How much does the instrument matter?

August 1, 2013 at 03:11 PM · I'm curious as to which instruments affect the quality of a performance the most(regardless of the skill of the performer). I've heard that winds "live and die by their reeds", and obviously we are familiar with the quality of violins playing their own role in the performance of a violinist. What I'm trying to ask is, is it easier for some instruments to give a good performance than others, if we assume that the skill of the player is equal? Having limited experience with other instruments, I'm eager to hear other's opinion on this. Thank you very much for your input!

Replies (82)

August 1, 2013 at 05:38 PM · Truly great instruments will nudge a (good, appropriately skilled) player towards doing the "right" thing. They'll be inclined to a certain type of tone production, for instance, and the feedback from the instrument is quick and clear and you'll find yourself instinctively adjusting (again, assuming that you're a good, appropriately skilled player). They also tend to have richer overtones, which will cause you to instinctively play with better intonation. It's easier to be more expressive on such instruments, and they will have a range of dynamics and nuance that you don't find on lesser instruments.

That said, I don't think I've ever played an instrument that had those qualities, that didn't cost at least a million dollars. (There may be contemporary instruments out there like that, but their owners are probably going to hang onto them until they die, and I've never encountered a contemporary instrument that, *to the player*, reaches that level of quality.)

In terms of other types of instruments, there can be differences in the type of construction that can make huge differences, and where the state of the art advances -- for instance, French horns have evolved to the triple-horn (rather than the double-horn previously common).

August 1, 2013 at 07:44 PM · Lydia - check out my blog "A Tale of Two Fiddles" re how players can feel about their contemporary instruments.

August 1, 2013 at 07:45 PM · "... is it easier for some instruments to give a good performance than others...."

Instruments do not give performance, musicians do.

Instrument does matter up to a certain point.

Poor instrument will stand on musician's way to make music.

There are, in essence, 3 categories of good instruments:

1st; have the basic acoustic qualities, such as power, responsiveness, clarity of sound and resonance

2nd; have the 1st plus great qualities of timbre

3rd; have the 1st and 2nd plus projection

The higher up the ladder, the less a player has to work on the sound production. Some players prefer "blank", but working instruments, that belong to the 1st category, so they can "push" for their own sound.

2nd, and sometimes the 3rd, are usually described as "personality" of the instrument, with attributes that are often result of projection and "humanization".

Good wind players make their own reeds, so unless the violin player is also a luthier, or a string maker, there is hardly any comparison.

August 1, 2013 at 08:05 PM · In terms of instruments other than strings, one of the realities is that it is much less expensive to have a wonderful instrument. You can get one of the best pianos in the world for $100K or less. I think the best winds and brass are much less expensive than that. Compared to string players, these folks have a definite advantage.

That said, the common wisdom was that someone like Heifetz could make a student violin sound like an old Italian master. Whether or not that was true, it bears out what Rocky is saying, that the musician is more important than the instrument.

August 1, 2013 at 08:40 PM · Rocky, how about if we say,

"It is easier for a musician to give a good performance on some instruments than on others", so we acknowledge the contribution of the instrument, but don't take credit away from the musician? ;-)

August 1, 2013 at 08:52 PM · I agree with the above comments... musicianship matters more. I have performed unaccompanied gigs on affordable--even cheap violins. If your violin is capable of good basic tone, even across strings, reasonably resonant and relatively sweet sounding and responsive to the bow, and the violin is set up correctly with good strings, you might have all you really need. When your skills demand more from an instrument, you'll know it.

August 1, 2013 at 09:08 PM · When I was in Junior High I play Baritone and then the Euphonium. My teacher was a valve trombone player and he spoke of instruments that fought you, that push back at you. Finally in High School I played a three valve Euphonium that had this quality and you learned to manipulate this back pressure and could produce subtleties that on a lessor instrument were seemingly impossible.

Later when I took up the recorder we spoke of tight voicing and the response and tone quality that could be produced with a well voiced instrument, which also manifest itself as a pushing back. By voicing this could mean a narrow windway and the relationship of the windway to the sharp edge which creates the wind reed.

At one point when learning the recorder my teacher had her husband work with me on breath control. They were both incredible recorder players. Eventually I was able to get enough control of the instrument such that other recorder players would complement my breath control.

At one gathering of the Austin Chapter of the American Recorder Society, decades ago, we were playing in groups and another person noted the reediness of my recorder. We both had Moeck altos, mine was palisander with a curved windway, her's was maple with a straight windway.

She said she hoped to someday find a recorder with that sound. I asked if I could try her instrument. It was not the instrument but the technique.

As to the violin. I recently purchased purchased a new bow. I now have what I think of as a great bow (for me) and a good bow. At the end of the lesson I had my teacher play with both bows so we could discuss the differences. I then asked her to play the same selections with her bow.

What I think surprised her was that a technique she wanted me to practice which requires keeping the hair on the string during some staccato notes she found easier with her bow, an older French bow. She said she could keep the hair on the strings easier with her bow.

So I think it is always a balance between the instrument and the player. But a good instrument is a wonderful extension of the player.

August 1, 2013 at 09:11 PM · I was told a decent starting orchestral bassoon was in the region of $30,000 AUD. That's not for a 'really good' instrument, and way out of the range for a decent starting string instrument in an orchestra - even cellists could get a away with spending 2/3 that I would expect? What impact does the quality of the rest of a wind instrument (the non reed part) have though?

How about brass instruments - is it mostly in the quality of the huffer and puffer at the other end?

August 1, 2013 at 09:18 PM ·

It's not about having an expensive wine, but the wine needs to match the meal.

