Chopin Piano Competition

October 6, 2021, 7:48 PM · I don't know if anyone has been following the competition, which is going on NOW, but these pianists are playing at a stupendous level.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSTXol20Q01Uj-U5Yp3IqFg

It's pretty enlightening to hear the little differences between players playing the same pieces, and I always find myself thinking, when I hear really great pianists, I wish I could model my phrasing after them.

So to my question, what can a violinist learn from the phrasing decisions of pianists, what can actually transfer from piano to violin, and can you think of anything you've picked up from the piano specifically?

Oh, and any favorites in the competition, so far?

Replies (39)

October 7, 2021, 4:55 AM · Phrasing can come from deep inside the music, whatever the instrument..
October 7, 2021, 5:34 AM · I confess I've never thought of piano music as making a suitable model for violin phrasing. Chopin in particular with his call for exaggerated (IMHO) rubato I consider about as far as you can get from the quasi-vocal style the violin is best suited for and which I frequently attempt to emulate.
Edited: October 7, 2021, 7:23 AM · The pianist suffers the disadvantage that a note played must decay at a predetermined rate. So a phrase of slow quarter notes, for example (or any note value) played at mezzo forte will not be mezzo forte throughout -- there will be peaks and troughs. This feature creates a different kind of drama that sounds more contrived on the violin and therefore is emulated very sparingly (accented, slurred phrases). Thus the "disadvantage" can be turned to advantage.

The pianist has another subtle weapon -- the ability to exaggerate legato so that notes actually overlap in time. In a linear phrase the violinist can only do this when changing strings and usually they are taught to minimize that effect. I sometimes record myself on the piano by capturing MIDI from my digital keyboard. I find creating that overlap is essentially impossible except at very slow tempos, and of course I can see that very plainly when I edit the MIDI information in my DAW. But of course I haven't nearly the skill of these players. It would be interesting to see what their Chopin and Rachmaninoff looks like in MIDI form, i.e., whether "overlap" occurs or not in a run of 16th notes. (Actually I doubt it.) I can get the overlap, of course, by editing the MIDI data and it sounds very different that way.

I also would be curious to learn how the dynamic range of the two instruments compares -- in the hands of top players.

Edited: October 7, 2021, 8:59 AM · I was thinking of the phrasing of long arcs in the music.

The piano cannot directly imitate a sustained line, but a fine player can finely dose the finger-falls, even inside a chord.

Our upright piano even has the middle Sostenuto pedal which will sustain depressed notes while those following are played staccato. Good for Debussy etc, and for orchestral reductions. (Cost an extra €1k!). Only my chidren use it..

A violin cannot match the power of a piano, and the poor pianist must play more softly, must no less dynamically, than usual.

October 7, 2021, 9:56 AM · I'm no expert, but I think we violinists would probably profit more from imitating singers. Not pianists.

As others have mentioned, a piano's sound fades out with time. Besides, there isn't really that much you can do with a piano's sound. A pianist just has to press a key. There are only so many ways to press a key.

Of course, I know that you can vary the dynamics and articulation on a piano. But ultimately, it's nothing compared to what a violin is capable of.

I personally find the idea of learning from pianists to be very odd. I don't think there's much they can offer.

Edited: October 7, 2021, 10:20 AM · I wanted to avoid the obvious vocal comparisons precisely because I have a sense that there is something to be gained from the particular compensations that pianists make to the limitations of their instrument that could be a useful tool in phrasing on violin, but I'm still groping around for a meaningful thesis.

Maybe, like Paul mentioned, some of the features can sound contrived when applied to the constantly generated sound of the violin under a single bow, but maybe it's more a question of adjusting other parameters in that case to bring the overall phrasing into proportion.

Part of what I'm getting at is precisely the rubato that I find isn't a all that present in a lot of violinists' playing - Is it really unvocal, or are violinists afraid of a little space? My hunch is that the pianists have a really refined rhythmic sense that most violinists don't (aside from perhaps players steeped in folk or pop traditions).

I'll have to keep thinking, because there must be a way to play, say, the Chopin Nocturne transcription on violin in a way that doesn't sound treacly. I can't stand it even in the hands of the greats, but is it because the piece is inherently ill-suited for violin, or is it because the players are thinking too violinistically (or maybe it's just my problem)?

