Would you buy an instrument that your teacher didn't like?

July 1, 2019, 8:59 AM · In another thread (sorry for forum-hogging - I'm in the midst of buying a viola and have lots of questions!), I referred - prematurely - to "my new viola." I have it on trial right now, and was ready to hand over my credit card. I really, really clicked with it. But then I took it to my teacher. As you already know from my title, he was not impressed.

I guess that should be the end of the story. But...having now played my way through dozens of violas at multiple shops, some priced up to 3X what this one is worth, this one stood out. It stood out for ease of playing. It's light, comfortable and responds easily. Things that were hard to play are suddenly easier. Even my teacher noticed that I was playing with more ease and fluidity. But I guess this is very personal - what's comfortable/playable for me might not be for someone else.

The thing he didn't like was that he thought it would lack projection in a hall. But is that the thing I should be optimizing for? 95% of the time, the "sound under the ear" is the only sound that will matter. The other 5% of the time will probably be chamber music workshops. I'm not a professional and never will be.

It's really hard for me to think about going back to my heavy, clunky, painful rental viola now. And no other viola I've tested has come close in terms of playability. Have any of you been in my situation and gone against your teacher's advice?

Replies (25)

July 1, 2019, 9:19 AM · Oh wow, well... my violin got the thumbs up from my teacher (my violin was purchased from a pro-musician in a private sale), and I know someone who had a similar issue as you (teacher dis-approval of multiple instrument choices) and all I can say is that you have to do what is right for you, your ear/body, and your pocketbook.

Personally, I would want to know additional rationale from your teacher about this viola. I'd probably say that hall projection is not important, and why, and ask for them to clarify their response for you since you do not understand the importance of it.

Edited: July 1, 2019, 9:22 AM · If your teacher's only complaint is (untested) "projection in a hall" and if the sound within his studio is still sufficiently powerful, then I would just buy it. My viola (a $3500 Chinese workshop instrument) is a real cannon but not very playable and I don't enjoy it all that much. You'll really enjoy having something playable. The sound under the ear also needs to be something you enjoy because that's what will inspire you to practice.

I can see why you emphasize chamber music in your ambitions. If you look at most professional orchestras, violists make up less than 5% of their soloists, and there is only about a 10% chance that the soloist will play something other than the Walton Concerto.

On the other hand, these days the fad is for string quartets to put the violist on the outside where their instrument is pointing the wrong way, in which case you do want a viola that can make sound. But "projection" is not something I would measure by mere speculation. If that's important then you have to test it, against other instruments of similar value.

My hunch is that "might lack projection in a hall" is a proxy for "there's something about the sound of this viola that I don't like but I can't put my finger on it."

July 1, 2019, 9:29 AM · I fully agree with Paul. Did you test it in a hall? How often do you perform in halls, even in a chamber-music setting? Most quartet performances occur in small, intimate venues. Do your quartet-mates play powerful instruments in powerful ways, such that you have problems achieving balance? (Some people don't produce a big sound.)

Way too many players are obsessed with achieving "projection" when on a practical basis, they don't actually need projection. Where projection really matters is for soloists playing concertos with orchestras, especially in thousand-seat-plus halls. If you are playing chamber music and the viola can't be heard, chances are that your mates are playing too loudly and not being sensitive to balance. If you are playing a solo with piano, and you can't be heard, the piano needs to be at half-stick or the lid needs to be closed, or the pianist needs to be softer.

If projection in a hall is important, it needs to be tested in a hall, in an environment where it has to cut through the sound of other instruments. (If your orchestra practices in a hall, arrive early for a rehearsal, have someone stand at the back, and see if the viola can be heard above the chaos of people mucking about pre-rehearsal. And it needs to be played by someone who knows how to produce a concerto sound that has the necessary edge to project.

July 1, 2019, 10:06 AM · If you’re not a professional, and not ever going to be a professional, you should buy what you like and can afford. It wouldn’t hurt to try it out in a hall though, both with you playing, and with someone else playing. You don’t want to buy an instrument without hearing for yourself what it sounds like to others.
Edited: July 1, 2019, 11:28 AM · To follow Lydia and Mary Ellen's sage advice, I would also add that your instrument should also be comfortable for you to play, and not have physical characteristics that could put one in a challenging situation later with regards to one's physical health. Big instruments with massive sounds are fun, but try playing a three-hour rehearsal or two big musicals or operas back to back on the same day with something that requires too much effort, and one can see why professional violists tend to downsize as they get older.

