It's you, not the instrument...?

March 24, 2023, 5:58 AM · Is it true?

Recently I have tried a violin double of my original violin's price (5000 USD, 10 years ago). It beats my original instrument in every way it possibly can.

The instrument I currently own is alright, a bit nasal tho.

My question: in your experiences, do you buy a new violin really because you have "learnt past the limitations of the instrument", or just out of greed?

Does your instrument matters?

Replies (27)

March 24, 2023, 6:54 AM · I do think one can eventually outgrow and instrument.
But that said, it's more the the payer than the instrument.

My violin retails for around $6k and I make it sound terrible most times.
Its me!!!

If Hilary Hahn were to play it (and I wish she would!), she would sound just like Hilary. I truly believe she could make my violin sound like heaven in her hands..

Yes, a good instrument is good to have but it's the player that makes it sound the best.

March 24, 2023, 6:56 AM · When you say "double" do you mean that it is from the same maker with as near as you can tell the same measurements and equivalent choice of wook - or do you just mean they were on sale for the same price?

If the former, you probably want to have a conversation with your luthier about whether your set up could be improved to get your violin to sound more like its twin. If the latter, well price is well known to be a very poor indication of violin playability and tone, especially considering how subjective both those features are. It may well be a violin which suits you better.

March 24, 2023, 8:31 AM · I think Horace means to say a violin "of double my original violin's price".

We all have our own reasons for making a switch. Mine was to get a richer sound.

March 24, 2023, 8:32 AM · Price does not equal sound. Price correlates with provenance, which does not correlate with sound. There is also a psychological factor involved. Nor can you look at a particular maker and correlate sound, particularly one with a large body of work.

You can thing of it as ranges. Each player has a range of sounds he/she can produce. Each instrument has a range of sounds it can produce. It's a multiplicative relationship, at least in my opinion.

You can sound better with a better-sounding violin (which may not cost more than what you have, but probably will). A better player will sound better than you with your violin. A better player, with a better-sounding violin, will sound much better.

Edited: March 24, 2023, 9:28 AM · Does your instrument matter?

Yes, your instrument matters but it needs the best possible set up including bridge, soundpost and strings - and vigilant care by the owner.

Another important factor is the quality of the "hearer's" hearing. I suggest having a hearing test. This on-line hearing test will allow one to self-calibrate (although there are other factors as well that require professional help):

In 1951 my father and I visited a Baltimore, MD violin shop to select a new violin for me. The violin-maker owner had laid out 5 identical appearing newly-made violins on a table in the shop. I found it possible to select the one I liked best. However, before taking it home for trial, the shop owner took an Amati out of his safe for me to try. I preferred my new violin. The maker insisted we keep that violin for a year before he accepted payment.

As my hearing has continued to fail during the past 35 year of the 72 years of aging since acquiring that violin, so has the sound I hear from that violin. In 1963 I had the opportunity to compare that violin with a "golden age" Stradivarius that had been owned by the virtuoso Olé Bull - no comparison except for some similarities. In 1974 I spent a week comparing that violin to a violin made in Cremona by Stefano Conia (the "elder" who was also one of the teachers at the Cremona school of violin maker). Although the two violins were completely similar in plaability, the G string on mine was much better. In the early 2000s I had the opportunity to compare my violin with a 1698 Stradivarius in the Ifshin Violins backroom (while they were still in Berkeley, CA) and I did not hear or feel significant differences. I have no way to tell if the violins really were similar of if it was just the state of my hearing.

Over the years since then I finally found (in Walter Hamma's book "Italian Violin Makers") the Stradivarius those 5 violins copied: L'Emperor. Obviously, the maker had found maple wood that matched the beautiful pattern of that 1715 violin's back and that's what he used to make those 5 "antiqued" instruments.

March 24, 2023, 8:38 AM · One thing I have learned in my almost half-century of playing the violin is that higher quality instruments demand higher quality skills.

In the beginning of my second decade of playing, my teacher encouraged me to upgrade. I tried a number if instruments, had my teacher play them, and took his recommendation and purchased a Reinhold Schnabel that sang when my teacher played it.

Sadly, in my hands it howled. It demanded better bowing, better finger placement, all the higher level skills. Unfortunately, the new job that provided the money required to purchase the Schnabel was a high-travel position (80%) that restricted the time I had to play/practice. I never got good enough to make it sing.

13 years later and a regular no travel job and I had time to play. My frustration with the Schnabel rose to the point where I sold it to a local violin shop.

I adopted a new approach. Occasionally I would ask another violinist who has much better skills to play my original (late 1800's German factory violin with lots of intarsia). There was always a difference between my playing and the better violinist.

In the past six months I've asked some of the better violinists to play my instrument and finally, I get the same sound quality that the much better violinists get.

The question becomes, in my mid 70's with osteoarthritis, and playing only form my own enjoyment as well as teaching some late starting adults, should I upgrade now?

I can afford a much better instrument, but to what end?

There is no perfect answer to the basic question: "Is it you or the instrument?" I'm on the side of "It's the violinist until you can play it equally well as a the best violinist you know."

