Is tone a factor of time?
I came back to the violin six months ago after an almost fifty year hiatus. I have a private teacher. He seems less concerned with instrument issues than I. He keeps saying he likes the sound of my violin. I’m not sure I do. He always makes the joke that our memories of how we think we sounded in our youth was probably a little worse than we remember. Well, I remember better tone. Much better.When I started playing in January I could not read music- or at least I didn’t think I could. I learned quickly. Or I practiced a lot. He started me in some Suzuki books. He and I amazed ourselves. Each week he moved me forward much faster than I thought I would have. But, generally I have been performing much better than I thought. Apparently my violin teacher in the late sixties and very early seventies taught me well. I’m now in a few Mazas and Wohlfahrt etudes. I found my old books and I’m playing things I played when I was 14-15 years old. My new violin teacher told me to buy Kreutzer, which I haven’t started yet. My first repertoire piece was Vocalise. While I can play it adequately, I find it difficult to master. I’m fighting my tone. I’m now playing Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto. My teacher didn’t say this, but I suspect he assigned it because it is a little less dependent on gorgeous tone as pieces from the Romantic era (to which I gravitate). But I’m still not liking my tone. I am on my second set of Obligato strings. I use Obligato rosin (too much? Too little? Generally I think I use what is adequate. I have a small amount of dust coming off, which I clean daily).
My question. Does good tone simply come with time and practice? Is it less dependent upon string choice and rosin choice? It’s just that I remember having much better tone when I was playing high school on the same violin. My violin maker was a guy with the last name of Hellmer. Lately people have told me that it wasn’t. But violins made by this maker have sold, at auction, for the exact amount that people have estimated my violin’s worth to be. I have a bow with an estimated value of $1.5- 2K per a quick estimation of a well known violin maker in LA. Any thoughts on tone? Should I not worry too much and simply keep playing? Will it improve as my technique gets better?
First, if your violin has not seen the inside of a luthier shop in 30 years, go there and get a good overhaul -- sound post, bridge, nut, fingerboard, different strings, bow rehair or hair-cleaning, whatever the luthier says you need.
It seems like you are not in a place in the repertoire journey where a student typically has a lot of insight into tone. I would follow your teacher's advice - I found myself making strides in developing tone while learning the Rode Caprices (there is always more that can be done).
Christian- I was a fairly good violinist as a kid from about 7 to 18. Although its been a long time, I was instilled with good techniques and a very good ear.
Paul- thanks for you thoughtful reply. I should have mentioned that the violin has been dissected by three excellent luthiers. I really wanted to have it completely restored. But each luthier recommended against it. Some young, stupid kid caused some structural damage to the thing back in the sixties which was repaired in a cost effective way. I wanted it restored as some sort of penance for being that stupid kid.
This is an interesting question. I returned to playing after nearly 30 years. I've completed my 3rd year since returning. My final repertoire as a teenager was Bach 3rd partita, Lalo SE, Mozart 5, Mendelssohn VC.
"Fighting for tone" is like the catchphrase for a poorly adjusted instrument. When I feel I have to wrestle with my violin to get a good sound out, I know right away something needs work (usually just a couple knocks on the soundpost or a different size string). Some violins also just have a more difficult character than others. When no amount of knocking does the trick, you should consider trading in the violin for another.
Let's not forget that 50 years is a long time. I for one would not trust my memory on something as ephemeral as my sound of 50 years ago.
Jocelyn, you raise several very good points. First of all, you were playing at a much higher level when I when I left. I went through a slow, painful two year burnout the first time around that still brings up some issues of regret.
Albrecht, there’s wisdom in your comment. Thanks. I think that is similar to what my violin teacher might say. He doesn’t seem concerned. This is all coming from me. I’m pretty hard on myself.
No offense taken Rob. It's my personal experience that working on more romantic and lyrical literature is what pushes a student towards playing "bigger", and where tone and variations in the kind of sound sought come to the forefront of awareness, and that typically, the time that teachers introduce Kreutzer etudes and Mozart concertos (which I think are played way too early in America) is a time in a generic student's playing where they are not really able to get that deep of a tone, even if they really want it. I'm sure many teachers could provide counter-examples of their students that had developed solid, burnished tones by then.
