What I Learned From Playing a 100 Year Old Violin Today
In searching for an upgrade for my $400 student violin, I found a music shop that has some old vintage violins. Between this and getting amped up on expensive antique violins from recently watching the movie, The Red Violin (it's on Netflix if you want to check it out), I thought to myself, 'hmm, I wonder what a $2500, 100 year old violin sounds like compared to my 2018 student model. I think I'll head down there and check one out just for fun.' So I did.
When I got to the shop, they had about two rows of vintage violins as old as 1900. The idea of having an exactly 100 year old violin next year (2020) sounded cool to me, so they let me try this light golden brown c. 1920 German Stradivarius copy. I played with my bow and shoulder rest (making sure the difference wasn't the bow), then when I played, I immediately noticed 4 things:
1. The violin fit me much better than my student violin. Once I put on my shoulder rest, it just felt "right". It had a guarneri style chin rest which I assumed I didn't like because I ended up replacing the one on my student model with a Wittner style. (I may have to revisit my original guarneri chinrest after this is over) But this one fit me perfectly.
2. My hand didn't seem to tense up when I was playing it like it does on my student model. I don't know why it felt better to my hands and fingers, but it did. I also felt like I didn't have to press down as hard on the strings, but that may just have to do with the strings themselves instead of the violin.
3. I didn't have to "fight" the violin to get a good sound. On my student model, I struggle with scratches and squeaks, and I feel like every note I play I have to fight to get it to sound decent. I didn't have that problem with this violin. Every note I played sounded smooth and crisp and felt like I had been playing for years.
4. The sound was fuller and richer. While my student violin doesn't sound bad, it does sound very bright and almost tinny at times compared to this German violin. It had a kind of chocolaty sound if that makes any sense at all. Thicc with two c's.
So there you have it. My experience from playing a 100 year old violin. I ended up playing a couple other ones that were from a similar time period, all German, and they had the same qualities that I mentioned above, the only difference I noticed were the varnish colors and some were heavier than others.
So from this I learned 3 things:
1. Maybe my technique is not as bad as it seems, my violin just hates me
2. You get what you pay for
3. Start saving $$$ now and maybe by this time next year I can afford one
Disclaimer: It may be just the difference between a student and a non-student [originally mistakenly said professional] violin that I was noticing, not necessarily having to do with the age. I'm sure there are excellent modern built violins as well.
Disclaimer 2: I have no wife or kids, and have disposable income (if I save it) so making such a grand purchase shouldn't make anybody mad
Well, the good news for you is that 1 and 2 can be fairly easily customized by a luthier who knows what he's doing. Chin rests can (and should!) be changed depending on comfort (although i don't know what it means to have a guarneri model). If you feel the strings on your current setup sit too high, a luthier can shave a little off the bridge for you to make it easier to press notes (and I believe doing this also messes with string tension, so you can customize sound that way as well by trying different string configurations).
If you found a violin you enjoy for $2500 then that’s a wonderful news!
I have old Czech made violin (I am from Czech republic also :)), it is a beautifully made instrument, great sounding. It was built in 1917 and it is awesome. Few tweaks from luthier and sound is really superb, it fits me much better than my wife's violin, made by a luthier in 2003. My violin is at 3000 USD category, my wife's at 5 or 6 thousand. Both of them are unique and I think on the same level, but mine is more comfortable for me. Enjoy :)
Russel, 2,5k for a violin is a reasonable amount to spend, even for a beginner instrument. I can see no point in learning on an instrument that is holding you back from the very beginning. And I've never met a violin at a shop below 1,8k that met my expectations not only on a technical level, but also as a tool for making music. (Personal experience, but eventually retail prices may differ a bit between Europe and the USA. And new Chinese fiddles aren't widely sold here in my region, so I can't tell about them.) For 2,5k you should get all you, maybe for a lifetime. Congrats and have fun!
i would bet you that (2) is because your violin has a wider neck (maybe wider than standard, which might make it very uncomfortable IMHO), and the action is too high, with the strings farther above the fingerboard. Fixing the action isn't all that expensive -- new nut, maybe new bridge.