August 1, 2013 at 09:41 PM · Oh my!

It's bad enough that we have the occasional viola discussion here on now we've veered headlong into the woodwinds section?!

The End is nigh, my friends! Repent!

August 1, 2013 at 11:02 PM · I think the instrument matters more and more the better you are. Top performers need the little edge to "outsound" their collegues. Its interesting to see also, how a new instrument can change a performers playing.

At the lower levels fundamentals are more the dealbreaker. Bow control and lefthand technique. But also there you should avoid crappy instruments, that are hard to play. And also the sound should be nice, wich actually affects students in the development of a sound ideal.

As others surely mentioned there are violins with a good ringing resonance, which makes playing easier. But there are always downsides of one parameter. The best violin will perform good in many parameters, wich actually are contradictory, like resonance and articulation.

August 1, 2013 at 11:09 PM · David,

You described it better than I did. Thank you!


August 2, 2013 at 12:01 AM · Maybe we can stop talking about prices when all violins are free. LOL

August 2, 2013 at 12:15 AM · Madeline (OP) - the instrument and bow are very important and as has been said, it's more important the better the player is, because a better player can get more out of the instrument - and we can all use all the help we can get.

That said, I'd rather hear a great player on a mediocre instrument than a mediocre player on a great instrument.

August 2, 2013 at 03:18 AM · You can make crappy sound snappy!

But keeping it won't make you happy.

A musical heart needs a comfortable home,

Be it chinese or a JB Vuillaume.

An artist indeed needs the tools

Don't listen to loud-mouthing fools

"The problems your stroke"

Well listen here bloke!

My geiger dont speak- it drools...

"Expensive" cannot work as filler

To take you from 'ok' to 'killer'

Responsive and clean

Makes playing a dream

A Sderci can be a Goffriller!

August 2, 2013 at 03:33 AM · Edit.

August 2, 2013 at 11:01 AM · I'd been longing for a special violin all my life.

So I figured I best go ask my wife.

"I say there honey"

"Do you mind if I go spend our money?"

Now we don't all have an understanding spouse

Who value a violin costing as much as a house

This caused some marital strife

She even threatened my life!

Even though I said "please"

My budget will only allow Chinese

So it's off to EBay I go!

August 2, 2013 at 12:28 PM · Ryan and Seraphim - bravi!

So let me contribute: There once was a man from Nantucket...

hmmm...never mind!

August 2, 2013 at 12:59 PM · Raphael - everyone knows that people from Nantucket cannot play violin.

August 2, 2013 at 01:46 PM · There once was a man from Nantucket

Who liked to play the gutbucket

He said "The beat is The Thing"

"I need only ONE string..."

"So, take the other three and chuck it!"

August 2, 2013 at 02:06 PM · Sharelle: "I was told a decent starting orchestral bassoon was in the region of $30,000 AUD. That's not for a 'really good' instrument, and way out of the range for a decent starting string instrument in an orchestra - even cellists could get a away with spending 2/3 that I would expect? What impact does the quality of the rest of a wind instrument (the non reed part) have though?..."

Prices must be much higher down under! A top of the line bassoon is $30K, and I'm sure you can arrange to spend more if you feel a need to. However, practically speaking, no one really needs a bassoon that is THAT expensive either.

A decent bassoon...that will do most people for most things can be had for $13-22K.

The issue with bassoons is at the lower end. A brand new decent student instrument (without all the keys you need if you advance) is around $5000. So, unlike the violin, you can't pick up one that's "good enough" for $600...

The bocals are important...and very expensive, $400 is average for a regular, new one.

The reeds are crucial to tone...and each reed plays a bit the player has to learn to adjust tone accordingly. Plus, they don't last you're constantly adjusting to the reed (as well as buying/making them).

The lifespan of a bassoon is said to be around the lifespan of a 70-80 years.

Oboes have similar issues with the reeds (probably more, the reeds are more fragile and don't last as long), but you don't have to worry about a bocal...and while very good oboes are also quite expensive...they're not as expensive as bassoons...

English Horns fall in between...they also need a bocal and can be quite expensive, esp. given how little they're played (in general)...

Then we have contrabassoons...:D

No wonder so many kids start out playing flutes!

Now back to our poetry corner:

Violins are quite fine!

I luv playing mine...

But a mean bassoon?

...just makes me swoon.

August 2, 2013 at 04:51 PM · N.A.Mohr wrote :-

"The bocals are important...and very expensive..."

In the UK the bocal is called a CROOK.

A crook is not part of a violinist's apparatus, but many crooks lurk in the trade ready to ambush the innocent fiddler. Beware.

August 2, 2013 at 07:39 PM · Wait people seriously believe that? Better intonation with a better instrument??

Man alive, a good viola (violin) just makes articulations and a vast range if colors and sounds more easy to execute. In that regards the instrument does matter. An amazing sound and ease of playability inspires me and makes me play better as a result, but it's not like a Mitsibushi Evo X with so many driver assists that it drives for you.

I think they have 'expensive violin' confused with 'scales' for making intonation better.

August 2, 2013 at 07:59 PM · Actually Ryan, Bruno Price once told me this story:

Steven Doane brought a student of his from Eastman to try cellos at RVNY, so they went through a good number of instruments but weren't able to single anything out; however, there was one cello that Professor Doane's student really did not like, complaining that it was very difficult to play in tune on it. Doane took Bruno aside and said, "He has to buy that one! On every other cello he plays, he doesn't hear that he's constantly out of tune!"

According to Bruno, that particular student later won a symphony job.

