Getting used to a new (loaned) violin

Edited: October 28, 2021, 8:26 AM · Hi all,

My teacher has just loaned me a better violin for an upcoming competition (occurring in about 5 weeks' time). Running through my competition repertoire on this violin, I noticed many of my shifts were slightly off and my some of my double stops were rather out of tune. Is this normal when playing on a new instrument? And are there any particular strategies to accustom myself to this new violin quickly?

Thanks in advance!

Replies (22)

Edited: October 28, 2021, 8:46 AM · You can measure the distance from nut to bridge on your professor's violin and compare it to yours. Also you can get a caliper (dial type or vernier, doesn't matter) and measure the width of the neck. Finally there is the string height -- that effect should be pretty subtle though. That's about all I can think of.

Scales in thirds. Kreutzer No. 24.

Edited: October 28, 2021, 9:16 AM · First make sure it is in adjustment. If the bridge is skewed, you'll be fighting it forever. After that, be sure the strings haven't gone false. Old Evah Pirazzis sound OK on their own, but are impossible to play in tune.

Otherwise, probably doing scales in fifths, octaves, etc., might help orient your hand for the new fingerboard.

Just remembered-- if the chinrest is different than yours, that might need a little adaptation. Or just swap it out.

October 28, 2021, 11:45 AM · A new violin is kinda like a new man, woman or non-binary person. Everyone likes something a little different, and sometimes you just gotta play scales, arpeggios and etudes until you understand just what they like.
October 28, 2021, 1:38 PM ·
October 29, 2021, 7:49 AM · Also check the length of the neck compared to your usual violin.
October 29, 2021, 10:11 AM · Thanks for the input everyone! A lot of factors I didn't consider -- string height for instance. Could the difference in the height of the strings explain why my octaves are always slightly out? I can't think of any other reason given that the dimensions of the neck are largely similar to my usual violin.
October 29, 2021, 10:17 AM · String length is probably different...
October 29, 2021, 10:19 AM · I've been playing a new (to me) violin this week. There are lots of small differences, even though both set up by the same luthier. I've just been playing a lot of scales, and Schradieck, and listening extra carefully. Different type of chinrest and different shape of neck are main culprits on mine. Neck is more v-shaped on one, c-shaped on other, chinrest changes angle and position a little bit. Smallest things can make a difference!
October 29, 2021, 10:22 AM · Check your fifths up the neck, not octaves. That's how you check for discrepancies.

My main violin always had skewed fifths. I theorize it's because I have mixed guts on there and plain gut behaves differently from the wound gut G which behaves differently from the steel E and so on.
Honestly I have no idea why this is, but I learned to play around it to the point that a violin without skewed intonation can feel off to me for a while. Bad practise? Probably. But I like my violin, and I'm not about to buy a new one.

String height is unlikely to affect intonation unless your strings are ultra-heavies or the action is way too high.

Edited: October 29, 2021, 10:43 AM · Joel,
Have you carefully measured and compared the lengths of the vibrating strings (VSL) of the 2 instruments?

I have 4 violins, 2 have 328mm VSL, one has 326 and one 322.

I played the 326 almost exclusively from 1975 through 2012. From 2012 to now I have been playing one of the 328s (and viola) and my octaves been quite "shaky." However, this week, I'm back on the 326 (while the 328 and 322 are in the shop) and right from the start my octaves have been right in tune.

One might thing a 2mm difference is not much - but apparently it is enough to have an effect.

The string height effect that others have mentioned also has an effect because "bottoming" the higher string to the fingerboard will create higher tension which also raises the pitch more.

October 30, 2021, 11:28 AM · You can measure all you want, but the fact remains: five weeks is not enough time to get used to a new instrument for competitive purposes. You probably need at least six months if not a year.
Even if the measurements were exactly the same, there would still be minute differences in playability.

Your teacher was generous, but late to the party.

October 30, 2021, 1:33 PM · Six months??? You can get a feel for an instrument's quirks in 30 to 90 minutes. Within a week of consistent practise you could start to feel at home. 5 weeks is plenty.
October 30, 2021, 4:23 PM · I would just point out that Joshua Bell gave a major performance on his current Strad the day he first played it.

When a soloist has a problem with their violin, it’s common practice to borrow the concertmaster’s.

Violins have their own personalities, but it shouldn’t be all that difficult to switch between instruments if they’re all set up well. There are numerous recordings made by one player using a selection of instruments with only a short time to adjust. No one gets to live with the Cannon for half a year before recording, yet good players can bring out its glory.

This isn’t to say you don’t develop a close relationship to an instrument and its tonal eccentricities over years of playing, just that these things shouldn’t prohibit a player from being able to play at a high level. If a violin is hard to play, there are likely other causes.

October 31, 2021, 11:53 AM · I agree with Rich. This struggle doesn't make sense to me. You should be able to adjust nearly instantaneously to subtle differences in the size of an instrument. In fact, you're likely to be able to pick up a totally different size -- like a 1/2 size or an arbitrary-size viola for that matter -- and be able to play in tune after a few seconds to get a feel for the distances.

