Breaking in a violin

Edited: September 2, 2017, 12:57 PM · I just got a new violin today as a suprise birthday present (Which I know is sort of a mess up with a violin but I won't complain). As far as I can tell from my very amateur knowledge, it seems like a decent violin (although not "expensive" in violin terms) and was twice as much as my previous one (this one was $1200). But when I first started playing it, I noticed the tone really wasn't much better than my previous one. Some of the notes are "sweeter" I think, but it lacks resonance and an open sound. Both came from the same shop and it's supposed to be a decently respected shop. Will "breaking in" the new one really cause the tone to become substantially better than the cheaper one? Also I heard you could do a "temporary" break in that wouldn't last as long as if you broke in by playing by setting a tuner to produce the note of a string and setting the tuner on the violin. Supposedly that string will become sweeter and clearer. Ever heard of this and will it cause any harm?

Replies (44)

September 2, 2017, 1:05 PM · In general, I think it is better getting an instrument you like from the very beginning, and not count with radical changes due to playing in.
September 2, 2017, 1:15 PM · You could play it for a while and see what happens, if you're satisfied and don't want a new violin.
September 2, 2017, 1:40 PM · If you dont like it at the beginning the chances are very low it gets that much better you will really like it, if even better at all.
There is an endless discussion with prominent people from the violin world on both sides, if there even is an effect of playing in (allthough it is clear that new instruments change over time by string pressure).
Dont expect to much from beeing played.
September 2, 2017, 1:43 PM · This might be a dud, too. See if you can take it back to the shop and trade it in for an instrument of the same price -- maybe even a different violin of the same "model".
September 2, 2017, 2:12 PM · There might be some slight change in tone if the instrument has been sitting/hanging idle for a prolonged period of time. It is worth a trial period. Also have your teacher play both instruments and see if you both can, or cannot, hear a difference between the instruments.

If your teacher can produce a much better tone that simply means you have work to do to play that instrument. Of course there are violins that "speak easily" and some that you have to work with to get that tone.

Exchanging an instrument should not be a problem with the shop. However, it may cause a family problem depending on how much emotional investment the family member put into acquiring the violin.

FWIW: Many years ago I purchased a "very good" violin on a set of recommendations (including my teacher's). Unfortunately, it did not "speak easily" and I got really frustrated trying to make it sing. My teacher definitely made it sing, but... Eventually I sold it for what I paid for it. Since I'm not a paid professional my family-fiddle is just fine for my purposes and, in my 70's it just doesn't matter for me.

September 2, 2017, 4:32 PM · Welcome to Bob Hoebart.

Breaking in is a very controversial subject. I think it occurs but some very knowledgeable people that do tests and research on this subject say a violins sound will not change much with many hours of playing in.

I think that if you are happy with your new birthday present then play away on for six months to a year and then bring it back to the shop for adjusting. They will check out your bridge and soundpost and tailpiece measurements and tweak these to be the best sounding it can be or more to fit your taste and style of playing.

You can spend days reading the information out there on various websites on this subject and then there is the famous Tonerite...

Edited: September 2, 2017, 5:02 PM · Violin myths die hard.
Edited: September 2, 2017, 5:40 PM · I had my Jay Haide from new several years ago, long before I started having real lessons, and I can attest to the fact that it sounds and plays much better in every way now than it did then.

Of course, when I bought it I was still on the lower slopes of the learning curve and the Jay Haide, whilst generally ok, sounded a bit quiet; now, after 7 years of good lessons I'm a lot further up that curve (the top of which is nowhere in sight) and both my violins sound far better than they used to. The JH now has a sweet tone it didn't have when I first had it. I wonder why? (rhetorical question!).

So there is that overridingly important factor - good teaching, I mean - that must be taken into account when a violinist still in the earlier learning stages takes on a new instrument, expecting to break it in over a period of time. Without that teaching factor the breaking in might even not take place, or not within a reasonable time frame, at any rate. To put it another way, the violinist needs as much breaking in as the violin.

September 2, 2017, 5:40 PM · Violin facts get killed by mythologists, too!!
September 2, 2017, 6:39 PM · In my relatively limited experience, some violins play in, others don't. Some seem to get improvements from allegedly snakeoil stuff like ToneRite, others make no difference. And people will argue to death about the validity or one or the other argument. ;)
In your case personally what I would recommend would be to thank thank thank thank! whoever gave you the violin for the wonderful present, but inform them that violins need to be chosen by the player; they may look similar but they are incredibly individual instruments. So you'll play this one you've got and get your teacher to check it out, but if it turns out it's not a good match, you may need to exchange it for a different one at the shop, but that doesn't mean you are any less grateful for the present they gave you, it's just that violins are stupid like that and aren't one-size-fits-all.
September 2, 2017, 7:32 PM · Good advice, Fox.
September 3, 2017, 3:25 AM · Yes, good advice.
While the violin is still new and doesn't have any wear and tear, see if you can arrange with the shop to try it against other violins they have in a similar price range, with the option of swapping it for something you like better. They should understand the problems of someone choosing a violin for someone else (particularly if the person who chose the violin does not play), and hopefully will accommodate you.
Edited: September 3, 2017, 11:45 AM · I've had a number of violins and in my experience they have not "broken in" very much. The ones that are good were good on day one - right from the maker's hands. Improvements to others have occurred through adjustments of sound post, change of bridge, and finding the best strings for the particular fiddle. Even my best ones have benefitted from such expert luthier modifications.

