Can I practice and play on different violins?

August 20, 2021, 8:24 PM · I inherited a half dozen violins and I keep playing and practicing on different instrument every couple of days. Would this hurt my playing and my intonation. Is it better to play on one instrument only?

Replies (30)

Edited: August 20, 2021, 9:05 PM · I do that if I am not prepping for a concert or rehearsal (i.e., during this pandemic).

But it is probably better to select one instrument and concentrate on that one.

August 20, 2021, 10:05 PM · String players fret about the silliest things. Drummers, pianists, wind and horn players... they just sit down and do a great job with whatever is around / called for.

Personally I have 3 violins (all slightly different dimensions) and a 16 inch viola, and enjoy switching them around. My intonation is fine.

August 20, 2021, 10:12 PM · I have a 7/8 violin and a 14 inch viola which feel significantly different. I have no trouble switching, though I am strictly an amateur.
Edited: August 21, 2021, 8:08 AM · I'm aware that my intonation has gone somewhat to pot since I deserted my faithful violin of 20 years for a succession (harem?) of seductive mistresses. That's not entirely surprising since the vibrating string lengths among my current stable of 5 (yes, that's a metaphor mixed too far) vary by as much as 5mm which can't but have some impact on the correct finger spacing. There are also marked differences in the neck/body stop ratios so my shifting has become somewhat decalibrated too. These are subtle differences that I don't think the body can automatically detect and adjust to. Maybe it's not so apparent to a listener, but I do think it's a dangerous practice to adopt if you're a serious player.
Edited: August 21, 2021, 12:39 PM · Ted asked:
"Can I practice and play on different violins?"

Sure, but if the critical dimensions of the violins are much different, it will probably hold you back a little, should that be of concern.

Mr. Mather, I wonder how accurate your sense of intonation is. ;-)
It's likely easier to switch back and forth between viola and violin, where the differences are large enough to be easily learned, than to switch back and forth between different violins with slightly different critical dimensions, where intonation errors are more subtle, and don't hit you over the head quite so obviously.

August 21, 2021, 12:54 PM · I guess it will cost you some extra time to figure every aspect out about every one of them. So, if you have a big workload and little time, then better not. Other than that, it will give you lots of insight about what is your part of the sound vs. what is the instrument’s part. You will find out what you really like about each of them. Should be quite mind-broadening!
I wish I had the energy to do that! After buying my current violin, I thought I should take the former one out, every once in a while, and then, I also inherited one violin.
But I NEVER do it! I always focus on what to practice, and I simply dread unpacking a violin that I might have to tune for an hour, or take care of the bridge etc. I wish I weren’t that lazy!
Edited: August 21, 2021, 2:34 PM · My guess is that if you have six violins and you practice on all of them, you'll get better at switching between instruments generally. If you're preparing for an important performance, though, I would pick one and go with it.

I have a friend who is a first-rate chamber violinist. He told me that he doesn't practice with his performance bow until the last rehearsal or two before the performance. I don't know if he practices on his special violin. I will ask him. But we're talking about someone who had completely conquered the instrument and most of the chamber repertoire. Switching between violins -- or pianos -- is going to be easier for someone at that level than it will be for a student or amateur.

August 21, 2021, 2:44 PM · My teacher is always glad when she gets her main violin back from the shop. I can't imagine anyone regularly performing switching between violins more than absolutely necessary. It's anecdotal, but I read all the time about violinists getting a new strad or guarnerius, or even a new violin, and having to spend quite a bit of time learning how it works.

I would try and figure out which of the violins you like, and just make that your instrument.

August 21, 2021, 2:59 PM · I would say if you are an experienced player with a firm grasp of intonation/scales/arpeggios etc. then I would see no harm. If you are a beginner to intermediate student I would say no
August 21, 2021, 7:25 PM · Greetings,
personally I wouldn’t. There may some advantages in developing fluid ability to correct , assuming that your ear is that good. However, to my mind, it destabilizes the intimate relationship with the size and structure of the instrument as both visual and kin esthetic cues change. For example, in the RBP masterclass I cited in the Bruch 3rd movement thread, she talks about ‘no nose picking’ that is finding the notes by farting around plucking before entering. We should be able to hit notes spot on just by visual and muscular memory and these things have to be learnt in the practice room.
August 22, 2021, 12:16 AM · David, slightly different dimensions aren't really all that much of a problem. After all, if you listen to a decent player trying out unfamiliar violins, they'll still play in tune.

Where I find more issues is in neck width (especially when it's wider than I'm used to) and bout width, which may requires a slightly different upper-position shifting trajectory.

