How do Violin Virtuosos get the sound they want

November 23, 2012 at 05:23 PM · Experimenting on my viola I can see how changing set up of just about everything can change the sound quite a bit ie bridge marterial, tailpiece material and afterlength, soundpost position etc etc. This all takes quite a long time to adjust then check the sound (rinse and repeat lol). And alot of it seems to be personal preference.

So my question is how does a Stradivari virtuoso do this? Do they spend days with a luthier until they get exactly the sound they want?

I guess Stradivari luthiers have nerves of steel. Its stressful enough just working on mine.

Replies (35)

November 23, 2012 at 05:55 PM · Since many virtuosi can make just about any violin sound fantastic, I imagine they spend/spent more time in the practice room than in the luthier's shop.

That said, once you know your instrument, and know what works with it, unless it's a young instrument and still changing, the basic things usually don't need that much tweaking. For example, I know my viola works better with a slightly atypical after-bridge string length. It took a while for my luthier and me to figure that out, but now I don't need to have anyone mess with it.

If you are doing your own work, yeah, it can take a LOT of time because you don't have the experience. But if you can express your needs/wishes to a competent professional, it usually isn't that time consuming--except, as you note, the settling in part. And the weather changes...

November 23, 2012 at 05:58 PM · I love this thread and am really looking forward to all the answers. Its amazing in my own experience how far improvements in fingering and bow control will take you. Coaxing the sound out of the instrument and making decisions that affect it in terms of intonation, dynamics, phrasing. Never having had private lessons, I cant imagine the level of consistency one achieves with them.

November 23, 2012 at 08:04 PM · Really good violin players are always looking around for good violins. I heard that David Garrett (think of him what you want, he's a good player) went regularly to a dealer in new york to play on the fine instruments he couldnt afford at that time. Some good players switch their violins during their career. Even if you play a good strad you can see room of improvement.

Also I think the statement that a good player can make anything sound good doesn't fit this topic, because the nuances, wich can be quite big, are important to them. Also there is a need for every good player to get the best instrument possible, because the competition is very hard.

November 23, 2012 at 08:31 PM · Mike,

thanks for starting this discussion! The subject is fascinating.

The scientific discipline is called Psycho-acustics and one of the great explorers is Claudia Fritz: (http://www.lam.jussieu.fr/Membres/Fritz/HomePage/postdoc.htmll) Check out here articles, and especially "...Investigating English Timbre descriptors...."

First of all, you must have a concept of sound you are looking for.

Second, you and your luthier both have to agree on and understand the meaning of "English timbre descriptors" as described in Claudia's article. Any ambiguity here will cost you a lot of time and money.

Third, your luthier has to be an expert in the field and be really passionate in your quest to setup the instrument to its full potential. (violin makers sometimes are not the best when it comes to setup)

Fourth, you have to have a great bow - apart from the viola and your concept of sound, this is the most important in your sound production.

Fifth, keep the record of what has been done and change only one thing at a time.

Sixth: There are 2 things in violin/viola setup; the basic sound properties and the timbre. In other words, if the viola is setup properly, it will be responsive, resonant, loud, but you may not like the timbre. If the viola is great, the optimal setup will not only let it perform at its best, but also show the best of the sound timbre.

Good luck!

November 23, 2012 at 08:34 PM · Great comments so far.

A really good player, with experience on many violins, can pull "their" sound out of many instruments with only a few seconds of experimentation.

That doesn't mean that a performance won't suffer from the extra work and distraction, versus a violin they are more familiar with.

Most Strads hit the market with several generations of the best in the business having tweaked them and worked on them.

Most cheap instruments hit the market without having gone near anyone really good, although there are exceptions.

Can't afford to put 100 or 1000 hours into making a cheap fiddle sound great. There are more options for multi-million-dollar fiddles.

November 24, 2012 at 12:07 AM · I just find the whole thing so fascinating. My question came about after I put a Wittner tailpiece on. The sound went right down the tubes. So I learned a thing or two about string afterlength. Which led to the effect of different woods. I would love to take classes to learn more. Plus Im an engineer with OCD tendencies so I cant leave well enough alone.

Im keeping a log of the changes and yes Im doing one thing at a time. Its an awesome science project.

November 24, 2012 at 03:38 AM · @David, so if I have a violin worth, say, $10,000, what would be a reasonable amount to spend on an inspection ... that is to say, giving it to a luthier to see *IF* it is even possible to make much improvement through fairly routine adjustments?

Back to the original question, great violinists get the sound they want with their bows.

November 24, 2012 at 01:14 PM · I'd be interested in seeing how much setup time a luthier puts in after the violin is finished to maximize his/her violin as compared to a workshop violin or a mass-produced violin.

I'd also be interested in how much difference having a different tailpiece makes or a repositioning of a soundpost, etc.

And finally, which would make more of a difference (besides practice!): different strings or different setup (assuming that the soundpost and bridge are in a normal setup to begin with).

