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Evaluating the potential of new violins?


Steve_W

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I tried out some violins yesterday and one of them was a new Italian workshop violin; it was a really pretty instrument but compared to my current violin and the other two I was comparing it with, it felt extremely unresponsive and quiet. This was a brand new instrument that hasn't been played much; can I assume that at least some of the deficiencies could be attributable to its newness, and that it would improve when played for a while? If so, how does one go about evaluating the potential of an instrument that hasn't yet been played in? Are there certain things to listen for in the tone, or is it just a gamble buying a new violin? -Steve

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I have had the experience of "playing in" two brand new violins (both, as it happens, contemporary Italian instruments}. What I found, in both cases, was that the tone gradually opened up, and came "out of the box," and the instruments came to feel less stiff and more responsive. But the basic sound character didn't change all that much.

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I'm curious if you would be giving this violin a second thought if it wasn't "Italian" and "really pretty". If you're looking to award it extra tonal growth points, then to be fair, you should do the same for the others, in which case it's still coming out 4th, isn't it? :-)


Actually, Michael, I don't generally like new violins, and the others I've looked at have been early 20th century, mostly American. People on this forum suggested that in my price range ($4-5K, although it appears to be inching upward!) I should consider modern Italians so I thought I'd try some. I know enough to realize that the appearance of a fiddle typically has nothing to do with its sound, except that decent wood, good craftsmanship and a pretty finish are sometimes indicators that the maker knew what he/she was doing; I don't much care what an instrument looks like since I won't be seeing it when I'm playing it anyway. What it comes down to is that a maker whose opinion I respect offered this one to me to try, and since it had a decidedly inferior response compared to other stuff I've played in that price range I figured I must be missing something! -Steve

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My personal opinion is that if you're spending $5000--which is a strange transitional sort of price range--you need to look very carefully. I wouldn't expect any Italian in that price range to perform particularly well because you're most likely paying quite a premium for "Italian", and with the marketing situation there might well be getting a Chinese violin that normally would sell for half that. I don't really know, but suspect that the highest level of Chinese, as Chinese, near that range could be quite good, and that the best overall performers might be older violins, reworked skillfully (graduation, bar, neckset). I remember someone suggesting new unknown Americans, but if it was easy to be inexperienced and build a great instrument, everyone would be doing it. :-) Those are just overall concepts, however, in a market I'm not too familiar with.

However, directly dealing with the question of the moment, on my violins, at least, the quiet, unresponsive ones might as well go directly in the trash, because that's a very hard hole to get played out of.

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Except that the others weren't new and unplayed.


Yeah, sorry; I should have made that clearer. The other 2 were made by a local maker, were a couple years old and well-played in (and somewhat above my target price range). But even comparing it to my current fiddle, which is a Markneukirchen "J.B. Schweitzer" and probably worth only $1K or so, I felt there was no contest. -Steve

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Hi Steve;

Strange to hear from a maker/dealer maybe... but... There are plenty of violins out there. I wouldn't purchase one because of what it may sound like later. If you find one you like the sound of and it happens to be new, you may like it better as it "breaks in". On the other hand (since you acquired it because you already liked it), if it doesn't get significantly "better" as it breaks in, you won't be disappointed.

Best of luck!

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Jeffrey, You seem to keep a fairly low profile these days on the board. I must think of some questions that may spur you to contribute more of your knowledge..... I've learnt so much before from your measured comments.

I just helped a family procure an East German (1985?) viola at a very reaonable price ($1500) for a young student. Had thought about a couple of the offerings on Tarisio but sight unseen was not the way to go.

I remember foldly as a kid a couple of people who helped me find an instrument. They chose well - I haven't always been as clever myself with such decisions in the past. Experience counts for a lot.

Omo.

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An additional thought--I don't feel it's quite a gamble to buy a new violin, as you asked--a fair rule is that they get better with playing, if given the proper maintenance, which is the most important issue. After a few months the post on a new one will rarely fit, the violin shrugs around a bit to account for the tension. . ... all of these things affect the sound negatively, and yet are correctable, and should be corrected. If that's done, new violins get better.

However some tonal things are more likely to change than others. That's one good reason to buy from a dealer with a good trade-in policy--if something changes but not enough, just swap it out, assuming you've picked a dealer with enough varied stock to support the trade. That option of trading out of something is very important, I think.

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A good violin will have great power and a good "core" sound. When you "play in" the violin all it means is that the sound opens up and the tone is more smooth. When you try a new violin it should possess 90% of the qualities of that of a great violin. A bad sounding violin will NEVER improve to sound great.

I am willing to betyou money strads and del gesus sounded darn nice back in the 1700s.

