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Will L

GOING ABOUT FINDING A VIOLIN AND BOW

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I started a topic on the "Auction" Forum, and the responses have made me think it might be interesting to have a discussion on how various people go through the process of finding their first or next instruments and bows.  Theories, ideas, and personal experiences welcomed.  :)

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I think when people hunt for a new instrument, the number 1 thing they would care about is its sound and in some cases, size. Playability is also important, but that can be fixed such as high bridge, chinrest and shoulder rest etc.

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It depends on the level you are playing at...and your budget.

When I upgraded from my VSO I did it on my own...with little knowledge. It didn't take me long to figure out that want I wanted (and needed) was an instrument that was capable of doing everything it should be doing. ..easily. I was tired of fighting lower end instruments and never knowing if it was me...or the equipment. I won't ever outgrow my current violin in that regard. I like the way it sounds...and it will sound better as I play better. I doubt I can reach the ceiling there either.

Now...if you already are a superb player I imagine you will be looking for subtleties in tone...

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While I don't recommend my method to everyone, I just kept feeding quarters into eBay until I hit the jackpot.  Unless I (suddenly go senile and) start considering a ridiculously expensive Italian, I realistically no longer have anywhere to upgrade to.  I will, however give my usual caveats here: if you do this, you'd better have developed an eye for "good" to find something worth buying, and the luthier skills to correct any defects as well as to maintain some decent old eighteenth-century warhorse once you have it.  :)

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When I moved up from my French shop/factory instrument I was advised to play as many different (serious) violins I could.  The goal was to find out what I wanted in the way of sound and, also, learn what I could get for my budget (~$15,000).  When I found an instrument I thought might do I took it home to try and play it in a hall and hear other people play it.  I ended up with a bench-made instrument I bought from its maker(!).  The process of finding my violin took six or eight months.  I have enjoyed growing into a really good instrument.  It was a big jump in cost from ~$4K for my French shop instrument to my $15K instrument but what I have gained from my "new" instrument has been worth it.  I am an amateur and I don't have professional chops, as Andy said above, but I appreciate what I've got.  I would advise anyone considering upgrading, though, to try instruments above and below your budget level because you can be surprised and might find a less expensive instrument that satisfies you.

 

After acquiring my instrument I felt I needed a better bow, too.  I live about 100 miles from Boston and there are excellent violin shops there, so I went and tried a number of bows on my instrument.  The sales person at the shop I went to was very knowledgeable and, after discussing my preferences and needs with me and what kind of music I play (classical) she selected 12 bows representing typical good bows in the price range $3K to $5K.  I spent two hours trying the bows and narrowed the candidates to two bows that I really liked and took home to try and decide.  I ended up spending $4K and I absolutely love my bow!

 

In choosing a violin or a bow there is a condition I would call decision paralysis that one must avoid.  Don't try to find the absolutely best instrument or bow.  There are thousands to choose from and about anything you are considering you might be paralyzed by thinking that there might be something even better if you just keep looking.  My attitude is to look for something good enough rather than look for the "best".

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I have been pondering this some more...

I also think that you won't be satisfied until you get what you think you want. Sometimes "good enough" won't cut it.

For example at some point I decided I wanted a new benchmade instrument. ..so once that was in my head I don't think an old German would have been a satisfying purchase for me...all other things being equal.

So if you have your heart set on an old Italian I don't think you will satisfied until you get one either.

Now...once you have what you want in your possession...you might be more open to finding something else that suits you...because you have already scratched the itch.

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I have been pondering this some more...

I also think that you won't be satisfied until you get what you think you want. Sometimes "good enough" won't cut it.

For example at some point I decided I wanted a new benchmade instrument. ..so once that was in my head I don't think an old German would have been a satisfying purchase for me...all other things being equal.

So if you have your heart set on an old Italian I don't think you will satisfied until you get one either.

Now...once you have what you want in your possession...you might be more open to finding something else that suits you...because you have already scratched the itch.

Yes, if you have an idea that you have to have a certain type of instrument then you won't be satisfied unless you get that type, at least.  So that narrows your search, but even within that narrowed search field you probably would have a lot of instruments to choose from.  My point was that if you succumb to the thinking that there is always something better out there so you'd better keep looking, you won't buy anything, or might keep on looking until you a tired of the process.  Of course your taste and/or skills may change in the future so that something that satisfies you now would no longer do so.  This could make for a lovely long process of learning and improving.  When I bought my good bow I found a bow within my budget, did what I wanted and more, with room for growth, and I bought it, but I might have thought "This one is more than satisfactory but if I keep on looking I might find something better."  If I thought that way I might still be looking.  It is an individual problem and might be related to cost.  If you are shelling out a large sum of money you may be more prone to keep looking.

 

When searching for a violin or a bow among a large number of candidates, we can forget what the first one you tried sounded like now that you are on number 15.  That also suggests to limit the number of instruments or bows you are trying.

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When searching for a violin or a bow among a large number of candidates, we can forget what the first one you tried sounded like now that you are on number 15.  That also suggests to limit the number of instruments or bows you are trying.

