 12:37 AM ·

A good instrument will sound good in its very first days, it may sound better with time, but it may sound good in its infancy, and that includes a generous dynamic range, balance in all strings and positions, quick response. 

The player, with time, will be become able to use all the instruments resources. If you don't like the instrument don't buy it with the hope it will "play in". 

And yes, take care with the set up, and new strings, dead strings will make your instrument sound dead too.

August 20, 2011 at 01:00 AM ·

Dr. Cole:  I agree with you, the in-between notes are very important as well... just not as much in the very beginning (to me).  I guess I do this more gradually.

August 20, 2011 at 01:59 AM ·

Play scales (major, minor, chromatic, whatever) straight up every string; play hard in the higher positions on the G string, and in the highest positions of the E string.

August 20, 2011 at 02:55 AM ·

I have found that playing 3rds and 7ths as loud as possible gives you some indication in a short period of time about its possibilities.

A well made instrument should center in sound and gain more depth in a matter of a week. After that, improvement is slower.

Older instruments need awakening if not played on for a long period of time. I had the good fortune to be able to play on a strad owned by the Metropolitan Museum in NY for a concert there. At first the instrument I owned at the time sounded better than the strad, but all of a sudden after about 2 hours of playing the instrument "woke up." . I detected that the wood of the violin suddenly  vibrated so much that i could feel it through the back of the instrument. I then tried my violin and there was no comparison in projection and sound quality. The strad was clearly better, It was a surreal experience.

August 20, 2011 at 03:04 AM ·

Bruce: but was that the instrument adapting - or maybe you finding out how to play it? ;)

August 20, 2011 at 06:04 AM ·

Did David Burgess post somewhere about players experimenting, to "find the spot" ? I bought a new violin (not my first !) in July this year and am "in the process" myself.

It seems from my past experience that you have to find what the instrument likes to do best and gently but firmly insist it keeps on doing it. No amount of playing is going to make a dark violin bright, for example, so it's useless trying to go against the character of the fiddle. Some new instruments are more resistant than others and take longer to open out. In that case, well-tuned thirds and sixths seem to help the process along, but forcing is counter-productive; make a big sound but always aim for a sound that continues to vibrate after the bow has left the string. 

No complaints about the previous posts; Scott Cole is on the ball as usual. I agree that If you don't like the instrument don't buy it with the hope it will "play in". 

August 20, 2011 at 10:14 AM ·

i've been told that if you play double stops with one of the notes slighty off tune, the heavy beats that pulsate through the violin  speed up the process of opening it up. especially with the G-D that true?

August 20, 2011 at 12:20 PM ·

This exact topic came up about a year ago. Can anyone find it? Anyway, what I do is as follows:

1. long, slow whole bows up each string in 2-octave chromatic scales in a comfortable, healthy forte and with vibrato - forte, but not trying to break your fiddle, bow or arm in two!

2. diatonic thirds up each pair of strings one octave

3. ditto with 6ths

4. ditto with 2nds

There's no substitute for a few hours or more a day of all kinds of playing. Orchestra playing is often good for breaking in the instrument. But the above and similar ideas that others have posted are the best things you can do in a few minutes time and for the first few minutes - then ideally repeat this at the end of your playing day. They are not bad exercises for us as well as the fiddle! I wouldn't try to play out of tune. It's hard enough to try - and succeed! - to play in tune! Dissonant intervals will accomplish that beat effect. I haven't thought of 7ths - I'll give those a try!

As it happens, just 2 days ago I took possesion of my newest violin from Ed Maday - and it's just amazing in tone, response and workmanship! The improvement within 24 hours has been incredible! Working with a very fine new arrival is always a very exciting time!


August 20, 2011 at 01:51 PM ·

 Thank you all for your fine--and varied!--suggestions. 

I couldn't find the older post, Raphael, or I'd not have started the thread.  

Now all I have to do is wait for the child to be fully born so I can meet it.  The word 'Patience' derives from 'suffering' for good reasons.

August 20, 2011 at 09:38 PM ·

Who is making your new violin for you, Marjorie?

August 20, 2011 at 11:00 PM ·

August 21, 2011 at 12:09 AM ·

My classical guitar teacher, himself a guitar luthier, told me that a new guitar should be played strongly for the first two years of its life, otherwise it would be unlikely to achieve its best tone.

I too don't particularly like the term "breaking in" when applied to violins – that's something I believe you do with recalcitrant horses. I prefer "running in", an old motoring phrase you don't hear so much nowadays, because, as with a car engine, it implies a gradual settling in of components so that the engine is eventually able to deliver its best performance; a metaphor that readily applies to the violin.

August 21, 2011 at 12:34 AM ·

 What's happening to the violin? It's not complicated: the wood needs to bend and it's stiff at first. With playing the wood begins to bend easily. This is very easy to feel in a new violin, especially with loud, percussive chords. A luthier can be more specific, but the top in the area of the bridge needs to move, as do the plates as a whole from the edges.

Personally, I like the term "breaking in," as it is much the same process that an orchestra does to a new conductor!

August 21, 2011 at 12:42 AM ·

" the top in the area of the bridge needs to move, as do the plates as a whole from the edges "

Scott, from that I would expect that "playing in" a new violin would benefit from lower-tension strings, thus enabling the plates to vibrate more freely. 

[edit], in the case of an amateur orchestra it can sometimes be a hidden part of the new conductor's job to break in his "new" orchestra!

