Will a better violin help me play better?

Edited: October 8, 2018, 5:08 PM · I've been playing just over 10 years. While music will not be my career (I'm not particularly good, and I know it) it's something I love and take fairly seriously. I practice 2-3 hours a day 6 days a week, and I always want violin to be a part of my life. I currently own a 2010 Chinese violin that I believe was around $700 from the shop. I've been told by several people who know violins that for what it is, it's quite good. I've gotten to the point (actually, I've been there for a while) where the sound I can get out of my violin is frustratingly limited (and yes, I'm sure a pro could make mine sound lovely). I was told by a previous teacher that I was probably maxing out the tone available. However, I'm currently a college student in a non-musical major, and my money is limited. Obviously, I'd love a better sounding instrument. But if it's just a crappy sound, I can deal with that. What I'm wondering is whether continuing to that playing on a mediocre instrument could hinder my technique. I'm at a bit of a plateau in my playing right now, and I'm wondering: is this just another one of those times when I need to buckle down and do (more of) the work, or could a better instrument actually help me improve my playing?

Edit: I've already tried a bunch of different string combinations to see if I could get it to sound better (I did) and I had the sound post adjusted (which also helped). However, I'm not sure if there's any other tweaks I can make.

Replies (16)

October 8, 2018, 5:35 PM · Where is your current plateau?
That does make a difference.
How does your current violin do as you play 2-octave scales up each string?

Trying other bows and other rosins can make some differences. Have you tried that?
However, having an instrument that natural plays more easily and evenly across and up the strings does make a difference.

Knowing these things might help me understand your problem.

October 8, 2018, 5:51 PM · A couple of random thoughts:

1. The higher up a mountain you go the harder the climb will be. In other words as you advance as a violin player the going gets harder and slower with time. So a "plateau" is a normal experience. At the same time as you advance you also listen more critically to yourself, so you rather underestimate your progress. You don't appreciate the good stuff you are doing, not having noticed that it had been absent in earlier times. Sometimes one realizes in retrospect that one has made progress.

2. If you want to get a better violin you probably should try for a significantly better instrument, especially given the time you are spending with it. Once you are out of college and have a job you may find it much easier to find money for something truly better. So it may be wise to postpone the project for a while (though unfortunately the demands of your job may infringe on your practice time).

3. I don't think your violin will hold you back in strictly technical sense. If you use your technique to make music--the purpose of learning all this technique--a better instruments will open up possibilities for you that you don't have now. But you can go on learning staccato or seventh position or scales in octaves without having to fear much of a hindrance. This is assuming that your violin--and your bow--are adequate.

4. And no, nobody can make your instrument sound like a really good one.

October 8, 2018, 6:16 PM · Andrew: I'm working on parts of the Bach Dm partita right now. As for my violin, it's constricted sounding in 3rd position and above. Part of that is my technique, I think, but my former teacher also said that that it was part of the instruments newness and cheapness. I've tried several rosins, and the one I'm using currently (L'Opera Jade) is certainly a noticeable improvement above what I had, but nothing earth shattering (not that I expected it to be). I haven't tried other bows. I'd always been told that you should choose a bow to match a violin, and it didn't make sense to me to spend money on a bow that worked with a violin I'd like to upgrade. I'm not actually sure what my current bow is -- it's generously loaned to me by a player who moved on to a better one.
October 9, 2018, 2:34 AM · Obviously, there are levels of improvement. One doesn't become a better runner for changing from Adidas to Nike, but certainly you will be if you have been running on sandals.

If after 10 years your are fighting with 3rd position, I'd say the instrument is holding you down. And it is not that expensive to find a violin you can get to play decently in high positions. Another story is if you also want soloist projection or extraordinary depth of color. Just to vibrate well in high positions is not the search of the unicorn.

In the end your 700 dollars in a shop in USA is a 200 dollars in ebay (direct from factory) violin. Granted that the setups are very bad...

But you don't need to speculate... Why don't you borrow your teacher's or go to shops and spend some time trying violins and seeing if you find the high positions and other techniques easier?

Edited: October 9, 2018, 7:23 AM · If you are in the USA, Ari, check out and Email Fiddlershop.com (= Fiddlerman.com) and see what they say.

Otherwise, I'd agree with Carlos - decide on your budget and try some in a shop at that budget, without necessarily intending to buy anything.

October 9, 2018, 10:08 AM · If your teacher thinks the instrument is holding you back, they are probably right.

You are still in the range where a high-quality rental would represent a better grade of violin than you have now. If you cannot afford to buy now, I would seriously consider switching to renting.

October 12, 2018, 10:25 AM · FWIW, if constricted tone in higher positions is your only issue and you are in college in a non-music major, then think about a plan for a really serious upgrade when you graduate and have a salary. A $5,000 violin is still student grade - for music students. With a salary, you can get that grade of sound, or go even higher.

If your current violin is difficult to finger in higher positions, have a luthier look at the finger board angle and the bridge height. If that is a problem it might be just $1-200 to fix and give you a cheap fix in a financial plan towards a really good sounding violin.

October 12, 2018, 12:19 PM · A $700 Chinese violin from a shop....that's a student violin. You can't hear anything on those violins. Time to upgrade to the 4-5k range. Buy smart and you can get a very high performance violin. When trying out violins, don't focus on tone. Tone can be adjusted. Listen to clarity and resonance, esp higher up in the fingerboard.
October 12, 2018, 5:07 PM · Yes, if you are progressing. Try things that are hard on your current instrument on your prospects BEFORE buying one of them. Chances are you will find that certain bow strokes and slections suddenly play with less effort if your skills have improved. It may not be across the board, but don’t buy if there isn’t more playability.
October 12, 2018, 7:08 PM · Better violin will help you play.
Edited: October 15, 2018, 6:04 AM · A better violin will certainly make you play more. I recently got a very nice 10 string mandolin and I noticed that.
This article by Laurie Niles is fantastic.
https://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20072/6496/

Laurie Niles:
Your violin is your teacher, too: So get a good one

"As of this month, I've been playing the violin for 30 years. My violin anniversary is February 18, to be specific. I know because I started on Melanie Mayer's ninth birthday, as did Melanie. She reminded me every year. So wherever you are, happy birthday, Melanie!

