Just how much edge and grit is acceptable while still maintaining a good sound?

August 23, 2015 at 05:54 PM · I first noticed this phenomenon when heard a very good violinist play a long time ago at a recital. At the time, I had just started playing the violin, and did not know a lot about what it actually took to create a decent sound.

The violinist who gave that recital was a good friend of my teacher at the time, and I heard him warm up about two feet away before his performance. I couldn't help but notice just how noisy and unpleasant he sounded close to me, but when he performed from the stage about 20 feet away he was outstanding.

Lately I've been recording myself occasionally, and what I've noticed is that my sound in the recording is actually more focused and direct if I played more "edgy" under the ear as opposed to if I played timidly. Am I imagining things or is this actually a thing? How can one evaluate one's sound objectively and make adjustments based on what you hear while playing the violin?

Replies (26)

August 23, 2015 at 07:11 PM · Hi Shawn. I have no clue and will be interested in reading responses. One suggestion, that I haven't tried yet, is to use earplugs to simulate distance from the instrument. I want to try this out in a empty performance venue went I get a chance.


August 23, 2015 at 08:22 PM · there are lots of threads about projection and the difference in sound quality under-ear and at a distance. You always want to work for the distance, even if it means you wear an earplug for practice.

August 23, 2015 at 10:29 PM · An excellent professional violinist told me that when his students play and he doesn't hear any scratch (his word), that means the student is playing way too far from the edge. He told me, "don't be afraid of scratch."

August 23, 2015 at 11:07 PM · Hey Shawn, I've recently took a trip to soundproof room in my friend's engineering lab and played my violin for a few minutes.

What I've noticed so far is that often indirect recipient of violin sounds so much better. Basically the noise that string by itself makes sounds very much like an electric violin. Edgy and bad. I suspect in soloist's instrument, it will be edgy most of the time, because they have to play it loud enough for everyone to hear.

The first indirect recipient of the violin comes from the vibrations transferred from string to inside of the violin. In some violins I found that that noise from the body is sufficient to hide the string sound. My current one does it barely, not on humid days unfortunately. The violin I'm still drooling over overtakes the string noise, even in a humid day(it rained on the day I borrowed it). One of many reasons why I fell in love with it.

The second recipient of the violin sound comes from the acoustic of the room itself, this is why I play my violin in a small hallway in the basement parking lot in my apartment building(some people think I'm considerate doing it to not bother my neighbours, but that's not the primary reason).

Basically, if you're close enough to the violin, you may hear the strings directly. If you're a few steps further away, you will hear the body. I recommend you to experiment with your microphone in your recordings, try microphone above the body and below the body.

I judge the sound of violins that I get to play from what I hear from the right ear, instead of left, although I did turn in my VSO because the grainy noise I hear from the left ear made quite unhappy.

August 24, 2015 at 01:56 AM · My violin has more of an edge than I really like under my ear -- a kind of sharp incisiveness to the sound -- that totally disappears once the sound isn't directly under your ear. Then it's warm and smooth and rich, quite different.

However, it's never either harsh or gritty, unless I'm being overly aggressive. In fact, the sound turning gritty is exactly the point when I know I'm being too aggressive.

I think that some players get a more under-the-ear unpleasant sound by keeping the bow much closer to the bridge, where the grit dissipates once you're at a distance. I'm not a fan of that sound, though. But you can hear it on Itzhak Perlman's later, closely-miked recordings.

August 24, 2015 at 05:12 AM · Lydia, it sounds like you have an amazing violin if it's honestly that that responsive, with a delicate type of edge as well? I've only tried a few violins that had that type of a quality, where you can draw all kinds of sounds out of the instrument.

What I meant by edge was more like the second type that you described, where you hear a type of a sizzling sound under the ear, and often produced by playing close to the bridge with the bow. This often creates an ambiguous tone under the ear, and makes it hard to distinguish whether or not it sounds good or bad to the audience. Do you happen to have a link to a youtube recording like that by Itzhak Perlman?

August 24, 2015 at 06:15 AM · I have an excellent violin, yes. I'm talking about a certain edge to the sound even when the bow isn't close to the bridge, though -- when it's just at the middle sounding point. I think of it as something faintly bladelike running straight through the core of the sound; my guess is that I'm hearing upper partials. The sound also has a broad radiance to it around that core, though.

