Is it the Violin or you?

July 4, 2014 at 03:04 PM · Does the violin (technical aspect) vary in quality/ability ($2,000 vs $50,000+). I remember a student playing fast or technical passage and he sounded sloppy but his fingers where hitting the notes? He was playing on a Chinese made violin about $2,500 and a $150 bow. Is it the quality of instrument or student?

Replies (36)

July 4, 2014 at 03:11 PM · For 2,500 dollars we should get a very decent student violin. Poor setup can soak up much of the tone and "attack" (soundpost, bridge,and string choice). So can weak finger action and sloppy bowing.

July 4, 2014 at 03:35 PM · The great players sound great on any instrument. You only need a reasonable, well set up instrument. The rest is down to you.

July 4, 2014 at 05:21 PM · I remember listening to a professional violinist playing a beautiful piece of music in a shop down in Brisbane about 20 years ago. After he had finished playing he put the violin down on a table so I walked over to see what sort of instrument would produce such a great sound. It was a SKYLARK.... remember them ? They were the original VSO and with the factory strings you could not get a worse sounding violin. This guy made it sound great. I would have sounded awful on it.

So if the student sounds bad then do not blame the violin, it is the player.

July 4, 2014 at 06:13 PM · A good player can get the best out of a violin, but he/she can't bring out what is simply not there, nor cover the most glaring faults.

Parents present at my lessons notice how I make their childrens' violins sound much better than usual, but certainly not as well my own. A formula-1 driver still can't get more than 60mph out of an early Citroên 2CV, even with a trailing wind!

I agree about price though.

July 4, 2014 at 06:57 PM · Sorry Adrian , but that's in my opinion, a load of BULL. Come on, a cheap fiddle can sound fantastic in the right hands (or brain).

I don't quite know where you are coming from.

July 4, 2014 at 08:36 PM · Haha, Peter ... in the right brain!

July 4, 2014 at 08:53 PM · Peter, I never implied that a cheap violin couldn't sound and play well; only a bad one..

Please concentrate!

July 5, 2014 at 12:13 AM · I think my inexpensive Chinese violin is like a Karman Ghia with a nice mushy clutch: very forgiving of inept driver skills. A few more pricey models I've driven might just get away from me!

July 5, 2014 at 12:59 AM · You'll never realize the potential of a violin until you heard it played by someone who know how.

Also it's very often that price has nothing to do with the quality of the violin. Some violins can sound and play few times more than its price tag, or the opposite.

I've change my right hand technique recently and realize I can bring out so much more from a violin that I own which I thought can only do much. I believe there's always players who can make it sound much better than I do.

July 5, 2014 at 03:33 AM · I agree with Adrian. Yes, a great player can make an average or even poor sounding violin to sound, decent, but for how long and at what expense?

If they could play that well on just any violin, why will they, just like many of us mere mortals, always choose an outstanding over a mediocre instrument?

Perhaps because it takes a lots of energy to make a poor performing violin to sound good - the energy which could be spent on music making and interpretation. In other words, it may be worth doing it for 10 minutes to show how good you are, but it is tiring and really not fun over a long period of time.

An outstanding instrument will not make a poor player sound great right away, but can be a great tool for improvement and reward and guide the same player to improve over time.

In other words it is both violin AND you ... plus the bow.

July 5, 2014 at 05:49 AM · Adrian - sorry to have mis-read your post.

But using a French car to make the point is a bit below the belt, they never could make decent cars! (wink)

Rocky - Yes, I don't disagree, a good instrument has more potential but a $5 million violin is not going to be much different to a $100,000 instrument. (In the same hands)

I also used to think that an expensive bow made a big difference but I'm not so sure now, although a good bow may make some bow strokes like spiccato a bit easier. At the moment I'm using a $500 carbon fibre bow in preference to my "good" bow, but how long this will last I'm not sure.

July 5, 2014 at 06:43 AM · To be honest, I thought this a bit of a silly question. To an individual player, regardless of skill, a good violin (optimal size, not too heavy, easy to draw sound from) is going to be easier to play than a bad one (weighs a ton, full of wolf notes, wrong dimensions for the individual). And hence, the individual, regardless of their level, will play better.

But there is another level to this as it depends also on what is being played. Thus, some violins are good for tone but fiddly (hehe) for speed and articulation and vice versa. Others - and that's where the great violin comes in - do it all.

Beyond that, I'm not sure what else there is to say!