Also in regard to better instruments making intonation easier - I find that certain styles of instrument setup can make an instrument more comfortable to play, which might lead to it being easier to play on - definitely no silver bullet, however. I played for a while on a violin that was previously owned by Itzhak Perlman, which was set up with a slightly longer and wider neck to his specifications; the rest of the setup was done by the luthier whom I usually go to, so that was a nonissue because that's what I play on daily. Even with the string length only 2 millimeters longer than would be usual on a Strad PG form, it was very difficult for me to adjust to; the neck also had a very distinctive shape in which there was a very slight edge on the bass side of the neck in order to accommodate the thumb; because of the greater thickness of the neck, this edge felt like it was constantly in my way, although the necks of the violins I usually play on are set up the same way, but to a much less exaggerated extent. I actually felt relieved when I ended up returning that particular violin!

August 3, 2013 at 06:47 AM · Ah well I understand overtones being more audible and causing one to play in tune with the resonance of the whatever stringed instrument, and of course setup.

I thought salespeople were actually pushing that buying a strad infuses you with infallible intonation because Italy

August 3, 2013 at 07:06 AM · Actually, the best salesmen I know, Bruno included, always tell their customers not to look at the labels, especially if they're looking in a very high price range - because then they tend to start "hearing things that aren't there".

August 3, 2013 at 10:04 AM · Maybe the ears are the whole problem, maybe a spectrum analysis would tell you which violin was better!!!

August 3, 2013 at 10:43 AM · Lyndon, I just go for feel, and having someone play it for me ;)

Spectrum analysis tells what you should like. Not necessarily what is best for an individual. Although mid range frequencies carry better than highs and lows, kinda explaining why a nice violin sounds quit under your ear, but has its own voice and is very projecting when listening in a hall.

Bruno is great! I've taken that mindset from Greg singer too, now I just play. Ended up hating a piqué and loving an unlabeled.

August 3, 2013 at 12:29 PM · OK, a bit of morning tea under my belt, I bravely proceed:

A fiddler came from Nantucket

Under his chin he did tuck it

When he ran out of hair

chucked his bow at a bear

And happily after he plucked it!

If that doesn't prove how important the instrument is to a player, I just don't know what does! ;-D

August 3, 2013 at 01:16 PM · Darrett - Spot on! I experienced exactly the same with my first "true" upgrade, I couldn't believe that I couldn't play that thing with my usual "good" intonation, but later found out it's because I've been playing slightly out of tune every now and then. A violin with very clear sound is very revealing and certainly give more feedback to the player about his/her intonation issue.

August 3, 2013 at 03:45 PM · I was joking, Ryan!!!

August 3, 2013 at 03:50 PM · Thanks guys for all your great replies. It kind of was double sided, speaking of violin instruments(and I definitely agree with you about preferring a fine violinist on a mediocre violin)and speaking of instruments in general. Thank you Patrick for your perspective from your experience with winds. I'm curious I suppose as to whether there are more (or less) requirements of a good instrument, for those outside of the string family, but perhaps this forum is not the place to find that. Thank you all though for taking the time to contribute, and the poems were appreciated I'm sure.

August 3, 2013 at 05:46 PM · Very interesting...

Sometimes too, I beleive a player can chose to play a more difficult instrument if the rewards are extraordinairy. I heard that the Steinway pianos were harder to play than some others but sound better and that a piano too easy to play isn't good for the articulation of the music. Pretty much in the same way, some players chose to play with more fussy strings (i.e. gut strings) or setups (per example with no shoulder rest) if they think the sound and music they can acheive is better.

In the violins I tried, as a very fussy person for the sound, I found out (as many here I think...) that usually the very powerful and easy to play instruments have a very bright sound and the charming dark toned violins require more effort from the player to make a clean and powerful sound. Some are in between...

My sister complained about the exact same thing with her clarinet. Perhaps some resistance offers a better sound for sweet sound lovers? When she had a very ear pleasing mellow reed with a sound to die for, it was always harder to play than when she had a very flexible reed with a more "pearcing" sound able to play anything.

I cannot speak for Strads and Guarneries since I won't try these even in my craziest dreams :)

August 4, 2013 at 01:13 AM · i like viola discussions - yum!

August 4, 2013 at 07:23 AM · Enescu enjoyed the "resistance" of his fine Paul Kaul violin.

Intonation? To tone down the nasal side of my viola, I have often used Aricore strings: a warm, round tone, with less and less "bite" as the play in; but I noticed I was less finicky over intonation than with the more "complex" Obligatos that I use now. Why?

I notice how very precise intonation is more perceptible on instruments with many high overtones, e.g. violin, oboe, bandoneon, than with the darker sound of a flute, horn, or even the human voice. So I am not surprised if a violin with an even response (no very dominant tones) and capable of delivering the high overtones from good strings in good condition will be easier to play really in tune.

August 4, 2013 at 02:27 PM · Perlman's precision in general has declined over the years. But he has such charm that I doubt the audience cares.

August 4, 2013 at 09:43 PM · I'm also reminded of the renowned pianist who played on the baby grand in the local con. All the locals with good ears gathered around, thinking they must have swapped out the piano just for this event, the piano sounded completely different under the hands of this chap. [no, I wasn't one of those who could tell the difference. I don't have piano ears].

August 4, 2013 at 10:06 PM · Like Valentina?

perhaps not.....

August 5, 2013 at 06:46 AM · Haha sorry Lyndon, sarcasm is hard to detect via the Internet.

Maybe my eyes are the problem. Visible-light spectrum analysis should help:p

August 5, 2013 at 07:18 AM · haha Rocky, I don't know that the pianist was of that caliber. But wouldn't St Pancras be fun in those circumstances.