I have used a ToneRite and cannot say that it changed the place of any of my instruments in my "rankings." I think it most likely that whatever changes it might have made are due to changing the "fit" of bridge and sound post surfaces. Generally I hypothesize that any improvements to instrument sound or playability from vibration treatment is probably due to better "fitting" of the loose parts. I think aging wood can also be a factor - but at least two of "my" violin makers used very old wood in their making - as old as antique instruments.

More serious changes might be made by changing the plate thickness a bit - but before you even consider that kind of adjustment, a Krentz "wolf eliminator" can be used to simulate variations in upper plate thickness. I have found this can affect tone in various regions of instruments - even those without a wolf. However it was only good on the instruments I thought could use some improvement - not for those that I felt were as good as thy could likely be. On the "good" ones the Krentz had no effect at all.

I once played a 1698 Stradivari violin at the Ifshin shop and was not overly impressed (I had been astounded by the ex-Olé Bull Strad I played some 40 years earlier). I was later told that the Ifshin violin ended up wonderfully and was bought by the San Francisco Symphony for $2M -- just goes to show what expert adjustments can accomplish.

September 3, 2017, 6:19 AM · I wouldn't have payed more than $1.8 million!!
September 3, 2017, 6:49 AM · That's why you didn't get it! ;-)
Edited: September 3, 2017, 9:39 AM · Bo, That was one of the reasons.

Another was that I was in the shop to pick up two of my violins I had taken in for adjustments - and we compared all three along with an Andrea Guarneri that was making the rounds of bay area shops (at $300,000) at the time - and I was able to go home rather satisfied.

Final reason - no way could I afford either the Strad or the Guarneri. ;-D

Edited: September 3, 2017, 11:24 AM · Violins improve with time and being played. Fact.

However, never buy a violin you don't like with the expectation that it will end up as an instrument you love. Having said that, I bought a 1610 Brothers Amati whose final sound I could only imagine. It hadn't been played for many, many years. The price was reasonable enough that I could take the chance and re-sell to a collector if necessary. With a great set up, and many hours of imput, both in learning to get the best from it, and wakening it from its slumber, it is now simply superb.

To return to your problem. I agree with those who recommend returning the violin and choosing one you would like to work with now.

Cheers Carlo

Posted under my own full name in accordance with the rules of Vcom.

September 4, 2017, 10:06 AM · "Violins improve with time and being played. Fact."

Sorry, I have to disagree. SOME violins improve in tone over time and some don't. Some improve in response and some don't. Some get worse. This is especially true of less expensive violins, which may have a grade of wood or a graduation or arching that will just never sound better.

It's like saying that wine improves with time. Yes, certain ones do, like a good year of Cabernet. But a Beaujolais is ready to drink now and will only get worse with time--no one would put one in the cellar for 20 years.

Edited: September 4, 2017, 10:51 AM · Most violins at least change the same if they are simply strung up without being played and kept under tension. Some violins get worse over time, too.
September 4, 2017, 11:05 AM · Yes, trade it for something you like. For any new violin, at first play it at full volume, in tune of course. After about a year take it back to the maker to check, refit, the set-up.
September 4, 2017, 2:19 PM · Here's another consideration: a better violin will amplify the good in your playing, but it will also amplify the bad. I have had students who don't like the sound of a clearly (to me) better sounding violin a because the old violin, with its weaker tone and less complex voice, was aiding them in glossing over their deficiencies!
September 4, 2017, 5:51 PM · I would think of older violins usually having a more complex voice.
September 4, 2017, 6:14 PM · have you heard of our lords and saviors overtones :))) , thats the stuff
September 12, 2017, 11:35 AM · @Scott. You are right. I should have said, "Violins CHANGE with time and being played." A badly made, over wooded violin, will not improve significantly if at all. Poor varnish can also harden and choke a violin over time.

Cheers Carlo

Posted under my own full name in accordance with the rules of Vcom.

September 12, 2017, 12:06 PM · Btw, Carlo. Who made the wonderfull scroll on you profile picture?
Edited: September 12, 2017, 3:24 PM · Hi Marc

Brothers Amati 1610. It's my favourite fiddle at the moment.

Cheers Carlo

September 13, 2017, 4:10 AM · I think a more accurate description is "violins get progressively adjusted to your tastes with time" - for example, better fitting a bridge, adjusting a soundpost, fine-setting string height, etc etc... All these small adjustements, in my oppinion, are what is considered the "violin break-in", rather than some magical sound improvement due to vibrations.

Of course, I assume the wood of the violin is cured in the first place.

Maybe the OP should have the instrument set up and fine adjusted before anything?