This might fall under the classification of “Ya pay a teacher for their expertise. Wouldn’t you actually want to relax and just take the teacher’s advise that you’re paying for?” Said by a recovering control freak! heck I started playing Meditation (which I played in a solo/ensemble festival in eight grade) simply because I’ve been obsessed about my tone. I played the first line probably 100- 200 times trying to get the perfect tone.
I wasn't suggesting you get your violin totally rebuilt, and I can understand your luthier's reluctance to do that. But they can check to make sure that the sound-post and the bridge are well fitting, as these are crucial to your sound.
No, I knew you didn’t suggest a total rebuild. That was me, at the time, wanting to restore the instrument to the condition it was in before I laid my grimy little pre-teen hands on it. Supposedly the sound post is in the correct spot. But I wonder if sound post positioning is universal. Could different violins be improved by a slight variation in the “perfect” spot. I might address that soon. It’s weird that you mention the bow skittering on detache’ strokes because that happened this weekend for the first time since I started playing again. I attributed it to bowing arm issues and worked at it from that standpoint. I started wondering if I like Obligato strings as much as I thought I did. I might try the Vision Solos and see how they sound on my violin.
Some things that might cause your tone to differ from your memory (in addition to what was already said):
Different luthiers have different approaches to post and bridge. Some will say the bridge actually matters more. If you have a way of monitoring that and putting it back to neutral, that could count for a lot. For some reason, bridges on my new instruments sometimes wander around.
This question is potentially simply answered. You mentioned taking this violin to three excellent luthiers, which suggests you probably have three excellent violin shops nearby. Visit them. Play the nicest instruments they have in stock (emphasize to them you want to try the best-playing, not the most expensive, things in their inventory).
If one reads my post carefully one will understand that it really isn’t about whether i would sound better on a Strad. It’s whether better tone is a function of practice and the time, I only even brought up any specifics about my violin to help others understand that I don’t expect to sound wonderful on an eBay special from China. Further discussion of my violin was initiated by other posters, to which I appropriately responded.
Francis- Yeah the violin is weird at times isn’t it. You aged me in your post. Ouch! I’m a very young 67. I can out hustle kids 1/3 my age. No offense taken. My violin teacher (who is in his early 50’s), when I asked why we weren’t working through Mazas etudes from beginning to end told me something to the effect that we’re not sure how much longer I have and he wants me to enjoy playing pieces and not just only work on etudes. I took that to mean that I should be practicing more and upped my practice time.
Stephen, some interesting thoughts. I had been wondering if the strings were more of a factor in tone than I had first thought. I have done a fair amount of reading as to the fact that there is no one best string- that a string that sounds great one on fiddle can sound terrible on another. I’ve tried Dominants and Obligatos so far. The Obligatos sounded far better on my violin than the Dominants. Maybe I will get some incremental improvement with other strings. I think I was using gut strings back in the pre-historic days. As a result of the damage I did to the violin when I was a stupid kid, I am almost forced to use a shorter bridge. One of the luthiers (who is a good friend of one of my nephews) gave me a shorter one he had lying around. Maybe I should see about an upgrade to that one. The difficulty is not acting like an ungrateful jerk for something he gave me.
So after this discussion I thought it might be fun to evaluate violin tone of a variety of different people. Laurie recently put up an article she wrote along with a link of African-American violinist Randall Goosby’s rendition of Adoration (no not the one written by Felix Borowski). This Adoration was written by an African-American composer, Florence Price. It is a beautiful, lyrical piece. Augustin Hadelich did a really cool thing. He asked people to record themselves playing this piece and send him the recording. He then played a piano accompaniment and then cut and spliced some of the players together to form a complete version of the piece. I really enjoyed watching this version as well as Goosby’s. But there are maybe 10-15 violinists in the video. Knowing that most recorded themselves on their smartphones, which of the players do you think has what we think of as great tone? Here’s a link to the YouTube video. Come back and share your thoughts. I might have a follow up comment after anybody that wants to post, is able to. https://youtu.be/WekUgTs8D4M
If you play something slow and easy, can you get the tone that you remember? If you can, then poor tone on the Mozart concerto is probably because it's too difficult. Certainly string technology has changed in 50 years. I don't suppose you used gut way back then, though.