August 21, 2011 at 02:54 AM ·

Actually I think that higher tension strings would get more intensity into the process sooner. I have no problem with the expression, "breaking in" - but if we're not careful, ba-raking in may result in a baroque violin! ;-)

BTW confidential to a poster on this thread: you're still entitled to a free follow-up from my e-lesson to you a while back.

August 21, 2011 at 03:03 AM ·

I would also like to suggest that the violin be keep on pitch at all times.  Tune when putting the violin away and, if possible,  also tune on the days you will not be playing.  A violin kept on pitch at all times is much more resonant.

Bill Swackhamer

August 21, 2011 at 06:50 AM ·

 @ Eric Rowe,

"Science" would tell us that an "A" clarinet sounds the same as a "B flat" instrument; this view is not confirmed either by players or composers. "Science" from New Zealand tells us that new violins sound the same as old ones. Absurd ? Quite possibly something of the intrinsic timbre stays the same for listeners but the response, as perceived by, and to, the player alters; however writers have traditionally noted the "freshness" of sound in newer work, which my casual observations and those of "et al" would confirm.

I expect the flat-earthers thought they were cutting-edge "Scientists" in their day; Science clearly finds it difficult to "catch up" with what can seem obvious to the casual observer, the scientific method being laborious and needing the safeguards of constant re-evaluation ! 

What I do recall from school science is that a metal bar, subjected to periodic rotation, will for a short time continue the periodic rotation after the driving force ceases to be applied, and that's called "elastic memory". However, I have to declare that school physics ended for me 53 years ago ! If such observations were valid, than such approach might offer a way in for a scientific investigation.

The problem is to find ways of testing that eliminate the human input of the player at the time(s) of testing. As my wife was instructed to add to all her degree-course Psychology essays (an automatic guarantee of a higher mark);- further research is needed.

PS Scientific testing of indisputable integrity reveals that the frequency response throughout the range of even the most highly-valued violins is wildly uneven. The charts look like the recent financial indicators. Anyone seeking to perform in public on such an erratic and irrational instrument should reconsider, for fear of being judged insane.

August 21, 2011 at 05:17 PM ·

 <<PS Scientific testing of indisputable integrity reveals that the frequency response throughout the range of even the most highly-valued violins is wildly uneven.>>


The equipment used is probably not human ears, though...

August 21, 2011 at 10:40 PM ·

Scott, my old classical guitar teacher (a luthier, as I mentioned before) remarked that the better guitars tend to have uneven notes (quality of sound and resonance, not pitch) here and there in the register. 

August 21, 2011 at 11:22 PM ·

Here scanning eletron microscopic pictures of wood from a 1780 Gagliano down to the tracheides:

Notice the large number of open pits that apparently are not seen as much in newer wood. Here new wood from a different species:

Does the "opening up" process involve opening of some of those pits  or are there other more important processes?

Some things luthiers , players and shop owners have told me re helping a violin to "open up" right and/or faster:

---- Use high tension strings

--- Play louder and close to the bridge.

--- Play doublestops

--- Play in tune

--- Playing out of tune and scratchy, or forte to the point of breaking the sound is bad for the sound development  of the fiddle

--- Play higher up on the G-string

--- The E string will open up quicker than the G string ( also my experience) but if a new violin does not have a good lower end, it will never develop well even with lots of time and playing.

Not sure how much of this is true but all these people have  way more experience than I will ever have.

Having heard Christian Vachon's  long pattern Strad model ( made by Guy Harrison) a year ago brand new and now a year later after much -- no doubt excellent -- playing the results are very impressive.  An exceptional violin from the start, and now even richer and   carrying so well.                                                                                                                                                                BTW Christian, my Lord Wilton model is now a few months old and getting better and better as well.



August 21, 2011 at 11:59 PM ·

 Scott, my old classical guitar teacher (a luthier, as I mentioned before) remarked that the better guitars tend to have uneven notes (quality of sound and resonance, not pitch) here and there in the register. 



While it's true that fiddles with lots of complexity in the tone can have more wonkier notes, it is not axiomatic. That is to say, having more uneven or wolfy notes does not mean a violin is better. I've played plenty of great fiddles that had tonal depth AND clarity on all the notes.


August 22, 2011 at 01:13 AM ·

 This may be a stupid question but can a beginner cause a new violin to "break-in" or "open" improperly just by the virtue of playing out of tune?

August 22, 2011 at 03:03 AM ·

Hi Marjory-I agree with Christian Vachon I don't think it matters what you play just play it...a lot! I bought my fiddle the year it was made so I had some serious "awakening" to do also. My new fiddle taught me how to play it if that makes any sense. It took me a couple months just to get a good feel for the instrument's personality and not try to approach it as I did my other fiddle that I'd played on for over twenty years. Violins definitely prefer to be treated as individuals my little dude was dictating everything from bow attack/speed to e string choice...bossy little thing (no more Hill e's eveeeeer!). Please let us know how things turn out or "wake up" how exciting for you congratulations.


August 22, 2011 at 07:53 AM ·


People often claim that a violin must be played in tune to break it tin properly. It's one of those things everyone says, but I'm not sure if there's any evidence for that, if it's testable, or just sounds so reasonable that it must be true. Kind of like "job-killing taxes."

I would say that few beginners play aggressively enough or in high enough positions to break in a violin effectively. 