My bottom line is t

March 24, 2023, 10:36 AM · A good violinist may be able to make even the lowest quality violin sound good to the listener, but they are mostlikely putting in a lot more effort to draw out the best sound, and they are not satisfied with how it feels or sounds to them.
March 24, 2023, 11:09 AM · (Generalization ahead)

Beginning violin (mass produced) - hard to play, poor tone
Early intermediate violin (modern workshop) - easier to play, OK tone
Late intermediate violin (upscale workshop) - bit easier to play, good tone
Conservatory violin (say, average modern luthier) - similar to play, very good tone
Excellent violin (top modern luthier, average older master) - similar to harder to play, superb tone
Classic violin (best of the bunch) - similar to insanely hard to play, unique and memorable tone (guessing on this one, never got that far...)

Edited: March 24, 2023, 11:17 AM · A good player cannot eliminate crass tonal imbalance or sluggish response, but they can make us forget them!

I had a chance to try a friend's Villaume. Its tone was deep and clear, and wonderfully easy to produce. It showed up every irregularity in my bowing...

In my lessons, parents would notice that when I played played my student's violin, it sounded better than usual, but nonetheless less good than my own.

The instrument must correspond to the player's possibilities and aspirations!

Edited: March 24, 2023, 12:15 PM · I think its still true to say that most players over here, amateur as well as professional, play antique instruments that are impossible to categorise in Elise's way. I don't have a great deal of experience of top-flight "classic" violins but the ones I have played certainly weren't insanely hard.

Having been fickle in my preferences for the last 5 years I'm currently playing an anonymous Mittenwald violin from about 1820 that cost me a bid of £150 plus commission from I'd never have thought of it as a potential number one, but if you're willing to play the field you can find nuggets in unexpected places (apologies for the grotesquely mixed metaphor).

March 24, 2023, 12:15 PM · When I learned colle on my cheap student fiddle/bow many years ago, I had to consciously dig into the string with my index finger. My current setup can only withstand a small fraction of the pressure that old fiddle did. I barely touch the string for the bite now. Over the years, I learned how to feel the string far more subtly. In the end, it's proven quite rewarding. I'm glad I don't have to expend a lot of physical energy to simply bite the string now that I have that control, but some one starting out needs more "resistance" from the equipment to learn the skill in the first place. Cheaper student violins have their place. I can also see the dilemma in George's case, where he clearly had the desire to make these improvements but lacked the time.

It's similar to how those new to equestrian are given older horses who need a clear kick to send them from the walk to the trot. The resistance and laziness of an older horse helps to keep the rider from sending signals to the horse that are unintended. A younger horse feels a small amount of pressure from the rider and can take off in a jiffy. An advanced rider has a difference set of priorities from the beginner or intermediate rider. They have the control to take advantage of the energy of the younger horse, and thus would come to find the amount of force required to ride an older horse cumbersome. (Plus, the speed would be a major issue).

Superior instruments are more versatile and can produce a variety of colors. With that versatility, however, comes more sensitivity and thus requires more finesse in the bow arm. That can seem a downside at first, but the fact that a great instrument does not tolerate certain ways of playing can actually serve to teach the player better technique.

I think it's important to acknowledge that a lot of bad technical habits can arise from a player trying to get a deep or loud sound out of an inferior fiddle that simply does not want to generate it. When many of us upgrade, we find that we have to relearn our muscle memory, play with less "force", and let the equipment do more of the work.

Edited: March 24, 2023, 4:59 PM · Still at the student level, (1-year, 4 months), and turned in my rental after eight months to buy a $4,000.00 violin. In my case, it was a reward I promised myself if I stuck to the violin (greed) and I was starting to “hear” the limitations of the loaner even at my novice level.

It was a good decision in regards to both sound and an instrument that could accommodate me the next 10+ years as my skills advanced.

That said, it sounds, “no pun intended” that your current violin’s quality is very good. So if you have not already, First, I would discuss the issue with a luthier to see if anything can be done with your current violin to meet your expectations. Different strings, new bridge, etc.

Do not forget to include the option of a different bow in the equation. (What bow did you use on the violin you are considering? Have you tried using this bow on your current violin?)

Edited: March 25, 2023, 10:21 AM · Dimitri Pappas "Price correlates with provenance, which does not correlate with sound."

I'd say that there IS a correlation... but not so strong that you could bet the farm on it. Who made the instrument is a significant factor in both price and performance... usually. But you have to evaluate each individual instrument for yourself.

March 25, 2023, 10:31 AM · I think the correlation is there on a group level. It is possible to find a really good violin at any price level but the lower the level the more scarce they get.
March 25, 2023, 11:33 AM · Don, I agree there is a weak correlation. It’s probably more correlated in modern instruments but once you look at antiques you’re paying for provenance. Even country of origin plays a part, like the “Italian Premium” on modern instruments.

As a player who is interested in contemporary instruments from living makers, I do think you get what you pay for.