I just conducted a festival this past week with a bunch of kids with tiny violins playing solos like Zigunerweisen, Symphonie Espagnole, and concertos by Vivaldi, Viotti, Breval, JC Bach, de Beriot, etc. with a good number of 1/4 and 1/2 sizes in there. And one violist playing Stamitz on a 15.25" viola. In most cases, those students learned how to project their sound in the hall properly, and my orchestra was sensitive enough to provide an appropriate balance. It's rare for me to see an instrument selected from a reputable shop that has a projection problem--in the cases I've dealt with, it's been setup related, like needing a bridge or post adjustment or strings being too old.

I have for various reasons or another, rejected instruments my students have selected because of condition (poor), provenance (fake), or fundamental tone quality (too dark or too bright), but in general those things are not difficult to pin down from an evidence-based comparison (A vs B) standpoint.

July 1, 2019, 1:41 PM · I agree with Gene. You're the bigger factor in your projection than your viola. But seriously, Lalo on a 1/4? Some kinda prodigy.
July 1, 2019, 2:12 PM · Leaving aside the projection issue, it is important that your instrument not only sound good to and work for you, but you also need to check how it sounds to other people. Have you had your teacher or someone else play it for you so you can hear how it will sound to others? Whether or not you really need the projection, you want an instrument that sounds good to others when you are playing it. Good luck!
July 1, 2019, 3:28 PM · Tom - that's exactly what I was getting at with asking your teacher to clarify. (But I didn't say because, well, I'm dense without enough caffeine sometimes!)
July 1, 2019, 4:09 PM · The first thing I noticed is that you are playing a rental viola, and I imagine it may be a very bad one, with a slow response, almost no dynamic range, a dead C string. The instrument may be heavy and difficult to handle too.
The second thing is that its obvious that you are not moving from a rental to a "definitive" viola, you are just making your first upgrade. You may change it in a year or two for a better one.
Choosing a viola is like choosing your wife or husband, if you ask that for your mother or your best friends you will probably never marry.
There is also the possibility of a conflict of interest of your teacher and, perhaps, a shop he "patronizes".
It would be interesting if you mention the price range of the viola you chose, it would give some insight too.
Edited: July 1, 2019, 11:57 PM · What Mary Ellen Gorre said. I'm sorry, but you are the one putting it up to your chin and playing it everyday, not your teacher.
Edited: July 1, 2019, 5:29 PM · It depends. Would you buy something your parents told you not to?
You trust them, but you trust you more (sometimes mistakenly). So, in the end, you are the one that decides. You normally get really influenced by the people you trust, like your parents or your violin teacher in this matter, but if you want that violin/viola, you will buy it.

It will be a little weird to present it to your teacher one day, like saying "look, I don't care about your tips". Even if you're kind, that's the real first impression someone you asked for help would get. Then you can explain that you really love it, and the teacher should get over it, or forget about it, still telling you that it is not that good.

Anyways, as many people here said, you are the one that plays, if you like the sound, that's it. Musicians have very different tastes, so go with yours.

July 1, 2019, 6:32 PM · I strongly recommend avoiding the phrase "get over it" when discussing anything with your teacher. If you're an adult and buying an instrument for your own use, one which the teacher thinks you should not buy, all you need to say is, "I liked this one the best." Just, please, stop there. Do not tell your teacher he/she needs to "get over" anything.
Edited: July 1, 2019, 7:38 PM · It is my experience and thus my opinion that n one of us has any idea what another person hears. Well, if you both have the same hearing (i.e., audiograph results) you probably hear the same thing of a given sound source.

You can measure your own hearing (as well as an audiologist can) using this website: https://hearingtest.online/
and a decent over-the-ear headphone.

If you have normal hearing and your teacher has normal hearing -- you may judge the same instrument about the same way. But if your hearing is different you will hear differently.

When one of violin buddies drove her car over her violin case the insurance paid her $25,000 which she cashed in at a nearby violin dealer to purchase an old, fairly beatup* but nicerly repaired 18th century violin by a known maker (* otherwise it would have cost at least 3x more). The two of us who regularly played trios with her went along when she made her purchase and both of us preferred an early 20th century French violin at the same price that had more overtones and "more projection." But the careless driver stuck to her guns and bought the older violin. Turns out it did have a nice tone and was certainly easy to hear in the venues we played. The thing was, she was pretty deaf and probably could not hear the higher pitches.

'Nuther story resulting from my own increasingly bad hearing - in another trio in which I played cello, the violinist bought a $100,000 early 20th century Italian violin and with my by then failing high-frequency hearing I actually could hardly hear it - even when I played it myself. After I got digital hearing aids, I found its overtones very piercing and had no trouble hearing it.

I vote with the majority here - if you find an instrument that you really like -- make it yours! You can always replace it or buy it a companion later if you find one you love more. Also -- changing strings can really change an instruments sonic qualities. My own 2 violas are incredibly and very differently responsive to the strings they wear.