August 22, 2011 at 12:31 PM ·

It's true that it's hard to set up scientific evidence for certain things. Nevertheless, I strongly feel from a lot of personal experience that the way a violin is played, what is played on it and even what it is more passively exposed to all make a difference in how it develops.

When you play in tune, the violin rings more, and more and better overtones are set up and come out of the instrument. Just play the 1st E on the G string on a well-tuned fiddle and hear the open E ring out. In-tune double-stops set up combination tones. They are usually easier to hear on some 6ths. When you play 6ths in the lower G area they actually set up combination tones that go below the ptich of the open G. All this and more has a salutary effect on the violin's fibers and overtones.

Then there is what is played as I indicated above in my earlier post. As Moenig used to say 'start with long slow notes on a new fiddle; don't begin with Zigeunerweisen.' You have to dig in, in a good way, and pull the sound out of the instrument.

Then there is how the violin is played. A beginner can't possibly have the same effect on a violin even playing the same simple thing. But yes, playing way up each string is important. Different parts of the plates vibrate in response to different pitches. Some players have a brighter sound, play more consistantly near the bridge, etc. Each player will, after some time, have a customizing effect on the violin - and bow, for that matter. Had the same violin been played on quite a bit for years by Heifetz or Elman, Grumiaux or Rosand,  Milstein or Stern, Perlman or Zukerman, it would sound different.

Speaking of science, many years ago they ran tests of sand on a plate exposed to different sounds. Harmonious sounds produced pleasing patterns by the sand. Harsh noise caused the sand to scatter, helter-skelter. I'm sure that similar but more complex things happen with a violin, depending how it's played or even what it's more passively exposed to. Anybody have the experience playing in orchestra when their section wasn't playing but the lower brass choir was? The violin vibrates like mad just holding it - and in a good way. Now imagine construction outside your window, with drills and jack-hammers. The violin won't like it any more than you! Vibrations are palbably real. Ultra sound can break up kidney stones. How could more subtle and complex vibrations not have an effect on a violin?

August 22, 2011 at 12:46 PM ·

August 22, 2011 at 01:49 PM ·

 @ Eric, I don't see why...leaving your post vague is surely worse than a hypothetical trampling by people with less expertise in the area of science/physics than you have.  Could you please at least list the 'some' things? even if you prefer to leave them inaccurate or incorrect?

August 22, 2011 at 02:12 PM ·

Speaking of science, many years ago they ran tests of sand on a plate exposed to different sounds.

Yes, Chladni's plate, I think. If the plate was sounded with a bow, the sounds became less harsh when the plate was then covered with a film of oil, this supposedly adding weight to the claim that an oil varnish is superior to a spirit one.They do similar things with the plates of violins, now, looking for "C" and other shapes in the sand patterns. But  results from such tests, and from tuning the plates, Carleen-Hutchins style (she was a science teacher !) don't make a new violin play quite like an old one. Vuillaume and others tried artificial aging of the wood,  allegedly by baking, but abandoned the practice.

I was trying to suggest in a previous post that science has yet to fully investigate the "playing in" thing experienced by violinists - maybe it's not been of sufficient interest to attract funding. Maybe there's been researh I haven't heard about. The vague terminology circulating in the violin world doesn't seem to help. And it does not much help our understanding that here and there are some players so expert that they can make a brand-new fiddle sound "better than a Strad".

My experience with 4 new instruments recently would seem to support Raphael Klayman's post. However, I think that neither of us has worked in the controlled conditions required of scientific research - and one simply cannot go back in time with the same violin and replicate the experiment changing but one variable at a time. So, we have to fall back on the anecdotal ramblings of experienced players :)

August 22, 2011 at 02:54 PM ·

Eric - I too, would be really interested in your take as a physicist. They may or may not change my views based on experience, but still...

August 22, 2011 at 03:21 PM ·

 Hi there, for me. I just played on the G string like crazy and at a very high position to create more vibrations to the plates.

Also you can try playing chords and double stops which are really good too.


anyone can tell me whether it is true to have a lower tension strings will allow the plates to vibrate freely?

August 24, 2011 at 06:23 AM ·

August 24, 2011 at 11:11 AM ·


August 24, 2011 at 02:19 PM ·

 Yes, Eric, please, but maybe as a separate thread?  Many folks would be interested who aren't going to be in this topic. You could title it 'by request' if you are diffident.

Either way, the physics of the vibration would be very interesting!

August 25, 2011 at 03:10 AM ·

I think people can discuss all day long about sciences and experiences, in the end of the day, it is YOU who play on the violin all the time. I'd say, just enjoy, and keep playing the way you intended. If you're working on pieces that require playing lots of 3rds, go ahead; if you don't, then down. You'll inject your soul in the violin, and will follow what you commanded and it'll soon become part of your voice.

My primary violin which I got it in 2006 did not receive good amount of playing in when I first got it due to many reasons and was once almost stop playing entirely. Then I pick up and play a lot in the past 3 years and the sound has since improved a lot.

Also remember a violin fresh from the bench will also continue to settle in in the first few years, so remember to do proper adjustments even as little as moving the soundpost from time to time when you feel the sound isn't improving further or getting worse.

August 25, 2011 at 02:22 PM ·

There is no good science explaining "playing in", to my knowledge, beyond speculation. However, there is one study in which two similar new violins by the same maker were followed over time, with one being played regularly and the other mostly unplayed, which has so far failed to show that playing changed anything.

It's a tricky topic. New violins can improve even without playing, so it's difficult to know the contribution of playing, if any.

