That elusive sound

Edited: September 19, 2022, 8:53 AM · Recently there have been threads about the quality of violins and the ability of luthiers to recreate the same sounds as Cremona's Masters.

For me, it's not just the instrument, it's the combination of musician and instrument.

I think just about anyone could do what Jack Benny did in making a Strad sound terrible. But, few of us can take that same Strad and equal the sound quality of the current masters of the violin.

When I started lessons, my teacher would sometimes play the same music that I was trying to learn on my instrument. The sound was incredible. I tried and tried and could never quite match the sound/tone quality. I did, over time, get closer and closer, but during all those years I never got past almost.

To me the question became: When should I upgrade? being frugal I decided on When I can get the same sound/tone qualities the a much better musician than me can get from my instrument.

Just a few weeks ago a friend and a great local musician played my violin in my studio. I realized for the first time in almost 50 years, I can produce that sound and tone.

It's almost laughable. Here I am in my mid 70's finally able to get the most out of my instrument. Maybe I should upgrade. I have the ability to do that and the time to work on another instrument. Yet, is is worth the money as my body is less cooperative than it was and declining. (Osteoarthritis and adjusting to the restrictions of cervical spine fusion of C0,1 & 2)

Back to the original question about modern luthiers making instruments equal in sound and tone to the Masters of Cremona. It's more than just the instrument - it's the combination of musician and instrument. A really great musician can make a good instrument sound great. But can a great instrument make a mediocre musician sound equally great?

I think it's largely the skill of the musician.

Replies (17)

Edited: September 19, 2022, 9:10 AM · The skill of the player certainly is a huge factor in what you hear, and can swamp any sound attributable to the instrument alone. However, it is undeniable that when a skilled player plays different instruments, there is a difference there too that can be heard (that's what violin competition tone tests are all about).

I'd say that a great instrument can (but not necessarily) make a mediocre musician sound better... but not equal to what a great musican could do with it. A great instrument can make musician errors much easier to hear.

September 19, 2022, 9:26 AM · There's also the matter of what a better instrument (and bow) can do for the player in terms of feedback.

Violins/bows that are more responsive and more predictable in the way that they respond, violins that produce a greater range of color in more ways, violins that resonate/sustain more when you play in tune and make it easier to hear if you're really really in tune -- all this equipment tells you, consciously or consciously, if what you're doing is the right thing.

The skills learned from getting that feedback make you a better player. They transfer "up" -- i.e. you'll be better able to sound good on something even higher-quality -- but they also transfer down, so that you can apply what you've learned to something lesser.

Edited: September 19, 2022, 11:17 AM · George, if you buy you will have me beat! I bought my most recent violin when I was 66 (excuse: my granddaughter had "commandeered" one of my violins and I was able to commission another from the same maker).
But I was 80 when I switched to (mostly) viola in my ensemble playing.

If you can afford to pay for more joy - go for it!
You will never be younger.

EDIT: Sorry - I just remembered - I bought a new cello in 2005, shortly after I turned 70. You still would have me beat.

Edited: September 19, 2022, 12:20 PM · I think Lydia nailed it. There's the player. And there's the instrument. But they're not independent parameters. They interact strongly with one another. Sure, my teacher is going to make a fabulous sound on my violin, because it's a nice, bench-made violin (Wojciech Topa), but he's also going to make an even better sound on a superior instrument, and there's absolutely no question that superior instruments exist because I've played many of them. Better instruments have more possibilities that are only reached by better players. That's why it's probably a total waste for me to play a priceless instrument. Another thing is that as you improve as a player, not only does your skill at producing tone improve, but your ability to hear the differences improves too, so you increasingly need an instrument that can talk back to you and respond to what you are telling it. Lydia used the term "feedback" and I can't improve on that.

I think I bought my instrument about 10 years ago. At the time I was also considering a German antique that I liked a lot (and half a dozen other violins up to about $18000). Honestly I preferred the German violin. But my teacher really liked the Topa. I solved the problem by buying both violins and giving the German one to my daughter who was almost ready to have her first full-size violin. She still plays it, in her university orchestra, and she loves it. But now when I play both violins, I prefer my own violin to hers. It's very balanced and it has a more complex tonal palette to draw upon even though it is not quite as powerful under the ear. I didn't appreciate that before.