November 24, 2012 at 02:03 PM · "And finally, which would make more of a difference (besides practice!): different strings or different setup (assuming that the soundpost and bridge are in a normal setup to begin with). "

There is really no such thing as "normal" setup or optimal strings. It all boils down to personal preference. Some might like an edgier sound, others might like smoother, with less edge.

But to answer your question, changing strings and or sound post position can make a really big difference. I would argue that the sound post has a bigger effect for the following reason. My violin sounds fabulous with ANY strings, at least to me. But a few years ago, the sound post had shifted (or the violin changed), and I was not happy with the sound. I tried different strings and it still was not to my liking. Eventually, a sound post adjustment got it sounding great again.

There is a limit to what you can do to the sound for a given instrument though. Tweaking the setup and/or strings can improve the sound, but if you start off with a lemon, you can't change it into an orange. In order to change the sound of an instrument drastically, you have to open it up and regraduate or change the bass bar.

November 24, 2012 at 02:05 PM · @Lyndon, after buying an instrument, even though obviously I wouldn't have bought if if I didn't like how it sounded, I still don't think it's unreasonable to say, "Okay, I just spent $10k on a violin, now I wonder if it can sound significantly better for $500 worth of adjustments."

November 24, 2012 at 03:20 PM · Violinists tend to be perfectionists. I've been known to fuss over bridge height and thickness, as well as soundpost, and (gut) string gauges. I strive for an optimized setup for each violin. Teaching myself basic setup and minor repairs has saved me $$$, and nearly eliminated long trips to a qualified luthier. Given the nature of old wood and fragile instruments, especially if you travel or live in humid and warm climates you can count on making frequent adjustments. Even though I am not a virtuoso, it's clearly more difficult to play on a violin with string action too high, and a lot more exhausting to dig the sound out of a violin with too-heavy bridge. Yes, selecting the best bow that matches the performer and instrument is important, but the more advanced your skills, the more you depend on a precise and correct setup.

November 24, 2012 at 04:03 PM · Thanks Evan that is exactly what I was wondering. Not that I would ever perform but its good to hear from some who does. I dont have a luthier close by anyway.

When my son auditioned up in north country it was 20 below. His bass shrunk so much just carrying it in from the car the bridge nearly fell off. That was when I realized performers need these skills too.

November 24, 2012 at 05:41 PM · There is a reason why the best players have very fine instruments: it makes a difference. Playing on a very fine instrument teaches you how to draw the sound out of a less-fine instrument, because you better understand -- in a physical and practical way -- the full capabilities of a violin. But I think the finest players are the ones who care enough to seek out those subtle qualities of having a very good instrument. Seems to me that things like the tailpiece matter less than the overall quality of the instrument...

November 24, 2012 at 06:12 PM · Playing with a violin's setup too often will never give it time to settle; it takes a violin a few weeks to acclimate to new soundpost positions.

November 24, 2012 at 06:15 PM ·

November 24, 2012 at 07:12 PM · @ Brian Lee: new instruments are much like babies--they need EVERYTHING more often! I have a new (2006) viola and an old violin. The latter tends to get whiny and need adjusting every few months; the violin just wants new strings every once in a while.

November 24, 2012 at 08:23 PM · I think the majority of orchestra players could get quite a dramatic improvement in the performance of their instrument if they took it to a luthier who's skilled in setup and sound adjustments.

That said, when it comes to mediocre instruments it's usually about remedies: how to make a dull instrument a bit more lively, how to make a weak d-string a bit stronger, or even just adjusting the fingerboard or nut.

With excellent instruments it's more like: could you make the lower range on the g-string a bit more open? or: I'd like the upper range speak more freely, or: I want the sound a bit more focused.

Anywhere you start, you can usually make progress with adjustments, but unfortunately just up to the maximum capacity of the instrument.

November 20, 2014 at 09:46 PM · I have been studying the violin for a year. I am 65 and have been with the guitar since I was 8. After touching about a dozen violins of all qualities and prices I settled on a new no-name Chinese instrument because it seemed to possess a mellow tone and a good degree of resonance. I paid two hundred dollars. Over the year I have been practicing and steadily improving but at the same time I have been attempting to refine the sound and bring out the instrument's best qualities. I have modified and/or changed the bridge over a dozen times. I removed the varnish on the top, re-sanded and hand rubbed a thinner smooth varnish type finish. I have adjusted the lengths to 327 and 54.5mm at the tailpiece which has built in adjustable tuners. I am using a twenty dollar set of Prelude j810 heavy tensions. Using a small pair of surgical scissor clamps I have moved the post at least a hundred times. This is what I have discovered. It's there!!! But one must struggle to find it. What is more valuable your $20K violin or your luthier? I think the latter. When I finally arrived I found that all I had to do was touch my cheap bow to any string and immediately I entered a place of such pure, well defined and strikingly beautiful sound I was aghast. I seemed to have much more freedom of movement on the strings as the Helmholtz factor was now working in my favor. Somehow I must have been able to find the necessary adjustments to compensate for the imperfections of the instrument. I realize that what the instrument is capable of producing now calls me to practice and play more frequently. The squeaks, scratches and muddy rumbles are gone. I am able to achieve harmonics with a light touch of the string and fairly low pressure on the bow. I want my violin to sound like a beautiful voice and I think I have achieved it. Most importantly because I went through this difficult and often painful struggle I think I actually know what I did and can relocate that sirens lovely voice when I lose her, and lose her I will through damp, cold, and other environmental effects constantly on the wood. If you have a playable violin that is inexpensive I encourage you to do your own lab work and see what happens. You may find that after all your labors the answers may be simpler than you might have thought. Nevertheless, be prepared for a wildly complex study.