August 5, 2013 at 11:57 AM · I am not someone stating that there is just "one" intonation, but to excuse bad intonation with "personal intonation" is just wrong. I heard several recordings of old players, also Oistrakh, were some runs are quite off. But Others are clean as possible. Noone is perfect but intonation is not an interpretation, its just very very hard to do. Noone can play a whole concert perfectly in tune, the material is just too difficult and there are too many distractions physically and mentally when playing in concert.

I rather prefer to point out, that people like Perlman, Menuhin, Milstein, heifetz and so on had all there intonation issues somewhere on recordings. Especially on live recordings/videos. Its not a bad thing to hear that and to mark it as bad intonation. Period. We all know, that its not only about intonation, but we should always keep our ears open and as objective as possible when it comes to fundamentals.

Personally I find Perlmans playing sometimes rather sloppy, but I have much respect for the man, even if he isn't quite sympathetic to me.

August 5, 2013 at 12:31 PM · As a chamber musician and choral director, I am very aware that there is a part of personal preference in "good" intonation. I don't always agree with eveyone's choice of major and minor thirds, semitones etc. without that choice being "out of tune". Equal temperament is a very useful and necessary series of compromises, but all string and wind players (not to mention singers!) can do "better"..

Let's remeber that Bach's Preludes and Fugues in all 24 keys were not played in equal temperament.

Violinist Temperament, based on perfect fifths and tight semitones is different again.

August 5, 2013 at 03:01 PM · I think it needs to be proven that intonation is a common human sensation. I don't believe it is at all - that to some extent at least intonation is actually learned. We have an 'agreed' intonation and even there there is room for flexibility.

I wonder if a pianist who hears a violinist play in just intonation thinks that they are out of tune?

The other big factor is training: musicians will listen to a piece and scowl at the bad tuning - whereas an audience of non-musicians may well be touched by the beauty of the same notes. To a large extent we musicians are training to the finer ear of our betters and peers and not to the average ear of our intended audience.

August 5, 2013 at 03:21 PM · of course we seneibilize our ears, 10 years ago I would have never been able to hear out of tune notes in an oistrakh recording for example.

And of course there is some room and tolerance, but normally a scale has to fit the harmony, so the tolerance is quite small. There are different possibilities to interpret a third for example and there are problems of temperament on the violin also, as long as you don't stay in one tonality, its not only an issue for pianists. Usually pianists are not that trained to hear intonation. That doesn't mean, tht some have good ears for that.

For me intonation depends on the music, the harmony and the instruments you play with. One must adjust to that, no question. But there are out of tune notes, that are simply out of tune, even with perlman etc. Just that someone cannot hear them doesn't mean for me, that its an interpretative intonation, they just don't hear it. Usually good violinists play only out of tune in very small amounts and in a context where its hard to control, like fast runs or arpeggios. It is not easy to hear the wrong notes, but if you are used to listen to them due to own training and teaching you will find them everywhere. There are concerts where perlman plays really good I think, but I also heard bad concerts of him. As Milstein writes in his autobiography "a good violinist must play always up to a certain standard" (he refers to ginette neveu there). For me intonation also shows ones respect and work he/she has put into music. If someone has a good intonation it shows me that he respects the work and his role for music. If someone plays sloppy I try to decide wether its because of no time to practice/ arrogance towards the music/ bad ears.. and so on, you see, that bad intonation must not mean, that someone is a bad player, but to look what its behind the bad intonation brings you to that point. For me an world class soloist has the duty to play as good as possible in tune, because they get payed for that and because they devote their whole time to study the violin. If there is a general sloppiness in ones playing I always wonder why he/she is concidered to be a "great" musician.

August 5, 2013 at 11:35 PM ·

August 6, 2013 at 02:24 AM · One of many great, and democratic, aspects about making music is that a person's wealth and their ability to purchase a valuable instrument does not make them a good player. I believe that a fine player will draw a beautiful sound from even a mediocre instrument.

The most important thing about one's instrument is that the player love the sound that his instrument produces. The great majority of our playing is done alone. Putting bow to string must produce a sound that is pleasing to our ears.

I am a big believer in the importance of the bow. On a recent trip to Germany to play chamber music, I left my violin home, knowing that I could borrow a decent one, but I brought my bow, feeling less certain that I would be offered one that I liked.

August 6, 2013 at 07:02 AM · We often confuse "good" with "expensive".

A poor violin, whatever its price, will simply not produce the sounds we want, at the volume and at the speed we need to perform. If the wood is too thick, or too thin, clear, quick articulation is physically impossible; and the tone, even if pleasant, may lack depth and clarity, with a "boxy" quality which is tiring on the ear, and which will not blend with other players.

My own violin an viola are much appreciated by my orchestral and chamber partners, and would now cost around the 4000 euro mark, but I have tried pleasing instruments costing less.

When I try my students' violins, (usually under 1000 euros) and with their own bows, those present notice two things:

- the violin often sounds better than when the student plays it;

- the violin sounds less well than mine, even if I use my own bow.

August 6, 2013 at 08:18 AM · Simon - I think you raise a great point. We should not be talking so much about 'out of tune' but 'out of harmony'.

this is best illustrated perhaps by quartets where the middle instruments have to adapt to the differing demands of the ones on either end. Thus, their notes are tuned not to their sense of 'in tune' as it would be if they played alone but 'in harmony' with their colleagues.

I think that's what rankles when I read 'Perlman was out of tune'. It sounds awfully arrogant - unless you are at a similar level of achievement. It would be like me saying that van gough had the colour wrong. Yes, I am sure that the occasional note is not perfect - even within the context of his own instrument and he would like to have it back (fortunately for him he can on the CD). However, in some cases that 'not perfect' note to your ear may well have been intended and you don't understand what the musician was trying to say.