For crying out loud. What is it with this board?! $2,500 is not pocket change to most people. It's a significant investment. If people have much more than that to invest in an instrument, that's wonderful for them, but please do not act as if thousands of dollars is nothing!
$2500 is not something to sneeze at, but in the broad view of violins, it is far below the level that most true professional violinists would spend, and about 1/5 (or less) the price that a professional violinmaker would charge.
Russell, Your post sounds like you had a wonderful experience! A couple of things to keep in mind:
It's awesome that the OP heard how much more is possible with an upgrade. I don't see how cautioning that $2500 does not get him a professional instrument takes wind out of his sails. Best to have one's eyes wide open when making such a large purchase which--indeed--is "nothing to sneeze at." Even so, if you buy from a reputable shop, you are not throwing money away. A violin at this range is not an investment, but it ought to hold its value.
Given that the OP seems to be defensive about spending what he appears to believe other people might think is an excessive amount of money, it does not seem inappropriate to assure him that he has no reason to feel defensive about his desire for this instrument, or to point out that it's completely commonplace for people to purchase violins like this.
These discussions always drive me crazy. For someone just getting into playing it seems like an endless maze.
It seems like the OP found a violin that was appealing. The fact that is was easier and more comfortable is due, as mentioned, to setup and not age.
Lydia nailed it, as usual.
There is definitely a fair number of advanced amateurs playing violins that cost under $2,500. It's almost certainly not a professional violin, but I don't think it's typical for teenagers taking private lessons either and I wouldn't characterize it as merely a "decent student instrument." It may be the most common price range you'd see in high-level youth orchestras, or among the top 10-15% of high school orchestra violinists (though the students considering studying music to degree level are likely playing more expensive instruments). It's also probably the most common price range in mid-level community orchestras. Basically, I'd call it an advanced student instrument or a workhorse amateur instrument.
Some of you need to get out more. Prices vary VASTLY around the world in terms of what a 'professional' violin can cost. Lydia has decidedly not nailed it. Yes we know she has played old Italian instruments and owns something she is no doubt proud of, but so what.
OP here, maybe I should have used a different word than professional. I didnt literally mean a professional violin, I meant non-student. But you're absolutely right. It's probably an intermediate violin that just happens to be very old. Also I think one of the main issues with my current violin is that it has steel strings. When I get paid I'm going to put some synthetic strings on and see if that makes a difference.
A lot of different things are being conflated here. Though broadly, I agree with Dmitri and Andrew.
The closest thing I could think of was this:
Congratulations on finding a violin that you like for "only" $2500. 1920 is not old by violin standards. Old would be the golden age of Italian instruments, before 1780. Some the of 1920's German Roth violins are quite good, sell for much more than that.
$2500 for a 1920s German Stradivarius label is a bit dear. At my shop it would go for about $1000. $2500 gets you into some nicer and older instruments.
I find the idea that a professional instrument would need to cost higher than $$$ patronizing and discouraging. Not everyone who plays is to become professional, and not every professional can or has the chance to play at Tchai concerto levels. It really depends on what you perceives as 'professional'.
With the "average Strad copy" violin not bearing a makers label but only a "fake" Strad label, there will be a price range depending on workmanship and overall quality of the instrument. This will start with firewood and end somewhere around 5k. 2,5k should get you a really good and nice instrument, but basically I agree with Lyndon - as an average price 2,5k would seem a bit high. But who am I... Would need to see it live.
One thing that's not gotten a lot of attention in this thread is why the OP's current $400 violin isn't serving his needs. These days, that shouldn't be the case. I really believe that with the current quality of Chinese instruments on the market, you don't have to pay that much before your sound is much more about you than the instrument.
