Old violin, like an old fine wine

February 2, 2005 at 06:46 AM · I recently bought a Brand new violin, the maker told me to give it some time to settle in and to have a professional adjust the sound post in two months. By a year the violin's sound should come alive. Now my questions is this, is a violin really like an old wine, the older it gets the better it is?

I was thinking about all those great violins that are worth millions now. They were also new at a time and thats when the famous violinist played, they didnt tuck them away and in a year brought them back in.

So what do you all think?

Replies (50)

February 2, 2005 at 11:24 AM · Each violin is different. Some wil come out and age well and "open up" while others may never really open up much. And packing them away in a trunk won't work... they need to be played to open up. They need the pressure, vibratrions, etc. It's a risk to get a new instrument and hope it opens up, but it can also be a better price if you're patient to try it. You could end up with a great violin or a mediocre one. Those great old violins are great because of the wood, maker and who would worry about taking care of a cheap, OK violin? They great ones are around because they were great to start with.

February 2, 2005 at 07:56 PM · They were great to start with, but I'll bet you they all sounded better after 80 years, give or take some.

February 2, 2005 at 08:42 PM · My instrument is now its fourth year. When I bought it fresh from the maker, it sounded very loud and a little rough around the edges. Little by little the tone evened, but after playing on it for a year or so it began to sound foggy and congested. I waited 18 months to have the soundpost adjusted, after which it opened up gloriously. Two months may be a little too soon to have it adjusted.

18 months was far too long for a check-up, however two months may be a little too soon. I should have had mine to my luthier after eight.

A good violin, with proper care and use, will usually mature into a fine violin. Poor instruments, like bad wines, almost always remain so for the duration of their playing life. The key from the outset is to recognize good violins that promise good development.

Eric

February 2, 2005 at 09:24 PM · Well, I'll await the arrival of my violin and take to my teacher so he can tell me if it will develop a nice sound. That comment by the luthier just freaked me out.

February 2, 2005 at 09:26 PM · (Disclaimer: I am not by any means an instrument expert. Some on this board are, and will probably chime in with corrections and more precise info.)

The luthier definately wasn't entirely nuts. Young violins do "open up" gradually when played. Some of it varies by the varnish type, and some is the aging of the wood - my instrument was made recently from very old wood, and hasn't changed appreciably since I bought it...but it was about a year old at that point.

I read in a book that old Italian violins, which were apparently made with entirely oil-based varnish, might have taken almost 80 years to fully mature, so that Stradivarius, for instance, never really heard what his instruments were really capable of. I believe most modern luthiers use spirit varnish, or a spirit and oil mix, because it matures a lot faster. (One of our luthiers could probably provide a lot more info here - I just read a book.) But I can say that saying that a violin will open up gradually in the first year or years of its life is quite reasonable. I don't know whether your teacher (or anyone else, including its maker) will really be able to predict what it is going to do ahead of time.

February 3, 2005 at 02:59 PM · Hi,

On new violins... There are some great violins, but, yes violins to need time to settle and open up. The first year usually shows daily development and then it slows down. At around 5-10 years, then the instrument settles more and opens up especially in range of colors. Keeping the soundpost in check at all times is crucial.

However, important, if a violin does not have the indication of a rich, sweet and complex sound from the start it will never develop it. That is important to remember and not to be fooled by this. That said, a great modern instrument can be as good as many considerably more expensive older instruments and you can save the money for better things!

Cheers!

February 3, 2005 at 03:11 PM · "if a violin does not have the indication of a rich, sweet and complex sound from the start it will never develop it. "

This has been said quite a bit, and I have to step in and say it's not really true as an absolute statement--I've had violins take three years to turn from awful to great. But having said that, it's not something I would try to sell a customer on, because just as often they stay awful. I'd rather say that all violins get better with age, some more so than others, and some not enough, but the ones that sound pretty good (not necessarily fabulous) from the start are the more certain ones to turn out well.

In general, my lightly built bad violin have stayed that way, and the lightly built good violins are the most obviously good from the start. The heavier-built ones that don't sound that good from the start are the ones you never quite know about until a couple of years later. That's one reason I will switch violins with a customer for a couple of years. In the event that one doesn't pan out well, I don't want an owner out there bad-mouthing my violins--I'd rather get them into something they can brag about. That's also why I provide a lot of service after the sale: to keep things optimized so that people don't have bad things to say about my violins. :-)

February 3, 2005 at 09:19 PM · Interesting comments, now how do you know if your violin was built badly or not. Also, this mention of a sweet complex sound, since it's a new violin and no one seems to agree on this topic, GENERALLY, what should one look for in a new violin, when it comes to the sound?