Edited: October 7, 2021, 10:57 AM · "...particular compensations that pianists make to the limitations of their instrument..."

Christian I understand where you're coming from and I think this is a great thread. I agree there "should be something there" but I can't really put my finger on it either. In my previous post I grabbed a couple of pieces of low-hanging fruit.

I'm not sure a pianist would have "limitations" foremost in his or her mind. When I play the piano, I really don't think about the fact that I can't do vibrato. I do think about polyphonic voicings.

As someone who plays violin and piano about equally well, I think there is a lot for violinists to learn by listening to pianists. Some of the bigger-picture things include forming overall conceptions of solo works -- this is harder on the violin and obviously the solo piano literature is enormous, but I would argue that pianists are better at the "storytelling" aspect of solo playing, perhaps because their solo literature is more suited to that. To mention something very specific, I think violinists could take lessons from pianists in baroque ornamentation.

Edited: October 7, 2021, 7:08 PM · Milstein learned a lot by transcribing Chopin works for violin. Some practical technical things, of course-- but also looking for that blend between vocal expressiveness and precision that pianists are stuck dealing with.

I've been listening a bit to different pianos recently, at least virtually. Bluthner is a German brand that has consistently sounded different from most others. They have their own label now, and some very good recordings, some of which are on YouTube. The Bluthner tone is one that makes the piano sound more like a string ensemble than a percussion instrument. https://youtu.be/kYr17kPXHso
A real challenge for the pianist, but also full of some useful lessons for the string player.

October 7, 2021, 11:29 AM · I recommend reading the book "Piano Playing With Questions Answered" by Josef Hofmann.

I read it many years ago (and apparently still have it on my Kindle - according to Amazon this morning).

At the time I read the book I tried some of the physical things Hofmann described in the book on a really fine piano - and they really work - such things as varying the part of the finger tip/pad you apply to the keys. My son-in-law seems to play the piano with the kind of audible sensitivity you could translate to string playing.

October 7, 2021, 11:36 AM · I play both.

Both are musical instruments, but the piano is a percussion instrument. The player can control which, when and how a single note/pitch is struck, and how it ends, but nothing between. It has a range of bass notes available which a violin does not, and many notes can be played simultaneously using all of the fingers. Polyphony is available that is not on a violin.

A violinist can control a single note continuously, adjusting pitch and volume between. He can play two notes at the same time, but has to split three or more sequentially.

For details - a pianist ordinarily plays note with hammers striking all three strings, and can use the right pedal to damp them or not. The left pedal ("soft") on an upright moves the hammers closer to the strings, but on a grand piano, which has a different hammer action, moves the hammers to the right, so they strike just two or one of the strings, giving a different sound. The middle "sostenuto" pedal is used to hold dampers off particular notes, so they last longer. It is not used often except in advanced music for special effects.

To me, a piano is always slightly "out of tune," while a violin may be played at fully accurate pitches in any key. Pianists argue endlessly about how their piano notes should be tuned.

A violin has available a range of expression that has to be "faked" on a piano. A piano has a volume that is not available on a violin.

October 7, 2021, 4:37 PM · Greetings?
a very shallow contribution from me. Violinists typically sit staring at a single line of music all day long trying to get the damn thing in tune. Awareness that the ebb and flow of the music is driven by underlying harmony may be almost non-existent. The piano is simply something we tack on one week before the audition so we are ‘accompanied.’
Christian is right. I remeber on of my good teachers preparing for a recital that included the kreutzer sonata. He told me that he learned so much from the superb musician who was accompanying him. Thus, I think it is essential to get the whole sound of a work in your head and play with good accompanists as much as one possibly can. I believe the kind of musical thought Christian is talking about has a profound impact on our musicianship so for example, listening to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg variations may be as useful (?) as listening to your favorite violinist when looking for the depths of say, a slow piece of unaccompanied Bach.
Cheers,
Buri
October 7, 2021, 5:39 PM · @Stephen. At my chamber orchestra rehearsal yesterday, in the music department of one of Bristol's oldest schools (founded by Henry VIII), we found that a Bruthner grand had been provided. Magnificent instrument, almost new, judging by its appearance and sound – I agree with your comparison. We were doing an initial run-through Beethoven's “Emperor” which we'll be performing shortly before Christmas. Our pianist was delighted to have a Bruthner to play on, remarking that it was a great change from the usual Yamahas he so often had to play.

