You sound better than you think

December 22, 2011 at 10:07 PM · Those were the words of my teacher yesterday. I'm working on Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile from String Quartet No. 1. I played it solo unaccompanied for the first time in a lesson, feeling very nervous about my tone. After the first part, I was told it was very nice. "Except for the noise and scratchiness," I declared glumly. "I heard no scratchiness," he countered, and proceeded to tell me how nice the tone was in the pp passages. The same pp passages which, to me, sounded hissy and scratchy at best.

He then 'borrowed' my fiddle and demonstrated, having me listen standing next to his left, then again from the other side of the room. I understand exactly where he's coming from. from more than 10 feet away the sound takes on a beauty you can't hear directly under the ear.

"There are violins," I was then told, "that will sound noisy and harsh to the player, but project beautifully to an audience. Likewise, there are violins that sound smooth and pleasant to a player, but cannot be heard beyond the fifth row!" Of course I've read all this before. This phenomenon is well known and documented, and though I always understood the concept academically, I've never had the opportunity to experience it with my own fiddle.

In trying to get a sound that sounds sweet to me, the player, I've skimped on rosin to cut the noise, and played with a weak bow arm. Invariably my teacher would call the tone weak.

This may be one good argument in favor of finding a good teacher. Or if that's not feasible, at least record yourself. It's important to have an ear that is not immediately involved, in order to identify and correct issues.

Or perhaps to affirm, if even once, that you sound better than you think.


Replies (32)

December 22, 2011 at 11:14 PM · Hi David,

I think you are absolutely right about having a good teacher is important to develop a good tone. Unlike other things like intonation, it is impossible to know if you are playing with a good tone or not without direct feedback and reinforcement.

December 23, 2011 at 02:15 AM · One way is to listen to yourself from a mic about 8 or 10 feet away through headphones that can block out the live sound that you would otherwise hear. I've tried it myself using a ZoomH2 as the mic and Sennheiser cans with a suitably long cord, and it works. But once you've convinced yourself, there's no need to be doing it all the time.

December 23, 2011 at 02:24 PM · This isn't just a matter of convincing yourself, but a matter of learning to hear "through" the friction noise of the bow, and learn to imagine what's coming out to a listener. It takes some adjusting, and getting used to, but once you start playing for a listener instead of yourself, your tone takes on a whole new level of confidence. It's important not to get too carried away, and it can take a little while to get used to, but put in the time, the end result is worth it.

Also, just a thought here, but try recording yourself in the biggest room you have access to.

Record the same passage 5 times, the first time playing to have a nice tone in your ear, and then letting yourself get progressively more "scratchy" until the 5th is definitively "too much".

Do this a few times with passages in different dynamics, and you should have an idea about where your own "sweet spot" is. Then use that as a reference point.

December 24, 2011 at 04:54 AM · David wrote:

"You sound better than you think"

I'm sorry, sir, that is incorrect. With me, it's just the opposite.

December 24, 2011 at 03:12 PM · Scott, same here lol

"I sound better than you think!" is what I always said... Ha ha...

December 24, 2011 at 04:19 PM · Great advice, Chris.

I run into something similar occasionally when people are trying out fiddles. Their concept of sound is based on listening to other people play, and they are looking for that same sound under their ear. REALLY BAD IDEA, unless you only play for yourself.

December 25, 2011 at 12:37 PM · A similar situation arises with the cello and classical guitar. In both cases the sound goes away from the player. My guitar teacher used to advise sometimes practising facing into a corner of a room so that the sound is reflected back to the player. Ever seen a singer test their voice by holding a hand up to their ear with elbow in front of them so that the sound is reflected back to their ear?

December 25, 2011 at 01:49 PM · I have to agree with Scott and Shen-Han. The vast majority of people sound worse in recordings. Under ear, I sound better than Hilary Hahn. In a recording... well, let's just say, I don't sound better than Hilary Hahn :-)

December 25, 2011 at 01:59 PM · Maybe you should take off those rose tinted spectacles - even more if you are wearing them on your ears ...

December 25, 2011 at 02:16 PM · Most of us think we sound a lot worse than we actually do. That's what people tell me anyway, but maybe they are deaf ...