Close to the bridge with the bow tends to produce more string noise; it won't create this same kind of edge. Listen to a Perlman CD from the 1990s or later; most of them are closely miked. (YouTube videos of live performances won't be closely miked, I expect.)

August 24, 2015 at 08:36 AM · If in a large concert hall with a big concerto with orchestra, then a lot of grit is needed. I've sat about 4 feet from soloists in orchestraand heard it all, grit, groans, belches - the lot!

In a smaller recital hall with piano or solo, still quite a bit.

For recording though, if the mic is only 3-5 feet away, it has to be reduced otherwise the sound is on the recording media, and recorded with the pure sound. It can't easily be reduced or got rid of.

There is a story told by a well known French soloist (pupil of Heifetz). His well meaning and generous mother took him to hear Oistrakh at the Salle du Pleyal (spelling?) in Paris, to a recital, when he was about ten years old. They sat in the front row immediately below where Oistrakh stood.

He was rather dissapointed as they got an awful lot of grit and scratch, since Oistrakh realised that in such a big recital hall he had to belt it to reach the back. From a few rows further back it would have sounded wonderful. At the other extreme, playing Beethoven sonatas for an LP recording (again in Paris in the 1950's), the sound is exquisite.

August 24, 2015 at 11:56 AM · Lydia, interesting that what you describe is how Hilary Hahn's tone sounds to me, there is something inside the tone that feels like it is cutting or drilling. I like it very much.

August 24, 2015 at 01:53 PM · Does any of this apply to viola as well? I continually struggle to get a sound that is acceptable to someone ten feet away, especially at varying dynamics. If it sounds nice under my ear, it's actually wimpy to the listener.

And no viola jokes, please :-)

August 24, 2015 at 03:17 PM · Karen, I actually don't play the viola or know any good(original) viola jokes, but I think it probably applies just as much to the viola as the violin if not more.

I might know what your problem is. Usually on the lower strings of the violin, it's hard to get any sort of articulation without some kind of grit. I know that personally, when starting a chord on the g string, I have to practically "pluck" it with my bow in order to get a nice robust sound, not just 10 feet away, but even under the ear. In comparison, on the e string, the same gritty playing style produces a really nasty tone in some cases! Also the thing is, the pressure has to come from the weight of your body, not some kind of tension.

The viola has even more lower strings(how many strings does the viola have again? Viola joke! really bad I know). So assuming this, you probably need to be really aggressive at certain points with your instrument to have a nice focused sound. So even if the music says piano, you probably still have to have really articulate in the same manner. Hope that helps!

August 24, 2015 at 03:27 PM · It applies to the cello. Many years ago I, then a cellist, was in Bristol Youth Orchestra one afternoon rehearsing in Bristol's Colston Hall for a concert in the evening. At the end of the rehearsal our conductor, Arthur Alexander, who was teaching two of us the cello, asked the first two cello desks to stay behind for a mini workshop. His aim was to improve our tone projection. He did this by getting each one of us individually to sit at the front of the platform and to play with long fast bows until we could hear the echo from the back of the 2000-seat hall. It took about half an hour to get the results he wanted, and that workshop has always stuck with me.

Note for non-cellists - unlike the violinist who experiences his sound (too) loud and close-up in the left ear, the cellist doesn't hear the full sound of his instrument because it is directed away from him. Depending on the floor construction, there can also be a significant effect on the cello's tone because the floor becomes a resonator for the lower sound frequencies coming down through the spike. When I played cello in a barn dance band some years ago I put this effect to advantage (because we generally performed on a wooden stage or platform), and was the only musician who didn't need the PA system.

August 24, 2015 at 03:40 PM · As has been pointed out, "edge" can apply to both or either player and/or instrument. What the OP has described in one violinist's recital was frequently said about Heifetz. Perlman described it as a certain "jhitt" to the surface of the sound. But there is good edge and there is just scratching.

August 24, 2015 at 04:36 PM · I think a distinction can be made between what you want to hear in the finished tone of a performing professional vs. what a student should be doing in the practice room. The professional who told me not to be afraid of 'scratch' was intended for me to improve as a student. His point was that if you never hear any scratch, you probably aren't exploring (and therefore also not expanding) the full range of your tone. My teacher also told me that modern violin playing has more edge/grit than the smoother, sweeter tone that was more common in the early 20th century. Sometimes I wonder if that "trend" has more to do with the limitations of frequency response of early recording equipment than it does with how violinists played, though.