September 19, 2022, 12:29 PM · I think a really nice instrument can inspire a student to play more and sound their best. Also, it may allow the student to grow rather than being stumped. There is little doubt a good, quality instrument sounds and plays better than a cheap one. Personally, I am glad I decided to invest in quality instruments early on. It has helped my growth and happiness as a musician tremendously.
September 19, 2022, 1:57 PM · Lydia is correct: a better instrument is a better "teacher" for the student, thus they will improve more and eventually even be able to transfer that skill set on to lower quality instruments as well.

This is actually part of the reason I have a bunch of bows: sometimes, if a student can't "get" sautille, I will give them one of my bows, and it will work. Then I hand them back their own bow, and it still works! The better bow allowed them to understand sautille, and then they were able to carry that concept back to their own equipment.

September 20, 2022, 1:05 AM · I think the player and their instrument should grow, simultaneously.
A good beginner’s violin responds easily and has a decent sound. The player wants to put the bow on the string and just get one sound. If presented with a high end instrument, they would be overwhelmed with the demands of the options it provides: A professional instrument responds to every little bit of input and is thus much more sensitive to not such sophisticated ways of playing.
I once had a student who showed me a couple of violins she considered buying, and I let her try them out, also in comparison to my violin which is worth about ten times. And I was shocked that I didn’t hear much of a difference. As I had bought my violin shortly before, this made me doubt that it wasn’t worth it. When I tried all those violins, however, it was totally clear that I would never be able to play any subtle nuances on these students’ violins.
I am professional, but not a violin genius. I myself had reached moments when I was struggling to produce a certain sound- no matter what I tried, the result was just not reliable. These were the moments when I had reached the boundaries of my instrument. A better one was a relief and opening new realms of music making. Still, the violin before had been just like that, years before.
As a consequence, I think the ideal instrument provides you with playing options that are just somewhat beyond your current abilities. Not overwhelmingly so, because you couldn’t handle all what you would have to take care of.
As you constantly improve, the instrument will always respond to every input from you. If it doesn’t, anymore, or if you try a better one and suddenly realize that you can get out much more than before, then it is time for an upgrade.

As I read your text, you probably are at such a point, right now. If you can afford it, I would go for it.
After all, you never know, how long you will be able to play, anymore, at any age! Considering inflation, it is probably even economically wise to invest in a violin.
You carry your technical skills within you, with or without arthritis or other physical obstacles. I believe that these might lead you to playing easier pieces, eventually, without great stretches or very high speed. But these you can perfectly play with all the skills that you have reached, on an instrument that is not below your level.

September 20, 2022, 4:49 AM · I liked all the replies. They confirm my thoughts and experience. Spending the money on another instrument is not out of the question. Some would say that at my age I'd be spending my children's inheritance but, since we are child-free that is not a concern.

As to bows: I have a good bow (perhaps and excellent bow) it is an Adolph C. Schuster *** (yes, it is the real deal). The other bow is the one that came with the German factory copy of a flat Strad. It was made in the late 1800's and brought to America by my wife's Great Grandfather.

Maybe I'll schedule some time with the local Violin Shop to test drive some violins. That could be an interesting day. The only wrinkle is that I'd have to bring along my Flesch Flat chinrest as my accommodations to the cervical spine fusion makes it impossible to play with a standard chinrest (I have to have my jaw on the right (not the left) side of the tailpiece.

September 20, 2022, 9:42 AM · Hi George-I understand the fusions and the challenges they bring to playing. I am fused from T1 all the way down to S1, and I have a colleague with cervical fusions. We are both professional players and have figured out ways to make the chin rest and the shoulder rest work together for us. It seems that your chin on the right side of the tailpiece is not a good idea for bowing (?) I'd be very interested in what you find as you look at new instruments. Would a lighter weight, possibly narrower violin be more adaptable to your posture? That combined with an adjustable chin rest like a SAS, or at least a center mount, and a shoulder rest with good tilt adjustment that fits securely on your shoulder might make a world of difference in your sound and your comfort!
September 20, 2022, 10:15 AM · Jean, et al.,

Thanks for sharing. In my case, I have discussed the issue of post fusion playing with the surgeon (happenstantial: also a violinist). I have a "center mount" Flesch-Flat chinrest (FFCR) now and it works.

