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Can an average maker get lucky?


flaco

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I recently tried an instrument by a maker who's work I am pretty familiar with and it was much, much better than anything else by him that I've seen before. It was several years old so that means he's made many since then that didn't turn out as good. I've heard of this case with other makers too.

Is it possible for a maker of average skill to get lucky and turn out an amazing instrument totally out of the blue? Or does the luck have more to do with one great piece of wood?

I just wonder because an average violinist could never get lucky and sound like Heifetz, and an average painter also could not get lucky and painst an oil on canvas as great as a Matisse.

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Leaving aside that perhaps the violin has been played in better than other ones you've tried, or that the strings and fittings were more ideal, my guess would be that perhaps the maker got lucky with the neckset for that particular violin, resulting in the ideal bridge height and string angle over the bridge. I don't know that any maker can turn out one violin, out of the blue, which in essence surpasses clearly anything else he has ever done - AND that he is incapable of following up on that success.

In a very recent post Michael mentioned the two things which he considers as having the greatest influence on the tonal characteristics of a violin: arching and setup, and I totally agree. It is unlikely that a maker would produce an instrument with extraordinarily effective arching by accident, without knowing what was happening. That is why my guess would be neckset and setup. I am by no means an experienced maker, but I know exactly what I am aiming for arching-wise on a given instrument. Sometimes I'm not entirely successful in the execution, sometimes the result is not what I expected. Nevertheless, in my own making process the aims, execution and result are linked and understood to at least some extent, and most times I'm up to speed with what's happening, or what will happen. For me the crunch comes when the neck is mounted: getting the ideal overstand and angle in relation to the arching height and arching style. I've had to redo this several times on new violins, and the difference in tone and response resulting from a different neckset can be quite remarkable, to the extent that it can be difficult to believe it's the same violin.

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Jacob- Do you think the apparently critical neckset angle is possibly the reason so many of the very old (Cremonese, Brescian, etc.) makers produced such fine instruments? In those days, the straight-necked (baroque) design would have allowed for a lot easier adjusting to obtain the proper angle. The neck didn't have to be reset, they could just try different fingerboards with varying "ramps" until they obtained the optimum sound. Ron.

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No, there's no attention paid at all to the original angles. The ideal has changed a lot over they years, depending on tonal preferences, string choices (all gut 300 years ago, some wound gut 250 years ago, mostly wound gut 100 years ago, vs all metal now), and personal and musical taste. Most of these top violins are probably on their tenth neckset, at least with each one being slightly different, depending on when and even where they were done (continental tonal preferences vary, even now). In the US, a NYC neckset is going to be slightly different from a Chicago one, for instance, due to local tastes.

Then someone gets a "better idea" which may spread, and ultimately may or may not get generally accepted, like Sacconi's tilt of the whole board and neck into the left hand, which has come more and more out of 40 years of favor, back to a flat setting in many shops.

In short, it's all in flux.

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In general a good maker will have a consistent production, some features of his instruments will always be there, for instance, balance in all strings as well as in upper and lower positions, good tone, easyness to play, good volume etc. But sometimes some instruments by the same makers stands above the rest, for reasons that are difficult to find.

In the case of violas, they are very unpredictable and temperamental (at least mine violas are) you will find much more variations in sound in violas than in violins by the same maker, I think.

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What do you mean "amazing instrument"?

Mostly likely you meant its sound was amazing (other than its varnish or other things being amazing )

Why do you think so? You have played hours on it and absolutely convinced that it was out the world. Right?

Just try to understand what degree of appreciation that you had with this particular violin.

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Very good question/observation flaco.

Something other than "How long do I cook my hide glue?" (guffaw!)

I'm going to venture the opinion that perhaps yes, a maker can put out a single violin that completely out performs all of his prior or subsequent work. Or even a small number that are vastly superior to the rest of his work - for whatever reason. It is more often the case that an individual maker is more consistent than that because I believe that most makers vary minimally with their arching and thicknessing (& etc.) during their career - regardless of their success in the tone department.. At least, that has been my observation.

I believe that your observations matches my own & that this happens relatively frequently not only with individual makers, but with factory instruments also to varying degrees.

Taking into account how subjective such things as "performance" or "tone quality" are, I'm not at all surprised that this is the case.

BUT, it is also my opinion that a painter CAN indeed put out a small number of extraordinary works surrounded by a large number of merely adequate work, or that their work in general may well simply never be recognized as “extraordinary” even though it may be as skillfully or artfully executed as the work of other artists who are well recognized or collected. - Vincent Van Gogh, during his lifetime, is an example of a painter who virtually couldn't give his paintings away - and was considered fairly well a hack by most of the art world and his contemporaries at that time, but, if I'm not mistaken one of his paintings sold not long ago for a record what was it? 70 or 80 million dollars?

Does that mean that the painting was worthless and/or devoid of artistic merit during his lifetime?, or, that it suddenly acquired worth or merit later?, or does it merely reflect the fact that it took the public a while to recognize what he had accomplished?

Perhaps it only reflects the fact that worth is really only established by someone (anyone) setting a precedent by paying whatever price they decide they will for an object?

Who knows?, still it’s an excellent question and observation.

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(Continue) I do have trouble to rank my three violins.

(leave alone others) I like them the same. I don't mean to be obnoxious (to contradict anyone.absolutely not). How in the world I know which one is better?

I have been playing them almost everyday.

may be my emotion clouds my judgement.

I appreciated your listening my needless frustion.