July 1, 2019, 8:24 PM · Mary, I've read again my message and I can't find anything that tells the student to tell his/her teacher to get over it.
I said that, not only in music, but in general, in life, when you ask an "expert" (teacher in this case) for suggestions and feedback, and you don't listen to those tips/suggestions, the expert is gonna see it, first impression, a bit rude (why do you ask me then???). And then, I said that the teacher should/will get over it, over that fact that the student did the thing he/she did not recommend. That, or the teacher might still say face to face that it was a bad decision. Most of the time, to avoid "tense" situations, the expert will forget about it, will get over it. I hope I made it clear now, hahahaha.
July 1, 2019, 9:33 PM · I think Paul N was saying that the teacher will likely have no problem getting over it without any prompting from M.D. That's how I read it anyway. Still, if you're thinking to yourself "my teacher needs to just deal here," that indicates a lack of respect. After having lessons from the same teacher for several years, I've never found myself thinking he "needs to get over" something.
July 1, 2019, 10:00 PM · "Then you can explain that you really love it, and the teacher should get over it"

I read that as being part of the explanation to the teacher. Apologies for misunderstanding. But I agree with Paul Deck's comment about the implied lack of respect.

July 1, 2019, 10:14 PM · What Mary Ellen and Paul Deck said. Just be sure the projection issue isn't a problem with clarity. If it's fuzzy and unclear, that will be an irritation for you eventually.
Edited: July 2, 2019, 5:10 AM · Projection (or lack thereof):

I recommend trying the violin with cotton wool in both ears, to filter out some of its "projection" (= power + brilliance..) before adopting it.

July 2, 2019, 8:07 AM · Oh, you're right, I see how that can be misinterpreted. Of course no student should tell a teacher that, hahaha, that would be rude.
July 2, 2019, 5:38 PM · Thanks for all the advice.

I'm leaning towards getting it. As many have picked up on, this is in no way intended to be my "forever" viola. I'm just eager to get an instrument that doesn't hurt as much to play as my rental does. I.e., it's a way to stop throwing away rental money and reduce the risk of injury while I see if this whole viola thing works out.

That said, in addition to its playability (light weight, response, slender neck), I think it has a very ringing tone under the ear that is pleasing to me. But I'm a French horn player primarily, which may be why I bias to a ringing viola sound. If it has a tonal flaw - and I can hardly expect perfection in my current sub-$2K price range - it is a bit of a lack of focus to the sound. I think this is what Lydia was asking about, and I think it's what my teacher was getting at. Is this something that can be addressed, to an extent, with string choice or other adjustments? It's not all the way to fuzzy, but it is a tad less focused than some others that I tried.

Edited: July 2, 2019, 7:02 PM · The old joint-test problem. One equation, two variables.
Edited: July 2, 2019, 9:09 PM · Focus is sometimes somewhat adjustable by using different strings, but it generally doesn't wholly fix a fundamental lack of clarity. If it's currently got middle-of-the-road strings and it sounds fuzzy, different strings probably won't drastically change that. If you've got gut on the violin or other strings that are heavily on the unfocused side, clarity should come with a change of strings. That's something you can potentially ask the selling shop to do, so you can hear if it will be satisfactory.

It has enough clarity if the notes don't blur when you play a fast sequence of slurred notes, like a run. If the notes don't pop in a run, it may hamper your technical development because you won't be able to tell when you're not articulating well vs where the instrument just isn't responding well.

July 3, 2019, 9:10 AM · When students come to me asking which violin to buy, I don't necessarily feel that my job is to tell them which one is the "best" to buy. My job is to educate them about the buying process, and the pitfalls to look out for:
--make sure they compare several in a given price range.
--do some research as to fair market value if possible.
--look for things that may lower value, such as back cracks or poor repairs.
--Dealers to work with or avoid.
--Weaknesses, like wolf tones, to look for.
--if the violin in question was properly setup, and what to look for (appropriate strings, afterlength, string height, non-standard measurements.
--what music may bring out weaknesses

If they have that knowledge and make an informed decision, that may be just as important as which violin they choose and I'm not usually offended if they pick a different violin than I would have. (After all, I've been in situations where one teacher liked my new violin and another didn't--you can't please every teacher...).

And riffing on what Lydia said: don't make the mistake of confusing fuzziness for warmth or depth. Lack of clarity or ease in speaking is a real deal-killer for me.

July 3, 2019, 11:01 AM · Lack of projection is sometimes code for 'not enough sound'. While this may not be an issue if you don't solo with orchestras, it may, over time, cause tension as you naturally try to force more sound out of the instrument. As for focus, sometimes a new bridge or soundpost can do wonders for that. In anycase, if it's loud enough for YOU and you happen to like the tone, I would get it. Teachers are not infallible ;).
July 4, 2019, 9:26 AM · "Teachers are not infallible"

Yes they are.


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