It sounds rather more respectful and probably also more realistic in most cases to say that the note was out of harmony - that is not a judgement but a personal interpretation.

August 6, 2013 at 09:10 AM · Back to violin quality!

I was reading about the career of the splendid Dylana Jenson. When she married, the sponsor who had lent her a Guarnerius took it back, and she spent many years borrowing other excellent violins. People would say "you're brilliant, but we can't hear you!"

Ok, I know that travelling soloists use more recent instruments when on tour, and no-one notices. But some violins simply cannot deliver.

It may be sheer volume, or brilliance, or depth, or quick response which are lacking.

I had ten minutes on a really fine violin (I won't mention its price..): it had everything, power, responsiveness, warmth, clarity, in fact it showed up all my shortcomings! A race-horse compared to my cart-horse!

August 6, 2013 at 10:00 AM · Yes, Adrian, absolutely. I had a lesson yesterday and my goodish Mirecourt violin sounded rather scratchy and overbright (it could do with some changes in setup). I tried playing my teacher's Deconet for a few minutes and found myself halfway to another world. I now realise that the quality of the instrument goes for more than I had previously thought.

August 6, 2013 at 05:08 PM · Elise, yes it may sound more socially acceptable to say "out of harmony" then "out of tune". But When I say, that Perlman plays out of tune sometimes, I compare him not to my playing, but to other top soloists, who in my eyes have passed his skills. I mean where are we making gods out of persons!? That doesn't do either side any good.

I just recently visited a master class of Ida Haendel (in some eyes, even mine, an old-master) and to say the least it was a big bad joke! She was rude and disrespectful to the students and played totally out of tune when she wanted to "demonstrate" something. This is what it does to you, when you start thinking of yourself as some kind of a violin god(ess). Her standard phrase was "your interpretation is totally wrong and I have never studied this work, therefore I cannot teach you... next please" I mean really... Ida HAENDEL!!

So maybe its not too bad to always just point out when something is "out of tune" because its just a matter of fact question and if the critiques cannot make it better it still means its out of tune. There are many non musicians who can hear quite good if something is wrong. Our ears are trained to hear everything close to perfect due to pop music and such things. If we criticise intonation is of course a question of medesty and honesty. Good to see that those words are quite close in the english language.

Back to instruments. I don't believe that there are instruments, where you hide the intonation for yourself. Thinking that its in tune, when its out of tune. That in fact is a problem of the ear and practice methods. A good student should record himself anyways to listen from the outside.

There are instruments, that are easier playable due to string height and neck shape. Also the response can be very much of a dealbreaker. Also there are instruments, wich have a more ringing/singing tone, wich can help with shifts. Bad instruments can limit your progress and possibilities, they are like blunt tools.

August 7, 2013 at 03:12 AM · Josef Gingold played an early Strad. He was reputed to play 1-2 hours of scales when he got home from practicing with the Cleveland Orchestra to repair the damage done to his intonation.

An instrument can 'help' or 'hint' toward good intonation, but it does not replace solid technique and careful practice.

Also... I just saw Gil Shaham perform Tchaikovsky at Blossom Music Center (An outdoor venue under a big pavilion) this past Saturday on his 1699 Strad. It was phenomenal. To go with Adrian's comment, there has been discussion as to effort and stimulation of vibrato being able to get closer to the sound you want; but you can't attain Gil's level of art as well as the projection necessary for a single violin up 'against' an orchestra in an outdoor venue with much of a lesser instrument.

August 8, 2013 at 03:24 AM · Just found the perfect instrument for me. It is indeed old, and also renowned in terms of the maker.

I am addicted to the sound like its a drug, it's easy to play, and I mysteriously struggle with intonation a bit (no viola jokes please! Haha).

To me, it matters, because today's the first day in a year and after 100 trial violas that I can practice and think about technique rather than 'maybe it just needs new strings and an adjustment...'

August 8, 2013 at 11:55 PM · Part of learning to play the instrument well is learning to listen critically not just to yourself, but to other players -- including people who are much better than you are. We can and should listen critically to even the greatest performers. They all can and do make mistakes.

Intonation is of course a personal choice, but I would consider something "wrong" (or at least "less desirable") if it is jarring in an audible or musical sense, and it was not what the performer intended. Players will adjust if they don't quite place the finger where they wanted it -- a tiny weasel of the finger, an altered vibrato, etc.

August 12, 2013 at 03:40 PM · I could not tell the difference if horowitz played differently tuned pianos, which corroborates that the performer is what engages.

The instrument WILL help immensely in the right hands (think horowitz on an upright... Great playing and touch undoubtedly but srsly everyone would just prefer the $2,000,000 piano. It's less interference for the musician to express the ideas. That's what's interesting.

I'll stick to violins to respect the forum community- I am not proficient on a violin unless I have an hour to get used to it, but have played four nice violins that my colleagues own this month. Here's my synopsis:

Nicolo Amati: that kind of feeling where the second you touch the string it not only responds perfectly to what I intended to do, but was just resonant and projecting like its saying, 'i can do it, can you make me? It literally does technically whatever you can ask of it.

Landolfi- shrill and pretty generic. E would take like 1/2 a second to respond, even when they played. It did have a bass bar issue, but magical landolfi/Mantegazza tone which feeds my soul was not there. It must have been set up for 'loud' and sacrificed much personality. Sounded like professor Chen's zyg.