December 25, 2011 at 02:31 PM · Travor

Yes, I love to practice violin in a closed-door washroom. I can hear a lot of noise even with the bow hair scratching when playing light. It is fun! lol

December 25, 2011 at 02:35 PM · "Yes, I love to practice violin in a closed-door washroom. I can hear a lot of noise even with the bow hair scratching when playing light. It is fun! lol Shen"

If you do this make sure you flush the loo as well as this improves the sound no end.

Especially if you are playing 'andel's Water Musak.

But maybe you are a closet violinist - about to come out ...

December 25, 2011 at 04:01 PM · I have a sure-fire way to sound better. It reduces bow noise, while resonances are deeper.

I simply turn off my hearing aids. :-)

December 25, 2011 at 04:46 PM · Then you have a dazzling career ahead of you as a conductor ...

December 25, 2011 at 11:51 PM · I think a lot of us sound "different" than we think, not necessarily better or worse. At a certain point, you're going to have to be your own teacher, and working with a recorder helps tremendously.

We all have this tendency to listen to ourselves more critically than others. We know where we've made tiny errors, and always judge our performances by measuring our deficiencies against some impossible ideal that we've got in our own imaginations. When we listen to others, we often try to focus on what we enjoy. When we listen to ourselves, we try to pick out mistakes.

Or at least, that 's what happens with me.

David, I've seen a few of your instruments, and they're beautiful! I've always been fascinated with the sound of new vs. old instruments, and their differences under the ear!

Just a thought, but have you ever organized a "blind playing" as well as "blind listening" test? I wonder how preferences under the ear (when somebody doesn't know what they're playing) compare to what they prefer in a hall . . . . . that could be interesting!

December 26, 2011 at 01:31 AM · Chris

There're tons of blind test before, and one of them is here: Click here

There're 4 fiddles, a Praill, a Vuillaume, a Strad, and a Guarneri del Gesu... Try your best!

December 26, 2011 at 02:19 PM · Great responses! Perhaps what might help me sound better is a silent violin. :) One thing about practicing in a live room, I find that the reverb makes it sound wonderful to me, but any recording sounds like garbage. If I practice in a relatively dead room, all my errors are far more obvious, I hear them better so I can correct them, and recordings sound better (intonation and tone-wise). So I think the reverb from a live room provides a false sense of security and makes us sound better than we do. In a dead room, based on recordings and feedback from another person, I generally sound better than what I hear under my ear. And by better I mean specifically tone-wise. It's all relative anyway, "better" to me means better than nails on a chalkboard, which is what I think I sound like!

December 26, 2011 at 04:33 PM · Shen-Han Lin

The four violins in the blind test.

I listened only once and i think I liked No 1 best.

But its impossible to tell from a recording. They have to be heard live.

December 26, 2011 at 04:36 PM · Shen-Han,

I know there are a number of blind listening tests, but I think it would be really interesting to do a blind PLAYING test . . . . not only see what you think sounds best in a hall when you don't know what the instrument is, but also to see which you prefer under the ear, regardless of value/name. I suppose the violinist would have to be blindfolded, but then again, we have a tendency to close our eyes and sway when we're "into it", so I guess it shouldn't be that much of a problem, eh?

December 26, 2011 at 07:00 PM · What does a professional player look for in an instrument, then? Given feedback from knowledgeable peers regarding projection and tone in a performance venue, does it then come down to playability, response, ability to vary timbre?

December 26, 2011 at 07:11 PM · What about "You think better than you sound!!?"

I would say that I go for an instrument with a big projection that can also be played very quietly. It should also hold up under bow pressure and not crack and definitely not sound nasal when playing near the bridge.

It might sound a bit hard under the ear but wonderful from 10 - 200 feet. (3 - 60 metres) - and not gradually drop in pitch when played in a speeding car ----- (wink)

I would add a good responsive instrument too.

December 26, 2011 at 09:42 PM · Shen-Han, thank you for the blind test. I like the last one the most and the 1st one after that. I'm waiting for the answer of which is which.