Full time job in a serious professional orchestra is considered very prestigious among even professionals, but I wonder if any such violinist has ever gotten fired, or annoyed his colleagues for playing a sub-optimal instrument in 1-2k range.
There's a good thread on what professional orchestra violinists need, from a fairly recent thread:
I guess this was not supposed to be a discussion, but a BLOG. Russell had an experience and shared his impressions with us. There was no question in his post, but he made some statements, which in turn triggered some strong responses.
Most of this thread is nonsense, and the OP's original post reads to me like marketing copy - a consumer "review" used as marketing copy. All that is to be expected, given that we're no different from typical consumers of products, given to flights of fancy about our purchases or would be / to be purchases, prices, country of origin, etc., which is again exactly what is capitalized upon by the marketing / selling side, as that's their business.
"To be more specific: The OP and others imply that he's learned that 100 year old violins fit and feel better than others. So age and price are the determining factors about fit and feel."
Like M.D., I'm a little concerned that a $400 instrument is evidently so difficult to play. We're not talking about a sketchy $50 instrument off eBay. I've generally told friends looking to start playing violin and/or start their kids on violin that $300+ is a safe price level for a starter instrument that isn't a VSO. But I don't immediately conclude that OP's violin is a VSO. It could easily be a setup problem. Points 2 and 3 can both stem from an overly high action, a possibility Lydia has pointed out.
I have a hundred-year-old violin from my grandfather's attic (maybe it is a Montgomery Ward catalog item?); I love it! It is a fake Stainer. I find it easy to play--could be because it has a very narrow neck compared to every modern violin. The tone is smooth, not screechy like a new violin. I say, was I ever lucky, or what?!
A $400 violin from a decent violin shop is probably $200 worth of near-VSO, given $200 of set-up to make it playable. The bar there is "able to be basically functional", which a baseline VSO is not.
Did violin necks generally get wider over time? I'm genuinely curious. My violin is an early 1950s German trade violin that I inherited from a great-uncle. It has one of the widest violin necks I've seen. It doesn't bother me because I mainly play viola, but I find it interesting.
I love my 1895 Benzinger violin and 1926 Ernst Heinrixh Roth viola. That said, there are plenty of great modern instruments, but often they are at premium prices. My instruments were less expensive because of thier condition from the hard knocks of a long life and maybe one or two world wars. I think of them almost like rescue pets that need a good home and better care.
It sounds like a good upgrade, Russell, and that it fits you in many ways, physically, and the sound. A decent price as well, I’d say go for it. Your violin is one of your teachers and I think you are ready for a new (or in this case “old”!) one!
I hate to contradict our esteemed Laurie Niles, but I would advise Russell against relying on just his own judgement on a particular violin, especially one which stresses his budget or expectations, as beginners would not have the skill and experience required to distinguish the good from the not so good; to obtain them on trial to play them more, at home, and in comparison with others, and to show them to the teacher or anyone else who might be able to play the instrument and judge better. Teachers wouldn't typically be expected to be experts on the violin market, but they would be expected to be advanced players and to be able to determine how satisfactory a violin would be from their own perspective and potentially for the student.
I think the biggest "danger" is an old violin with a beautiful tone but that is not too louud. But a few may prefer that, even if I wouldn't get it myself.
Lydia wrote, "orchestras do ask players to acquire better-quality instruments". I read the link and it doesn't at all sound to me it is a common and explicit requirement. The indirect answer I get, is that
It's not common for players to audition and win on subpar instruments. Players who are told, "Please acquire something better" when they win an audition generally are responsible enough to go actually do so. Much like an employee of a bank, told, "Please acquire a better-quality suit", generally just goes and does that, rather than having to be disciplined over it. Similarly, orchestral players who have recently won a job would not normally allow things to get to the point where they would be fired (or not get tenured) over their failure to acquire an instrument of sufficient quality -- much like they don't get fired over dress code violations.