August 22, 2021, 2:45 AM · There are swings and roundabouts. What you lose in precision of execution you may certainly gain in the appreciation of different instruments and how to get the best out of them. Once upon a time I remember that when a strange violin was placed in my hands I could scarcely even get it to speak. Now I find it's great fun (what other reason is there for playing the violin?) to ring the changes and have learned that one's initial impressions can change quite significantly over weeks or months.
Edited: August 26, 2021, 9:31 AM · I agree with Lydia - and a bit of vibrato may give you (teach you?) intonation spacing correction by the 3rd played note. My 4 violins have VSLs of 322, 326, 328 and 328 mm - at least as I have measured them (I find it hard to precisely determine the stop position on the black nut (just too obscure for my old eyes).

Neck dimensions can also vary between violins and can cause differences in playing comfort and and almost everything else. Even very small differences in the curvature of the neck cross section at positions up to 3rd or 4th are affected.

As far as switching from violin to viola (or vice versa) I play ~14-inch violins and 16-inch violas and I find that the correlation between elbow angle and finger spacing to be nearly identical for the two instruments. That is, 3rd position on viola and 1st position on violin require nearly identical finger spacing AND elbow angle. You just have to get around the difference in neck dimensions. One way to do that (at least partially) is to change to tilt angle (side-to-side) - which also helps fingering the lowest string.

Two of my 3 cellos have the same VSL, the 3rd was a full cm longer and I did find that an inconvenience that caused some intonation problems. I solved that problem earlier this year by giving that nice 143-year-old cello (that I had owned for 72 years) to a son-in-law. I find differences in cello neck curvature cross sections to be no problem at all since only King Kong had a hand large enough to touch both sides of a cello neck while playing. However cello neck thickness (top to bottom) might be a bit of a problem for some players.

EDIT (8/26/21): I should add that differences in bowing can be a very important factor when changing instruments. I often use a different bow on different instruments and have to do things in different ways due to both differences in both bow and fiddle.

Edited: August 22, 2021, 11:11 AM · Lydia wrote:
"David, slightly different dimensions aren't really all that much of a problem. After all, if you listen to a decent player trying out unfamiliar violins, they'll still play in tune."

Agreed, as long as the unfamiliar violins aren't too dimensionally different from what the violinist is accustomed to.

People who play both violin and viola tend to be better at accommodating dimensional differences, since that needs to be part of their normal routine if they play half-decently.

Lydia, right now, I'm thinkin' that you are claiming that dimensions don't matter, except that you also seem to be claiming that the width of the neck does. Where would you like to land on this?

August 22, 2021, 12:53 PM · Thank you all for your wonderful comments.
August 22, 2021, 12:53 PM · Thank you all for your wonderful comments.
August 22, 2021, 3:41 PM · Many great violinists past and present owned and played multiple instruments. There are pros and cons either way. As a hobbyist, I enjoy collecting and playing violins.
August 22, 2021, 4:17 PM · Paul, talking from the other end of the scale, I can ensure you that I will sound as bad on any of my four violins (of which one is disassembled at the moment) and three violas. It really doesn't matter at all whether I switch instruments or not!
Edited: August 22, 2021, 6:09 PM · I have a friend, an excellent player, who has two nice violins, one about 352mm body length, the other around 360, with appropriate string lengths. I asked him once about the problems of switching and his response was something along the line of "Oh, is there a difference?"

Another time a Chicago SO player came in to pick up a 1/4 for his kid, took it and straight off whipped out a couple of perfectly in tune concerto passages.

I'd say whether there is a problem on not is highly personal, not inevitable.

As John Alexander comments, many great players have owned a (large) Strad and a (small) del Gesu at the same time and handled it fine.

Edited: August 23, 2021, 1:55 AM · I can't see body length per se as a problem and find it strange that this is the dimension usually considered critical and quoted in every violin's description. It seems logically inescapable, however, that when a player who is accustomed to a "normal" sized violin picks up one with a string length 2% longer their intonation will initially be 2% flat. Andrew will (probably) argue that the brain is aware of the 2% (approx.) increase in the elbow angle and compensates by also stretching the hand by 2%, but surely that won't happen automatically and will need to be learned.

I still seem to be at the stage where I have to consciously stretch my fingering on my longest violin, which clearly isn't ideal. More experienced players are likely to have a more finely calibrated bodily proprioceptive system, but I'd like to hear how they get on when confronted with a violin in which the body length and string length differ disproportionately from the norm.

August 23, 2021, 3:29 PM · Steve I believe Michaels comment on Individualism in this field nailed it. Probably there are players with a more proprioceptive approach, but as my former teacher taught me, "we're tuning with our ears, not with our fingers". I'm not an experienced player at all, and playing "in tune" is a neverending challenge, but jumping between instrument sizes or between violin and viola (and even da Spalla, if I have the rare chance to grab one) doesn't make a difference. My ears-to-left-hand nerve adapts within a minor third.

My playing is still lousy.

