Playability of A Violin

November 18, 2011 at 02:49 PM · I recently tried out a stand partner's violin and was shocked how responsive it was. Fast slurred notes(160BPM+) sounded mushy on my violin but were so clear on his.

I wonder which part of the construction process determines the playability of a violin. Woods? Graduation? Set-ups?

Replies (41)

November 18, 2011 at 04:16 PM · Having just gone through the process of buying a new violin for myself, I can definitely say that some violins are more responsive than others. I think the whole violin is definitely involved in its response. Basically I think it is an issue of how quickly the vibrations are able to spread around to the different wood surfaces of the violin. Also I think responsiveness may have a lot to do with whether the violin and the bow and the strings are "matched" to one another.

November 18, 2011 at 05:51 PM · Everything...

www.manfio.com

November 18, 2011 at 06:00 PM · Yes, everything.

November 18, 2011 at 10:33 PM · Ok folks - everything is just a bit wide don't you think? Just read the blog on luthier René A. Morel where it mentions that Mr Morel spent 20 seconds with one persons violin and completely changed the way it sounded. Don't think he could have changed everything in 20 seconds, so what would he have done? The person mentioned was far from a beginner, so I assume there wasn't a major setup problem. Wouldn't an accomplished player be able to recognize if the bridge was in the wrong place/angle? Certainly bridge, strings, wood, etc affect the instrument. What would be the top 5 suspects?

November 18, 2011 at 10:59 PM · It took Rene 20 seconds to move the soundpost on an instrument where everything else was in the ball park already. ;-)

Had an hour of adjustment not gotten acceptable results, he might have moved on to recommending something more radical, like a new bass bar, or even a restoration involving arching corrections. I have little doubt the he would have agreed that everything matters, and that's based on having spent quite a bit of time with him adjusting instruments.

First among the top five suspects? Probably general instrument construction. But good construction can be largely sabotaged by poor setup and adjustment. Added to that, amateur players don't always like the same things that really hot players like.

To illustrate that, I recently had a commission rejected by an amateur. Sent his money back, no problem, because that's what I promise to do if the outcome is unsatisfactory. Prior to that, the same violin had gotten pretty strong validation in a shootout involving some of the best moderns, some of the best antiques including a Strad or two, and some really hot players.

The fiddle that the amateur turned down sold quickly to a Juilliard graduate, Dicterow student.

There are probably too many interweaving topics in my reply, but that's the reality of our business. I'd make it simple if I could.

November 18, 2011 at 11:01 PM · Renè Morel changed something in the set up, the instrument is one thing, the set up is another thing. You can't make a miracle with a new set up if the instrument is a bad one. Good instruments will respond to changes in the set up, with bad instruments you change things and the instrument continue sounding bad.

And you may have different set ups for the same violin depending on the player's taste and playing style.

"Wouldn't an accomplished player be able to recognize if the bridge was in the wrong place/angle?" Not allways, most professional players know very little about their instruments. We see too warped or too twisted bridges in instruments played by professionals all the time. "My instrument is not sounding good" and the cure may be something like "time to change these old dead strings...".

Good sound is the result of a succession of right things: right model, right wood, right archings and graduations, right neck angle, right set up, right player, etc. = good sound. The formula is the same for a good raviole, a good suit, etc.

www.manfio.com

November 19, 2011 at 12:38 AM · I'll add that most of our best sounding antique instruments today, are to a greater or lesser extent, the results of modifications and restorations by several generations of highly talented restorers and tweakers.

November 19, 2011 at 12:41 AM · I think the aspect of the sound you mentioned is what we call "clarity", you can listen to every note clearly even in rapid passages (like the good diction of an opera singer in rapid arias) the notes will not mix, they will not sound muddy, it is related to a quick response, I think.

And yes, it is a feature of very good instruments because it is essential to soloists.

www.manfio.com

November 19, 2011 at 02:36 AM · Isn't the bow an even more, or at least equally important factor for playability? Did the OP use his own bow or the other violinists bow for the trial?

November 19, 2011 at 09:02 AM · "Added to that, amateur players don't always like the same things that really hot players like."

David Burgess is right. Often amateur and even some proffesional players like an instrument that sounds smooth and pleasant under the ear, whereas hot players like a rather more aggressive sound that will have lots of variations and carry to the end of the hall.