Jbv: the good French tone which is like dolceississimo. Loud under the ear, but hearing him play the final rounds in a competition I thought it didn't project as well as well as I was expecting. Very intimate violin. Such a unique intriguing tone, and clarity without the kick on every note. Chamber music setting it sounds phenomenal.

They all could play musically and in tune on anything no doubt, but something would be missing knowing what they are capable of on a great instrument.

Lastly, my viola- it's for all intents and purposes absolutely perfect for me. It sounds like the deep yet grainy/wooden fullness of a cremonese instrument. Superb response, but I know something special is going on when I feel the BOW vibrating from the resonance, my teeth vibrate, and it has a personality- a must for violas. Quality > volume and is carried much better. Now without worrying about cranking for projection, I welcome the challenge of communicating through the bow and am perfecting strokes and phrasing instead of wondering if someday I'll like this thing maybe I'm crazy etc.. I can be criticized for me now without the excuse of an incompatible partner.

It truly does matter. What maker doesn't, but the aforementioned qualities and synergy with a player to act as a collaborating amplifier of your musical intentions is simply non-existent. Even among too tier violins. life-changing. The problem is now me! I love that I'm the one that sucks instead because I can get better!

There really is something magical about stringed instruments that have aged like a fine wine. It's the only thing I can think of in the world which just performs and glows better with time.

August 12, 2013 at 03:44 PM · As for HOW MUCH it matters and the debate of needing one, a friend of a friend won a job in Atlanta on a modern that he dropped his bow on ten minutes before, puncturing the top plate. Great player trumps. Great Player with strad trumps all. Bottoms line though, having an instrument which gives the comfort and ability to manipulate it to your satisfaction in line with the goals you have in music is the biggest blessing.

August 12, 2013 at 04:06 PM · John, thoughts on your three points:

- Heifetz often scoops up to notes, and it sounds...just Heifetz. If I do it, it just sounds sloppy or vulgar.

- Trying to choose my favourite Gerontius: Richard Lewis (with Sargent and Barbirolli), Nicolai Gedda, Heddle Nash all scoop up to their opening notes, sounding more "operatic" than spiritual.

Peter Pears (tired..) and Philip Langridge (on U-toob) pitch their phrase-openings before singing, just as we fiddlers should do..

- Temperamental pianos? I have a book on harpsichord and organ temperaments, with many examples on CD: some sound weird at first, but I soon find myself listening more to the musical content.

I once tuned (well, tried to tune) my piano to mean-tone temperament: it took me over two hours and the old lady upstairs was furious!

C to E pure (small); E to G# pure; OR, C down to Ab small. Ab is then much higher than G#; in fact some harpsichords have a split G# keys with double sets of strings. This is th opposite of Pythagorian tuning, where G# is higher than Ab.

Bach's 2-part Inventions sound good on this tuning: in fact when a full final chord would "howl", he leaves a bare octave. Debussy's "Claire de Lune" sounds like cracked church bells!

Nothing to do with violon quality, though......

Folks say my viola sounds lovely, but I will take just a little of the credit!

August 12, 2013 at 04:20 PM · "Peter Pears (tired..) and Philip Langridge (on U-toob) pitch their phrase-openings before singing, just as we fiddlers should do.."

My old friend Philip Langridge TRAINED AS A VIOLINIST (Royal Academy).

Well, there you have it; "..just as we fiddlers should do.."

He owned a Fernando Gagliano violin. Maybe that inspired him.

August 12, 2013 at 04:57 PM · Since temperament and piano/harpsichord tuning popped up here, for those interested, please check out this website: which describes the "well-tempered" tuning of JS Bach, showcased in the Well-tempered Clavier. I got my piano tuned according to these specs. and it is simply sublime. The instrument sings and the unique character of all the keys that musicians (up until the twentieth century) allude to is restored. Equal temperament (ET) is un-harmonic and jarring because it is inherently out of tune, ever so slightly, but enough to grate against our innate sensitivities. All tempered tuning is "out of tune" in that there is alteration of perfect intervals, but with the more organic tuning of Bach, all intervals are simple ratios rather than the totally artificial zillion decimals of ET. With the adoption of ET, scientific and mathematical solutions won out over musicality.

August 12, 2013 at 05:03 PM · PS. This tuning sounds great in all genres and modalities, from the keyboard music of Bach to Debussy (Claire de Lune shimmers and floats, just magical) to jazz (my piano tuner is a jazz musician and ever since he learned this tuning at my request, he tunes his own pianos this way and offers his clients this option).

August 12, 2013 at 06:24 PM · The Bradley Lehman "Bach" temperment you propose is not based on any recorded historical temperment from the 1700s and has more in common with numerology than real science.

John Barnes article on the WTC shows clearly which thirds, good and bad, are either favoured or unfavoured(not played often) in Bach's WTC. My analysis of John's data point to Kirnberger III as being the most realistic temperment for the WTC,Kirnberger was one of Bach's students, so its quite likely he knew full well exactly what tempermanet Bach prefered. Putting this tempermant into practise certainly shows just how effective it is,

The tuning is quite simple 8 perfect fifths combined with 4 tempered fifths tuned 6 cents flat of perfect.The thirds start with a perfect c major c-e third, and the thirds get progressively worse than perfect the more sharps or flats you add. (remember all equal temperment 1/3ds are 14 cents sharp)So basically in the simple keys the thirds are better than equal temp, in the complex keys(7 sharps or flats) the thirds get worse than equal temp

August 13, 2013 at 03:36 AM · Thank you, Lyndon. I must say I'm not totally familiar with all the various tunings used from Bach's time forward. I only knew I didn't want to be in equal temperament. As for Bradley Lehman's version of Bach's tuning, he doesn't claim it is scientific, but it is intuitive and it works. It certainly isn't based on numerology. There is another recent attempt at a tuning system--I forget the name of the person who devised it--and that one is based on numerology, so you may be conflating these two. I think Bradley mentions it (and dismisses it) somewhere on his vast website.