I'm curious though what is meant by "playing in tune". Not only are there various intonation schemes, but when vibrato is used, as it is with most playing, isn't pitch all over the place anyway?

Edit: I should add that one researcher found that certain parts of the violin vibrated at a lower frequency after prolonged artificial vibration, suggesting that they had become more flexible. I don't recall that a physical explanation for the change was offered, and my own tests have failed to produce the same result.

August 25, 2011 at 02:28 PM ·

it was suggested me to to actually play slightly out of tune on double stops. the pulsating beats ...

i've been playing on a very new ok-ish violin...and it has opened up, the lower register. but opening up in my case means there is more resonance and did not mean more tonal precision or faster response. also, i notice many old violins have more resonance than new ones....does that mean that the plates vibrations are more in sync with each other than than those of aged instruments?

August 25, 2011 at 03:20 PM ·

Yes David, I remember that test with the 2 violins...

With time the player gets used to the instrument and starts exploring it  till its limits, this is one of the possibilities of the "playing in" effect.

August 25, 2011 at 03:40 PM ·

Wow, some of these theories! I'm not a physicist and I don't play one on tv I say just play it, in tune, out of tune, with double stops or without, loud, soft etc. if you try everything what it will amount to is a lot of playing on the fiddle which is what will probably/hopefully get it to wake up. That's my 1 cent worth I'm sure I'll have at least another 1/2 cent worth to add later.


August 26, 2011 at 07:18 AM ·

August 26, 2011 at 10:37 AM ·

We need an experiment here with two violinists.

Violinist A tests a new violin with new, just settled strings.

Violinist B takes the violin and 'plays it in' for 3 months (or whatever).

Violinist A retests the violin with new, just settled in strings.

The question then is: does violinist A note any difference?  This way we can separate the adaptation of the violin from that of the violinist. 

[Of course it depends on the memory of violinist A and the correct way to do it is to use multiple violins and multiple 'violinist A's. Not to mention double blind comparison with both violins that had been 'played in' before the expt started and ones that were not touched, but lets not go bonkers :) ]

August 26, 2011 at 12:25 PM ·

If the owner was wrong 20% of the time, he was right 80% of the time. Is that insignificant? With genuine respect to some of my learned colleagues here, I stand by everything I've said so far. Of course there will always be a subjective element here as in most of life. But I've made many practical experiments over the yrars, and have made careful notes, even including noting specific pitches on staff paper, noting specific things that have improved, such as chord playing, etc. etc. It's no illusion.

I can see how a new violin would improve w.o. playing, just by the varnish completely drying and tightening, and the whole violin, with newly carved and chisled plates, and newly bent ribs etc. gets to 'realize' as it were, that it's a violin. But that's only a part of the story. It must vibrate, and ideally in certain ways.

August 26, 2011 at 12:34 PM ·

I believe you are right Raphael - certainly had the same experience with my violin and even more so with a violin I had not playe for over 15 years.  I'd just like to see an attempt at proving it, which is a heck of a higher threshold.

August 26, 2011 at 04:22 PM ·

Sleeping princesses awaken when kissed by a handsome prince. Handsome princes are simply frogs that have been kissed by a beautiful princess. If the princess is fast asleep she cannot kiss the frog. Grimm reality. Mutual dependency, I guess. A dilemma. Ever diminishing circles, like this thread !

Do you waken the violin, or does the violin gradually guide you towards satisfying it's needs ? 

August 26, 2011 at 05:46 PM ·

And what if each person has to wake the instrument in their own way?  If thats the case my experiment wouldn't work....

What I have done, however, is to compare my instrument with ones made by my luthier 10-20 years earlier.  There are definite similarities but also a difference - the older instruments are more resonant while mine has the clearer note.  So what say you, can these older instruments be used to predict how mine will sound 10 years from now?

August 26, 2011 at 06:48 PM ·

 Ever diminishing circles, like this thread !

I'd describe it as "unRaveling..."


August 26, 2011 at 09:40 PM ·

A few things I think I can say objectively, putting my beliefs du jour aside (I always try to watch out for that):

Most of my customers report back that new instruments have gone through a process of "playing in".  Since this is what musicians apparently experience, I pass that along to potential customers who ask about it.

Certainly, at least some part of it is the musician learning, or relearning, what a particular instrument wants. I can sometimes observe a part of the learning process in my studio, in front of my eyes. When a musician is struggling, sometimes I'll even give tips on how to play a particular instrument.

Instruments which come back after several years have changed. As I mentioned before, instruments change with time alone, so it's difficult to separate this from other factors, and know  specifically what to attribute the change to.

Lots more could be done, but rigorous science often relies on financial support. We have some great  pro-scientists who are also amateur or semi-amateur makers, who have contributed a great deal. I don't doubt that they could do more, with sufficient incentives. But solving violin mysteries doesn't seem to garner the financial support  of landing a rover on Mars, or obliterating a couple of cities in Japan.


August 26, 2011 at 10:09 PM ·

John, you've made some good points, but also may be stepping well outside your boundaries of knowledge once again, and giving incorrect information. It wouldn't be a big deal, this time, or the numerous times in the past,  if you didn't appear to be posturing as a knowledgeable violin tech, which you are not.

Regarding your assertion that the thin ribs will not cause large stresses in the violin structure:

Well, they can and do cause enough stress to break other parts of the violin, and the force required to do that is far from trivial. And while they are quite thin in one dimension, they are quite thick in another, and are a studied and proven major factor in violin stiffness and vibratory motion.