The run-through went remarkably well, the final movement being taken at a cracking pace. When our pianist had left we learnt that his day-time job was that of a British Rail High-Speed train driver – which explains the speed of the final movement!

October 7, 2021, 10:24 PM · A question based on Buri's observation, "Awareness that the ebb and flow of the music is driven by underlying harmony may be almost non-existent.". I believe that's true. There's a huge barrier to entry in playing the violin. But was it always this way? I'm thinking of Kreisler's arrangements for violin and piano of solo Bach and Paganini. Has the modern approach to perfection of technique made us lose sight of the depth of the music?
Edited: October 7, 2021, 10:41 PM · I don't think Chopin is really that antithetical to violin phrasing and tempo. String players are more used to playing in ensembles or at least with pianists, which tends to makes rubato much less organic as the tempo has to be shared by more than one person. Having had a Polish piano teacher and therefore played more than my share of Chopin, I can at least say that Chopin demands an acute awareness of how all those ornate runs fit into the pulse; you can stretch it as needed when playing solo, but it has to make musical sense and the run still has to match the underlying beats in the other hand. String players could definitely learn something from that.

For me, the biggest pitfall in converting from pianist to violist has been in articulation when playing Baroque music, because some of the stylistic conventions in keyboard and string music of that era are opposites. In keyboard music, at least when played on the piano, long notes need to be detached for emphasis. On strings I have to be wary of the bad habit of playing Bach as if it's keyboard music and playing long notes staccato.

Edited: October 8, 2021, 2:34 AM · Way too much to think about here but just a few thoughts that will probably annoy everybody:
1. Continuous quasi-vocal sound is the essence of classical music. After singers, woodwind players do it best. The other day I heard an old CD of Nick Daniel playing the Bellini oboe concerto - bellinissimo!
2. Violinists generally don't do much rubato because 99% of violin music is for ensemble; it's too hard to get it together and then risks sounding contrived.
3. Solo pianists do rubato not only because they can but because they must, to disguise the fact that they can't crescendo through a note.
4. Most violinists don't think much about phrasing but let it happen naturally. It's good when they do think, but not too much (viz A-SM).
5. Even distinguished pianists sometimes think too much about phrasing. Did Beethoven really want Op109 to go faster as it gets louder? Yes you, Andras Schiff.
October 8, 2021, 5:40 AM · Greetings,
A-SM learns her new works on the piano,
Cheers,
Buri
October 8, 2021, 7:17 AM · These questions are interesting to me because I'm an advanced pianist who has recently picked up the violin precisely to find the answers to these questions. Let me answer each question one by one.

1. What can actually transfer from piano to violin?
Although the physical technique doesn't transfer, our understanding of musical concepts do. We are not really pianists or violinists, but rather musicians who happen to play a particular instrument. We speak the same musical language, but the expression is adapted to the capabilities of our instrument. I can hear the violin music in my head and I know how I want to play it, however I'm waiting for my technique to catch up.

2. "What can a violinist learn from the phrasing decisions of pianists"?
Not much. We both want to copy the human voice (bel canto), so it's better to go directly to the source.

3. "Can you think of anything you've picked up from the piano specifically"?
Funny you say this. I think all those hours practicing double octaves on the piano helped with my wrist vibrato. However, there's a lot more.
My phrasing, voicing, rhythm, tempo and articulation are definitely a cut above your average violinist. I would expect an advanced violinist to say the same about average pianists.

October 8, 2021, 8:24 AM · I have found the months of COVID pandemic and excellent time to practice "expressive" string playing. For most of the past 25 years I have played in ensembles twice each week (in addition to weekly orchestral playing going back to 1948) but since February 2020 I've played in ensemble with other people only 4 times.

So instead of practicing ensemble music for the past 20 months I've been playing through short pieces that I have been collecting for the past 70+ years (including many I have found on IMSLP after seeing them suggested by participants here on violinist.com). (I really can no longer manage to play concertos beyond Mozart.)