July 5, 2014 at 07:18 AM · Kreisler sold his Strad (or Guineri?) and gave the money for victims of WW1 and played on a much lesser and cheaper violin and yet they say he sounded just as good. (I wasn't there so I'm not a witness as I was only 3 days old at the time).

Heifetz sometimes played on a violin he used as a teenager and yet he still had the articulation and the sound of a Heifetz.

If you play on a £20,000 violin and then buy a Strad for £6 million you won't sound 300 times better (Hope my maths is correct- 6,000,000 / 20,000) You might sound 5% better - but that's a lot of money for a small improvement.

July 5, 2014 at 08:50 AM · And Brian, I have spent many hours (with my toolbox) getting a better sound from a Skylark VSO's. (Short of patenting a rubber bridge in desperation...) i learned a lot by adjusting these violins that no luthier would deign to touch.

I'm sure that you too would have made a good tone on the one you mention!

A colleague of mine used to go to the importer's warehouse to choose the best ones from the batch.

July 5, 2014 at 09:45 AM · Adrian : my luthier in Brisbane used to experiment with the Skylarks too. He shaved the inside of the tops and backs which were often too thick and he said that they did not sound too bad after that. All this was over twenty years ago and the Chinese violins at the bottom of the range are now much better.

July 5, 2014 at 03:12 PM · It is 99.999% the violinist and not the violin... OK, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration. It is 99.99% the violinist. :-)

July 5, 2014 at 03:49 PM · I'd like to amend the much-repeated statement that it's the player and not the violin -- it's usually the player-who-has-had-experience-playing-a-decent-quality-instrument who is able to coax something out of the less-decents ones. Very hard to simply learn to do that on a really bad fiddle, because the feedback is all off.

July 5, 2014 at 04:04 PM · I remember a conversation I had with someone whose daughter had recently joined the ranks of professional orchestral cellists. She noticed that most of her colleagues were playing instruments that cost no more than about £5000 (you can halve that figure for a violin).

A beginner recently asked me to try out their new inexpensive Chinese violin. I was agreeably surprised by the tone and playability, and discovered that it had been set up by a local violin dealer who not only repairs and makes, but makes sure that every instrument he sells is set up as per spec.

July 5, 2014 at 04:49 PM · I too remember a conversation.. a talk years ago with a colleague who had worked in the Bond Street shop of W.E.Hill and Sons.

In walked Milstein. On the counter was a violin bow so dreadful that it was scheduled for the tip. Taken in a PX deal, I suppose.

Nathan M. picked up this wreck and with it produced perfect up-bow and down-bow staccatos.

I agree that top professionals can and do obtain splendid results from fiddles that are none too valuable. However, some violins become more "sought after" as they age than others - and their value appreciates. That seems to depend on them exhibiting, or developing, an extra sweetness or "ringing" quality such as is apparent only under the most stringent of trial conditions - and even then, we players can so often be fooled.

I'd say 99.9%.

July 5, 2014 at 06:52 PM · When a violin sounds bad, it's due to the limited technical ability of the player.

On the other hand, I expect it's much harder for a student to learn on a lower quality instrument.

We have a digital piano. It's a cheaper model, and while the samples are fine, the speakers are not the best, though not bad by any means. And I'm sure that if a professional pianist came and played it, we'd all think it sounded great.

However, we've noticed that unless it's plugged into the nice tower speakers, nobody's particularly motivated to practice and it rarely gets used.

July 5, 2014 at 08:56 PM · My teacher says that it is quality of tone first and foremost that grabs a listener's attention, whether it is a musical instrument or the voice (singing or speaking). Get that right and you'll be well on the road.

Guess what - good tone production is the most difficult part of playing the violin.

July 6, 2014 at 07:09 AM · Hi David

"I too remember a conversation.. a talk years ago with a colleague who had worked in the Bond Street shop of W.E.Hill and Sons.

In walked Milstein. On the counter was a violin bow so dreadful that it was scheduled for the tip. Taken in a PX deal, I suppose.

Nathan M. picked up this wreck and with it produced perfect up-bow and down-bow staccatos."


This tale reminds me of an old close friend of mine who is an expert on Paganini. When I mentioned to him I was looking for a better bow he said that Paganini didn't think the bow was important, and he would play on any old thing. My friend himself, who has been an avid collecter of fabulous violins, also though that the bow was somewhat insignificant.

It also reminds me of another friend and ex-colleage who bought many years ago, one of those famous French bows, which is probably worth about £40K now. She never uses it, and just says it was an investment, and her cheaper bows are even better.

I'm not sure if it's a menopausal phase I'm going through, but I prefer my cheap carbon fibre job to my "better" bow at the moment. Am I ready for the straightjacket yet?