February 3, 2005 at 10:27 PM · Generally, it is hard to give positive guidelines but easier to tell what you don't want. Try some real cheap violins to find the sound you don't want, either stuffy-nosed, muffled, boxed-in sound, or shrieking squalling raw sound.

On positive qualities, look for balance, is the volume even across the strings? But at the same time each string should have a slightly different voice (they should not sound identical). This way you have more ways to express music (i.e. the same note played on different strings gives a different emotion). Listen for a ringing aftertone, and resonance. Try different notes, especially the ones that do not have a corresponding open string, like C# on A string, and see if they sound "dead". Look for complexity of the sound, overtones, that there is more than one dimension to the sound.

Then there is the spectrum from dark, warm, sweet to bright, edgy, strident. These mean different things to different people and are attempts to qualitatively describe the sound so that people can discuss violins without being in the same room.

In general, older violins have a "open" sound which means the sound flows out easily, and sounds rounder (more dimensions, more overtones).

February 3, 2005 at 10:27 PM · Review as many new instruments as possible, examining each closely for workmanship and varnish. You'll quickly be able to spot an instrument that is well built, or rather, one that is not.

As regards to tone, beware of instruments that nasal or metallic sounding, as well as instruments that do not speak freely. My personal experience has taught me that most new instruments have a rather loud sound from the outset, but this soon mellows. Try to wrap your ear around the "core sound," setting aside the slight fuzziness that many new instruments have (they are usually cleaner in the uppper registers). Play up and down the strings, and listen for a balance. Even if it is loud and somewhat brash in the beginning, it is rather easy to spot a balanced instrument as opposed to one that is uneven and weak.

Eric

February 4, 2005 at 12:39 AM ·

It depends on what you mean by "Workmanship". Any idiot can sand things smoother than the next guy, obliterate details, both good and bad, and make something shiny, but that's not workmanship, and I think most violinists aren't really qualified to judge the real components of workmanship--the technical aspects of things that hide underneath appearance. Ultimately, apparent neatness, color and fancy wood have nothing to do with tone and playability.

I'd look for someone with a reputation, first. Then the next thing I'd do is not make a snap decision. Most dealers will let you have a violin for a week, and if you play it really hard, and a lot, during that week, you should be able to see where it's heading. Two or three continuous hours of practice is enough to make radical changes in the way a violin acts, and five days of that is worth more than you can imagine.

February 4, 2005 at 01:33 AM · Michael,

I wasn't insinuating that "most violinists" can judge workmanship per se, but rather that with reviewing as many new instruments as possible one certainly should be able to discern the good from the unacceptable.

Why is it that violinists are always considered ignorant with regard to things like such as workmanship? Experienced players are extremely intimate with their instruments, and with some exposure anyone can get a general sense of excellent, average, and down-right poor quality. Luthiere serves the violinist, and not all of its aspects are approachable only by a high and revered few.

Eric

February 4, 2005 at 03:24 AM · Greetings,

Eric, I think a lot of violnists are veyr sensitive to what a good violin looks like before the y play it or touch it. I mean, when you see a photo of the back of a Strad or Guarneri, even just blakc and white doesn`t somehting just grab you in the guts?

Or another one i noticed recnetly, the prizewinning violins in competition that are featured inthe Strad. I couldn`t tell you why but they have that same e;usive quality that stands out from a run of the mill modern fiddle.

Cheers,

Buri

February 4, 2005 at 04:33 AM ·

Players like to think they know about violins as objects as some god-given right, but the players I've met don't really know much about violins, any more than most drivers know much about cars, beyond the most superficial level of their own interaction with violins, especially their own. Owning a drivers' license doesn't qualify one as a mechanic. Day to day usage doesn't change this a bit. I know it won't be a popular point of view, but someone who spends 98% of his time with one violin doesn't have a chance of knowing much about violins.

So I guess I have to say that I consider players ignorant about workmanship because, for the most part, they are, based on what I've seen, and heard them say. You're welcome to show me differently, certainly: come visit me sometime and we can talk about it. However, I've spend 8 hours a day for the last 25 years working with literally thousands of violins--most musicians will have a bit of catching up to do, just as I would with them as musicians.

Or are you ready to confer higher musical expertise on me by virtue of the fact that I listen to it all day? :-) I hope not.

Harsh, but why should it be different from this: we know what we do.

February 4, 2005 at 04:37 AM · Be glad they're ignorant about workmanship, otherwise they'd be making their own violins.

I'm thinking more and more lately that people on both sides of the asile are somewhat ignorant of their craft, by nature of those crafts. What do you do with the occasional lemon you turn out that you mentioned? Are you able to take it apart again and spruce it up some? Do you know for sure what went wrong with it?