September 13, 2017, 4:54 AM · As with most things that vibrate, the more you vibrate them the easier they vibrate, so there is an even scientific expectation that violins will get more resonant with time.
September 13, 2017, 5:13 AM · Thanks Carlo, a great scroll, even on the scale of the best.
Lyndon, there is the same amount of argumentations in the direct opposite direction. A theoretical approach on this problem is pretty useless. Way to complex for such a very oversimplified explaination. Wood should rather stiffen because you get compact parts with very high density by movement for example. Also unimportant to the vibrations, all I want to state is, that its not that simple.
My personal oppinion is, that the key is the equilibrium of forces. If you change pressure on the system (like stringing up) it has to find its new stable state (within the top plate, the gluing points, etc). This is happening slowlý. On some occasions vibrations help achieving this by jumping out a (maybe worse) meta stable state. Often it will fasten this process, somètimes not.
Again, this is my oppinion, not necesseraly right.
Theoretical approaches are not sufficient here.
September 13, 2017, 7:42 AM · As I watch people develop with their violins, it's less clear to me that the player is breaking in the violin and more clear to me that the violin is breaking in the player. To put it another way, over time the player learns how to best operate a particularly instrument.
September 13, 2017, 8:06 AM · As A violin dealer who doesn't play violin, I'm sitting on lots of instruments that haven't been played for a long time, sometimes decades, to say that they don't improve after being heavily played seems outright ridiculous to my experience, perhaps some people just don't notice the improvements, but I certainly do.
September 13, 2017, 8:20 AM · What "improves" is, in the short run (less that 20-40 years), response, and not tone per se.
I've broken in 4 instruments now, and the response does get better, and more consistent over weather changes. When I first got these various instruments, they'd be fussy: responsive for a few minutes, then refusing to speak for a while. And much worse in dry, warm weather--universally so. But the basic voice? Not much change.
September 13, 2017, 11:31 AM · I've experienced instruments getting louder. One instrument that hadn't been played for years, out on approval for 2 weeks with a real player that was playing it a lot, I would swear it sounded twice as loud after he brought it back.
September 13, 2017, 1:18 PM · I have never had experience breaking in a new violin. If I have a new bridge installed or soundpost adjustment I always notice a change in tone and I notice a subtle change for 1-3 days afterward. Some learned people on another site say that after a soundpost adjustment that that is the final sound and it will not change as a violin "settles in" to this new change and some cite tests with meters and graphs to back this claim up. But my ears kind of tell me otherwise and just because there was a minor adjustment made to my instrument does not necessarily mean the tone improves for a few days afyerwards, sometimes I think the sound gets seemingly worse to my ear.
September 13, 2017, 2:26 PM · I'm certainly not saying that new violins don't change over time, or that instruments that haven't been played for a long time don't change after being played.

Who is to say, though, that the change will be for the better? If we posit that instruments can change, and I think they can to a degree, we have to agree that the change could either be better or worse.

September 13, 2017, 5:04 PM · While its not unheard of, very few people report violins getting worse in tone when they are played in, improving in tone, or staying the same are the much more common reported options.
September 14, 2017, 5:29 AM · Lyndon,i had meant to get across that sometimes if my soundpost is adjusted it does not always sound better to me. I do wait for a week or so to be sure that an adjustment is not the sound I am looking for before altering it again. It is hard for me to write this in a logical manner so it makes sense of my experience.
September 14, 2017, 5:42 AM · With violin sound quality being extremely subjective, it makes no sense that any change would be definitively positive.
September 14, 2017, 9:25 PM · We're not talking about does a violin change when you adjust the soundpost, but rather when you take a violin that has been sitting for a long time and start playing it regularly, does it improve. Of course if you adjust the soundpost it may get better it may get worse.
Edited: September 15, 2017, 3:20 AM · I have found some new violins do 'break in' and their sound can change quite dramatically. But other violins do not change their sound at all. I can offer no reason for this difference.
September 16, 2017, 6:55 AM · @Lyndon -- I realize exactly what you are talking about.

Scenario: Let's say you prefer an instrument that is brighter, I prefer one that is darker. As an instrument "breaks in" it becomes brighter. For you it is a positive change, for me a negative one.

Sound is subjective -- you can't say that a change is definitely good.

September 16, 2017, 6:36 PM · Lets say a violin gets more resonant from breaking in, who's going to say more resonant is bad?????
September 16, 2017, 7:19 PM · Some violins are too resonant -- like a piano with the sustain pedal on. Heifetz said of overly resonant violins something like "I prefer that the violin stop when I do". Hehe. Now, yes, some amount of resonance is of course desired. But if the notes start to blur into each other in a way that is uncontrollable, that can be problematic.

I think I know what you're saying though -- sort of "waking up" an instrument that has been dormant. My point is that any change, even that, could be viewed as positive or negative depending on the listener/player.

September 17, 2017, 3:22 PM · Resonant is bad if it's bad resonance. I've heard violins that sounded like they were being played inside a coffee can. My violin sounded like that for a couple of days after I put Larsens on it. Then it was okay. Phew.

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