Since combining rotation with torsional stress is not a good idea, putting my jaw on the FFCR to the right of the tailpiece allows me to rotate the violin slightly forward which makes for a close to normal position. In addition I use a Wolf-Secundo shoulder rest that I have set so the violin has an almost normal tilt.

My right shoulder is a bit higher than before. The bowing motion is close to normal.

The change made me re-address the position of my left arm and hand and retrain the long established neural super highway. As a happy side-effect, my intonation has improved as has the retraining of my right arm bowing.

All of this led to my tone and intonation improving!

The thumb/wrist osteoarthritis is annoying but not yet debilitating. I'm using a topical NASAID for the discomfort and it works better than pills.

Since I no longer perform I find it hard to justify another instrument.

September 21, 2022, 12:57 PM · A few years ago, during my interminable search for a violin, I auditioned 3 or 4, and recorded the same music at a local university recital hall.
I had a wide selection, from modern to 18th century. As I listened to the recordings, one violin stood out as having that "elusive" sound: the old Klotz. While my vibrato action was technically the same, the actual vibrato sound was vastly different, and much better than on the other fiddles.

Why? I don't know. Something to do with the change of timbres during the back and forth finger movement I suppose. I think that dramatic tonal change is what makes older violins so desirable, with less work needed.

Ultimately, I passed on the Klotz. While the A and E were beautiful, the G and D were just too weak.
But it convinced me: the violin absolutely does make a difference, and so does age.

September 22, 2022, 11:16 AM · "I think that dramatic tonal change is what makes older violins so desirable, with less work needed......
But it convinced me: the violin absolutely does make a difference, and so does age."

I suppose the best thing then is to get a superior new violin and wait for it to get even better?

September 22, 2022, 11:44 AM · "I suppose the best thing then is to get a superior new violin and wait for it to get even better?"

That's one way to do it. Depends on your time horizon, whether you can find that "superior" new violin, your own taste and requirements, and whether the new violin is capable of aging well.

Violins are like people and wine: they don't all age the same, or well. It's a tricky area. We know historically that a cabernet will require age to mature, and that another type of wine would be ruined in the same time period.

With a new maker, we won't know a priori whether or not the violin will age well. You could point to an earlier model of that maker and say, for example: "That maker's violin from 20 years ago sounds great, therefore this one will sound great in 20 years." Maybe, maybe not.

I've certainly seen well-known instruments from the 19th century that didn't seem to have aged. One colleague had a Bernardel that sounded very bright and projected well, but was not very pleasant to play.
I have to wonder if that instrument changed one bit in over a century.

My last newly commissioned instrument took about 5 years to become responsive in all the positions.

September 22, 2022, 4:04 PM · Scott, people have taken years to learn how to get the best out of a particular Strad, too. Was it the Strad that changed?
September 23, 2022, 4:20 AM · I think the really invaluable thing about old violins - which can't be replicated no matter the skill of the maker - is we already know how they will sound. Like buying a house that's old, if there are going to be cracks in the foundation as it settles, you'll already know about them.

Of course, the violin could change even after you buy it even if it's old, but I would guess that there are diminishing amounts of change that occur past a certain age. For example, a violin might substantially change from years 0-20, but perhaps less so in the next 20 years after that.

September 23, 2022, 10:45 AM · David,
Presumably, someone who picks a particular old instrument like a Strad will be drawn initially to it, probably saying "wow, I can do things with this violin that I can't do on other ones." Sure, they might take time to get the best out of it, but I'm assuming that's the extra 2%.
September 24, 2022, 12:38 PM · Scott, wouldn't it also be fair to say that almost anyone can default in the direction of myths they have absorbed, which can have high power to influence their perceptions and opinions?

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