I have sort of drifted into overdone rubato experiments - it's lots of fun.
I just hope I can till count when the ensembles reassemble!

October 8, 2021, 8:47 AM · Steve, I remember plenty of recordings of Bach's solo violin works (as well as the cello suites) with lots of rubato, sometimes to the point where a dance movement can not be recognized as such by the listener.

The rule for rubato appears to be: the fewer players the more rubato, regardless of instrument.

As to the (very old) idea that singing is the model for playing instrumental music: Anything that can be sung can be played on the violin. But not everything written for violin can be sung and not just because of the larger range of the instrument. Would you discount music like the E-Major Preludio just because it is not written as if to be sung?

Edited: October 8, 2021, 8:56 AM · Steve, I remember plenty of recordings of Bach's solo violin works (as well as the cello suites) with lots of rubato, sometimes to the point where a dance movement can not be recognized as such by the listener.

The rule for rubato appears to be: the fewer players the more rubato, regardless of instrument.

As to the (very old) idea that singing is the model for playing instrumental music: Anything that can be sung can be played on the violin. But not everything written for violin can be sung and not just because of the larger range of the instrument. Would you discount music like the E-Major Preludio just because it is not written as if to be sung?

Consequently I do think we can learn from pianists. One of the weaknesses of the violin as a means to learn music (not just learn playing) is this: You can not play around with chords the way you can on a piano or on a guitar. It makes it much harder to get an instinctive sense of harmony. And good phrasing follows the harmony.

October 8, 2021, 1:17 PM · I think Buri is right about pianists being able to apply more of their bandwidth to expression, phrasing, storytelling, etc., because they're not constantly stressed out about intonation. French horns are ALWAYS out of tune but nobody seems to care.
October 8, 2021, 3:34 PM · The piano stands in for the orchestra up until the first rehearsal.

The Brahms concerto, in particular the first movement but some degree the second, sounds as if some ideas were considered for a symphony as opposed to a concerto.

I think learning a piece while being accompanied by a piano helps prepare one for performing with the orchestra.

October 8, 2021, 9:14 PM · Paul, I had the pleasure of playing Brahms' horn trio with friends and the lady at the horn had good intonation.
October 9, 2021, 1:41 AM · I've been learning a lot from rehearsing regularly with a piano trio. Before this year, I'd only really been playing with piano when necessary for a recital or jury. I had pretty strong opinions about chamber music for strings and piano (did a LOT of page turning a couple years ago and learned quite a bit from it), but being able to actually try out different ways of matching articulations or phrasing has been quite eye-opening. I hadn't really considered, for instance, the different options in balancing the two hands-- taking into account that the left hand might serve as the bass voice for the whole group if the cello isn't doubling it, or having one hand in dialogue with the violin while the other elaborates a cello line. Or how much different voicings in the piano could radically alter how harmonies are perceived. Making different bowing considerations to match the amount of pedal being used has been fascinating as well. And then the task of deciding when to emulate the piano articulation, timbre, ornaments, and rubato, and when to treat the strings as a separate voice that complements the piano rather than completely emulating it.
There are so many possibilities that have already significantly altered how I approach not just piano trio music, but also chamber ensembles with no piano. In my string quartet, I pay much closer attention to texture and differences in register than I did before. So yes, recent experiences would lead me to believe that we can learn from pianists. Haven't really considered much outside chamber music, though.
October 9, 2021, 9:57 AM · Good intonation by the horns in a community orchestra, remembering that the french horn is the most difficult of the brass instruments, is not easy to achieve. I think their accuracy, in a community orchestra, depends a lot on the conductor. The previous conductor of one of my orchestras - he was with us for 8 years - is a professional horn player, and worked hard to successfully get good intonation out of the section.
Edited: October 9, 2021, 8:02 PM · I think the violin can sound a bit choppier than the piano. It seems to my ears that the piano can connect notes a bit easier.

I took a look at the first edition of Kreutzer's etudes on IMSLP (didn't realize he worked for the Emperor Napoleon) and I think without explicitly stating it, he emphasizes the slurring of notes right from the beginning with the first etude and the bowing variations for the second etude. Although I'm not sure why he didn't list four in a bow for the 16ths (that would be seem to be logical place to start in slurring the notes).