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A good violin will have great power and a good "core" sound. When you "play in" the violin all it means is that the sound opens up and the tone is more smooth. When you try a new violin it should possess 90% of the qualities of that of a great violin. A bad sounding violin will NEVER improve to sound great.


That's right I agree.

When I try new violins, I always stand far from player or next door.

2 octave scale on each strings, from ff to pp, and some melodys.

Compare open and fingered, tone and vollume. Smoothness high position of G D. etc.etc.

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A good sounding violin will sound good from the very beggining, it will get better.

Try to listen with your ears, not with your eyes.

It's not a simple thing to say what a good sound is and a good sounding violin is. You have to have a trained ear and many musicians lack this, including professionals.

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I would say, however, that this idea is somewhat misleading, and results in a lot of missed opportunities--there is simply no way that a new violin can sound like one that's been used six months. If your idea of what a good violin is has been based on well used ones, and that's where most people's opinions are formed, you'll pass up all the new ones, every one, because they won't have what you're looking for, even though in six months they could be better than anything you've ever had in your hands. They have to be judged in the context of new violins, nothing else.

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there is simply no way that a new violin can sound like one that's been used six months.


I have heard this theory and the opposite, both from respected violin makers. What is the true story? Does an instrument improve in sound with use, or not?

A violin maker and restorer friend uses a gadget he invented to "exercise" a violin over time. He hangs it from the ceiling with this gadget (it looks like a miniature palm sander strapped to the bridge) vibrating gently and leaves it there for several weeks. He has several of these things buzzing away over his head in the shop all day long. The noise would drive me crazy, but he likes it. Anyway, he says the result is an instrument that plays like a newly minted one, with the rich tones of an old one.

I have also heard that mandolin company Gibson has racks of tonewood exposed to bluegrass music and that over time the vibration of this particular music makes the wood more lively. Kind of like exposing an unborn child to the music of Mozart before birth...right?

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I can only account for some people not observing it by noting that some people just aren't very observant (and I certainly wouldn't count on the word of the unobservant as to whether they are observant or not!) I have never had one of my violins come back to me for its six month checkup that was anything like any new violin I have ever sold. Friends who are makers confirm the same thing. I imagine this would be more difficult to notice if you were a shop selling many different things and couldn't keep track of the sounds of all of them in your mind, but most good makers--at least the ones I hang with--if they have any consistency at all in their making, have a pretty good idea of how their own instruments sound when they leave the shop, and can tell the difference when they see them again.

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"It's not a simple thing to say what a good sound is and a good sounding violin is. You have to have a

trained ear and many musicians lack this, including professionals." MANIFIO

--------------------

This subject has intrigued me enough to finally speak up! I am so in agreement of what MANIFO has stated.

So many students and even professionals do not know how the classic Italian violins sound under the ear

and find it hard to believe that these violins actually project, even to the minutest sounds

of checking for correct tone while performing.

I recently sent a violin to a prodigy student of a certain Professor of Yale. (I have not asked permission to use his name, so I will refrain)

This violin in the past was rejected

by, not only students,... but even the professionals. Now as to who am I to know anything,

coming from the barren waste lands of central Canada..... Ask the Prof. of the prestigius School of Music at Yale what he thinks of the violin?

Ask his prodigy student?.... Ask the students of Yale listening in the back of the hall during performance as they all

hear its fabulous voice!

It is reward enough to be accepted by those that really know.

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I would say, however, that this idea is somewhat misleading, and results in a lot of missed opportunities--there is simply no way that a new violin can sound like one that's been used six months. If your idea of what a good violin is has been based on well used ones, and that's where most people's opinions are formed, you'll pass up all the new ones, every one, because they won't have what you're looking for, even though in six months they could be better than anything you've ever had in your hands. They have to be judged in the context of new violins, nothing else.


I agree that a new violin, made correctly, will have the potential to develop more than an older one (even if the older one has not been used recently), BUT, it's not a 100% bet that the player will notice or appreciate the development (they may have unrealistic expectations and/or the amount a violin changes through break in varies). I still think the "if you like it now, buy it now" option is what I'd recommend. Then the improvements over time are then a bonus and not a requirement.

This may mean that some players pass up some opportunities, but if the player is not sophisticated and/or experienced recognizing potential in new instruments I think it's safer they don't purchase based on expectation. Players who are experienced may be "faster on the trigger". That's OK, in my opinion.

I've sold a pretty respectable number new instruments by a number of very fine makers. The one pattern that really stands out to me is that the majority of the new instruments that sold through my former employers shop were on the far end of six months old... and had been out on trial several times (in other words, they already had at least a portion of the break in Michael mentioned under their belt). Heck I even went so far as to line up a few students of a teacher who I trust who would take new instruments out for a few weeks and play them hard. I know a few makers who do the same thing before ever showing their instruments for sale.