A little trick that Robert Kagan taught me:  Take two bows or violins and pick the best of the two.  Then play that against another and pick the best, etc.  And only then take the few "finalists" and really go at it.

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A little trick that Robert Kagan taught me:  Take two bows or violins and pick the best of the two.  Then play that against another and pick the best, etc.  And only then take the few "finalists" and really go at it.

Sounds like a very good idea. Too hard to compare too many all at once.

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A little trick that Robert Kagan taught me:  Take two bows or violins and pick the best of the two.  Then play that against another and pick the best, etc.  And only then take the few "finalists" and really go at it.

That's how I did my comparisons but comparing just three instruments can be complicated.  For example, you could actually, when comparing three violins say A, B, and C, find that you prefer A to B and B to C but you prefer C to A!

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price is only a very general indicator of quality and while it would make sense that an expensive instrument is expensive because of how well the instruments from that maker plays, it is not always that case that every instrument from that make is good.  I've played on a100K plus old Italian that couldn't hold it own against a decent modern intermediate and I have found instruments from obscure makers that have little monetary value, but play as well as almost anything you can find at any price.  The more patience and effort you put into looking, the better instrument you will find for the money.  Or you can make it easier and stick to your very reputable makers, play a lot of their instruments, pay the price and pick the one that suits you best.   It must be easy to play and have a sound that is pleasant under your ear, but always listen to it being played by someone else, because what you hear playing it is often quite different that how it projects.   If possible get it down to 3 or four and then arrange to have them all played in a hall, pick the one you fall in love with at that time. 

A bow, there are so many options.  Here you can and should consider carbon fiber as well as wood - do look at both.  I have played on some really excellent CF bows and it seems that the quality is more consistent.  Some say the sound is not as good, but from what I understand about how a bow is supposed to  work, including resonance characteristics, a CF bow could very well be better.   That being said, I do not own a CF bow, simply because I am satisfied with what I purchased before good CF bows were ever on the market.  I would like to upgrade to a really good CF bow on my violin some day.  Arcus intrigues me, but I believe the price is way too high. 

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After wandering from shop to shop within 300 miles of our home and wading through rooms of violins so different that they could hardly be compared, we decided to change the approach. My daughter (who was preparing for orchestra auditions) put her trust in the hands of a violin expert--not a player, but a well-credentialed luthier with whom we had enjoyed a long relationship in the upkeep of our various instruments. Whenever an interesting violin came into his shop, in our approximate price range, he would either send it for a trial or we'd visit the shop. Over time, my daughter gained a clearer sense of what she wanted, which in turn assisted his search process. He sent out feelers to shops around the country, which impressed me. Eventually one violin from an esteemed shop in the Midwest turned out to be a great match for her, easy to play and able to hold its own against Scarampellas and Bisiachs and even a loaner Pressenda in auditions.The whole process took about nine months, just like a baby! 

 

In the process we learned a few things:

 

1. Don't be blinded by preconceptions. The thing you will ultimately fall in love with will probably not be quite what you expected.

 

2. Condition is important, especially for someone who relies on the instrument for a living. Time in the shop for repairs consumes money and, more importantly, represents time apart from one's instrument.

 

3. When you're trying out instruments, keep their utilitarian function in mind. What do you need the violin to do? So, for example, the old, sweet-toned, much-repaired Neapolitan didn't have the power needed for auditions, solos, and contemporary orchestral repertoire.

 

4. Don't buy for the "name." That's stupid, risky, and expensive. Consider labels skeptically and weigh their value against the intrinsic qualities of the instrument in relation to the asking price.

 

5. It's probably foolish to shop for particular nationalities. (Nevertheless, the nicest sounds seemed to come from the Italian contenders. Subjective? Don't know.)

 

6. Don't exclude contemporary makers. Attend something like the AFVBM's "Players Meet Makers" or the touring "Cremona Exhibit" where you can try out a number of comparable instruments by various skilled living makers. 

 

7.  Consignments can be great deals, especially if they've been sitting in the shop for a long time or are part of an estate dissolution that needs quick settlement.

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The more patience and effort you put into looking, the better instrument you will find for the money.  

 

...always listen to it being played by someone else, because what you hear playing it is often quite different that how it projects.  

 

I have played on some really excellent CF bows and it seems that the quality is more consistent.  Some say the sound is not as good 

 

There are several excellent points here, I think.

 

I don't see how one goes wrong by NOT buying the first few things to come along.  So patience is a virtue.  And the higher the price range and the more serious the musician, the more important it becomes not to make a mistake.  At least, as long as we have the money, we have options  

 

But there is a problem that often a musician is desperate and has to get something quickly.  I even bought a violin once to play an audition two hours later because I was having so much trouble with the one I had.  (No, it was not a high priced instrument.   :) )    So there might be a lesson that we should look continually, whether we need something or not, instead of waiting until we MUST have something new.  A continual awareness would lead to growth of knowledge and concepts.