November 19, 2011 at 12:25 PM · Yes, David is correct, as usual... I recently met a young group of viola players of an Opera House in Germany, they all liked a particular type of sound (too dark, hollow and unfocused, in my opinion) and they found my violas "too agressive".

www.manfio.com

November 19, 2011 at 01:59 PM · I think german orchestras have generally a different taste than american. its more that dark sound, but very singing and rich. While the american orchestras I heard were more shiny and brilliant.

Regarding instruments response. i think if you include the bass bar it has to do a lot with the setup. Old violins can be pimped up with new bass bars I believe. Will not make bad violins sound good but can help in the matter of response as far as the instrument is intact otherwise.

elise mentioned the factor of the bow: really important! Some bows play very focused and clear in fast passages while others tend to be unclear in response. But still practicing beats it all! ;)

November 19, 2011 at 03:37 PM · Yes, Germans prefer a dark sound, but it must be focused.

November 19, 2011 at 04:29 PM · "A bad workman blames his tools" – a corollary of which is that "a good workman doesn't blame his tools" (because he makes sure he has good ones as a priority).

November 19, 2011 at 04:52 PM · I love my tools!!!

November 19, 2011 at 06:02 PM · Nick,

What you're experiencing was merely opening your eyes (ears!?) to new possibilities of what a fine violin can do. To put it simple, his violin is simply better than yours, in terms of clarity/response.

Instead of trying to figure out what you can do to make your violin responded like your stand partner's violin, you can either leave it up to luthiers to do it, or look for another violin.

You chosen your current violin because you did not realize that the response wasn't clear. So you know what to look for during the next violin shopping. It's part of the violin learning, don't feel bad about it.

If you insist on doing adjustments to your current violin, chances of getting improvements are generally very small if the current setup on your violin appears just fine (send to luthier for check up). Apart from not getting improvements, there's high success rate that it'll sound *worse* than before.

November 19, 2011 at 07:00 PM · Very interesting discussion! I'm a beginner - 3 months into picking up a violin and I'm working to understand just how a violin works. At the beginning I didn't have much faith in the quality of the violin. When I got it from where I rented it, the bridge was on backward. That affected my practice - surely those screaches and moans meant there was something else was wrong. I would ask my teacher to play the piece on my violin so I could be sure of the problem - yup , a loose nut behind the bow ;) I've found that understanding more of the mechanics behind sound production has help me develop faith in my instrument and improved my ability to produce pleasant sounds.

November 19, 2011 at 10:45 PM · The better question would be, what factors, if any, don't affect playability & tone quality? I think maybe single, double or decorative purfling (or absence of purlfing) probably has little effect, but can't think of anything else.

November 19, 2011 at 11:58 PM · well, all I can say is... I wish I could have a go on a coupla these high end, high powered concert violins. Would be interested to see what I could do (or couldn't do) What's it like?... like driving a formula one race car or riding a thoroughbred race horse? Neither of which I've done either!

November 20, 2011 at 12:04 AM · Me neither - but the different accounts I've read go the whole spectrum from amazing projection and ease - to difficult to control and quixotic! I think most violins you have to get to know - at the very least you have to get used to what a each note sounds like when its in tune on that instrument.

November 20, 2011 at 12:52 AM · ""Wouldn't an accomplished player be able to recognize if the bridge was in the wrong place/angle?" Not allways, most professional players know very little about their instruments. "

I've been a profession for over 20 years, and I'd be the first to admit that learning what constitutes a fine violin can be a lifetime learning process. One doesn't just know or not know, at least I didn't. You have to try and hear a lot of violins. And then your taste changes, or your performance changes to a location with different acoustics (I could well imagine that someone who performs in an opera pit would want something with a high degree of resonance, or place a premium on something that speaks easily to help combat fatigue, while someone who suddenly finds themselves in a piano trio may realize they need brightness and power to to cut through the cello) or you happen across "the" violin (always owned by someone else) that redefines what you're looking for, or your technique and ear improves (I hope). So saying what makes a great-playing violin is, for many, a moving target depending on one's stage in their career.

November 20, 2011 at 12:56 AM · Wise words Scott, you are a wise man!!!

November 20, 2011 at 02:52 AM · @ Elise,

I was using my own bow so the difference was definitely the violin.

@ Casey,

You are absolutely correct. I actually bought my current violin on eBay for less than $200 including s/h. It looks decent and not a VSO. I bought it so I can play in a local orchestra while living abroad for 6 months. I left my old violin at home and haven't played it for months so I don't remember how it feels/sounds like.