I'll leave the rest alone for now, but don't be posting more authoritative sounding garbage and make me come back! LOL

August 26, 2011 at 10:33 PM ·

Elise, playing 10- to 20-year-old instruments by the luthier who made yours may give you a rough idea of what yours will grow up to be, but there are a lot of variables.  I would propose that anyone's work would evolve over that period of time, to the point where two instruments made 20 years apart would have significant differences.  The wood would obviously be different, and the varnish, too, would have evolved.  If you could find two made at about the same time, one of which had been played lots, one of which had languished in a closet for all of that 20 years, you might have a fairer test.

August 26, 2011 at 10:56 PM ·

August 27, 2011 at 07:19 AM ·

August 27, 2011 at 12:06 PM ·

Everything said in this thread is correct. The amazing thing about the wood (including pegs and tailpiece) is that it's reacting like a sponge, absorbing every sound, vibration and changing its structure. That's why any violin or guitar if played by a good player, after 6 years will sound better. Playing with a good vibrato helps a lot, that's why in the hands of a good player with a nice vibrato and in every position the violin will wake up faster, because a beginner usually doesn't have vibrato etc. It's important to play always the same instrument instead of changing it all the time. Sometimes there is no point of playing always a bad violin. Sometimes even if the violin is a good one you will hear a ducky sound just because the bridge is too thick...there are so many things to consider. In the end if the violin and the bridge are good, you just need to play it as much as possible, after 6 years even experts in blind tests will fail to distinguish a good chinese violin from a strad.

August 27, 2011 at 01:13 PM ·

"Everything said in this thread is correct. The amazing thing about the wood (including pegs and tailpiece) is that it's reacting like a sponge, absorbing every sound, vibration and changing its structure."

What changes about the wood structure?

The discovery of "open pits" in the wood (mentioned earlier in this thread) was once considered an exciting breakthrough. Other research however showed that it was not a common characteristic  of good, old, highly played instruments, as once thought. Where is it present, it is thought to be due to bacterial degradation rather than vibration.

This link is to a paper on examination of old violin wood with an electron microscope, published in The Journal of Microscopy:

August 27, 2011 at 05:22 PM ·

"This link is to a paper on examination of old violin wood with an electron microscope, published in The Journal of Microscopy:"


The article was written in 1990, 20 years ago, I wouldn't take it so seriously.

August 27, 2011 at 06:11 PM ·

 So if a luthier is given cherry wood, should he make cherries--or pits?

August 27, 2011 at 06:36 PM ·

pold: "The article was written in 1990, 20 years ago, I wouldn't take it so seriously."


Are you saying that science years ago is questionable today?  I'm a scientist and I would say exactly the opposite: back then the objective was the truth.  Now too often the objective is personal gain and fame.  Truth can be (note, can be - there are still great scientists) incidental to the effort.   

Besides, if the 1900s work is questionable then we should have thrown out Newton, Darwin, Einstein, ..., ...., ...,  etc. etc long, long ago.

August 27, 2011 at 07:22 PM ·

"The article was written in 1990, 20 years ago, I wouldn't take it so seriously."

That one just happened to come up quickly in a search. I've read other articles since then where they found the same thing. It seems to be where things stand today.

I still haven't found any good documented evidence of a structural change to wood from vibration. I even spent some time digging around in wooden aircraft engineering and testing data, and wooden boat information, where wood would have been exposed to engine and propeller vibration, looking for data on fatigue properties. If someone else can come up with something, I'm very much interested.

August 27, 2011 at 08:10 PM · unfortunately, the correct answer to all this is probably "we don't know". As a hobby, I build SET tube amps, and the same debate about "break-in" rages in that group as well, but on an electrical level. Most builders there swear there's a break in occurring after the first so many hours of playing, and people debate what music or frequencies are best for break-in. Certain parts, some teflon caps, are supposed to have a 200-hr break-in period, etc. I think there's definitely something there, with both violins and nice SETs, but not sure what. Could well be a subatomic phenomenon as well, who knows, and, in my mind, who cares? Play 'em both and enjoy! As for anyone thinking John Cadd is "posturing as a knowledgeable violin tech," well, he just hasn't broken you in yet.

August 27, 2011 at 11:15 PM ·

 I think he's breaking me in by playing really loud major seventh fingered scales. LOL

August 27, 2011 at 11:39 PM ·

"unfortunately, the correct answer to all this is probably "we don't know". Could well be a subatomic phenomenon as well, who knows, and, in my mind, who cares? Play 'em both and enjoy! "


Exactly, what if a microscope can't yet detect exactly the changes in structure? Isn't better to trust our ears than a microscope? Our ears all agree in detecting a difference in sound after playing the same good violin for some years. Regarding Darwin, he didn't say anything wrong but he didn't know for example that genetic mutations happen everyday, our kids can be born with six fingers, two heads etc, everything can happen with mutations. Regarding Einstein, his best discovery was using the eclipse to prove the light bending effect, apart from that most of Einstein was media hype, time also doesn't exist, exist only the movements of atoms, time is just an idea for keeping track of these movements. This is off topic but it just reminds us that theories (like DNA) are not as stable as we think. (just saying....)

August 28, 2011 at 02:27 AM ·

 I still haven't found any good documented evidence of a structural change to wood from vibration.