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"The one pattern that really stands out to me is that the majority of the new instruments that sold through my former employers shop were on the far end of six months old... and had been out on trial several times (in other words, they already had at least a portion of the break in Michael mentioned under their belt). "

So what you're saying really confirms what I'm saying even more than I wanted to hear--that the potential of new instruments *consistently* is missed by buyers! Not just some of the time, but more like all of the time!

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There is no doubt that a well-made new violin can change dramatically over time. In my limited experience a seemingly lackluster new violin can indeed become fabulous after a few months, or maybe in a year or two. A violin that I rejected out of hand actually became quite a beautiful instrument. The change can be quite sudden, with part of the sound opening up in a day or two after a long period with little change. In one experiment (by Hutchins or Saunders, I think), improvement with time was actually proven in blind tests with a two groups of violins--one of which was played, and one of which was not.

Now, I don't think new instruments always improve with time. We used to buy and sell small, inexpensive Suzuki instruments for our children. The one new one we had never really improved, as far as I can tell. It wasn't bad, and we got our money's worth, but it never opened up significantly as far as I could tell.

The problem for most of us who don't teach, or at least don't teach lots of students with well-heeled parents, is that we have limited experience with fine new violins. How is a new violin going to sound after being played in? How would I know? As a buyer, you have a difficult time figuring this out.

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Perhaps some of my personal experiences will help to explain the difficulties in evaluating new instruments, although most of what I have to offer are just a confirmation of what has already been said.

When I finish I a new violin and set it up, I don't even bother to seriously try it out immediately, as I know from expererience that by just hanging in the workshop overnight, it will already sound different the next day.

Then I play the instrument twice a day for three days to at least get the new strings to settle a bit. At that point I then try to decide whether I need to modify a few things on the setup. Then I try to find a good player to take it out for a week or so to play regularly. When it comes back, I get the player to demonstrate for me, and I play the instrument again myself, and adjust the setup again. Only at this point am I prepared to commit myself to an opinion of the instrument regarding tone, response and volume.

If I'm lucky enough to sell the instrument at this stage, I try my best to see the instrument again after six months. They always sound a lot different at that stage compared to the day they left the workshop. A new sound post is always required at this stage, and the bridge almost always has to be lowered a bit.

Often I don't get to sell the instrument within a few weeks of completion. Not infrequently I get the same person who initially may have turned down a given instrument to try it out again after a few months of hanging in the workshop and getting played a bit twice a day by me. In most cases, either they buy it this time, or they regret not having done so when they had the chance.

Perhaps the most important thing which has gone unsaid so far in this thread: unfortunately most players cannot tell whether the instrument itself or the setup is to blame when a new instrument is less than satisfactory. Apart from the very rapid development in sound quality which normally takes place during the initial stages of a new violin's life, I find it necessary, as I've tried to illustrate, to check and double-check the setup over a period of at least two weeks before submitting the instrument for evaluation.

From a buyer's perspective, I just don't think there is a way to tell whether a violin will improve significantly over time if it has obvious weaknesses. I've noticed that most players will observe that the violin is "tight" if it is new, which is OK, but if some strings or notes are "dead", or the response is generally sluggish, or the tone quality is offensive or even indifferent, I would not buy such an instrument in the hope that age will miraculously cure such ills.

Which is what most people have said - it's fairly obvious if a new violin is a good violin, and if it's obviously not, time will most likely not change that.

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I completely agree with Jeffrey Holmes on this, that the tonal improvement of new instruments *must* be treated as a bonus, not a requirement. It is a promise that may or may not be fulfilled, and even if fulfilled, may not live up to your expectations.

I think people's "tonal memory" is very unreliable, in the sense one can't exactly recall what a given violin sounded like, say a week ago. Given this, and the fact that the incremental tonal improvement is very subtle (say on a daily basis), you can't realistically expect anybody to notice the change, especially when the owner of the said new instrument plays it every day.

Even when an instrument is new, concievably it could have been sitting in the shop/passed around for six months. So maybe by the time a potential customer evaluates it, the instruments have been completed more than six months ago. By then, some equilibrium should have set in. Who knows, maybe by that time the instrument might *need* a new setup. In which case you're really dealing with "yet another" instrument (that just happens to be the same physical instrument, but with a different setup).

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The discussion so far seems to be about two (or more) definitions of "new". Some people would say all 20th century violins are "new". I would certainly say that a six month old instrument is new but Mr. Darnton and others use new to refer to a violin hours or even days old. What I would like to ask is when is a violin "played in"? My guess is that the change observed after six months (and the required changes in set up) constitute playing in. The changes seem to be quite dramatic during the playing in period but much more subtle after that. Right?

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