When I first got this $200 violin, it had steel strings and was extremely difficult to play compare to my friends' 120 year old German violin(this is different than my stand partner's violin). However, the sound and playability improved dramatically when I changed the strings to Vision.

I actually kind of embarrassed to go to any luthier because both of my violins are worth less than $500 combined.

By the way, what is the budget for a decent contemporary violin? $10000+? I want to purchase a new violin for around $5000 but I don't want an antique.

November 20, 2011 at 05:29 AM · Nick - Ok so now we have a better idea of what kind of violin you're playing (although judging a violin by the price tag is risky!). The chance of getting a fine violin under $500 is minuscular indeed, so most probably your violin won't have much potential with better setup, at least not to the extent that it can sound/play like bench made fine violin. Essentially, a good setup to being with is to play comfortably, and if it's a fine violin, then there're more potential for the response and tone character.

On the other hand, for your next violin shopping, you can go by trusting your instinct on what is the best violin, and don't limit the price range, you may find something suits your better for far less. It can also mean that you're not ready to appreciate fine violin yet so you'll quickly dismiss the one that'll do best for professionals, which David already mentioned in the example above. But that doesn't mean you're making the wrong decisions, not everyone need a Strad or Del Gesu. Since you have an old violin lying at your hometown, you may find that violin is doing fine for you after all, so there isn't a need for better violin yet.

November 20, 2011 at 08:08 AM · Nick Lin

You do not have to pay a lot of money to get a fiddle with good sound. I would say anything between $1,000 and $3,000 could get you a very good sounding fiddle. Remember that violin prices have nothing to do with how they play. An old $100,000 Italian fiddle may sound awful, and a $5,000 violin may have as good or much better sound.

Elise

Providing an instrument is set up reasonably well, as you would expect at a dealers or a makers - then I have no difficulty at all in playing on them. I can and have tried a dozen or more fiddles at a dealers and apart from variations in sound quality and projection there was no noticeable difference in ease of playing.

I did however try some young guy's viola the other day and it nearly killed me lifting it up as it weighed a ton, and it was very hard if not impossible to play. But this was probably (certainly) because it was very badly set up and a clunker only fit for firewood.

November 20, 2011 at 11:13 AM · Peter: "Providing an instrument is set up reasonably well, as you would expect at a dealers or a makers - then I have no difficulty at all in playing on them. I can and have tried a dozen or more fiddles at a dealers and apart from variations in sound quality and projection there was no noticeable difference in ease of playing."

A factor there, of course, is that you are a very experienced player and probably adapt quickly to each violin. A novice might have a much harder time. Also, what do you make of comments (which I have seen a lot of) from violinists that were awarded old (prize) violins for winning a competition and express such as 'it took time to get to know the instrument' etc?

November 20, 2011 at 12:46 PM · Elise

Yes, we do all take time to really get to know an instrument and that's why its important to have a trial at home over several days. Sometimes (often) I find the instrument is not as good as I thought it was and that may well be after getting used to it, and finding its weaknesses.

I take your point about less experienced players finding different instruments strange compared to what they are used to - and that's why they should preferably have someone experienced with them. I don't think any player (obviously there are exceptions) who has been playing for less than 3 or 4 years will have much idea, and even fairly experiences players can make mistakes.

I've sometimes been handed an instrument to try that someone has out on trial only to find I don't like it. Often they might say "well, it's made by so and so" to which I always say that it's their choice - but get lots of opinions.

Of course, as we hear, some players will always talk down an instrument, or occasionally talk one up, for unknown reasons, maybe to do with their own personal problems.

EDIT: I would always add that I would seek other opinions myself and unless it was a very cheap fiddle with a great sound and obviously a bargain, then I would get others to try it and play it in various locations, large to small, wet to dry.

I had a French fiddle out recently and I really went off the sound. It was poor in a dry accoustic, and if I used a perfectly good but cheap carbon fibre bow, it sounded like a £50 fiddle. It was priced at £6,000 ...

November 20, 2011 at 12:49 PM · "Also, what do you make of comments (which I have seen a lot of) from violinists that were awarded old (prize) violins for winning a competition and express such as 'it took time to get to know the instrument' etc?"

____________________________

Elise, imagine a situation where a player is lent a very expensive old instrument to use, with some publicity and fanfare, and it turns out that it's really not a very good fiddle from a player's perspective. What should they do and what should they say? They can't exactly say that the instrument sucks, so they're more likely to speak in euphemisms publicly, saying things like, "This instrument demands a great deal from the player".

I've talked to a few players who found themselves in that situation.