Gordon, yes I played on gut strings back then. I do not think its a function of the tempo of the piece. Although when learning a new piece I’m sure my tone suffers as I am learning the piece itself and not working on making the piece sound better as a result of better tone.
The way my teacher explained it was that when you take on a harder piece, and the brain is thinking more about your left hand, it has less control of your right hand, and thus your tone degenerates, for a while.
That makes sense to me.
A shorter bridge? Well, that WOULD have a big effect on the sound. What necessitated the change? A collapsed neck? I'd get it reset in that case, if the violin is worth the trouble.
This is an online hearing test: https://hearingtest.online/
If you played gut way back then you really should try gut again (wound gut like Eudoxa, at least to begin with). I have always played on gut strings until fairly recently when I bought a couple of sets of "plastic" for budget reasons. Gut sounds better and reacts more readily to changes in bowing or vibrato.
When we listen to recordings of our favorite violinists and admire their tone, I sometimes wonder how much of the tone is the result of post-production work. TwoSet Violin had an episode on that topic.
I see your point Rob but I see a lot of live performances, too. Watch Aaron Rosand's YouTube video on tone and vibrato. I don't seriously believe videos like that are subject to significant post-production editing of the violinist's sound.
I think tone comes with practice. You can visualize in your mind where your bow should be in relation to the bridge. I don't advise looking at your bow while playing (unless you are using a mirror) but I find it helpful to visualize in my mind where my point of contact and where it should be.
Unfortunately, neither OP nor any of the responders acknowledged that the word "tone" implies many aspects of sound. To me it implies three things:
Paul, The secret to getting hearing aids is to get a proper fit and you need an audiologist who understands what you want as a musician. Feel free to contact me for free advice about the pitfalls I went through so you know what to ask about.
Buri- lots of good points. But the most important, in my humble opinion, is your connection between intonation and tone. I have found that to be of utmost importance. If my intonation is off, even a slight amount, the tone I seek is elusive. Thanks for the heads up on Simon Fischer. I have watched a couple of excerpts of his videos and his style is difficult to watch. I will try to get beyond that and maybe even try one of his videos.
Scott- It’s interesting that you mention #2- Use of bow to draw a clear, even, focused tone (including during spicatto). For it was when I began the third movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto #3 when I noticed my tone was actually taking a step backward. The portions that I am playing spicatto sound much too rough and crunchy.
I wanted to thank everyone for their responses to my post. It meant a lot to me that you would take time and discuss this with me. After being away for such a long time (as was pointed out, longer than some of you have been alive!), it is important to me that I work hard and practice smart so I can regain the ability I once had, and move on beyond that as well.
Violins don't play themselves. I strongly subscribe to the idea that tone is made by the player, not the violin. Irrespective of the make of strings, rosin, even the bow, I think it's possible to make a good tone on most violins in at least some music. Then you try a different kind of music and think "no". The music I play is technically straightforward and I've got a clutch of inexpensive violins on which I can make a sound I like. Some, however, that sound fine in lyrical salon pieces don't make the grade in flashy stuff or chamber music, but I suspect would sound fine in other hands.
But to answer the OP, I find that after a break it's my bowing that has deteriorated the most.
Steve makes a point. I remember when my daughter was playing her first solo recital, with a 1/2 violin. Book 3 and 4 kind of stuff. As the guests were arriving, her teacher took her violin to tune it and played a few bars of something. A huge sound exploded forth from the violin. Even my dad, whose hearing has been terrible for a long time, noticed the difference, and he asked me how that was possible. I said something to the effect of "that's why I'm hiring that guy for her lessons."
When I recently picked up my violin seriously after a long hiatus, I hated my tone. I practiced more. I got Simon Fischer’s books. I looked at videos. I took the violin to the luthier. I got new strings. I got a new bow. I got new music.
It could have been your sound post or your bridge or your tail piece or your strings or your rosin or your pegs or your fingerboard or your nut or your bow hair or ...
or a crappy violin......
I have a lot of catching up to do after a one week break, never mind several decades, beside what you remember doing as a kid is quite embellished compared to reality.
Rob, you suggest time and practice.
This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.