February 4, 2005 at 04:38 AM · Usually I can't make them better just by messing with them. I have had really good luck just replacing the tops on the ones I don't like, but that's more work than it's worth, in a way--I'd rather just get on to the next. The few I've had that didn't work, I've taken my label out of and sold in a price range where they've been competitive, which usually is around $3000 or so.

February 4, 2005 at 10:07 PM · I believe we are in disagreement over what "players like to think they know about violins." With regards to workmanship I was referring to things such as handling of the materials, clean lines, seams, neatness of purfling, well-joined corners, etc., all from a rather general point of view. I didn't mean to infer that a violinist can judge arching given the timber and model, any more than most luthiers can plot out a good fingering for Sibelius' concerto.

I don't believe it takes a divine right of intuition to tell when a neck has been improperly dovetailed, or that varnish is down-right sloppy.

Use what harsh words you want, but with looking at several instruments even someone who is not connected at all musically to the craft will be able to judge these points.

Eric

February 4, 2005 at 10:10 PM · Fair enough, but I assume we're talking about professionally made violins, in which those obvious things shouldn't even be issues. If we're talking about amateur made instruments, all bets are off.

February 4, 2005 at 10:12 PM · I've seen many "professionally produced" instruments which have fallen short in many ways.

And to speak to your earlier point that "players like to think they know about violins," 99% of the musicians that I play with plead total ignorance regarding any aspect of luthiere.

Eric

February 4, 2005 at 10:21 PM · I'm curious, since you're still standing here what you mean by an "improperly dovetailed" neck?

By the way, I don't want to take this discussion into the realm of silly, but did you know that there's a spot on Stradivari violin ribs that's almost always broken, as he made it, and a particular consistent and very visible problem with one purfling joint. Is that the type of stuff you mean as a red flag? :-)

The basic problem here is that we're seeing this issue from completely different sides--I believe the things that you may grab at as being important because they're visible may not be the most significant issues.

February 4, 2005 at 10:25 PM · But Eric, I think some of the best workmanship as you just defined it would show up in mass-produced violins.

I'm curious of Michael, if your normal price is around $15,000 but you dispose of the bad one for $3000, it raises the question could you sell a violin for $12,000 on the basis of sound alone?

PS, you made me curious. I have to know what the rib problem is and which purfling joint, for some reason:)

February 4, 2005 at 10:31 PM · I once worked at a shop that had an $85,000 violin in stock for almost five years. Everyone who came in rejected it immediately--it sounded pretty bad. Then one day someone came in who'd been looking for a very long time, fell in love with it, and bought it right on the spot. Further, she sounded great on it--better than on any of the others. Now, did that violin NOT sell at $85,000 because of its bad sound, or DID it sell at $85,000 because of its good tone???? :-)

My criteria for rejecting my own instruments may be totally irrelevant, but they're the ones I'm stuck with :-)

My violins sell for what they sell for, for more reasons than that I can glue a seam properly and make a violin that sounds passably better than cheaper ones--part of it is that the people who sell them see in them aesthetic things that most players won't ever, and so it pleases them to be part of selling mine rather than someone else's. The whole issue is extremely complex, and doesn't have just one aspect.

February 4, 2005 at 10:28 PM · I've seen violins (new work) with necks so improperly set they were laughable, and dovetail channels cut so wide that the base of the neck scarcely made contact with either side.

I know of the rib issue in Stradivari's work. Are you assuming Stradivari's to be the bar, and that given my rationale, no player will really ever be happy with anyone's work?

As a side note, I play a new instrument.

Eric

February 4, 2005 at 10:36 PM · I've never seen new instruments like that from someone I'd call a real, qualified maker, so I guess I can't comment.

February 4, 2005 at 10:38 PM · I've seen several. From makers that are "professional."

It was points of workmanship such as this that I was referring to. Anyone with some experience examining instruments can judge such inadequacies as unacceptable.

Eric

February 4, 2005 at 11:04 PM · In the shops I've worked with, people who do that stuff at that level get fired, so I guess I have a different perspective on "professional". I seem to have that problem a lot on this particular forum--I wonder where you guys are shopping? I was very surprised on another forum to discover that people who were talking about the cost of getting bridges fitted were getting their work done as a general music store, presumably by the same guy who fixes drums. That was their idea of a professional. Different world.

February 4, 2005 at 11:07 PM · Personally I'd be waiting on one of the Masetro's blue light specials and I'd play it for a couple years till it fixed itself :-)

PS, unless it had wolf notes in which case I'd hope he would have stomped it to death.

