Most significant upgrade/change in your violin/fiddle/viola

Edited: January 9, 2021, 7:48 PM · I'm searching for ways to improve the general sound of my Stentor Conservatoire I. Practice is key, I know. But in the persuit to maximize sound quality, I wonder what gave the most significant change in your instruments aside from hours of scales? Or if anything helped at all?

It's already been setup by a luthier. I've changed the strings to D'Addario Preludes and the next set will be Thomastik Dominants in the next few days and hopefully I'll be able to upgrade the cheap bow that came with the instrument. I'm currently experimenting with a number of rosins (namily Thomastik and Pirastro). I'm contemplating replacing the tailpiece...if only for the esthetic reason to match it with the light brown Flesch-style chinrest that replaced the previous Ebony Dresden-style.

Replies (23)

Edited: January 9, 2021, 9:03 PM · Probably the bridge. I had one where the string action was a bit too high. New strings make a big difference as well as peridically checking that the instrument is in tune with itself.

Rosin can make a difference in my opinion. My favorites are Kaplan Art Craft light and Baker's. I also like Andrea solo rosin (this imparts a bigger sound to my ears so I use it more sparingly).

Edited: January 9, 2021, 10:00 PM · A real upgrade would be to sell it and buy the Verona, which is already a "professional Stentor model" for 415€. The out of the box Verona with Tonicas (that come with it) is a lot better than the Conservatory 1 with whatever strings or mods you put on it, there's no comparison.
Edited: January 9, 2021, 10:32 PM · Proper setup - professionally installed and adjusted bridge & soundpost - these are the things that made big differences to my violins.

However the final "icing on the cake" has been installing strings that thrill my ears every time I play (finally) - all 4 of my violins. I have found it takes different strings for the different violins. It has been a long search to finally be satisfied with the currently available "best" strings. I'll tell you what they are, but first I will tell you that a professional dealer should be able to make recommendations based on how your instrument responds to whatever strings are on it now.

First off if it sounds good and responds well with Dominants an expert might be able to recommend possible improvements. If it doesn't like Dominants, try Tonicas - if those are good - you might request possible improvements. In either case, you might just stay with those strings.

If you have the financial means you can keep exploring but it can be a long process.

I now have 4 violins:
Violin 1 came to me from the maker in 1952 and sounded gorgeous to me with Pirastro Eudoxa strings. But more than (perhaps) 20 evolutions over the years I have ended up with a Thomastic Peter Infeld platinum-plated E string and Pirastro (medium) Evah Pirazzi Gold A, D & G strings. Nothing else matches the sound on this violin strung this way.

Violin 2 came to me from the maker in 1972 - probably strung either with Dominants or Eudoxas. It is finally strung with a set of Warchal Timbre strings, but with a Warchal Avantgarde A string (that sounds better on it than the Timbre A of the set). I never really liked this violin until this final string setup.

Violin 3 came to me in 1974 from a dealer on the southern coast of England (but was made in Madrid, Spain by a maker I have since met) with a set of Dominant strings. I have tried almost as many string changes on it as with Violin 1 and it now is strung the same way as Violin 1. This became my favorite violin as soon as I got it and remained so for at least 40 years.

Violin 4 came to me from the maker in 2000 (probably strung with Dominants). I was not happy with its sound and I sought improving strings for 19 years - but most recently, under a full set of Warchal Timbre strings it has become the violin I play most often since COVID-19 struck. I have not had a chance to hear how it reacts to ensemble playing but hope to resume playing with other people later this year.

While Violin 2 & 4 sound and play wonderfully to me with the Warchal Timbre strings, Violin 1 & 3 sound weak with those strings. All 4 of the violins sound powerful with the Violin 1 & 4 stringing, but 1 & 3 are much improved in response and sound with the Warchals.

If I can restrain myself I will continue to use these same string setups on my violins.

It's best to get advice from someone who can judge your instrument in person.

Edited: January 10, 2021, 4:08 AM · In marked contrast to Andrew (and I suspect most of the fraternity) I don't think strings, rosin or tailpiece make a great deal of difference to sound quality. Today we're confused by choice, fooled into thinking there's an important difference between Omo and Daz. And if you want to stay on good terms with your luthier, don't suggest any change to his set-up, let alone the bridge!

If there's anything specific about the sound that you dislike your luthier may find a tweak to improve it, but when it comes to general sound quality I think the concept of "upgrade" is illusory. Your violin is what it is, and almost any violin can be made to sound pretty good if you work at it hard enough.