December 26, 2011 at 10:51 PM · I hate the first one the most lol~ That's why I guess it's a Praill. I love the second and the forth the most, and I think it's del Gesu and Strad. So the third one must be Vuillaume.

Isaac Stern believe it's Vuillaume, Praill, del Gesu, and Strad; Zukerman think it's del Gesu, Praill, Strad, and Vuillaume; Beare think it's del Gesu, Vuillaume, Prail, and Strad.

The answer is Vuillume, del Gesu, Praill, and Strad.

December 26, 2011 at 11:31 PM · Chris

I think it's not a good idea. When you are choosing violin, you want the violin "sound by itself". Meaning you don't want to control it to make it sound like what you want it to sound. If you blind playing an instrument, your brain will tried to think of a certain sound and you will want to make that kind of sound. I tried it, it's just almost impossible to play without "thinking" when you can't see anything. So it will become your sound, and if your sound is good, then the best sounding instrument is the one that can easily achieved your ideal sound by the way you play. Everybody plays differently, the one you can easily make your ideal sound doesn't mean it is the one I can easily make my ideal sound.

So just try to play a lot of instruments to build up your "imagination sound" library in your brain. The easiest instrument that able to achieve the sound you imagine is the best sounding instrument for you. As for other violin it doesn't mean you can't play the sound you want it to play, but it just simply means harder for you to achieve that sound. That's why everybody prefer different instrument. A few people even prefer to play on some modern rather than the Strad/del Gesu on loan to him. I also believe after all these touring Hilary Hahn will for sure be able to afford a Strad or del Gesu, but she is still playing on her Vuillaume.

December 26, 2011 at 11:33 PM · My order of preference is: 4, 1, 2, 3 (The 2nd one is too quiet and the third one makes lots of noises, so I don't like either of them). My guess was (from 1 to 4): Strad, Praill, Vuillaume, and del Gesu - 0/4 for me.

December 27, 2011 at 03:17 AM · Shen-Han,

I"ve played a lot of instruments, and I think it might just be an interesting test. Would people's "under the ear" impressions be the same as those listening in a hall?

I also have never had issues playing without looking at the instrument . . . . shifts (no matter how big) are a matter of muscle memory more than visual cues. It only takes a few seconds to adjust to the relatively miniscule string length differences on standard full-size violins. The famous italians I've played have certainly need some adjustment in terms of technique to get the best out of the instrument, but if you can't adjust quickly enough to make a valid comparison, well . . . the blindfolding wouldn't be the biggest problem!

Violas are a different story. Once played both brahms sextets in a concert, viola in one (17.25 inches), then violin in the second. It's decidedly harder to go down in size quickly and accurately than up!

And listening to recordings of blind tests . . . well . . .. you're at the mercy of the mic/preamp/recording, not to mention your OWN SOUND SYSYEM! Some instruments might benefit, others might not. Recording engineering is hard enough as is, let alone creating an acoustically sound, well-damped listening environment with reference monitor speakers.

December 27, 2011 at 01:04 PM · Chris, some of the blind listening tests are done with the player also blindfolded, and incorporate feedback from the player.

December 28, 2011 at 12:42 AM · David,

I had never heard of that happening before, but it seems quite logical. Do you know if results in the room generally correlate to results under the ear, or if there's any general trend there?

December 28, 2011 at 06:16 PM · Joseph Curtin, the luthier, has done a lot of research on violin sound. He found that any violin has 3 sounds: 1. under the ear, 2. 5 to 15 feet, and 3. beyond 30 feet. This is not an impression from listening. This result comes from looking at the frequency profiles at different distances for many violins.

Look up old issues of The Strad, if you're interested in this or other published research by Curtin.

December 28, 2011 at 07:19 PM · Mike, just wondering what happen between 15 and 30 feet? :p

December 29, 2011 at 06:05 PM · shen-han lin,

There are transition zones where different violins change their sound differently - as distance increases. There are zones that are more predictable across violins. If you are really interested, go read the article.

December 29, 2011 at 06:18 PM · I have noticed this in my violin also. The scratching gets worse if the rosin builds up a bit. Cleaning the strings defiantly helps.

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