String players and their instruments

July 2, 2019, 7:25 AM ·
My violin is at the luthier at the moment for some Restauration work. It has been a long time coming, it had a scroll crack that needs fixing, a small crack in the lower bout (luckily no opening up required) and some varnish repairs. I bought it that way and knew it would have to happen, but yesterday my bridge fell while I tried adjusting it after it started leaning (i’ve done that so many times before and nothing ever happend but this time it just kind gave out!) and the soundpost went with it so I thought let’s do it all now in one go.

I am extremely worried about my instrument (my Mum says like a mother with a fresh firstborn) and it means so much to me, and I think generally string players are very attached to their instrument and know what it feels like to have it in for repairs. I feel off not having it in my apartment and the thought of it being drilled into (they will use wood shafts to get the scroll stable) makes me cringe. I do however have a lot of pro musicians (but no string players) amongst my friends and they all don’t really get it. “You know at the end of the day it is just a box of wood” they say.

I grew up with strings and when I first encountered the more nonchalant way people treated their instruments I was baffled. Now this got me thinking: is this just me being weird? Or am I right that I think string players are more attached to their instrument? Why do you think that is? The way they are very individual? The intimate positioning with essentially the cheek against the instrument? The way they are complex and react to so many factors that it almost feels like they are alive?

Let me know your thoughts on the whole “my violin is my baby” situation :D

Replies (23)

Edited: July 3, 2019, 4:37 AM · At the risk of feeding some potentially unhealthy thoughts, your reaction is not entirely unusual. If you have some time you might Google Min Kym who was an incredibly gifted child prodigy who saved hard and bought a Strad. It was subsequently stolen and the effects were devastating to her, so much so she gave up playing for a while and wrote a book called "Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung"

For me, I think violinists form such a close bond with their violin because the violin is inherently delicate - it takes very little to damage one, and as we play and handle them everyday, and often have to travel with them, we become accutely aware of that delicacy and the need to protect them. This when coupled with the fact that playing the violin is an emotional outlet is probably why we're deeply paranoid about our instruments coming to harm.

That said, as much as you may become very attached to your instrument, and believe me a do understand that, your friends are correct - it is just an instrument, one of millions currently in existence. It is innately inanimate - what gives it animation is you. You will be able to give that animation to another instrument. Certainly not any instrument, but there will be many worthy of you.

July 2, 2019, 7:47 AM · I think some people are attached to their instruments and some not so. I am firmly in the former camp.

Whenever my violin is in for repair I have to see the empty chair where my violin sits, in its case or at the loaner violin I have occupying the same space in my flat. I don't like that but I know that the company I have entrusted the repair to will do an excellent job, they always do, whether it be a bow rehair, a sound post adjustment or a more serious repair job. So long as you leave the instrument with someone you trust to do a good quality repair job.

I have had non musical people ask if I will ever upgrade my instrument and they are surprised when I say I may never buy another violin again in my lifetime. It is not like a car or computer which people often upgrade/replace over time. My violin is a one off, it is not a mass produced workshop violin, and I may never come across another violin that sounds quite like my violin does or that I enjoy playing as much.

I was lucky in that I only tried around 50 instruments before finding the one for me. If I were to be looking for the perfect instrument today I may end up trying over 100 violins and not find an instrument I would be equally happy playing day in day out.

If my flat caught fire and I could only take one single possession with me before making my escape it would most definitely be my violin.

Edited: July 2, 2019, 8:07 AM · Thank you for your replies so far! It alread reaffirms that I am not (entirely) crazy. I know the story about the girl with the Strad, and a story I also think about alot is Frank Peter Zimmermann and his Strad, which luckily found a happy ending. Of course I know that rationally it is pretty likely that i would find another instrument, and that I am the one that makes it come alive, but my emotions say something else haha.

“I was lucky in that I only tried around 50 instruments before finding the one for me. If I were to be looking for the perfect instrument today I may end up trying over 100 violins and not find an instrument I would be equally happy playing day in day out.”

I relate to this so much. I am an adult returner and just about an intermediate player, but my own violin was also a childhood dream come true (i first started asking for one when I was 4). It’s the first one that I don’t loan, and the first thing I bought after a proffessional improvement gave me my first paycheck that made me able to afford it. At the time I thought for sure that I would just buy a good student instrument that I would later upgrade. I test played about 30 instruments and this one stood out by miles and miles and made me overshoot my budget quite a bit in the end. It’s a very nice instrument that I have been envied for by professional orchestra players and an absolute stroke of luck that I got it relatively cheap, but apart from that it just really seems to suit me. My violin teacher said he noticed right away how I played more securely when I first touched it (he went with me to all trials which was also great). It is just so special to me, even aside from the fact I could almost call it a financial investment too. I now don’t think I will ever upgrade either.