If you're in a room trying out ten different violins of varying measurements, you should still be in tune switching between them.

The one thing that can really feel annoying is an unusually thick neck. Bout width can also be an issue depending on how far you're accustomed to coming around the violin when you shift to the top positions.

The one thing I wonder is if you've been playing slightly out of tune the whole time and it's only with this violin that you're really noticing it acutely. A great instrument can have a lot more sympathetic resonance, and that resonance can alert you to the fact that you're not as dead-on as you thought.

October 31, 2021, 12:17 PM · Cotton: "getting a feel" for a new violin is not the same as mastering it for competitive purposes and being able to play 100%.

Rich: Most of us are not Joshua Bell.

Sure, some people can learn an entire concerto in 5 weeks and be ready to compete. But I wouldn't recommend it...

October 31, 2021, 2:14 PM · If the violin is good enough, and the delta between it and your usual instrument is large enough, it'll be worth it even if every nuance isn't 100% mastered. I've seen plenty of times when a player picked up something much better than what they have themselves, and instantly up-leveled. (I've found that to be true with myself, too, not just with violins but also with bows.)
November 1, 2021, 1:13 AM · Scott: I don’t think one needs to play at the highest level to be able to adjust to a different violin. It’s not at all uncommon for high school or college age students to borrow better instruments than their own in order to sound better in auditions. In many cases, these students have only a short time to practice with them beforehand—even as little as a few hours.

The point I was trying to make about Joshua Bell was not that he could make the switch because he was so uncommonly talented, but that it was possible for a player to acclimate to an instrument so quickly that he could feel confident performing in an internationally visible setting.

I don’t expect everyone to be comfortable with making such rapid changes in their instruments, but I do think it’s important for players not to become too worried about it if they do need to play something else.

November 1, 2021, 2:52 AM · In my experience the ability to switch between violins is itself a skill that a young player who's been raised on one instrument for most of their playing life may not find comes naturally. Even apart from cases in which the violins' dimensions differ by more than a few mm, I still find that certain violins are more difficult than others to get the best out of. I may not feel entirely comfortable until I've had the chance to play it regularly for a few weeks or even months.
November 1, 2021, 7:07 AM · I think it largely comes down to dimensional and physical differences between instruments in how easy or difficult it is to switch between them. In Joel's case, I think this is very likely the case.

But to Rich and Steve's points: I suspect that Bell has had enough experience to be able to evaluate a violin quickly as to its suitability for his personal playing. A person who has only played on one violin will not know how to do this. A simple example would be two violins with identical set-ups, but one has a wolf note on high Bb on the G and the other does not. One needs to know to how to look for differences like this.

Edited: November 1, 2021, 10:50 AM · I think Scott makes a good point - I have heard this from much better players than myself, that when they've gotten really high level, but really finicky instruments, it's taken them years to truly unlock them. Some instruments are just going to be better suited to someone right out the gate, and some are going to be a challenge for anyone, but can offer a lot in return. Maybe Josh Bell was shopping around and his Strad just bowled him over with how perfectly it fit him, and that's a big part of why he chose it, whereas any number of different fiddles may have required a bigger adjustment period.

I think Lydia makes a good point about how this could really benefit Joel's playing. Not only can the promise that a new instrument has some latent powers that our previous one didn't focus our practicing so that we are aiming higher than we did before, and trying to draw out new sounds and challenging our imagination, but this might also serve as a good reinforcing mechanism for prepping the piece for performance soon - Sometimes when we've been with a piece for a long time, we can stop hearing ourselves carefully and the piece can stagnate, but perhaps being a little knocked off our equilibrium can not only benefit our playing in general, but can also have us approach polishing our performance piece with really high concentration. Just a little bit of unfamiliarity or discomfort can makes really pay attention to something.

You will have benefited if you can do something more with this new instrument, even if you haven't "mastered" it. You may find yourself coming back to your current instrument feeling like a whole new player after this.

Edited: November 1, 2021, 10:43 AM · I had a few days to get used to a different (also loaned) violin before an audition this fall. One thing that messed with my shifting was the size of the instrument-- the neck of my own violin is longer than the one that's been loaned out to me, and I had to figure out new ways of getting around the instrument, different points of reference, etc. In retrospect, given the combination of that particular problem and the solo I was playing (Tzigane), I think I should have stayed with my violin for the audition. But, in keeping with Lydia's point, I did also notice immediate and significant changes to my playing as the result of playing the loaned violin, and may have played better overall because of that.

In your case, I think you'll be fine with the loaned violin. You seem to be approaching this thoughtfully and have plenty of things to think about and focus on (and the time to do it). All I would add is that keeping an eye on the mental aspect of changing instruments wouldn't hurt-- there will probably be a balance between the benefits of the instrument and the doubts that such a change engenders. It wouldn't be fun to be performing/auditioning while distracted by worries about your instrument, if you made the right choice, etc. so better to address that before it has a chance to throw you off.

November 6, 2021, 1:18 PM · Ray Chen doing it...and likes the pizz!

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