Thank you.

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Well, you know that this cake is good and that one is not because you sampled lots of them during your life, giving you a reference table to judge cakes. The same occurs with violins, you have to have a good ear, play well and try many many violins to have an idea what good sound is.

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"like Sacconi's tilt of the whole board and neck into the left hand, which has come more and more out of 40 years of favor, back to a flat setting in many shops."

Michael: Do you set your neck in flat? What about on cello? I was taught the tilt and it seems to make sense if your thinking about the left hand/arm, but I've always been a little apprehensive about it because of the effect it has on the bridge.

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No Yuen, I don't think so.

The variation of opinions regarding person A liking this fiddle and person B preferring another may occur at a certain level. Perhaps one 5th grader prefers the Chinese Strad copy to the Juzek at an elementary school somewhere.

But on the higher level, we know that despite the subjective nature of art that some are just better. Beethoven was a better composer than Berwald, Strad was a better maker than anyone else, etc. Why do you think almost all the greatest violinists of the 20th century through today prefer the finest Italian instruments, especially del Gesu and Strad? Because they're better, that's why. So with regard to what I was talking about, I tried an instrument from a maker that I thought was on a high professional level, whereas the previous instruments I tried by him were nowhere near that level, in terms of quality of sound and artistic possibilities.

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I set the board level. With the board tipped, the E string is weakened, and often the cure is to use a heavy E. Then there's an A-string problem because what you really need for that position is a medium-and-a-half A string. Finally, when I started asking players about it, it turns out they don't like it: because the board is lower and tipped, it's harder to finger in the upper positions, and fingers want to slip off. When I've had two violins for comparison, most players prefer the level board. I think that's one of those "great ideas" that wasn't sufficiently checked out with musicians. Or maybe playing styles have changed.

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I would like to state emphatically that I did not intend to create the impression that I believe a good neckset can make a bad violin sound good. However, I wish to state as emphatically that a bad neckset can make a good violin sound bad. Regarding setup, it has been mentioned on this board, and I have seen it myself countless times, that established (which is not necessarily a synonymn for "good") makers sometimes underestimate the importance of a PERFECT fit for a soundpost, and effective fitting and trimming of bridges. In flaco's scenario it could also very well be that the soundpost and bridge on the violin which impressed him were of a higher standard of fitting, perhaps by a different luthier. I obviously don't know which maker flaco is referring to, and I am not subtly trying to trash him - all I'm saying is that the variable which caused that one violin to sound so much better is more likely to be found in a setup element, rather than construction, given the background of the instrument and maker as supplied by flaco.

I have never, and I don't think ever will, "get lucky" with the construction of a violin. Sometimes I do however get lucky with the neckset - meaning that, after a year or so, when most of the initial settling, bending and stretching has taken place, the neck angle and bridge height required are just perfect for that particular violin, with its particular arching and wood stiffness/graduation properties.

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Hi Flaco and Manifio,

I am not to disagree with you.

When we say this violin is better than that violin.

The degree of firmness of judgement is in question.

I have no idea how did they judge the tone of the violins

in competition of, such as, American Violin Society or others organizations? The judges were listener ? Or the judges actually played the instruments?. I believe anyone would agree with me that one would feel differently, if you were players vs listeners. ( I don't believe they would listen them very long?, Did they? They had to come up with some sort of scores in a hurry,but long enough ?)

I am confused. (Forgive my stubornness)

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The judges for tone at VSA competitions are always players, usually well-known players. Usually there are three judges, one of each instrument, and I imagine they play them for each other.

It's probably similar to judging a music competition, there are some differences of opinion but the judges to reach agreement, quite often unanimously.

There is always room for subjectivity. When I say 'better', I mean when the vast majority of people, including experts and great players, tend to have that preference. By that standard, a violin by Joseph Rocca is 'better' than one by Heberlein.

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I am very familiar with a un-named maker's work. I've played several of his intruments through out various shops in US. I've also visited him at his home where I played another 3 instruments he made. His works are generally consistent. However, there are some that are better than others. It just happened that the violins he made that I liked all had tops he bought from famous italian makers of the last generation. Everything I've played made by him were all good instruments. I just perfer some over others. I've never played one of his instrument which played like a dud...

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"I would like to state emphatically that I did not intend to create the impression that I believe a good neckset can make a bad violin sound good. However, I wish to state as emphatically that a bad neckset can make a good violin sound bad. Regarding setup, it has been mentioned on this board, and I have seen it myself countless times, that established (which is not necessarily a synonymn for "good") makers sometimes underestimate the importance of a PERFECT fit for a soundpost, and effective fitting and trimming of bridges. In flaco's scenario it could also very well be that the soundpost and bridge on the violin which impressed him were of a higher standard of fitting, perhaps by a different luthier. I obviously don't know which maker flaco is referring to, and I am not subtly trying to trash him - all I'm saying is that the variable which caused that one violin to sound so much better is more likely to be found in a setup element, rather than construction, given the background of the instrument and maker as supplied by flaco.

I have never, and I don't think ever will, "get lucky" with the construction of a violin. Sometimes I do however get lucky with the neckset - meaning that, after a year or so, when most of the initial settling, bending and stretching has taken place, the neck angle and bridge height required are just perfect for that particular violin, with its particular arching and wood stiffness/graduation properties."

I couldn't agree more.

In fact, I think that it is more than just the neckset that can settle, in time, into what it takes to produce a great violin. Though you are correct that the neckset is a critical adjustment.

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