I think slurring notes as a practice method in very helpful in creating a more flowing sound, especially where there are many strings crossings (Bach solo/concertos come to mind).

Edited: October 9, 2021, 10:25 PM · To Trevor's point: incredibly, of the double-digit number of conductors I've played for regularly at various times, all but three have been horn players. I've never played in an orchestra that has had significant intonation problems in the horns; usually they've been among the best musicians in the orchestra. I realize this experience is rather unusual.
October 10, 2021, 1:40 PM · I play in a casual amateur orchestra (although I think we are pretty good actually) and our two horns are great, they have a natural feeling for their instrument, and never play out of tune.
Edited: October 10, 2021, 2:00 PM · You guys -- I was only kidding about the horns always being out of tune. Well, half-kidding. In amateur / community orchestras, brass and woodwind players are not always too sensitive to intonation. But then, having string players who care about intonation but can't actually play in tune to save their everlasting souls -- that's often a parallel reality.
Edited: October 18, 2021, 9:18 AM · I used to play the piano at a quite advanced level.
I love the purity of the piano sound. There is no fuzzy noise like on a string instrument, and you don’t hear all these typical extra sounds that are part of the technical playing process of a violin and thus have evolved to be an esthetic part of violin playing: the change of strings, the different types of glissandi for shifts etc. (The older I get, the less I like that, unfortunately).

For me, all these technical aspects of a violin give me the feeling that the instrument is not always the medium of the music, but in reality often the obstacle to it.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to those geniuses who never have to fight technical problems.
But a phrase on the piano is pure to me and can lead me the way back to the music when I am fighting with a spot that is too hard for me on the violin.
When you play some chords of a violin piece on the piano, you can really decide which of the notes is supposed to be stressed, for example. Some of this experience might make it to be realized back on the violin, too, while you fight with making a good sound, at all, or work on your intonation.

October 18, 2021, 11:07 AM · Mike, I always thought the fingering and string choices shown in musi scores had been indicated by an editor (usually attributed).
Edited: October 18, 2021, 11:25 AM · I accidentally deleted my post, AGAIN. I need to start wearing my glasses more. It even asks you for a confirmation, yet I keep doing it. Maybe due to little sleep? IDK.

I don't know. In one of my Henle editions, though I forgot which one, it had indicated strings (On the non-edited copy. The music came with 2 violin parts; one was edited, one was not.). I think it was Vieuxtemps 5, but he is a violinist composer, so it might be an exception. For my Sibelius example, I had my IMC copy in mind, which in reflection, was probably not great, since they edit everything (this one was edited by Francescatti).

I don't have the money for a Sibelius urtext. My math tutoring gig is not paying me. Also, my teacher used this edition during his time at Colburn (Not a prison. Colburn is a prestigious South-Californian conservatory.), and since the PDF he sent me was of this edition, it is the one that I bought.

Edited: October 18, 2021, 11:48 AM · I would turn that on its head, Emily. Playing the violin is being involved directly where the tone is produced, I have my naked finger right there where it happens. Which is why effects like glissandi (I call them portamenti when I mean it in a positive way) or the rosin noises at the beginning of a strongly attacked note are even possible.

On a piano the player is separated from the tone production by a complex, ingenious mechanism. And that same mechanism also severely inhibits the player's ability to influence the tone.* You could say the piano is a "hygienic" instrument while the violin is not. But life is not hygienic (we impose a certain dose of hygiene on ourselves in order to survive but it is a constant struggle to keep up, just like intonation on the violin). Our skin is crawling with bacteria and our guts as well. And those bacteria are by and large beneficial for us.

The strength of the piano lies in its range from "bassissimo" to "sopranissimo" and the ability of one player to play several voices simultaneously, thanks to that ingenious mechanism. What you describe as purity of sound however I would describe as a limitation, a lack of flexibility when compared to the violin. This seems to be me to be the trade off between the two instruments.

I for one love the "dirty" side of violin music: The ability to do glissandi (portamenti), to play legato, détaché, spiccato or anywhere in between, flautando or sul ponticello, the choice is endless...