July 6, 2014 at 08:54 AM · We still seem to be confusing "cheap" and "bad".

And in my experience, the 99% player bit is just not true: I make it more like 80%!


- I have a "wailing banshee" Maidstone fiddle. Elementary students can't control it; I make it sound a bit better; some of you folk, probably even better still; but even in the hands of a great player, it will still be a wailing banshee, even if the playing could make us forget the actual tone.

- I sometimes use a Chinese-built viola: it simply cannot play quick staccato, or pianissimo, but its tone is pleasant if dull. But it has one extremely resonant note: the tuning-fork A, played on any string; I simply cannot play this note with vibrato, the instrument just doesn't listen to me!

Careful adjustment has helped a little.

- I tried a viola ("Un alto deux-coins")chez Bernard Sabatier: deep but projecting tone, I could play "ppp" with one bow-hair, or "FFF" with no scratch. Fying staccato actually works! (Rare on a viola.)

My point is that my students will learn faster and better with Sabatier's viola, while I can manage quite well on the Chinese instrument.

I have intentionally omitted to quote the prices.

P.S. Miltein may have done marvels with a junk bow, but that doesn't mean most of us could, nor that Milstein could have used it on stage.

July 6, 2014 at 10:40 AM · I didn't know viola players did staccato (flying or otherwise!!) (wink) But all is not lost, those violas would make good firewood!!

July 6, 2014 at 11:23 AM · "I'd say 99.9%"


I think you are being a bit unreasonable, but I am willing to split the difference and call it 99.95% :-)

July 7, 2014 at 12:38 PM · When referring to the prices of musical instruments (and some other things) I prefer to use "inexpensive" when that is what I mean, perhaps adding “and capable of doing the job” or similar phraseology to clarify. "Cheap" too often implies poor quality or just plain rubbish.

July 16, 2014 at 03:58 AM · edit

July 16, 2014 at 04:08 AM · edit

July 16, 2014 at 06:42 PM · The level of the player is the most important. I work at Charles Liu Fine Violins where we carry a wide range of instruments from student level to very high level instruments, and I frequently need to answer this question.

Honestly, for a non professional, there is very little need to have a violin that costs more than 10k dollars. If you are an amateur player that still has technical problems, the best instrument for you is going to be a good student instrument that is more forgiving. Nicer instruments are more sensitive, and therefore not very forgiving of slight variances in technique.

If you are auditioning, having a nice instrument is essential. In conservatory or symphony auditions, all the players are pretty technically savvy, and therefore the tonal quality of the instrument is far more important in differentiating the players. Remember that you are looking at tonal quality, not price. Price does not correlate with tonal quality, price is an indicator of how much the violin is worth and its value as an investment. But just because your 2k dollar violin sounds like a strad, doesn't mean you should expect anyone to buy it from you for the price of a strad (yes I get people trying to do this all the time and it's ridiculous). So if you pay very little, don't complain about the resale value.

July 16, 2014 at 10:42 PM · "If you are an amateur player that still has technical problems, the best instrument for you is going to be a good student instrument that is more forgiving. Nicer instruments are more sensitive, and therefore not very forgiving of slight variances in technique."


I will heartily disagree on that point. There are some great-sounding Strads, and also other solo-quality instruments, which are extraordinarily easy to play. There are also many student-quality instruments which are extraordinarily difficult to play.

July 16, 2014 at 11:14 PM ·

July 17, 2014 at 02:56 AM · I think that only Laurie N. used the word "feedback"which is a major surprise given that "bad" violins are notorious liars!!

July 17, 2014 at 07:01 AM · I would agree with David. I had 10 minutes on a Villaume: warmth, clarity, power, an easy and even response, it seemed to play itself! It showed up all my faults beatifully..

July 17, 2014 at 07:33 AM · Liz, Strads can have issues, just like most any category of violin.

The "Jackson" Strad is an example of one that's considered very easy to play.

July 17, 2014 at 02:26 PM · My first student instrument was very responsive and easy to play. It also sounded like a tin can.

July 18, 2014 at 01:50 AM · haha well, David I agree with you too. I was making a general statement that is not always accurate. But I don't think it's hard for us to agree that for someone who can't place their fingers, it's likely not worth buying a good Del Gesu, unless they have a lot of cash to spare, then by all means, they should DEFINITELY get a Del Gesu to play twinkle twinkle little star, and I'll be happy to sell it to them. Any takers? but yes I too have played many high end instruments that are easy to play

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