January 10, 2021, 4:51 AM · Greetings,
playing lots of scales probably isn’t the answer although it helps.
Try looking at Simon Fischer’s book ‘Tone production’ which contains pretty much the five most important tone production exercises in string playing history explained with great clarity.
Also Alexander Technique...
January 10, 2021, 5:00 AM · I'm absolutely with Steve Jones. And, without being judgemental, I don't see the point in investing hundreds of $/€ into an instrument that's part of a $300 "outfit". Not because I generally dislike cheap factory instruments (in fact, one of my violas was purchased for €290 with a fake label, and after installing a new bridge and soundpost it's a fairly usable instrument), but because I believe it is a waste of money if you're on a budget.
January 10, 2021, 7:27 AM · Dear Mark, it is a common trap to fall in. Although you say you already know that practice is the key, it may be that you simply do not know enough yet about violin playing, bowing and sound production, finger placement, intonation, all crucial aspects of technique (and not just "scales") that create your sound. There are no shortcuts. You first have to deserve a better violin, so to speak, by learning how to properly play it. Sorry if this sounds derogatory, I don't know your level (would be good to put some brief bio here on the site so that people know your background and better discussions can arise in this way). There is this great quote (mentioned recently here in another thread) about a violin teacher telling their student: Perlman can make your student violin sound like his Strad, and you can make his Strad sound like your student violin :-)
January 10, 2021, 8:27 AM · Sounds like you have worked hard to find great upgrades. But I think your next step ultimately will be to upgrade your instrument.

I agree with Steve and Nuuska, there is no point in sinking lots of money into a violin such as a Stentor Conservatoire (which are decent instruments to me), when you may well find you would like to upgrade your instrument or find a better bow in the future.

Keep up the scales, you are doing yourself a favour!

January 10, 2021, 11:06 AM · It doesn't matter if they're playing a Stradivarius, Del Gesu, modern which purports to compete or exceed, etc., one can hear when professionals play out of tune, which they do at times and did more commonly historically, and as learning violinists we also develop our ability to hear intonation better as we learn how to play more in tune.

So, without any doubt, my answer to the question of what can a student do to sound better is to learn how to play more in tune, which comes down to two distinct parts - to know what the desired pitch is, and to approach it with greater accuracy.

Edited: January 10, 2021, 11:35 AM · Last summer I spent a lot of time and research to determine how to make my $1k workshop intermediate student violin sound better. It was fine in 1st position, any higher than 2nd, odd things started happening with the sound. All the details don't matter for this post. Finally a local luthier came out and bluntly told me that it wasn't worth the expense to fix or upgrade more than I had already done.

Finally, with the help and advice of both teacher and luthier, and several blind tests, I wound up with a refurbished 18th century violin that only cost a few hundred more than my workshop violin. It has a beautiful rich sound in all positions - certainly higher than I'm currently able to play.

I still have to do the hard work, focus on intonation, improve my reading skills, etc., but my violin is no longer fighting me. For not much more than my first violin, I now have one that I will never outgrow.

All of this is to say that I agree with the comment that sometimes the best upgrade is another instrument. Sometimes the best solution is to focus on more practice, or practicing smarter. Take your time as you consider options, and if there is a luther in your area you can take it to for evaluation that you trust, that is even better.

Edited: January 10, 2021, 12:05 PM · "You first have to deserve a better violin, so to speak, by learning how to properly play it." Don't you think this is a little puritan, Jean?

I am not advocating giving a Stradivarius to a beginner but if you have access to a good instrument: Play it for God's sake!

I do agree with the advice not to spend too much money on a cheap instrument (just like you would not put top of the line appliances into a rental apartment).

Edited: January 10, 2021, 1:27 PM · I cut my bridge on the very thin side. Removing mass on the G side of the bridge, especially at the feet and the top corner, helped my violin boom a lot more. The catch is that you need to know your violin can handle / needs this kind of modification---else you'll be left with a really disgusting sound and an inoperable bridge. You can also move the soundpost around, although that's more like if you were turning the tone knob on a guitar than totally altering the sound of the violin. Anyways, if a luthier has already seen your instrument, I wouldn't worry about these things.

Tailpieces shift the tone a little here and there but the difference is subtle. Heavy tailpieces make the sound a bit warmer. Very light tailpieces, the opposite.

The simplest and cheapest way to experiment with new sonic thrills is to change the strings. I like Aquila plain gut. It's totally different from mainstream synthetic strings, so you might find it an exciting alternative.

January 10, 2021, 3:10 PM · Yes Albrecht is right in pointing out that my post was too puritan. I apologize and retract it and wish Mark all the best.
January 10, 2021, 3:40 PM · I agree with those who have said that it makes little sense to try hundreds upon hundreds of dollars on strings, rosin, tail pieces, bridge jobs and other expensive operations in the hopes of realizing significant improvement in a low-end student violin. All that money would be better applied toward a different (better) instrument. If there are small modifications to your bridge that can be made inexpensively, or if your sound post can be adjusted, that's different, but it sounds like you've tried all of that.

I don't agree that strings make little difference. They can make a difference. I noticed this when I switched my viola from Dominant to Obligato. But you just have to ask yourself how many sets you're willing to try and at what cost. On my violin I have tried three different sets: Evah Pirazzi, Vision Solo, and Larsens. The Larsens were terrible and the other two were fine, and I chose the Visions as being slightly better.

And now I will write something that is likely to be unpopular: I don't agree that most luthiers or the salesperson at the Big Violin Dealer Store have any kind of special gift for choosing strings for your instrument. They're very likely, however, to stroke their chins and say "hmmm..." and take a long draft on their pipe while deciding that you need something different than what you already have. "The emperor has no clothes."