I believe the whole point of the Bach/Lehman tuning is for all keys to work beautifully as much as possible, with varying amounts of what he calls "spiciness," whereas the Kirnberger III you mention seems to have several very pleasant keys and several other fairly unpleasant keys. It doesn't seem that that would be acceptable to Bach and would also seem to go against his intention with the WTC. You can find comparison charts for many of the various tunings on his website ( On the menu on the right, go to "Theory" and in the menu that drops down from that, go to "Comparisons." The charts are in green, toward the bottom of the page. Kirnberger III is listed there amongst all the others.

Another page describes the quality of all the fifths and major thirds. You can find it under the "Articles" section, go to "TheTuning." Lehman's website has so much information on all the tunings from so many perspectives. I can't begin to get through it all myself; I can only say the tuning sounds good to me.

August 13, 2013 at 03:57 AM · The point is in the WTC, Bach deliberately avoids thirds in the bad category of Kirnberger III (4 flats or sharps or more) and quite obviously favours thirds in the keys that sound better than equal temperment in Kirnberger III (3 sharps or flats or less) Lehman's tuning does not do this, if it really favoured all keys equally it would be equal temperment!!

August 13, 2013 at 05:28 PM · @Lyndon: if it really favoured all keys equally it would be equal temperment!!

Not necessarily. This is the point of the Bach/Lehman tuning, that equal temperament (which has no historical or musical basis whatsoever) is not the best way to achieve equally beautiful but different sounding keys. I believe, as Lehman claims, it was Bach who came up with this tuning and left the diagram on the frontispiece of his manuscript of WTC that details how it is achieved. This tuning plays equally beautifully in all keys, and preserves the unique flavor of all the keys. They all sound different (some more so than others) and the special qualities of their unique characters are exploited and utilized to their full advantage in the preludes and fugues, including, as you point out, avoidance of some of the thirds. But it's especially in the moods that the different qualities of the keys becomes a vital and intrinsic part of the music (which is totally lost in ET). Some keys sound dark and sombre, others bright and happy, others pensive or introspective, others nostalgic, heroic, feisty, etc. etc. It seems to me that Bach wrote each prelude and fugue precisely and specifically for the key it was in (irrelevant in ET). So it may be best to not pre-judge it on the basis of some ideas people have of whether it's authentic or real or whatever, but simply on its own merits: how it sounds. I like it. Others may not. It is different and may take a little getting used to at first.

August 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM · Until you've tried and compared the Kirnberger III I don't think you're in any position to criticise, Lehmans source is a bunch of Hogwash, Bach did not put his tempermant in numerology on the cover Of the WTC.

By definition, any tuning that is not true equal tempermant will favour one key over another, some tempermants more than others, but only equal tempermant permits playing in All keys with equal results.

August 14, 2013 at 02:30 AM · Wow. I'm very sorry. I had no idea that my unabashed and enthusiastic endorsement of the "hogwash" tuning would hit such a discordant note. I had no intention of criticizing the Kirnberger III, which probably sounds lovely in those few keys. (I'm still not convinced that, with the problematic keys, that's what Bach meant by "well-tempered," but who knows?) In any case, we string players have the liberty and luxury to play in whatever intonation is pleasing to us, and hopefully to those around us. It's when we are playing with orchestras or piano accompaniment that we become yoked to a tuning that has become the default tuning for most Western music. It works. And most musicians are accustomed to it and don't question it. I wasn't trying to convince anyone who is comfortable with ET to switch, but I was writing only for the relatively few for whom ET does not resonate, or for those (apart from the early music buffs) who may not realize that other tuning systems exist. I get excited by the vast range of tuning possibilities and tonalities, including all the various microtonal scales and modes played in the east. This is not a terribly hot topic here, but if anyone wishes to keep talking about tunings, etc. I'm willing. But let's then start a new thread. I apologize to the OP for going way off-topic: "How much does the instrument matter?"

August 14, 2013 at 03:06 AM · Kirnberger? You spelled Kinberg wrong;)? Bach sound good on a Kinberg, but better on a strad.

I believe without a shadow of a doubt that the instrument can take a great player further than they could go on a cheapo.

August 14, 2013 at 04:57 AM · Soory Ryan I don't know what you're talking about, the author of the treatises on tempermant was Kirnberger.

And yes its also a good tuning to use on a violin for period performance.

August 14, 2013 at 04:54 PM · Hey Ryan, thanks for getting this thread back on topic!

August 14, 2013 at 06:13 PM · EDIT: oops wrong topic...

August 14, 2013 at 08:06 PM · Lyndon it was a play on words used to get the thread on topic. Kinberg was a very very very good maker.

I was saying Bach sound good on a Kinberg,band better on a strad because the instrument matters. Tactful transition. At least someone got it haha.

Fascinating about how he wrote thirds in keys that they sounded best in. Genius.

August 14, 2013 at 09:30 PM · Well in most 1700s music the composers wrote more in the simpler keys, less sharps and flats, and the tempemants reflected this, they made the tuning favour the thirds in the simple keys. As can any violinist playing baroque music.

Even when Bach wrote pieces in all the keys, simple and complex, he didn't favour the thirds as much in the complex keys as in the simple keys, why? because in the tempermants of the time the thirds didn't sound as good in the complex keys.

August 16, 2013 at 03:58 PM · The instrument is extremely important.