March 25, 2023, 3:42 PM · A friend of mine was lamenting that she has a decent violin, but, still, she want a "warmer sounding" violin. I tried, subtly, to explain her that you actually want a violin that can produce all colors, both cold and warm, and then the trick is how to produce them.
March 25, 2023, 5:51 PM · Evan Pasternak, I liked your post. Ditto your caveat about wanting to get sounds that an instrument (& bow) won't produce. This results in bad technical habits.
March 25, 2023, 7:02 PM · A fine instrument will have a generous dynamic range. Without it, you can't create drama and colours. Quick response and clarity are also very important. For advanced students, the sound must be good in the 7th position of the G string (or C string in the case of the viola).
March 26, 2023, 1:51 AM · When I auditioned for music college many moons ago, it was not just me that auditioned but my bow and instrument. If the two weren't adequate, I would have been required to upgrade for acceptance. And the faculty I auditioned before, were not concerned about provenance or anything else but just that the instrument and bow allowed me to progress and didn't hold me back. Fortunately given my financial situation at the time, my stuff was up to snuff.

So clearly they thought the instrument made an important difference. In addition after some time and progression to higher levels, eventually I discovered the equipment was now holding me back. This was 2 years in give or take. At that point I was required to change. I very quickly noticed a difference, particularly with the bow, as my violin, although German trade, was not that bad. But the new violin did make a difference, too, just not as immediate and abrupt a change.

March 26, 2023, 1:56 AM · Jean. Yes I get you, but a change can be good for one's motivation. I suspect there are others like me who simply get dissatisfied with their instrument's "core" sound. Which I guess is largely their own sound...
March 26, 2023, 6:09 AM · My two violas have the same length and VSL, and identical principal resonances; the narrower one has a clearer "mezzo" tone, the tubbier one has a rounder (and louder) "contralto" tone. Same player, same strings, same bow. There is no way I can make one sound like the other. A "Mozart" viola, and a "Brahms" viola?
March 26, 2023, 6:32 AM · Whenever I'm dissatisfied with my instrument I handle it to my teacher and ask him to play something. While it's not the best sounding instrument in the world, its enough for me to acknowledge that I can't make it sound like my teacher does, and that I'm still good playing it.
March 26, 2023, 12:47 PM · I have mixed feelings about the type of sentiment Jannik is describing. On one hand, it's good to appreciate what you have, especially if you aren't looking (or able) to shell out for something pricier.

However, I don't buy the argument that just because a better player can make your instrument sound better than you can, you aren't ready for an upgrade. Chances are, the better player developed their technique on a fiddle more responsive and sensitive than yours. It's easy for someone with superior technique to make an inferior instrument sound good.

I think the more useful metric is to have your teacher try to produce different colors or explore the instrument's dynamic range. If he or she has trouble doing something that comes easy to them on their own fiddle, then you know that your instrument has certain limitations. Whether you've reached those limitations as a player is something you can generally sense.

Edited: March 26, 2023, 1:48 PM · The setup of the violin is also a significant factor in the lower price range. My wife originally bought a violin for $4000USD in 2007. It's always had a good sound, but it has always had issues with intonation and sound projection. Since I started playing again, a few years ago, I've made significant changes to it: Sound post positioned correctly, bridge replaced, new larger fingerboard/nut, high quality strings, etc., This instrument is now very playable. It will be a long time before I would consider upgrading, and I'm playing at an advanced level.

Noticeable issue with it though - Paganini Caprice #2, very interesting "noises" coming out of instrument when jumping from g string to e string high up on the fingerboard ( first page before the descending thirds), particularly on dry sunny days. Maybe its the violinist at fault, here .... lol. not sure. However, I think the higher end instruments have better quality sound all the way up the fingerboard and this is an immediate observation you can make if testing two different instruments of significantly different quality.

March 26, 2023, 7:35 PM · I think both factors are quite important and must be taken into consideration depending on what sort of level you are currently at. I find that when you enter the more complex range of repertoire, a better instrument must be required. Of course it does not have to be a Strad or Guarneri sort of thing but a decent instrument such as a Pedrazzini would be nice.

It's definitely true that you will grow out of your instrument after a while especially when you start discovering that your instrument is not capable enough to produce all the sounds/tone colours you want in a piece. Sometimes you might also want to consider about what type of bow you are using because based off my past experiences, sometimes the sounds/tone colours of the violin can be changed by enchancing your bow.

But your own playing is also really essential and it's not always about what instrument you're using. Let's say someone gave you his/her Strad and you started to play it, but you will realise that you might not sound like him/her. I think the key thing is yes, you do need a good instrument, however your own style of playing is just as important.


March 27, 2023, 4:40 AM · @EVAN PASTERNAK: I hadn't thought about it in that way. My point is that I'm a mediocre player and I see that many times what's failing is my basic technique. A better instrument and bow would produce a better sound provided I played with a good enough technique (not crooked bowing, good now pressure, good intonation, etc).

So while it's true that better players can make poor instruments sound better, my main problem is mainly... me.

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