What kind of evidence do you really need? It's palpable--you can feel it. I'm currently breaking in my third contemporary violin. The changes, especially high on the G-string, are not imaginary. The instrument won't speak clearly in the upper positions when new, but will after hard and constant use.


August 28, 2011 at 02:54 AM ·

Excellent post, Tom - really enjoyed it. :)

August 28, 2011 at 03:14 AM ·

August 28, 2011 at 11:19 AM ·

If science can't explain the phenomena yet we just need to be patient, we all love science, maybe they didn't do the right research and maybe a microscope is not the right equipment. But if we all agree that we hear an improvement in tone how can you explain such an improvement?

August 28, 2011 at 11:31 AM ·

August 28, 2011 at 11:59 AM ·


What kind of evidence do you really need? It's palpable--you can feel it. I'm currently breaking in my third contemporary violin. The changes, especially high on the G-string, are not imaginary. The instrument won't speak clearly in the upper positions when new, but will after hard and constant use.



Scott, I have a little experience with new violins too.  ;-)   I've never said that violins don't change. It's just that they change with time alone, separate from other factors, so the contribution of playing is difficult to sort out. We can let time elapse without playing a violin, but we can't play a violin without some time also elapsing. How much would it have changed anyway?

Violins are rather mythical things, with a tendency to attract all kinds of lore. Aware of that, and also aware of the foibles of human nature, I just try to be extra-careful about coming to rigid conclusions.

The human nature element? Just look at all the guys who think women with big b**bs are somehow better.  LOL  Shoot, even some women seem to believe it.......

August 28, 2011 at 12:31 PM ·

Well, they do float better if they fall of a boat.  OTOH you can generally out run them if you are being chased by a bear.

August 28, 2011 at 02:30 PM ·


"It starts by defining what we mean by "improvement" exactly. What do people really mean by this in relation to the changes they note with violins?

Then these specific claims could be tested objectively to see if these "improvements" are real.

Then we may look for cause and effect."

The improvement is not rocket science for a sensible ear, you can hear it in violins, strings and guitars. Why they didn't do a different study by recording 100 good violins: 50 brand new and never played, recording the same violins after 6-10 years without playing them. Record 50 brand new and never played, recording the same violins after 6-10 years of intense playing by good players. Compare them all, you have to use of course  the same recording equipment, you have to wait 6 or 10 years and if you want you can have a robot playing the instrument so you are not influenced by the human playing.

What is this improvement exactly you ask? You can ask any good player and you will receive the same response: the tone is definetely warmer, more open, more mature and the instrument more responsive.


August 28, 2011 at 03:22 PM ·

"Why they didn't do a different study by recording 100 good violins: 50 brand new and never played, recording the same violins after 6-10 years without playing them."

Mostly because of the money needed to do it, I suppose. From the maker's perspective, we make a living by making and then selling instruments. It's a little rough to hold them back for 6-10 years before getting paid.

From player's perspective, who's willing to buy a violin, and then not play it for a decade? Any volunteers? ;-)

August 28, 2011 at 04:09 PM ·

 Pold said:  "What is this improvement exactly you ask? You can ask any good player and you will receive the same response: the tone is definitely warmer, more open, more mature and the instrument more responsive."

This is exactly what I see when I see my old violins back in the shop: they are almost always better in these categories than my new instruments,  if they've been played.

Either they're getting better with playing, or my making has been going consistently downhill for the last 25 years.  I can also see this reverse in old instruments, mine or right back to Strads, etc., that come into the shop for consignment: as they are not played daily, they slink backwards in quality to an obviously more-unplayed state, but can warm up quickly if a player will spend a half-hour on them, or if they're sent out on approval or loan, after which they come back more like their old, used, selves.

This obviously has nothing at all to do with me becoming accustomed to an instrument over time and learning how to play it, since my interactions are with many instruments, and brief.

August 28, 2011 at 06:54 PM ·

That's why it would be nice to have the scientists and wood technology people take a stab at it, and apply better rigor than our subjective experiences and anecdotes. Hopefully, they would be able to separate changes caused by vibration, from the more obvious or likely explanations, which are already well known to change the sound of violins.

One of these is moisture content. A violin which is in regular use will have higher moisture content, from spending time close to the player, than one which has been sitting for a while. The change can be weighed by putting the violin on a scale.

Another is temperature. All violins go through a change when you first pick them up in the morning. That could be just from the temperature change, again from proximity to the player. If someone brings a violin in from the cold for a sound adjustment, I won't even bother until it warms up. If it hasn't reached normal temperature, it's a waste of time.

Another thing which would happen over longer periods would be humidity cycling. All these factors are well-known influences on the vibrational and structural properties of wood, and wouldn't depend on music coming out of the box to explain the change.

August 29, 2011 at 08:33 AM ·

August 29, 2011 at 11:06 AM ·

Here some of  Szeryng's ideas about  the effect of age over violins:

"What are the problems concerning antique violins?

I have talked at length with experts. The result is extremely simple. The material seasons and ages. With time the wood becomes more venerable... but ultimately ... too old.

It does not exactly decay, but certainly does not improve, and loses elasticity.

I mostly play one of my two modern violins.

With all due respect, we must not forget that the finest classical violins are at least 250 years old. I am an incurable optimist, but I'm convinced that the Stradivaris, the Guarneris, the Amatis, the Grancinos, the Ruggeris, the Gaglianos and the Stainers will not be "playable" much longer unless they are completely restored.