August 24, 2015 at 04:45 PM · Not so. The frequency response even of the earliest recordings was up to 5Khz or 6khz minimum. (Often a lot more) Heifetz has loads of grit in 1940's and 1950's recordings. He was close miked (his wish) and he still dug in. The sound is very electrical ... (Which I personally love).

August 24, 2015 at 05:56 PM · Martin Swan has a very interesting, related thread on Maestronet that you might enjoy reading.

August 24, 2015 at 07:50 PM · Modern players play in bigger halls -- the concert hall has gotten huge, compared to 100 years ago. Therefore, the projection demands are correspondingly bigger.

August 25, 2015 at 08:31 AM · Ears.

From one person to another, our ears have widely differing sensitivity to different frequencies.

I find that the most successful students are those who either don't hear the "grit", or actually like it.

Professional violinists' left ears (right ears for flautists..) are known to be damaged by the 95-100dB of the instrument under the ear (much less at a distance) for hours on end. If a symphony orchetra were a factory, the health inspectors would have shut it long ago..

My own ears are in good shape for my age, because I learned early on to plug my left ear.

Edge vs Scratch?

A student grade violin may "scratch" because the wood simply cannot react quickly enough. A finer violin can provide brilliance without scratch.

August 25, 2015 at 12:09 PM · Hi folks, very interesting thread. I guess that exploring boundary between edge and scratch is not going to be accurate with a practice mute. Nothing would be vibrating normally. What would be your focus during limited loud practice time?


August 25, 2015 at 09:29 PM · If you've got an overly-loud instrument, consider getting musician's earplugs.

VIolinists often have a characteristic hearing-loss pattern in the middle frequencies. I know that I had it by the time I was 13 or so, as it showed up on a hearing test. And I had been playing fractional-size instruments until that time, so hardly powerhouses under the ear.

August 26, 2015 at 12:09 AM · When I finished my basement, I overinsulated the ceiling and walls of the guest bedroom, which is directly under the master bedroom. Now I can blast away on my violin after everyone else is in bed.

What to practice with minimal time for full volume? Probably scales.

August 26, 2015 at 12:34 PM · +1 for ear plugs. I strongly suspect that they are essential to avoid hearing damage over multiple decades of playing.

August 26, 2015 at 01:08 PM · Earplugs are a must, especially when playing in the second violin or viola section. Those piccolo runs and trumpet blasts are deafening.

August 28, 2015 at 05:02 AM · I've always found the subject of under the ear vs distance to be very interesting, and I've learned some things reading this thread. I do not like edge/grit under the ear at all. In fact it bothers me to the point that I don't want to play the insrument. But these days I'm only jamming the blues or blusey folk stuff with a couple of acoustic guitar players in living rooms or busking inside the light rail transit stations, which have great accoustics. I've got a Louie Lowendall-Berlin-1893 and use a PI G, Evah Gold D, ViolinO A. Prelude E. It's very even & clear with this combination, beleive it or not. It's a rather quiet violin under the ear, but projects decently. any substition of a different string turns it too harsh/edgey for me. I also have a china fiddle which I use for busking and I run a complete set of ViolinO's on it. It's also very even with a nice medium warm tone, but again, no edge. If I really needed more power with some edge, I've got a combo set for the China standing by... a Vision solo G, Dominant Silver D, Dominant A. and my choice of several different more powerfull E's. This combo works for busking or jamming with more people, but waaay too much for playing in my basement suite.

So yes, I realize that edge/grit can translate to a good sound at a distance, but under the ear is where I live, and I've gotta have a pretty smooth sound there. I've enjoyed this thread. Thanks Y'all.

August 28, 2015 at 12:56 PM · My late professor once told me that he was leading an orchestra with Heifetz as soloist.

Heifetz was playing close to my teacher and all he could hear was a scratchy sound with a lot of grid, but in the auditorium it was heavenly.

My teacher used to say that scratches don't project.

August 28, 2015 at 02:45 PM · I think you have to be careful about playing too aggressively, though. Every instrument has its limit where aggression crushes the sound rather than opening it up to project more.

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