Edited: July 2, 2019, 11:11 AM · Welcome to the "club."

I still mourn for the one that got away - the one I sold to have enough cash for the "deductible" for our older daughter's birth 60 years ago. It had been my father's and even though I did not much like it at the time, with all the new strings these days (etc.) I probably would now - and it would be worth at least 100x what I got for it back then.

P.S. It was a Stefano Scarampella, a maker whose top sale price had just hit $2,000 at the time, mine was probably worth 1/3 that and the dealer who bought it paid me half of that. When I saw a violin listed to be by that maker on ebay my first look years ago it was the spitting image of my gone violin. That brought it all back!

Edited: July 2, 2019, 8:38 AM · Like Andrew I had one that got away but it was entirely my fault.

I tried a modern violin, 2010 I believe, and at the time I would have been the first person to own the instrument apart from the dealer of course.

I really liked the violin but I liked the violin I eventually bough even more. I think this modern instrument would have been a great investment and improved immensely with age and regular playing.

I was only looking to buy one instrument at the time even though I could have afforded both. It was more a case of I'll probably end up playing one all the time and not sharing my playing time equally between them and I don't want to see a good quality violin sit in a case not being played.

Who knows how much longer that violin sat at the dealer's shop before being purchased. This was in November 2011 and it could still be waiting for a buyer for all I know so not getting played at all!

Edited: July 2, 2019, 8:52 AM · Ah yes! The one that got away. I testplayed a stunning one (in my memory, it was probably just decent student grade) in 2005 when I upgraded from a 3/4 to a 4/4 (I am very small so I was already 15). Unfortunately my mother couldn’t afford it at the time. She asked friends etc to help out and of course someone had one “lying around so you don’t need to buy one” and that was that. I hated it. I stopped playing shortly after because I was so frustrated that the fullsize I had to play on was worse than the 3/4 I played before and teenage me got very discouraged. I think I probably wouldn’t have stopped otherwise which is sad, because I am still trying to get back to my teenage level of playing, but that is all water under the bridge now, and funnily enough I never thought about that violin since I got mine now :D
July 2, 2019, 9:30 AM · Think of it this way: If your doctor told you that you needed a hip replacement, those are made of steel, right? You'd do it because it's the right thing for your body. Same for your violin, if your luthier is good and they say you need this or that to stabilize it, then that's what you do. That's part of loving your instrument too.
Edited: July 2, 2019, 9:33 AM · The problem with loving a violin is that its impossible to give it up if and when your playing exceeds its potential. I have changed violins several times (the last time beyond my control) and have found that the attachment, while still there, changes. Thus, it is as if I am wedded to my new violin, but it is not my baby. It is a forever instrument but if ever I had to change it I would do so with sadness but not with grief.

That said, I also have a violin that my father bought me as a child. Its a very nice 1888 german workshop instrument that serves still as a backup. I would certainly experience grief if I lost it or it was damaged (it was recently in for time-dependent repairs) - but understandably that grief would not be because it was my playing partner or voice.

July 2, 2019, 9:36 AM · The fact that it's so hard (and so expensive) to get a nice violin means that we become pretty attached to our purchases.

My current violin was a lucky find. Other than a Strad, I have yet to play anything that I like better.

When I was last shopping for my previous violin (which I loved a lot until the day that I didn't, pretty much), on the day I was about to buy it, I tried a Leonardo Bisiach that was terrific and which silently told me that I should have shopped in the price range of my available funds rather than the more modest budget I'd set for myself.

When I shopped for my first full-sized violin, I fell in love with a Carl F Becker that my parents could not afford to buy.

July 2, 2019, 10:03 AM · Not always so expensive Lydia! I'm currently going through an emotional bonding process with the violin I acquired in Brompton's auction last week. I do feel a little guilty at temporarily neglecting my three other beautiful babies, but I guess like Angelina Jolie I've just got love to spare. I enjoy playing them all and relishing their different qualities. Playability apart, another factor that attracts me is their history. The latest one is dated 1809, signed underneath the table by its maker Charles Harris and cost little more than a new factory fiddle. Now, is the hide glue ready..?
July 2, 2019, 12:05 PM · Like Elise, I too have a cherished instrument -- my first "full-size" violin which is a beautiful objet d'art (it's bird's-eye) but a terrible instrument. It was made in 1972 and bought for me in 1976 for $400. I am going to make a pretty wooden case to display it in my living room forevermore.
July 2, 2019, 2:59 PM · I'm not really into the beauty of the instrument, though I did once come upon a beautiful 7/8ths Brescian inlaid violin that I liked the sound of, but wasn't quite as good as I wanted it to be.