February 4, 2005 at 10:57 PM · There was an article in the Strad (January 2004) about the differences between different types of violins. it was titled "Sound differences between old Italian violins and others." This study was conducted by the German physicist Heinreich Duennwald. Duennwald performed a series of experiments on 700 violins (53 Old Italian, 75 pre-1800 masters, 42 hobbyist, 300 post-1800 masters, and 180 factory made violins). The experiments were testing the Helmholtz (f-hole) resonance, nasal vs. un-nasal notes, and clear notes vs. unclear notes.

Results show the percentage of instruments that had a high relative level of Helmholtz resonance, and high percentages of clear and un-nasal notes.

Old Italian: 92.5%

Pre-1800: 30.7%

Hobbyist: 26.2%

Post-1800: 19.1%

Factory-Made: 8.4%

What this shows is that Factory made violins can sound like old Italian violins, just that they're less common.

Also (going back to the comparison with wine): Old violins are like stored wine - some are great and improve with time, while others aren't that great. THey may improve with time, so long as they don't get cork rot.

I think the important thing though is that they get played. I'd assume that if Kennedy bought a brand new violin, he wouldn't perform on it for a couple of years, but he would play it every day until it sounded like him. I've had my violin for 5 years now and it sounds great, like a much more expensive violin for what it's worth.

February 4, 2005 at 11:17 PM · :-) Well, let's be fair here: yes, if you only have those three criteria for buying a violin, 8% of factory violins meet that. But no one buys a violin based on only three things. Then if we add three more criteria, and 8% of the remaining factory violins meet those, we're down to .6% of all factory violins. Factor in a few more criteria, and my calculator runs out of zeros after the decimal point.

I agree with you totally about being played.

February 4, 2005 at 11:25 PM · I am constantly examining new instruments; these excessively poor examples that I'm referring to are rare. But they are still from makers to be considered masters of their craft, nonetheless.

Eric

February 6, 2005 at 06:29 PM · Arrived late at this thread. Michael, you differentiated your lightly built and more heavily built violins some comments back.

I'd assumed from the incidental comments I've heard from luthiers that a lighter instrument with sufficient strength is usually superior to a heavier one. But it makes sense that sound vibrations over time could effect more substantial wood structures than those relatively thinner. Maybe the same for denser than lighter woods. So dynamic ageing probably would effect heavier instruments more than lighter ones (other things being equal).

I wish there were some solid physics research to explain and substiantiate the phenomina of instruments breaking-in with time and exercise. I also wish I could improve as a player without practicing, but alass....

February 6, 2005 at 10:07 PM ·

This heavy vs light thing is an interesting problem to me. My take on it is that it's easier to build a light violin that's good than a heavy one, but that the heavy one has some extra rewards, or at least different ones (Strads are light; del Gesus are often considerably thicker, especially the really good ones.)

Since the problem of making music is to get the wood moving, the less there is, the easier it moves, and the less critical precise construction is. I think the problem with more wood is that you have to really be able to organize things efficiently to get the violin to work, because of the extra wood problem. I don't claim to be unusually insightful at that (though I certainly do wish I knew everything del Gesu did about violin making!), but I try to dodge a lot of the problems by adhering very carefully to what superficially appear to be the same rules of graduation and arching that del Gesu used. Many more people are doing that now than would have, for instance, 100 years ago, because the information makers need about this stuff is now widely accessible. That might account for the number of relatively successful del Gesu model violins being made now.

February 6, 2005 at 11:03 PM · So Michael...I have to ask.

If you sell your 'poor' violins unlabelled for $3000...would it still be a better all-round bet for an amateur player like me, than say, a more expensive Eastman, Shen, Cao or other such 'factory' violin?

February 6, 2005 at 11:15 PM · NA, too bad I don't have points to award. A great question.

February 11, 2005 at 03:29 PM · Hi,

N.A.: Good question indeed...

Michael: I thought that most of the Del Gesus were actually thined out in the early 18th century to allow for a better tone as they were made from excessively thick wood originally. I know that there are some exceptions (Szeryng's was one) but, the gradations are apparently not original, although they worked out great... Any thoughts on that?

Cheers!

February 11, 2005 at 04:21 PM · Some of the best ones are still original thickness--Paganini's "Cannone" being the most obvious, also the ex-Heifetz. Thin doesn't hurt, that's apparent, but there are thick ones among the really famous ones.

February 11, 2005 at 05:42 PM · ..as I remain curious...I'll reask...

"So Michael...I have to ask.