* Good pianists have more influence on the tone than my theoretical mind can fathom but the limitation is still there.

October 18, 2021, 12:51 PM · Albrecht, the pianist also has more freedom in variation of tone quality and dynamics in a run from note to note, since the mechanism imparting the sound is a much smaller one in the finger than in the whole bowing set-up. I suppose it's akin to certain particular effects that a pointillist painting can achieve. How developed does our bow arm need to be to be able to achieve an effect that a pianist can do right pretty much from the very beginning?
October 18, 2021, 1:18 PM · The couple of times that I was a judge at a competition or audition that included pianists I felt really unqualified. They all had the same tone and intonation. For me, that left only issues of timing, clarity, peddling.
October 18, 2021, 3:29 PM · Occasionally you get a pianist with a very distinctive tone. But that is a rare animal. Even mediocre violinists tend to sound different from each other.
Edited: October 19, 2021, 3:09 AM · @Albrecht

I am glad I made my point clear and the two of us know exactly what is meant.
Fascinating, how we yet come to diametrically opposed results when it comes to how to judge it!

For me, I exactly love that aspect that you describe as “hygienic”. What a good word! And I agree, life is not hygienic, but I don’t mind if the arts try to reach an enhanced level.

I never thought that the love of a certain instrument might contain such philosophical aspects.

Maybe, I can sum it up as “the violin is like real life, and the piano is like a dream “.

October 19, 2021, 3:37 AM · I'm just an amateur at both intruments who can't currently get more than a weekly practice hour, but there's a huge level difference between my piano playing which would be at a solid intermediate level (I'm currently studying the first movement of Bach's Italian Concerto) and my violin playing, where I'm still struggling with Vivaldi a minor concert and Rieding. While I've confidently played the piano in social events and earned some money with it in some weddings, I can't keep my bow straight to play an easy Christmas song if my little cousin is staring at me. All of this introduction is just meant to put my opinion in perspective. I can't have an authorised opinion on the matter. But still:

To my understanding, the most special thing on the piano is the option to make some 'hidden' voices clear. Even if it's just three notes that would have come unnoticed otherwise. The choice of which 'hidden voices' must be brought to the surface is one of the main things that distinguish one pianist from another.

Violins have a completely different nature, and while I can't yet speak from my own experience (since I'm still fighting against basic technique and can't make the violin sound as I interpret pieces in my mind), I think violinists can do something like that to some extent (to put a very basic and obvious example: during a bariolage the notes that change make a melody, while the static note is kept in a discreet place). During double stops a violinist can choose to put more emphasis on a note or another. That's the kind of thing a violinist can 'learn' from pianists in my opinion.

And in my experience, it also works the reverse way: since I started playing the violin, my piano playing became way more lyric and delicate. I suddenly started paying attention to each note. It's not easy to explain, but it certainly brought my playing to a new different level of expression.

Edited: October 19, 2021, 6:25 PM · At first glance it does seem indeed that violin could not possibly take anything from piano phrasing, and only take from vocal phrasing. However if we observe 2 of the most well-loved violinists in history, Heifetz and Gitlis, you can hear them (especially Gitlis!) play with very jerky bow changes. One could only hope they were somewhat aware of what they were doing?? If a student nowadays were to try to emulate this, the teacher would be horrified!

The example above, is one of only very few examples I've seen for advocating a 'jerky' bow change. This jerkiness somehow has a charm to it. It's also why I enjoy listening to the old school pianists like Horowitz, who play much jerkier than the players of today.

This has got to be THE classic. Massive down bow accent on the G flat. How could anyone nowadays justify this? Perhaps these jerky piano-esque accents derive from the ever changing consonances in vocal music? For example: let the first up bow B flat begin with a word beginning with 'L', and let the G flat be a word beginning with 'T'. If you have to sing these two notes, there is literally no way you can make the second note less articulated than the first note. Maybe Heifetz saw something beyond what was on the page, and felt a burning desire to let the G flat out with a certain pain and suffering, via the jerk?

At the end of the day, string players can embrace the imperfect legato capacity of the piano/voice, and add it to their arsenal of expression.


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