This then gives rise to the problem of whether such an instrument can still be considered antique and original or whether instead it is the restorer who has bestowed upon that violin its balanced timbre and sonorousness, rather than the violinmaker who made it.

Consequently, the question arises of whether it is not more practical to resort from the beggining to a new instrument" (FRNAKFURTER ALLGEMEINE, Magazine, 30.01.87)

And in the Strad, september, 1988, we will find:

"In his final period, in addition to the "Le Duc, he (Szeryng) played on two French violins, one by Pierre Hel made in 1922 and the other by  Jean  Bauer, a comtemporary maker."

August 29, 2011 at 03:34 PM ·

I realize a remarkable improvement of sound during breaking in a french violin. I compare the development continuously to a good reference instrument. (I´m sorry for my bad english.)
More than two years ago, I bought a violin "Victor Joseph Charotte", Mirecourt, 1918.  I followed a recommendation of a professional belgian Quartet-Player, who told me, that Charotte is definitly underestimated. Its a Del-Gesu-Model with flat archings and a thin and smooth oil varnish.
The remarkable fact is, that the violin  has been played only for a short time in spite of his long life. In the beginning, the sound had a good character, but was very unfocussed. Now, after intensive breaking in, which is not finished yet, the sound is beautiful, complex, clear, responsible and strong.
This is my method:
The principle is: to activate the instrument as strong as possible, especially for the high harmonics and the noise range.
So: put an ear-protection. Take a good Carbon Bow, tighten it till the stick is straight, take it with the whole fist at the frog and play as loud  as possible near the bridge. (Sorry to the sensitive players and makers, but this is still an adequate treatment for a healthy violin.)
These are my exercises:
- open strings
- open fifths
- chromatic scales over two octaves each string, on E string to the end of the fingerboard.
- single notes: bring a clear sound to the pure noise by enhancing the bow speed and pulling the bow to the bridge
- diminished octaves: play chromatic octaves 1st-3rd finger by pulling back the 3rd finger for about a quater tone, so that the dissonance generates a fast vibration. This low frequent component seems to have a good influence on breaking in the intrument.

This daily treatment takes 10 - 15 minutes. After this, the violin will sound notedly better than before.

It´s difficult to find out the reasons for the improvement. My best violin is a Schleske, Munich, from 2001, which sounded beautiful from the beginning and gets better and better. Here I think, that the hardening of the varnish has an important influence. 
For the  90 years old french instrument, whose varnish has matured, there must be of course other reasons, which influence the sound.

August 29, 2011 at 03:51 PM ·

Martin - what an interesting example, the aged violin and its playing-maturation.  Did you by any chance make recordings of the violin before and after your playing treatments?

August 29, 2011 at 03:55 PM ·

"Fuer Elise:"   ...  Beethoven wrote a nice piece...

I only can say: No, I didn t make a recording. I am sorry.

August 30, 2011 at 09:13 AM ·

 I like Martin's idea of putting on ear protection and playing as loudly as is possible. It reminds me of my years playing in large symphony orchestras. You can't hear yourself a lot of the time. One downside is hearing loss from all that racket, especially if you happen to sit near the piccolo ! This makes it tricky to assess any improvement yourself. However, a dealer thought a violin I bought from her & played for some years under those conditions became "less hard".

Regrettably, simply joining a symphony orchestra is no guarantee that the sound of your violin will improve dramatically, since much of the sound you will be disseminating into the hubbub will be of a rough and impure kind. Some writers have seemed to think that the sound can be "killed", and it's true that some instruments I owned seemed to need to be rested.

August 30, 2011 at 10:45 AM ·

Never mind all these expert makers like David and Luis and others, or the scientists.

It's all bunkum!!

THIS is how I, as an acknowledged expert on playing and making instruments break my fiddles in:

I use them for two weeks as either a tennis racket or cricket bat, bashing back people's balls (sic) until the patina is really nice and there are plently of rattles coming from the damned thing. Then after reajusting the bridge and sound post, and a new set of strings - viola - it's really broken in ...

(WINK) P.S. Don't try this at home just in case someone is thinking of taking me seriously ...

August 30, 2011 at 12:10 PM ·

I did hear once of kids using a Vuillaume violin as a cricket bat. Since that is alleged to have occurred before those fiddles became so valuable, one has to assume that such exposure was tonally beneficial.

Those in the USA could alter the game to baseball.

November 9, 2011 at 08:49 PM · So I am playinig in a brand new violin now by a local amateur maker--first time to have the opportunity and so much fun to feel it open up!

A couple q's and comments. I know it's not an exact science but I'd love your opinions!

1) Position playing--higher positions need more break-in?

2) Will SR or not alter the wood vibrations? I dont usually use sr but with his chinrest setup i need one to play comfortably.

3)it seems my bow plays it much better than his. should i use mine to play it in better, or both equally?

So far I'm getting beautiful resonances on 3rds and 6ths esp. in key, mostly playing scales/arp's/ ds's in the basic keys. E and A are coming easily, G takes a little more work and high positions on G defintely still have a ways to go. fun to feel it open up though!

November 10, 2011 at 05:04 PM · You should play all over the fiddle to wake it up, but arguably lower positions cause more vibrations and may speed things up. (I think an instrument expert should perhaps qualify this).

Bows can make a big difference. I had quite and expensive French fiddle on trial recently and it sounded OK'ish with my best bow but my carbon fibre bow sounded awful. I may be wrong but I felt this showed up the instrument as having a poor sound which also got worse in a dry accoustic, with both bows.