I've been playing on an excellent violin now for one year, and it has opened my mind in ways that nothing else could in the 29 years before.

Photo

That's right, my nine years of violin instruction before college, four years in college, two years in graduate school, years of performing in dozens of orchestras, solo recitals, not to mention literally thousands of hours in the practice room – none of it taught me what a good violin has taught me.

One sees this phenomenon in small children: the child with a quarter-size violin who is ready for vibrato, for example. The child can do vibrato, even, but neglects it because he or she can't see the point. Then the child gets a larger violin that resonates, and suddenly vibrato makes sense and he or she can learn it.

The highest violin technique makes sense only on a fine instrument.

I've been looking back at pieces I played in college and reading the notes my teachers wrote in the margins. At the time, I played on a German factory violin given to me by my grandmother; it had been in her attic. For all her good intentions, though, it was a squeakbox.

"More tone!" implores my teacher from the page of a Brahms sonata.

"SUSTAIN" in the last movement of the Saint-Saens concerto.

"Darker sound on the G string" was a comment in a Bartok piece.

Even "LOUD" at the end of the Andante melanconico in Intro and Rondo Capricc.

Certainly there were requests that had more to do with the player than the instrument ("Stand straight! Relax left hand!") but I also saw much begging for a sound that simply was not possible or that took such heroic effort. I worked and worked and worked to make those things happen, and still the results were marginal. I barely have to do anything to make more tone, or a darker sound, on my current violin.

Without having ever played a fine violin, I did not even understand the completely different plane of playing available to me.

I understand now why some conservatories and universities make fine instruments available to students. I used to think that if one played well on a bad violin, one would be way ahead of the game when stepping up to a better one. That if one was "spoiled," playing on a Strad in college, one would never figure out how to make do with something lesser. It's not true. If one plays on a fine instrument, one knows what to seek in any instrument, and one also knows its importance.

All those years of fighting a bad instrument cause frustration; they block out what could be; they prevent the exploration of one's fullest potential as a musician.

I am grateful to at last have an instrument that allows me this; even if I'm destined to be a very late bloomer! But I would implore parents, schools and young musicians themselves: get the best instrument you can. Get the one that will awaken you to your fullest potential!

October 15, 2018, 8:28 AM · I'll second something Carlos posted earlier: get out and try playing as many good violins as you can. You need to do this so YOU can understand what instrument qualities are out there and what it means for your playing. If you can get to Cleveland in November for the VSA competition, there will be hundreds of them that can be compared, many from excellent makers.
Edited: October 15, 2018, 8:58 AM · Thanks Luis, that is encouraging. I've been afraid to go try better violins at a shop, thinking I'd just embarrass myself, what an amateur fooling themselves, wants to waste thousands of dollars, doesn't deserve it etc. Was going to wait till I sounded "better," whenever the hell THAT would be. I have a $1200 violin... just a decent student violin. It can actually handle higher positions pretty well. It maybe struggles at the top of 7th but I think it still could be my fault. I mean it definitely is, at least partly. But I really wonder what I'm missing.

Also always assumed I couldn't afford anything, and that you were supposed to pay for it in bulk at once. It makes sense they'd offer a plan... I still can't afford a thing, but if I get an ok job this year (as PLANNED!) I could...

October 15, 2018, 10:28 AM · "I'm not particularly good, and I know it"

What does that mean? Do you mean to say that you're not a prodigy or that you're struggling? Either way, without judging your playing, I think the statement is problematic - as it might indicate some sort of defeatism whereby you believe that only the especially 'talented' will play well, or you are frustrated with your own playing and advancement. I believe that we can all play better.

"I practice 2-3 hours a day 6 days a week"

You've earned the right to buy yourself a better violin and/or bow (if you can find the time and money), but if you're practising that much and feel that you're not advancing, I speculate that your practising might have become routine and you're not specifically identifying and focusing, at least successfully, on what's holding you back.

Obviously, without trying different violins and bows, you won't know what they/you can do. So go ahead and solve that problem - rent them or get them out on trial. Don't buy one just for the sake of "upgrading" or prospective improvement on playing. Buy it if it feels like the right choice. But more importantly, use that information on what a violin and/or bow does for you to learn for yourself.

October 15, 2018, 11:04 AM · Having a crappy violin/bow will definitely hinder your playing. As many people stated above, you won't have the full range of colors and techniques on a bad instrument.

But in addition to that, you may actually start developing bad habits in trying to compensate for your bad instrument and bow. This happened with my son, who was on a crappy rental violin and <$100 bow way too long. He actually played Zigeunerweisen in a competition (and won!) on a $500 rental fractional. But in order to try and get all the colors and effects he wanted, he did several strange things with his technique. Big ones were extra tilt of the bow and raising the right wrist/arm to try to get more clarity and power, respectively. Also tension and pushing in the right arm for more sound. He had to attack the instrument to get it to speak. For the most part, the negative technique was all bow related in his attempt to make a fractional rental sound like what he wanted.

I would highly suggest, if you can afford it, trying to find something at least somewhat better. Often, you can get a nice instrument at a reasonable price if you don't mind going with a new instrument from a not famous maker.

October 15, 2018, 2:23 PM · Note that you normally do pay for an instrument all at once. Shops generally do not offer payment plans. You could, of course, charge it on a credit card.


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