August 23, 2021, 5:19 PM · Steve - all I know is that it works on my violins, it worked when I took up cello and when I took up viola.

I credit the elbow angle - perhaps it is just sloppily sliding into the note and wiggling a bit OR may be it is just the good fortune of having some essential tremor that makes my fingers cover enough distance whether I want to or not!

Having seen Perlman slide up to some notes (and missing some) maybe it's OK to do it that way.

Edited: August 23, 2021, 5:51 PM · Steve, the reason body size is notable is because string lengths are often/usually proportional to body size. In my friend's case, I don't remember exactly, but the string lengths are probably about 6mm+ different, which is quite a lot.

For instance, a small del Gesu (body length of 352 mm) might have a stop (body edge to bridge) as small as 192 mm, where there are a few Strads (body length 359 mm) with stops as long as 198 mm, and that's just bridge location. If a repairer has set the neck to a 3:2 ratio (which is not inevitable, but common), the neck lengths are similarly displaced from normal, shorter for the del Gesu, longer for the Strad, for an even greater difference in string length than the 6mm stop difference. And both of those instruments are considered 4/4 and might live in the same double case.

Edited: August 24, 2021, 2:11 AM · Thanks Michael, that's very informative. I just measured two of my violins, both English about 200 years old with neck grafts. Their body stops are 191 and 203 mm, neck stops respectively 131 and 126, ratios 1.46 and 1.61 which seems like a pretty big disparity. I don't habitually rely on the position of the button to tell me when I'm in 5th position, but when I'm up there and going higher I have to consciously stretch my hand a lot further on the second violin.

@Andrew and Nuuska - I just wish I could occasionally forget about tuning with my ears so I could use them for other things. I've owned violas of various sizes and can usually make the swap from the violin fairly quickly, but it involves a lot of wiggling and it's only after a few months' unmixed experience with each new viola that I feel my tuning is as secure as it is (was) on my violin.

But happily, now being pretty well retired from the concert platform (back of) I'm more stimulated than frustrated by the situation!

August 25, 2021, 6:48 AM · I am strictly a hobby violinist. I do practice on different instruments - one I inherited, my main instrument and one I bought "for fun" when it was on offer - and I find it helps me view pieces in different ways. When I am stuck, I often change the violin and the different tone make me view the piece in a different light and possibly also relaxes me a little, just because it sounds different, so that I don't become more and more tense in practising difficult passages.
I think especially if you have a main violin that you play most of the time and that you usually take to lessons and performances, playing another violin once in a while can make practicing just a little more interesting.

It might be a problem if your violins are very different in handling, one being smaller oder slimmer, one being very loud etc. so that you always have to adjust a lot.

August 26, 2021, 7:51 AM · Most better violins these days are either made, or have been modified to bring them to a fairly standard set of dimensions, including vibrating string lengths and proportions, and scroll heel and neck heel shapes and locations. Why? Because most better players want them that way, and have for 150 years or so. There's something attractive about the notes being in the same place.
Same with pianos, which have largely become standardized at a 6.5 inch octave distance.

As with anything, there are exceptions of course.

Edited: August 26, 2021, 9:04 AM · While I agree to some extent when possible, this has not been my experience with the type I was talking about. . .the extremes of the best examples. Within limits this is done, of course.

In fact, with some of the really old makers their characteristic sound is too solidly tied to these measurements to change them too much. But for a "normal" sound, yeah, a normal string length is part if that.

I don't think long Strad owners want them to sound like their del Gesus, though, nor is is reasonably possible to get them to the same string length.

August 26, 2021, 9:36 AM · Will giving a long Strad a conventional (or shorter) string length make it sound like a Del Gesu? I think there's a bit more going on.

Long Strads can be given a conventional vibrating string length (and have been) by moving the bridge north, along with using conventional measurements when a neck graft is performed.

August 26, 2021, 11:54 AM · Yes.
You want the vibrating string length, curve of the bridge, string spacing at the bridge and nut, curve of the fingerboard, to be about the same. Also, have the same chin-rest and shoulder-rest.
I do most of my practicing, rehearsing, and teaching on violin #2 with a cheap bow. My outside violin, #3, gets a lot of use, especially this year. It extends the life of bow hair and and expensive strings. Using a cheap, slightly heavy bow is like jogging with heavy shoes; you have to work harder.
Those fortunate players that have major league instruments should probably Not do ordinary practicing on that instrument. Some major soloists have had modern, exact, antiqued, copies made, for practicing and travel.
Edited: August 26, 2021, 4:54 PM · Michael Darnton wrote:
"In fact, with some of the really old makers their characteristic sound is too solidly tied to these measurements to change them too much."

I don't see these as being either "fact", or "solidly tied". Much more depends on the skillsets of the people doing the setup and sound/playability adjustments, including string choices, such as damping, and mass per unit of length.

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