November 10, 2011 at 07:03 PM · There is definately a breaking in period, both with a new instument and one that's been stored.

You can romanticise it if you like, but all it is a settling in of all the component parts due to vibration and to the environment (humidity).

How long does it take? I would have guessed a total of 3-4 hours, if that. I have read estimates ranging between estimates of 5 min. to a year.

Is it fun to hear the changes as the violin settles? You bet!

November 10, 2011 at 08:44 PM · I've been playing in a new fiddle for about 3 months. It's just a Romanian Simon Jozsef "model" Strad copy etc. price tagged at 3k. I don't normally get up into the higher positions all that much playing the blues, but I thought it was very important to do so when playing this one in. So yeah, I've been doing scales up & down each string and then crossing back and forth over the 4 strings in 2nd, 3rd & 4th positions. I'm sure this has paid off as it seems to be vibrating well & evenly all over the place. I started off with Dominants and then went to Visions which seems to have got things going a bit more.

The bonus is I've taken my shifting & intonation up a notch or two in the higher registers from where it was.

Enjoyed reading this thread.

November 10, 2011 at 10:15 PM · In my experience the sound of the instrument doesn't really change much, but the response improves dramatically during the first few hours after putting strings on a new violin, and consequently it'll be easier to play and produce a good sound. But let's admit that no one knows if the sound/response actually improves much with age. Violins from the top luthiers today will play and sound on the same quality level as the best old Italian violins right from the start. On the other hand, I think it's probably true that it takes a year of professional playing on a violin to get to know it thoroughly. So my advice is: focus on developing your own musicianship. You'll get to know the instrument in the process, and learn to produce a good sound. Focusing on "massaging" the violin into obediance can cause mental illness - I've seen it happen!! You might end up kicking the soundpost around every day and totally lose your playing skills...

November 12, 2011 at 04:59 PM · Does anyone here feel that using different brands of strings in succession will help shape the sound as well? (e.g. using Dominants for a month or two, then Evah Pirazzis for a month, then Peter Infelds for two or three months, then Passiones, etc.)

November 12, 2011 at 06:58 PM · I'd recommend keeping your new violin away from varnish strippers, industrial solvents, abrasive cleaners, and chlorine bleach.

And don't hit golf balls with it.

November 12, 2011 at 07:17 PM · @ Paul,

But a viola does make a good oversize tennis racket.

November 12, 2011 at 07:44 PM · Quote Brian Lee: Does anyone here feel that using different brands of strings in succession will help shape the sound as well? (e.g. using Dominants for a month or two, then Evah Pirazzis for a month, then Peter Infelds for two or three months, then Passiones, etc.) [Flag?]

Hello Brian: My new fiddle came strung with Dominants and they sounded quite good so I used 'em for about 6 weeks. Then I thought things were getting just a tad fuzzy (I'm almost 100% certain that the post did not move) and that's when I went to the Vision Titaniums, and yes, I believe the Ti's did shape, focus and sweeten this new fiddle. btw, I'm still leaving the door open for Some PI's down the road if I decide I want a bigger sound. Maybe when the the Ti's wear out I'll give them another go, but happy for now, and instinct tells me to keep exercising the "new" wood with the Ti's.

November 12, 2011 at 10:42 PM · "Does anyone here feel that using different brands of strings in succession will help shape the sound as well? (e.g. using Dominants for a month or two, then Evah Pirazzis for a month, then Peter Infelds for two or three months, then Passiones, etc.)"


From my perspective, probably not. Most rigorous investigations so far suggest that "playing in" is more about the player accommodating to the instrument, rather than the instrument changing.

That said, instruments definitely do change, following the first introduction of string tension.|

November 13, 2011 at 12:01 AM · @David Burgess

Thank you for actually saying something reasonable on this subject.

I was just thinking that one could have such a complex regimen for "playing in" a new violin that it would become the domain of specialists. Send me your violin, I'll play it half an hour a day, changing the strings every ten minutes and the sound post once a week and storing it alternately at 67 F and then at 72 F while rotating it in front of a set of speakers with Heifetz playing the Bach Partitas for two hours a day, all for the low low price of half what your violin cost.

November 13, 2011 at 12:13 AM · I am with David Burgess.

Playing in would be an obstacle to sell new instruments, but it is not the case. My latest 2 violas were sold to players who possessed "played in" old instruments, including a 1790 Cremonese Ceruti viola.

Even Stradivari would not be able to sell his new violins.

But I may be wrong.

November 13, 2011 at 12:59 AM · Ok guy's, maybe I'm out lunch on this string thing, wouldn't be the first time! But I think the key word here would be "shaping". But common sense would probably dictate that it's just some kind of romantic notion and different strings vibrate the wood differently whether it's a new fiddle or 200 years old.

November 13, 2011 at 01:14 AM · It'll be really hilarious if all this discussion about the best way to "play in" a new violin is in regard to a $400 pile of Chinese junk.

And THAT, my friends, is the LAST WORD. LOL!!!

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis
International Violin Competition of Indianapolis

Virtual Sejong Music Competition
Virtual Sejong Music Competition

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Bein & Company

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

String Masters

Bobelock Cases

Things 4 Strings LLC



Sleepy Puppy Press

Jargar Strings

J.R. Judd Violins, LLC

Southwest Strings

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine