I play so much better with a mute on!

August 17, 2018, 9:55 AM · Anyone else think this also? and does anyone know why it might be?

Replies (27)

August 17, 2018, 10:06 AM · I get that feeling too! For me, any gritty sounds in the bow get muffled, while the left hand remains unaltered.
August 17, 2018, 10:08 AM · a mute changes the tone quality and can help cover up some of your sins (it dulls the e string, reduces the volume, and makes things sound less scratchy). it's nice for beginners who are getting discouraged but you should probably not make a habit of practicing with a mute.
Edited: August 17, 2018, 6:53 PM · One of the main things a mute does is reduce the overtone contribution to sound. This results in a more dominant contribution from the fundamental tone. For some people this makes it easier to hear the intonation. This could be why one might think one is playing better. I remember feeling this way a very long time ago and I felt it made it easier for me to play in tune - or at least hear that I was playing in tune.

One factor can be the acuity of one's hearing of higher frequencies and the characteristics of one's instrument.

Saying the "left hand hand remains unaltered" is probably not correct; I think the left hand is constantly altered by what we hear.

Cleaning strings well and often might alleviate some gritty bow sounds - or a less grippy rosin.

I would like to add that Elliot's viola solo of Saint-Saens "The Swab" is absolutely gorgeous, muted or not:

Edited: August 17, 2018, 10:40 AM · With the mute on, your violin is a much reduced musical instrument. On the positive side this means many inaccuracies are effectively muted, like sloppy string crossings, out-of-tune notes, the bow bounces less so seems better controllable, etc. So, you have basically a reduced instrument that is easier to play. However, you will never learn to play properly on the actual instrument that is the unmuted violin. That instrument has a much more powerful range of dynamics, tone colors, responsiveness, which unfortunately also means it is harder to play beautifully and cleanly without any unwanted sounds. At the risk (!) of exaggerating, practicing exclusively with the mute on is a bit like a drug addict with enough money. Life is easy, warm and fuzzy, but in reality that person could have been so much more, although life is much more difficult.
Edited: August 17, 2018, 10:33 AM · I get the same effect at times by using a foam earplug in my left ear. It helps me hear intonation much better, I think for the reasons that Andrew mentions above. I get really distracted and annoyed by high-frequency overtones, buzzing, screeching, etc., especially on the E-string, to the point that I switched to viola and made that my main instrument because it has less of that and I can just hear intonation better (even without mute or earplug). I find the earplug is a good tool for working on and cleaning up intonation during a practice session. The mute might be the same for you, something that you can use with a particular goal in mind.
August 17, 2018, 11:03 AM · Loud sounds can overdrive the ear and cause tones to sound sharper. Thus the left and right ears can send different pitches to your brain. By using a plug (or partial attenuator) in your left ear you can eliminate this problem but still hear the full glory of your violin through your right ear - and play with better intonation.

I KNOW - because I did the experiment with an orchestra's entire violin section(s) about 30 years ago (I paid for the ear plugs - just cheap wax ones, loosely fitted).

August 17, 2018, 11:11 AM · I play much worse with the mute on-either the practice or performance types. My tone is highly diminished. I prefer to use it only when necessary, for musical or practical reasons.

In short, I believe it's better to learn to love one's "real" tone, or work patiently and intelligently to get at that level. Mutes are fine, but getting addicted to them isn't practical nor what others will really hear when you play normally.

Best wishes-didn't mean to be harsh.

August 17, 2018, 12:49 PM · Is this your own perception or someone elses judgment?

The violin might not sound the same to another person than below your ear. The lack of a mute might cause to hear some scratches here and there, or other unpleasant sounds, which is unlikely a listener would hear.

Another aspect could be inhibition. Feeling inhibited when playing without a mute can result in a musician looks and feel "unsure" in whatever he's playing.

August 17, 2018, 5:12 PM · "does anyone know why it might be?"

I assume you're referring to a heavy practice mute as an orchestral mute should make little difference.

Look at your bowing / bow control. Muting dampens the string vibrations, and therefore the amount of motion of the strings, giving you less to have to adjust to.

It also affects your view of the contact point of the bow to string, and you might be bowing differently as a consequence - better or worse, depending on how it affects your bow angle and point of contact.

Also watch out for movements to the bridge when attaching or removing the mute as that can affect the sound and tuning. I always use two hands while attaching or removing a mute -- one holding the bridge.

August 17, 2018, 6:32 PM · Only practice with a mute if absolutely necessary. You will actually cause a lot of harm to your technique if you practice with a mute on all the time. I've seen it again and again and again.

Sometimes students don't mention that they practice with a mute at home, and months go by until I realize they have been using a mute and that's why they have no control when it comes to choosing the correct soundpoint, pressure, and bow speed in my studio.

If you only ever plan on making a decent sound on electric violins, feel free to continue practicing with a mute.

*On that note, this rule also applies to electric or "silent" violins. You will cause yourself serious issues if a majority of your practice time is spent on these.

August 17, 2018, 8:30 PM · On the other hand, playing with a mute can help preserve your hearing, marriage, and maybe even your life!

There's obviously much more to bowing and playing well than the question of whether or not you practice with a mute, just as there's much more to ergonomics than the question of whether or not you use a shoulder rest, despite what some opinions may be. Playing with a mute is not like playing with a weight added to or removed from the bow, so a lot of bowing development can be done regardless of whether or not a mute is used, notwithstanding that fine and final development would require its removal.

You would obviously have difficulty in lessons if you're used to always practising with a mute and then always playing in the lesson without a mute, and nobody recommends always practicing with a mute other than your siblings or spouse perhaps.

One of the best things about having your own mind, body, and instrument is that you can test and learn things for yourself. Play with a mute, and play without. The degree of difference you experience -- the degree of additional difficulty when playing without a mute -- is the difference it makes.

Also, the degree of muting is variable. An electric/silent violin is different, but generally quieter than a heavy metal mute on an acoustic, which is quieter than a hybrid such as an Artino, which is quieter than a rubber or other such mute. Even world-class violinists such as Julia Fischer practice at times with a mute (she's mentioned a Gewa, which is like an Artino), so it is by no means fatal to your technique to do so, and even if you've made the unfortunate choice of always playing with a mute, it's something you can learn to recover from.

August 18, 2018, 1:31 AM · J Ray, it's a very different situation if someone is already an advanced or professional player, as opposed to a beginner, since their base technique is already developed. So the Julia Fischer example may not apply here.

Lifehack: if you play with earplugs your tone will immediately get better!

August 18, 2018, 7:21 AM · With people who feel that they must always play with a mute, there may be additional factors such as lack of confidence and a supporting environment which limit their success and ability to practice, potentially misleading others to think that the mute is the problem.
Edited: August 18, 2018, 7:59 AM · I don't use a mute on my old #1 violin which is strung with Chorda gut A, D, G and Warchal Amber E. The reason, for me, is that a mute sitting between the bridge and tailpiece frays the plain gut A and D in that region, so is not a good idea. An alternative of course is to use the old-fashioned wooden mute that you have to place manually on the bridge. Trouble is, knowing me, I'd be forever dropping and losing the thing.

My solution on #1 violin is to replicate a muted tone quality, when so required, by using a sound point close to the fingerboard. The violin has a short 2-octave baroque fingerboard so that the "muted" soundpoint I use is very close to its end, whereas with a modern fingerboard it would be well over the fingerboard and more difficult to bow. I suspect that gut strings can do this because they naturally have a wider range of tone colors than most other strings.

No string fraying problems with my #2 violin, a Jay Haide, which is strung with steel E, A, D and a Chorda G (which incidentally markedly improves the overall tone and response), so I use a Tourte mute when the music requires it.

Beginners tend not to appreciate that the purpose of the mute is not to play quietly (which is a bow control thing), but to change the overall tonal quality for a required effect. This is why you can sometimes find composers asking for a muted passage to be played forte.

Edited: August 18, 2018, 7:59 AM · That is worth confirming with a teacher or outside observer. But I have felt much the same for a while— not that I use a practice mute especially often.

My theory is that it reduces sensory overload, especially the frenzy of overtones that make you believe that you are playing well— or leave you so fatigued that you forget to care. Remove all that and back the sound away from your ear, and you can then start to criticize your playing as though it were someone else’s.

In particular, unevenness of response becomes much more obvious, so you have to pay more attention to bow technique. Play a passage without a practice mute and then practice it with. When you remove the mute, you may find that you are producing better sound with cleaner attacks on notes, clearer string crossings, etc.

Edited: August 18, 2018, 11:32 AM · Practicing with a mute will make you a worse string player. Mutes exist so we won't bother other people, not to improve tone. It will just cover flaws you need to work on. You might as well turn off the sound all together: then you won't hear yourself playing out of tune either!

The chemical equivalent is drinking 3 beers and suddenly thinking you're a fascinating and hilarious person.

No, you're just drunk.

August 18, 2018, 12:55 PM · " Practicing with a mute will make you a worse string player."

How much have you had to drink today?

August 18, 2018, 7:41 PM · J Ray said: "there may be additional factors such as lack of confidence........ potentially misleading others to think that the mute is the problem."

I'm sure that's somewhat correct, but the mute is still the main problem, because it offsets almost all of our physical technique in a certain direction, so when the mute is removed the technique must be re-learned. With very advanced players, "re-learning" can happen in a matter of seconds, but with beginners or even intermediate players, re-learning can take days or weeks.

Don't get me wrong: I've had adult students who have HAD to use mutes 100% of the time, because they had very strong physical/mental reactions to even hearing the slightest flaw in their playing (e.g. their bow arm locking up when the tiniest scratch is heard during a note, thereby completing disrupting their play-through). Of course, I tried all other methods before resorting to a permanent mute situation, but sometimes it takes years to get over these strong psychological barriers, so a mute is the lesser of the evils in these situations.

I still think musician's earplugs are a better alternative, because although it dampens the volume level as heard by the player, it doesn't cause physical changes to the way the bow hair interacts with the vibrations of the instrument. The bridge will still "resist" the bow as it should.

August 19, 2018, 10:05 AM · "How much have you had to drink today?"

I don't drink.

I've often suggested to students with overly loud or bright instruments to simply place a long piece of chamois over the left f-hole. It can actually extend from under the chin, where it is comfortably secured. This can subdue just enough of the high partials entering the left ear. I also recommend left earplugs for students practicing loudly for projection.

What I object to are not reasonable attempts at "taking the edge off," but rather those big, heavy metal practice mutes. If you practice with one of those all week and then go take a lesson, naturally the shock of the unmuted sound will make you unable to play.

August 19, 2018, 4:55 PM · One of my inventions that I never actually made was a mute that would work just by blocking the f holes.
August 20, 2018, 5:12 PM · I found this discussion really interesting, esp. the comments about the "evil e", as one of my new students calls it (yes she started on viola but her autistic son stole it to learn so she's on one of my spare violins). Definitely going to try the left ear plug suggestion as I'm another violinist who leans toward viola.

I hate playing with a mute and feel like the blurry sound ruins my intonation, but do most of my practicing with a mute because the neighbours hate it.

Something missing from this discussion the the socio-economic dimension. As J Ray pointed out, musicians need a supportive environment that includes the willingness of flatmates and neighbours to listen to repetitive musical 'noise' (cause most practice isn't wholistic playing that they recognise as 'music'). I think it's important for teachers to know the context of their students' practicing.

If you live in a share house or a modern-built flat with paper thin walls or like me in a townhouse surrounded by concrete and metal so sound bounces everywhere, a mute becomes more or less compulsory if you want to practice more than about 20 mins. If your family or neighbours are shift workers, it's even harder because there time limitations as well.

Edited: August 20, 2018, 5:31 PM · I always liked playing with the mute combined with the fastest vibrato I could muster because I felt it gave me that "old school" Toscha Seidel movie soundtrack sound.

He was such a beautiful player. As Auer said: "There are only two violinists in this world: Jascha Heifitz and Toscha Seidel".

August 20, 2018, 8:18 PM · As Auer said: "There are only two violinists in this world: Jascha Heifitz and Toscha Seidel".

Yeah, funny how teachers think their students are the only "real" violinists...

August 20, 2018, 8:51 PM · So it's a gushing quote. I don't think its that hard to figure out what he meant.

And, to be fair: We're talking about probably the most famous teacher in the history of the violin, not some local teacher who just had a student win a concerto competition with the 1st movement of Lalo.

He most likely knew a lot about the violin and violinists.

Edited: August 20, 2018, 9:01 PM · Surely Leopold Mozart beats Auer in fame, as L. Mozart’s fame is longer enduring.
August 20, 2018, 9:05 PM · What famous violin soloists did Leopold Mozart produce, other than his son?
August 21, 2018, 1:52 AM · I've always wondered about how good someone like Heifetz would have been if he didn't have much tutelage. I'm assuming he still would have been astounding, which leads me to also wonder how much teachers have to do with the success of extremely talented students.

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