If you want to continue to expand the analogy, Ferraris are not generally better at moving from point A to point B than Toyotas that cost 1/10 or less the price. Many of the violins, such as the old Italian ones, at the bleeding edge price ranges, much like Ferraris or Lambos, are value more for being works of art and rarity than outright general performance, at least as far as an ephemeral "dollar per acoustic performance" scale is concerned.
Lydia wrote, "The statement that a $2,500 violin is typically a decent-quality workshop violin suitable for an advanced student or an amateur is a pure statement of fact."
Matt, I'm sure you're well intentioned, but I'm guessing you have literally zero experience shopping for violins that have professional playing qualities. I'm guessing that you don't even know what professional playing qualities *are*, much less how to identify whether or not a violin has them.
I know clearly each and every statement made by myself in this thread, and I unapologetically advocate for looking around as much as you can before buying an instrument of choice, allowing for the chance to discover unknown gems of outstanding value for the money along the way. Does that not sound good from a prudent customer perspective?
The reason hidden gems aren't that common is: historic value only starts to become relevant at a much higher price point. If you're shopping anywhere below the price range of instruments by leading modern makers, historic value is almost a non-factor. If dealers tend to quote higher prices for older instruments, it is more likely because of personal bias (often subconscious bias) than about historic value.
I have heard various stories of people borrowing a better instrument (than the one they own) for an audition.
Interestingly... in a conversation I had with non-string-playing friends who are interested in having their young son learn a string instrument when he reaches age 4-5, I briefly outlined the likely progression of price ranges both for a lifelong serious amateur and for a pro. They immediately understood and thought of it as 1/10 the price of an equivalent car.
OP here again. Thanks for all the interesting comments. Just to clear some things up, I mistakenly used the word professional when I should have said non-student or whatever the equivalent word would be.
Good luck in your journey Russel. I think assumptions are made at both ends of the spectrum sometimes. A 400.00 violin is assumed to be cardboard and a high dollar violin is seen as a much better instrument. The truth is usually somewhere in between.
There is so much more to it than what the market thinks the instrument is worth:
It’s a good idea to get an opinion from a teacher or pro about an instrument, especially when you are considering such a major purchase. But if you feel assured that your investment is sound (so to speak) then it is also okay to go with the instrument YOU love. It sounds like this experience has opened Russell to wanting an upgrade and understanding more what that would mean. Whether it winds up being this fiddle or another, and that is a really notable step!
If you're budget conscious: as I mentioned earlier, the price level where there's a big jump in quality is somewhere around $1,000, which is the jump from factory to workshop violins. That's the bottom of the same broad price band the $2,500 violin is in.
Hi Russel - loved your post rather more than the ensuing discussion (well, not all of it, some is great as usual). I'd like to add that 'when the student is ready, the violin will appear'. [Its a paraphrase of an old saying.]
There's a useful solution here as well that would get Russell to the point where he's playing something that feels like less effort, and that's a trade-in.
Russell, it's good to hear that you're not discouraged. In your place, I'd look for a good luthier (one who specializes in the maintenance and repair of violins), to see if the playability of your violin could be improved (at a reasonable cost). I'd also have the tailpiece replaced with a Wittner or similar, with built-in fine tuners instead of 4 add-on fine tuners, which add weight at an undesired place and affect the after-length. However that's a minor consideration which might help the tone a bit, but shouldn't really affect playability.
I remember when the parent of a student, someone with an enormous mansion in the countryside complete with horses, was embarrassed to tell me she was considering buying a $900 violin for her daughter because she assumed it was extravagant beyond my wildest dreams. Lol. She can certainly be forgiven for thinking that, as most people have absolutely no idea what the violin world is like, but it was still funny.
"Did violin necks generally get wider over time?"
Just one more comment on the original title "what I learned from playing a 100-year-old violin."
I have an Australian friend who often repeats the saying "in Europe a hundred miles is a long way, in Australia a hundred years is a long time" -it's all a matter of perspective.
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