If you sell your 'poor' violins unlabelled for $3000...would it still be a better all-round bet for an amateur player like me, than say, a more expensive Eastman, Shen, Cao or other such 'factory' violin? "

February 12, 2005 at 01:34 AM · Hi,

Michael: Thanks! I didn't know that that many were left with original thicknesses. Great. I did know about the Cannone but not the ex-Heifetz. And like N.A. I am also curious as well at the procedure you described...

Cheers!

February 12, 2005 at 01:41 AM · Which procedure??

I don't have a good perspective on the ones I "blow out". There are very few of them, and I'm just glad to see them gone.

February 12, 2005 at 03:10 PM · Hi,

Michael, I was refering to N.A.'s question regarding the pricing of violins you felt were of "inferior" (I hate the term...) quality. Thanks for the answer though.

The thinning of the Del Guesus does raise the question about how the ones who were thinned out in the early 19th century might have sounded had they not been...

Something brought up earlier concerning players lack of knowledge. I think that it is accurate mostly in the sense that ignorant players are ignorant of a good violin and what it takes to make is sound good. I would hate to think that a violinist with good ears and who can play would have no idea of anything about an instrument...

Cheers!

February 12, 2005 at 04:10 PM ·

A player's interaction with the violin is very different from mine. For instance, when a player says everything is too tight, I know that almost invariably means everything on the violin is too loose, because I know, empirically, not intuitionally, that this is the situation.

If you follow literally what a player who's never done the work thinks, you'll end up in the bushes. I can name any number of similar things where the player's perceptions aren't the actual situation--for instance if a player says a neck is too wide, there are two places I change, and neither is width, and the player usually is satisfied. There are many things a player isn't required to think about or understand, and therefore may come up with an incorrect concept, or, more likely, may develop no concept about at all. It's not necessary to understand violins to play them.

One of the guys I share my shop with does most of his sales on the phone--he plays the phone maybe two or three times as many hours a week as you play your violin. I wouldn't think of asking him how a phone works, though, or even take his advice on buying one: every one he's bought seems to last a couple of months, and he's never had a fax machine last more than three months--even though he hardly ever faxes. Using the tools has not make him an expert, and he knows it too. I think it's just an artist-ego thing that prevents violinists from coming to the same conclusion.

February 12, 2005 at 04:38 PM · Michael: Thanks for the response. Very interesting... Cheers!

February 12, 2005 at 05:24 PM ·

By the way, I don't disagree that the violin "feels" tight, because I feel it, too. And I don't disagree that the neck "feels" wide, because I feel that, also--it's just that in both cases I know the explanation and the cure is not where it "feels". In the neck case, the most common cause is a sharp edge on the board. The player is right, because the sharp edge makes him feel the board in a way he doesn't like, and doesn't usually feel--the board has never thrown itself in front of him that way and imposed itself on his consciousness. He thinks narrowing the board is the solution, but a narrow board with a sharp edge would "feel" the same: uncomfortable. When the edge is dulled, he no longer feels the width, because it's not trying to cut a slit in his finger. So I don't mean the violinist is an idiot--I only mean his sensations are not always what they appear to be.

February 13, 2005 at 06:17 PM · ...okay...I ain't askin' no more...

February 17, 2005 at 02:44 AM · Michael mentioned necks. On Strad, Guarneris, etc., is it known who made the neck in most cases? Are there standard dimensions and cross-sections? Do the great violins ever have new necks made to suit the current player?

February 17, 2005 at 02:56 AM · Necks these days are very standardized, if they've been done by one of the big shops.

February 17, 2005 at 03:19 AM · Have necks been routinely replaced to bring them up to current specs? I assume the original replacement necks were helter-skelter in measurements other than length. If a Strad or Guarneri came in with a non-comforming neck of the proper length would it be replaced? How did the standardization arise of measurements other than length? Well, of length too, for that matter.

February 17, 2005 at 04:23 AM · These days, if a Strad or something turned up with an original neck, you'd do everything you could to save it, probably by adding pieces to make it conform to current standards (adding length, etc.). But that opportunity would be never come up--I think I've only seen four or five original necks in the maybe 400-500 1700-vintage Cremonese instruments I've seen, and all had already been lengthened by adding pieces.

February 17, 2005 at 09:17 AM · I'm asking about the dimensions other than length, and non-original necks.

February 17, 2005 at 12:41 PM · Most of the other dimensions are very close to the same, and don't need to be changed. Once in a while you find a violin with a neck that's too thin, and there are a couple of ways to deal with that without replacing the neck, though sometimes, after everything else, it's necessary. In my experience, violinists who think they need a non-standard neck believe that because there's something subtly non-standard about the one they have: if the neck is really right, no one ever complains.

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