January 10, 2021, 4:59 PM · No offense taken Jean and no need for apologies. I completely understand you. I've been playing (electric) guitar for near 22 years and 'feel' that instrument and all the equipment that accompanies it. Improving tone, at least in my opinion, is much less complicated.

I've been consistent at the violin, however, for about 8 months. It is a different beast. So I'm keen on hearing literally all takes and opinions.

January 10, 2021, 5:59 PM · Greetings?
Paul , your so right about many shops and luthiers not fully understanding the effects of strings. Years ago I tried some violins from a new , very talented maker that were being choked to death by that super expensive , very hard string that so many soloists seem to be using these days. Name forget. Pirrazi maybe? I like the way the spell checker changes it to ‘pirating’
A well set up instrument does make a big difference. The problem is checks and balances. A proper set up can cost an arm and a leg and without those playing can become a little tricky. Sometimes we just have to be patient and do our best.
BTW one of the fastest ways to improve sound other than the aforementioned tone development exercises mentioned. above is something else I learnt from Simon Fischer. That is, I guess you know that every note you play has a very clear secondary version of the same note ringing simultaneously. If you focus all your attention on this note rather than what you feel is the actual note your playing will immediately improve , not only tonally but in a variety of small but significant ways.
January 10, 2021, 11:12 PM · I agree with Paul.

A Stentor Conservatoire is a roughly $400 outfit. A set of good strings is about $100. New bridge is about $100. Set-up in general can run you another $100. At that point you might as well buy another, better violin that's properly set up from the start.

January 11, 2021, 5:58 AM · The pricing, fortunately, is quite different here. In USD:
The Conservatoire outfit is 320. A full setup from a luthier is 40 in my city, upwards of 80 (for this violin) in larger cities. D'Addario preludes are 20, Thomastik Dominants are 65, Obligatos clock in at 100. Luthier kept the original bridge.
I think the cost of strings is a separate subject. Buying a used or new instrument I would have my doubts the strings sold on that instrument are a) The actual 'high quality' strings a seller makes them out to be. b) Are fresh.
January 11, 2021, 11:06 AM · Hours of open string practice :)

On another violin board, we have regular monthly recording challenges with repertoire of different levels (a beginner, intermediate, and advanced), and almost universally the best advice to someone on the beginner (and even some intermediate) level is to work on open strings: long bows, short bows, staccato control, string crossings etc... These are the ways that you can learn how to draw tone out of a violin. Even if you are progressing into higher, let's say, Suzuki books as an example, you should be able to return to play Twinkle Twinkle at a more advanced level.

But on a wider note for you: in the modern age of internet "research" and consumer goods, there is a burning desire to be able incrementally improve parts of your instrument to produce the best results. We see this with, for example gaming PCs, audiophiles, sports players, electronic music makers, custom cars.

The problem with a violin is that meaningful upgrades cost a lot, and violins that aren't at a certain level (which may start at around 10x the cost of your current fiddle) simply don't respond to these incremental upgrades. It's not like a pc where a properly motivated DIYer can upgrade a graphics card in 15-30 minutes, or a tennis racket where new-fangled high tech strings will cost $30 parts and labor.

A really good luthier once told me "Setup doesn't improve the sound of a violin, it brings out the sound that the violin already had. You can't put something into a violin it never had to begin with", a statement that has been echoed by other luthiers who work on high end instruments. And at $400, you may be quite limited.

The only setup thing I can see mattering is to make sure the bridge, fingerboard and nut are at the proper height to develop good technique. Unfortunately, even a cheap bridge and nut replacement properly cut will run at least $100 (more if you live in a major city).

If you're really committed to incremental upgrades, renting an instrument will be a far more financially viable path, and the renting shop, provided you keep the instruments in good condition, may even allow you to swap instruments within the same price band.

Edited: January 11, 2021, 2:12 PM · The Conservatory I is a 170€ outfit these days, very far from 400€. For 415€ you get the Stentor Verona outfit which is a lot superior, it's not in the student category but in the Advanced.
Edited: January 18, 2021, 4:07 PM · From a £20 Boosey & Hawks viola "built to withstand a school environment" (i.e. like a tank) to a £100 JTL, which I still use half a century later (now insured for €4000). A huge gain in subtility!

Equally "significant" is my recent acquisition of a model inspired by a Da Salo "lyra viola" of 1561 (in The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), a wide, tubby, 2-cornered model by Bernard Sabatier, Paris. Non nasal, a plummy contralto timbre, with a warm A-string!

Edited: January 21, 2021, 7:00 PM · I agree with Buri on working on tone production and use of Alexander technique. I've been working from The Dounis Collection for about a year now (F.M. Alexander was a contemporary of D.C. Dounis!) and have reset my technique to be able to play without a shoulder rest. I can legitimately say that I can hear the true tone of my "relatively inexpensive" instrument. For me, elimination of tension in both hands was the most significant change in my playing, specifically with sound production.
January 21, 2021, 7:18 PM · Amai?
I also find Feldenkreis very helpful. There is a series on you tube called Feldenkreis with Alfonse. The five lesson beginner series is superb for violinists.

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