I saw a guy at a community orchestra sight-reading session the other night that had a really fancy inlay of colored butterflies. That was kind of cool.

Edited: July 5, 2019, 9:19 AM · Humans do form attachments to "inanimate" objects (although I'm not sure if a violin really qualifies as inanimate) so getting attached to a string instrument is not unusual. Of course, there are those that play instruments on loan from collectors or museums. The weird part of the strings is that they can last so long. A lot of other orchestral instruments simply wear out over time - no so for the strings.

I've mentioned that my "Mitenwald Strad" originally belonged to my wife's great grandfather. I had it restored, even had the plates "tuned" as part of an experiment in the early days of plate tuning. Put way more money into it than it is worth on the market. However, it is my singing voice, as ??? ???? (Mari Kondo) would say: "It gives me joy!"

I did have a "fling" with a contemporary Reinhold Schnable that never got along with me, at the suggestion of my teacher about a decade into my formal lessons. After a year or so I sold it for what I paid for it and went back to the family fiddle. I never got attached to that instrument - it never "gave me joy." (I did keep the "Adolph C. Schuster ***" bow though)

Looking forward my largest question is what to do with the instrument when I can no longer play. I want it to be another "Joe's Violin" because it too has a story (albeit not a tear jerking as Joe's). I know the stories that my Mother-in-law told of her grandfather playing in church, at family assemblies, and other venues. And heck, it's a teenager - a mere 15 decades old. It needs to continue to be played and loved for a long time past when I'm no longer around.

Anna, you are not alone in being attached to your violin.

July 3, 2019, 2:02 AM · Thank you all for sharing your stories, they have been a terrific and touching read! I also want to make clear that I of course I am very much ok with me violin being repaired, as I know it needs it and of course want it in the best condition possible. I trust my luthier 200%, I have seen (and heard!) some of their restoring work and it is stunning so I know it is in very good hands right now. I just hate that it’s gone and has stuff happen to it haha!

Something that has always fascinated me about strings is the way a really insane piece of human craftsmanship hasn’t been considerbaly improved in it’s basic working for 400 years and comes alive only by the skill of another human being. And them the contrast of being as Tony so beautifully put it very delicate, but at the same time last so incredibly long and take all that pressure from the strings like it is nothing. Isn’t it just really astonishing how these things work? They really are a special accomplishment of humankind in my opinion.

I’m already picking it back up again on friday and am a bit scared how much the soundpost postion will become an issue, but we will see and be positive :)

Edited: July 3, 2019, 7:24 AM · I recall one that got away story, I was in the North West of the UK trying out instruments in a music shop, and came across a gorgeous 17inch viola, with cut out, extremely comfortable to play. The sound was just divine, and the price tag was modest too, something I could have afforded at the time, but decided I didn't need it. That instrument is no longer there, but I do hope it is loved.

Another time, I was playing about on violins at my local violin shop. The luthier showed me a gorgeous Scottish violin, which was also just beautiful in sound. Far above my price range, but I do so wish I could have bought it!

My current violin will never go anyway, if I can help it. I would like to upgrade, but I simply don't have the heart to exchange it in.

July 3, 2019, 7:38 AM · Anna - the luthier should do the final adjustment of the sound post to your taste as you test it: you may want more G or more upper E etc. They can do magic...
July 5, 2019, 7:57 AM · Irma is around 100 yo and French and it was love at first sight.
I should have looked at more violins but I couldn’t see the point, and we’re very happy together. I have recently bought an electric to practice on, and have had to be sensitive about her feelings. . I would like to think that I would one day be good enough to need a better violin, but that’s a while away. I don’t think I could sell her to someone I didn’t know.
Edited: July 5, 2019, 11:03 AM · I must say that I have no "sentimental attachment" to my violin and certainly do not anthropomorphize it. I do care for it as I do also for my camera, my car or anything expensive that I own, but it is replaceable, Yes it has a unique character, beautiful sound etc. aren't all the instruments we choose like that and I take good care of it and would hate if anything were to happen to it but in the end if it were to be stolen/destroyed I know that I could and would find another one that I find equally nice (perhaps different however).
July 5, 2019, 1:25 PM · I, like others, am attached to my very first full-sized violin my mother bought me in the early 1980s. When I returned to the violin 3 years ago (after 25 years), it was in very bad shape. I have since spent an irrational amount of money to have it fixed.