Let's look at a visual art parallel:

If you gave Da Vinci a small box of crayons, he will still be more masterful with them than, say, me. LOL.

If you gave him unlimited high-quality oils and supplies, he will probably produce better artwork.

Same thing with violins. A great violinist can make a not-so-good violin sound ok, but it won't have the same impact -- it won't have the power, colors, and response of a great instrument.

August 16, 2013 at 04:16 PM · Douglas, I really like your metaphor. A great artist can make-do with lower quality materials, but that doesn't mean that the materials don't matter.

I'm always concerned when beginners are given low-quality violins, with the reasoning that they are "just beginning" or "just experimenting." It's much more frustrating and much less rewarding to play a really bad instrument, even at a beginning level. I'll append my little article about the matter: Cheap Violins for Sale are Not a Good Deal!

August 16, 2013 at 09:27 PM · Douglas, that is a good metaphore.

We also remember / know how frustrating it was as a child to be stuck with cheap breaking coloured pencils and crayons: this may be way to help parents understand why they should try to spend a little more on the instrument?

How lucky those Waldorf Steiner school kids are to be given Lyra coloured pencils only - because even 4 and 5 year old know that quality counts. I can remember feeling it in my fingers when I was trying to colour in as a 3 year old, and knowing that the pencils weren't faber-castell : (

August 22, 2013 at 06:10 AM · After comparing Mr.Lehman's keyboard temperament with others, I find it follows the usual pattern: mellow major thirds and narrow fifths in "white" keys, truer fifths and hard thirds in "blacker" keys. It is very close to the so-called Tartini-Vallotti temperament. The Italian temperaments tended to have a smoother transition than the German ones: the syntonic comma is "spread" over 5 or 6 fifths, instead of only four; then there is matter of choosing whether it is the sharps or flats which are "smoother".

Granted, Mr Lehman was inspired by the interesting squiggle on Bach's title page, but his conclusions fall copletely into the usual patterns of unequal temperaments.

Relevance? For us fiddlers there are many unanswered questions. We tune in perfect fifths, and we also tend to tune (and play) sharp (according to my non-fiddler colleagues. Apart from having to fit in with a given piano, should we sometimes narrow our fifths on open strings, as in the "white" keys on a well tempered keyboard?

Viz. Simon Fischer's "Practice" page 209, and margin.

August 22, 2013 at 06:21 AM · From what I've heard form another keyboard maker, Mr Lehman's temperment itself isn't half as bad as the faulty logic he uses to try and demonstrate that it is Bach's Temperment, and being more closely related to Valotti, than Kirnberger, it is more of a second half of the 1700s style temperment, not an early 1700s temperment like Bach would have used.

In other words, Valotti and Lehman??? are closer to equal tempered, than Kirnberger and Bach, presumably, which even itself is closer to equal tempered than the earlier meantone tuning.

August 23, 2013 at 09:58 PM · A harpsicord or clavicord can need constant re-tuning even between pieces; I can believe that Bach, and others, will have experimented differant adjustments.

The various unequal tenperamants we are considering here have different "colours" from each other, but all share a similar starting point: a handfull of pure or near-pure thirds, (with narrow fifths) for tha naturals, (from the Mesotonic approach); followed by a more "Pythagorean" sequence of perfect or near-perfect fifths. None of them sound near to Equal Temperament, where even the naturals contain harsh, wide thirds and barely narrowed fifths.

So I can imagine Bach trying what he might have called "Venetian" temperaments.

But we are miles from the OP!!

How about a "Well-tempered fiddle" thread? In a quartet workshop, we were asked to narrow our fifths in order to make a Haydn C major quartet more mellifluous..

August 24, 2013 at 05:17 AM · ??? Harpsichord and clavichord definetly don't need tuning as often as a violin!!!

August 24, 2013 at 04:08 PM ·

Why do so many discussions get steered towards tuning systems? It's such a tedious topic.

August 24, 2013 at 06:19 PM · Scott, it's because playing the violin with a keyboard can be a harrowing experience if we have a fine sense of pitch..

August 26, 2013 at 11:41 AM · So back to fancy instruments...

Be prepared to have your happiness being subject to things like humidity and the capricious nature of old instruments and their desire to just not sound good when anything changes.

Mine is quite sensitive to everything, and Houston's 100% humidity means I get it adjusted by a luthier for $40 and then again for free as I walk out to the car...

That being said, I'd never go back after finding your 'soul-mate' because not being able to sleep due to your newfound excitement for it to be tomorrow so you can play scales is worth pandering to the high-maintenance if what you get.

It will set you apart, but you have to coerce it to do so! (By playing well)...I've heard people who play strads etc and just not sound good.

There is a definite palpable way to tell how much it matters to you with your current abilities- when nothing technique or setup wise allows you to make the sounds, articulations, and dynamic range/colors YOU want to create, the tool is to blame. It's like running face-first into a cement wall. You can make do and do VERY well in this field with a $20k instrument, but you can probably go even farther with an instrument that constantly intrigues and inspires you. Comfort and a sound that isn't perceived as heinous will take you far, but you need to try out some nice instruments to see.

Never meet your heroes...I've played some baaaad Pacherels, brothers Amatis, nicolo bergonzis, etc. and have preferred things like sanninos, soffritis, fiorinis, sacconis (and of course modern stuff like Doug cox, burgess, and grieners) in every possible aspect of sound and playing....for 1/15 or less than the price of a renowned old thing. Go try some out OP! You can't generalize makers either, Pistuccis for me are either great or awful. You just gotta find what you like. That's seriously the most important. There's a reason Kim Kashkashian ditched an amati for a modern maker.

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