November 20, 2011 at 12:58 PM · David has a very good point there, because if you are in the spotlight and a big deal is being made of the valuable old Cremonese violin you have on loan or have been given, you can't really say its a bummer in public. "A lot of getting used to" might be translated as "it's got a lousy sound."

I'll add a bit more again!! I knew an orchestral leader who had been lent a top instrument beggining with "S" and he played on it for years. It always sounded poor, and it could have also been his playing ... But it sounded good to say he played on an instrument made by "S"

November 20, 2011 at 05:18 PM · Peter: "Providing an instrument is set up reasonably well, as you would expect at a dealers or a makers - then I have no difficulty at all in playing on them. I can and have tried a dozen or more fiddles at a dealers and apart from variations in sound quality and projection there was no noticeable difference in ease of playing."

I've found that violins often sound and play well in the shop, but can change in a couple of weeks at home. In shops they are often stored tuned down, and are resonant and easy to play when raised to playing pitch. Also, shops often have resonant trial rooms. However, take a couple of those instruments home, and playability differences will usually manifest themselves.

November 21, 2011 at 11:32 AM · I don't ever have that experience of tuned down fiddles, and I think you misunderstood my points.

November 21, 2011 at 06:04 PM · And I've never tried a dozen fiddles in a shop and not noticed a difference in playability.

November 23, 2011 at 03:42 AM · I just sight-read the first few bars of the Bruch violin concerto on my $150 violin.

Here is the recording if you are interested:

http://www.4shared.com/audio/9zIly2Hx/bruch.html?

November 23, 2011 at 04:44 PM · Nick, your violin sounds fine to me. Sometimes it can be tricky under the ear, people around you might hear it just fine but you'll find your violin sounded mushy under the ear.

November 23, 2011 at 08:10 PM · Casey, your statement is very intriguing. But--what if the player's progress is hampered by not being able to hear the notes clearly?

November 23, 2011 at 11:44 PM · Hi Casey,

I just tried my friend's 1890 Mittenwald violin again tonight. Her German violin has a ringing sound which is similar to my stand partner's violin. I think the resonance contributes to clarity.

Anyway, I think I will change the bridge on my violin because it's not properly cut. Maybe it's my technique but I keep hitting G&D string on this violin especially on high positions.

@ Scott,

I agree with you that it takes time to get used to a different violin. My friend's Mittenwald has a thicker neck which was immediately noticeable since I play without a shouder-rest and have to rely on my thumb.

November 24, 2011 at 03:31 AM · Francesca - You know, I can't really say anything definite. As you might imagined, mushy sound under the ear can be a disaster. However, what I'm saying i based on the recording I'm hearing, and it can either the recording is tricking my ear - clear sounding violin can sound tinny on recording, grainy sounding violin can sound just fine on recording. Recording does not represent hearing the violin in person. Also, the sound under the ear will change according to how the player hold the violin, and with or without shoulder rest.

Nick - In my experiences, when I hear a violin that has clear sound under the ear, it usually because the sound is clean, perhaps usually with that ringing sound too. Mushy sounding usually lacking in high frequency, and with that fat mid range sound but the sound doesn't pop out from note to note.

August 12, 2016 at 04:17 AM · I have found that the violin became the easiest of all instruments to play when I found a playable violin. Before ... my unplayable violin made playing a frustrating drudgery. I think this is why it is commonly said that the violin is so difficult to play. How often does a beginner get to touch a playable instrument? At a party last week I placed my "playable" violin on the necks of two young girls who had never touched one before. The most beautiful sounds came out almost instantly. Eyes opened wide and big smiles were everywhere. Who knows maybe they were inspired and will feel encouraged to study the violin. I heard the term "playable" but until I actually acquired a decent instrument I had no idea what they were talking about. Amazingly my playing has improved in leaps and bounds almost effortlessly. Hard work and diligent practice and rehearsal is necessary but now I play my instrument rather than work my instrument.

August 12, 2016 at 04:26 AM · Not being a player, I would be very interested in this violin that "plays itself"!!

August 12, 2016 at 01:42 PM · I went to a solo cello concert this Summer and got to speak with the performer afterwards.... young boy, about 16-17....playing for a very long time with 2 stellar violin teachers/performers as parents.... I asked him about his instrument and he gave a wide smile while saying how glad he was to find it as it made playing so much easier.....

August 12, 2016 at 01:55 PM · Well if anyone out there has any of these violins that "play themselves" Id be very interested in selling them at my store!!

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