 

Violins can be amazingly different from a distance, no doubt about that.  For me, we have a problem when something sounds great when someone else is playing it but it is very hard or uncomfortable to play.  Which comes first in importance?  IMO, if it doesn't both play great and sound great then don't buy it.  I wonder how many other violinists have bought violins that don't play well and assume they can be adjusted.  Personally, I have had very bad luck with improving violins by new set-ups and adjustments.  So I recommend that we should not buy a violin unless we are content with the current set up; at least it is the safer route. 

 

The primary example of "sound good/play bad" I can remember was a Pollastri at an auction. I could not stand to play on it; it was impossible. And I remember saying, "Why in the hell would anyone buy this?"  Then a while later, from across the room, I heard a great sound and turned to see a guy playing the Pollastri.  I mumbled to myself, "Oh, NOW I see why!"

 

I haven't checked out the latest CF bows, but some were already getting pretty good even 15 years ago.  Even the fiberglass bows were much better than they were in the '70s.  I don't think anyone has yet been able to explain the remarkable difference that different bows can make on a violin.  And CF bows have had the reputation of not producing unique tone.  But there's hope.   :)   

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Sounds like a very good idea. Too hard to compare too many all at once.

Another thing I recommend is having an assortment of "telling" music, etudes, and scales perfected, and use the same ones for all the violins and bows you try.  And then see if a violin and bow will allow you to get through the pieces with comfort and ease.  

 

It is my believe that when you try out a violin just by noodling and jumping from tune to tune randomly, that doesn't tell you whether the violin really works.  If you watch players who do this, what you see is that they gravitate to the good notes—or features— a violin has  and avoid the bad.  So they come out thinking the violin is pretty good.  Only music, played straight through without stopping, really tells us much, IMO.  Recently, someone posted a video of the violinist Daniel Hope having a copy of his Guarneri made by Florian Leonard.  I asked a question on that thread:  Did anyone notice how differently he approached the Guarneris and the various modern violins?  I got no answers, incidentally.  

 

If you observe Hope playing the various violins, I think you'll see that when violins are not working well enough even such an experienced player as Hope may lapse into noodling.

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I started a topic on the "Auction" Forum, and the responses have made me think it might be interesting to have a discussion on how various people go through the process of finding their first or next instruments and bows.  Theories, ideas, and personal experiences welcomed.  :)

Originally I had no idea what I wanted and probably passed up some good fiddles and bows.  Looking back I have no idea what my criteria were but there had to have been some...  Later I developed an ideal sound in my imagination and liked fiddles that were similar to that.  Finally I developed several ideal sounds in my imagination and liked fiddles that could be coaxed in one of those directions.  You can tell after just a few seconds.  I also have an ultimate sound in my imagination that would probably be a great orchestra sound and a poor soloist sound.  Probably wouldn't be hard for a violin maker to create, but conveying it would be.  Might be easiest to convey it with a synthesizer, so you could tweak and refine it, and then present it.  

 

I had an old guy tell me something useful about bows once.  He said if you close your eyes and bounce the bow on the back of your other wrist the bow should feel thin, like a thin rod.  I've used that and it's helpful.  He was a violin and bow maker and also was the first viola teacher at Julliard, as he put it.  He taught viola at a school of music that merged into Julliard.  To camber his bows I think I remember him saying he made a fixture that held the stick bent the way he wanted and he would put the whole thing in an oven for awhile.

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I wouldn't recommend this to anyone else, but in my last two purchases,  a bow and a violin,  I threw caution to the wind and didn't set out to something that was exactly what I wanted or thought was what I wanted, but bought (for very reasonable prices) things that were not currently playable, in need of restoration, but which I had excellent reason to believe were very fine.  I've played and taught professionally since I left conservatory (40 years ago) and I was confident that given a first-rate instrument and bow I could figure out how to play them to best advantage and learn some things in the process.  And so it has proved,  it took time for me to learn the ways of both the bow and the violin, but it's been great fun and very educational and I like them each very much.  The bow was an antique, but my bowmaker vouched for its authenticity and restorability and the violin was by a well known living maker, aside from a soundpost crack it was in very good condition when I bought it, and even considering the cost of the repair I paid much less for it than I would have had to do if I'd bought it in the usual way.

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I guess everybody has experiences like mine.  I love my violin and bow but occasionally I hear someone play something that I think sounds really good.  I might even have played the instrument.  Then I go home and try my own instrument and bow and, surprise, I like my own better.

 

One interesting thing, my violin and bow seem to reflect my emotionally state.  If I'm anxious, feeling depressed, or angry, it is harder for me to get a good sound from my instrument.  If I'm in a good place emotionally it is very easy to express anything I want to.

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One interesting thing, my violin and bow seem to reflect my emotionally state.  If I'm anxious, feeling depressed, or angry, it is harder for me to get a good sound from my instrument.  If I'm in a good place emotionally it is very easy to express anything I want to.

 

 I think that's because you are a real musician at heart. What a good gift to have!

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