November 21, 2014 at 02:30 AM ·

November 21, 2014 at 05:44 AM · the trick is to take all the time and effort spent on thinking about and changing setup and 'working' with luthiers - and spend it all on practicing diligently.

November 21, 2014 at 07:56 AM · Absolutely! You have hit the nail on the head! Intelligent practise and experimentation. Sound is the player. A good instrument helps a bit too.

November 21, 2014 at 10:27 AM · "How do Violin Virtuosos get the sound they want"

They eat raw cabbage.

November 21, 2014 at 11:19 AM · Teachers as very different as Perlman and Suzuki (wink, wink) insist on working at tone quality, not just quantity, right from the start.

So, do dilligent, intelligent practice, until you find that your present violin will simply not do what you are capable of. Then look for one which plays loudly without honking or sreaming, and fast without scratching or scrubbing.

November 21, 2014 at 11:25 AM · One might argue that it is better for a beginner to have an instrument that requires work to make it sound than one that is effortless. Thus, you have to earn the fine violin by learning how to create a nice tone on a mediocre instrument.

I have a very nice contemporary Italian - but its never been adjusted since I bought it (over a year ago). Largely that's because I am happy with the sound - but mostly its because I see so much improvement as I learn to play better. Eventually I guess I will reach the limits of its current state and then we'll start exploring its setup limits.

November 21, 2014 at 01:34 PM ·

November 21, 2014 at 02:52 PM · What a luthier can do for an already first class instrument (Pablo Casals's Gofriller cello) is described here:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/pablo-casalss-cello-gets-a-new-life-1415115960

(Thinks: I wonder how much that refurbishment cost!)

And this is what the result sounds like:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTso0wYH4f4

I note that that Gofriller is now fitted with non-gut strings (I can't tell what they are from the photos), but Casals of course always used gut.

November 21, 2014 at 03:46 PM · "I think I would argue the opposite of this. I think it would be better to learn the basics of how to play on something fairly forgiving before trying to tackle a more temperamental instrument. Like driving you wouldn't start in a formula one car."

I think that's an opposite perspective: to my mind the formula one car is the authentic del Gesu and the beat up chevy is the german workshop violin... I don't think any beginner should be given a strad!

November 21, 2014 at 03:50 PM · Thanks Trevor - lovely cello playing - tears the heart strings. Amazing sound. A great story and history.

November 21, 2014 at 04:05 PM · Elise, wouldn't that be a beat up Volkswagen?

November 21, 2014 at 06:01 PM ·

November 21, 2014 at 08:10 PM ·

November 21, 2014 at 08:11 PM ·

November 21, 2014 at 08:12 PM ·

November 21, 2014 at 08:15 PM · I have to laugh. All this talk about practice, intonation and less time with luthiers. The Perlmans and Bells have instruments that respond to subtle touch. What is required on an instrument which produces inferior resonance and sound quality is a masochistic personality. I knew there would be no serious study until my instrument functioned as a violin instead of a chalk board. The tactile and muscle memory for a sweet well balanced instrument will cause the student to learn how to speak to and commune with the violin rather than abuse both it and self in the process of forcing out a decent sound, in my view. Developing gross techniques to compensate for an ugly sounding instrument has little benefit to the student. I am saddened how many potentially talented young students are discouraged because their initial experiences for them and their families are harsh and frustrating. I have placed my inexpensive but clear and responsive instrument into the hands of someone with no experience and said, "Simply draw the bow lightly over the strings," only to see a beaming smile on their face when tone emerged and for a split second something inspiring happened. Spend time with the luthier and understand the nature of your instrument and you can only reap rewards. Make sure before you begin, however, you have a copy of "Ears of the Angles". Spear will point the novice in the right direction with good humor and plenty of good tips. How do virtuoso's get the sound they want ... exactly the same way Michelangelo learned to sculpt the human body ... dissection.

November 21, 2014 at 08:59 PM · Typically, I can do a lot to improve the sound and playability of a fiddle that comes through the door, in the opinion of the owner, for around 200 bucks.

There's much more that can be done for progressively more money, because chasing it beyond the opening stages gets progressively harder and more time consuming.

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