I practice on it everyday along with my main instrument.

Edited: July 5, 2019, 3:57 PM · So, checking in to report: I got my violin back today.
It is in definatly better shape now: varnish repairs, scroll stable, old crack fixed. Polished up it looks great. The set up is quite a bit dffernt: bridge is a bit more towards the scroll (according to the Luthier it was way behind before and the bridge almost cello proportion height) and the bridge is lower now too. It is MUCH easier to play now.

Of course it sounds different too. The G string is an absolute wonder now, and I do think it got even more resonant. I know that now when the bridge is further towards the scroll, my sounding point changes too, and I think alot of it is getting used to it. But I can’t help but feeling it lost some of the softness/smoothness/mellowness it had before. It reaponds better, resonates better, but the E string just sounds too strong for me. They did adjust the soundpost after I asked two times, and it did get alot better, but she told me that if she were to move it further it doesn't stand as well anymore and might fall again.

I think in a way it does sound better than before but I think maybe I am
not a capable enough player to tame that much sound. I feel almost like I felt when I got it new, when suddenly playing a better instrument highlighted every insecurity and mistake. I can’t help but feeling a little sad because I miss some of the old softness. I didn’t really dare to ask for even more adjustment after she explained the whole it might stand wrongly part, because in a way I’m just not good enough a player and feel like I might not be taken serious if I am so nit picky (I want to point out that I actually am a bit nit picky - I supposedly have a better ear for violins than many at my playing level, at least my teacher said so several times during the process of chosing it-sometimes with surprise. I even noticed when he got a slight adjustment on his violin).

Maybe the last bit is just new strings. I currently have a Pirastro Gold E, Pirastro Violino A, Corelli Vivace D and Obligato G, and Maybe it’s just getting all Obligatos and a Wound E. I know sound adjustment can take some time, and it certainly still sounds distinctly like my violin but I’m still a bit sad :( I think many would prefer it set up this way. I can imagine that in 5 years I might want it that way too and it’s great to see how much it can do. But I do feel like it’s running away from me.

Edited: July 6, 2019, 3:25 AM · Anna - I sympathise with your evident distress! Not to the same degree but I've also found that the attentions of a luthier don't always result in what I would consider an improvement in the sound. The anomaly is that not many luthiers are also accomplished players; their criteria as to what constitutes a "correct" setup of the bridge and soundpost tend to be more dogmatic than pragmatic.

I hesitate to prescribe a solution (and I know that anything I say will be disapproved of by members of the profession) but I don't think there's any harm in experimenting yourself with the position of the bridge. What is important is less the absolute position of either the bridge or the soundpost, more their relative positions. You really don't want to be poking around inside the instrument but you may find that a slight shift of the bridge by a mm or two left, right, fore or aft delivers a sound you prefer. Just be very careful to keep it leaning back at a slight angle! We're told that the ratio of string length on either side of the bridge should be 6:1 but that I feel may be taken with a pinch of salt.

July 6, 2019, 5:02 AM · Steve, thank you! I agree with you, and have thought this before too. I also really think that many good players would way prefer it this way, and from an objective standpoint I think it is a better instrument. When I bought it I did so with the thought of “eventually I might want more focus and can probably adjust it to get it there”. The point being eventually. I played some more this morning and feel like I might get used to it or just need to really, really, focus on some bowing technique for a bit, which might be a good thing. My dilemma is that it certainly isn’t all bad, some parts I like better than before. I think the playability is so much better that it may even make for what I don’t like. I really feel like at this point this instrument set up this way is just too much for my skill.

My teacher AND luthier are on holiday at the moment, but I will consult with my teacher too before I make further decisions on changeing anything. I also think that if I go back after 3 weeks when the luthier is open again and am still unhappy they might be more agreeable to try other things :D they in generally are very accommodating.

July 7, 2019, 4:54 PM · I have to say, I also get attached to my good violins, because it was a long and arduous journey for me to acquire what I have now. I began playing the violin on my own with a violin I was lent at school. My parents were never supportive but had to give in to the school's recommendation in my getting private lessons. They bought me a secondhand outfit for $15, bow and case included. I remember the bow had no curve, but my parents would not spend on a new bow. I played that violin until I was 18, then they bought me a $400 one which to my ears was a big improvement, but my teacher at university was laughing at it. I made a promise to myself that one day I will have a great violin and I do now, since 1990.
If you care to look at it it's Cozio number 60159. I will never part with it and I get withdrawal symptoms when it's in the shop.

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