Quadibloc

How Do You Make a Violin More Responsive, More Expressive?

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It has been suggested to me, since I am only an interested layperson, that instead of repeating things I have read which, in some cases, may be fallacious, given that many of the participants in this group are highly able and knowledgeable professionals in lutherie, I should ask questions.

Up to now, what I have been doing, even if it did not seem that way, was trying to learn in my own poor, fumbling way. Before I could ask a question that would be likely to give me the kind of answer I was looking for, I would have to know enough to be able to ask the right question.

An example of a wrong question would be: "How would I go about making a violin that sounds as good as a Stradivarius?" - that would produce all kinds of answers, some unhelpful, and when it came to the ones that seemed helpful, I would have no idea which of them to believe.

So here we are:

(to frame my questiion, I am beginning with some backrgound material; please forgive me if it contains mistaken and false assumptions; but if you do not understand how I am thinking, you will not know what information I am really looking for)

The violins of Antonio Stradivari have been praised for the beauty of their tone, and for how well they project. However, other makers of violins, both classical and modern, have been able to approach or even exceed his violins in those respects; I can mention Domenico Montagnana and Jacob Stainer for sweetness of tone, and Joseph Guarneri del Gesu for projection - but I don't have to resort to referring to makers whose violins go for high prices at auction. Many modern makers also achieve similar heights in these traits.

On the other hand, at least some concert soloists, when speaking of Stradivarius violins, single out a third trait for praise, and they often appear to claim that this virtue is Stradivari's unique point of excellence.

Any violin, even the cheapest student violin, will make different sounds when bowed, or plucked, or when the strings are struck with the wooden part of the bow.

But a Stradivarius, they say, has a deep reservoir of tonal resources waiting for the dedicated performer who takes the time and effort to learn how to bring them out.

Expressiveness is a very basic virtue of the violin, so I would presume that any violin that is of good quality has it to a degree. To have that trait par excellence, presumably a Stradivarius violin not only has several different "voices", but it has several different very good voices.

So here is/are my question(s):

This expressiveness, this versatility:

- is it something that modern violin makers consciously strive for, in general?

- are modern makers doing well enough in general at this that this characteristic of the violin gives no more substance to the "Stradivarius myth" than tone and projection?

- are any modern makers particularly noted for the expressiveness/versatility of their violins?

- what design features of a violin should be emphasized, or what design techniques should be utilized, to improve the expressiveness/versatility of a violin?

There you are, finally: my question.

Edited by Quadibloc
More specific title, to make it easier to determine if topic is of interest

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Look. 

It's simple. Violin makers strive to make the best instruments they can. The better makers understand that they are making TOOLS. Not artifacts, not objects d'art to be studied, but tools that make another person better able to create the ACTUAL art we all want to  hear. Music. In attempting to do this, while also putting food on the table, all will grasp at any and all straws available to them, over and over again, until the target audience says "I can use this." The target audience being the performing musician, NOT other violin makers.

With all due respect, your questions are only navel gazing. Which is not to say that they are worthless, or don't deserve a thorough thinking through. But in the end, your questions have no answer, and never will. Why do Strads sound (and look) like they do? No one knows. Full stop.

I recently heard a violin maker that I had the pleasure to meet had given up the craft. I was told he went on to become an engineer of some sort, and probably lives a much more comfortable life.   Why?   He made beautiful instruments, both in appearance and sound.      

He could not accept that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many variables you control, every instrument will sound, to some degree, different from the last. As (I heard) he put it, I can't accept the magic. It frustrated him to the point that he had to let it go.

Now it's time for a sandwich.

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1 hour ago, arglebargle said:

But in the end, your questions have no answer, and never will. Why do Strads sound (and look) like they do? No one knows. Full stop.

I accept that. Which is why I waited to ask a question until I knew enough to ask a meanigful question.

Admittedly, by including comments about where I am coming from, I made the subtext of the question visible - but I think that your questions address the subtext and not the question itself.

Putting aside the Stradivarius instruments, and the controversy about whether or not they're magical, I instead asked a question about the expressiveness of violins. How much does expressiveness figure in the thinking of modern violin makers, and what things do they do to obtain it?

Of course, by saying that current violin makers realize they are making tools, you did address my question a little bit.

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1 hour ago, arglebargle said:

I recently heard a violin maker that I had the pleasure to meet had given up the craft. I was told he went on to become an engineer of some sort, and probably lives a much more comfortable life.   Why?   He made beautiful instruments, both in appearance and sound.      

He could not accept that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many variables you control, every instrument will sound, to some degree, different from the last. As (I heard) he put it, I can't accept the magic. It frustrated him to the point that he had to let it go.

Interestingly, that is the exact opposite of my path.  Engineering was too straightforward, not challenging enough.  Of course, if you're talking about a need for income for a "more comfortable life", I definitely would go the other way.

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2 hours ago, Quadibloc said:

It has been suggested to me, since I am only an interested layperson,

(a whole lot of words)

There you are, finally: my question.

Maybe we need an "armchair punditry" forum for this kind of thing.  I'm here to either find useful tips from the folks who have a lot more experience than I do, or share what I think I know that might help other makers.  We have been through all of these circular discussions many times, which in the end are only opinions anyway.  

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23 minutes ago, Don Noon said:

Maybe we need an "armchair punditry" forum for this kind of thing.  I'm here to either find useful tips from the folks who have a lot more experience than I do, or share what I think I know that might help other makers.  We have been through all of these circular discussions many times, which in the end are only opinions anyway.  

I thought that I was asking for useful tips from makers like yourself with this thread. I've seen things written about how to make a violin's tone sweeter, and how to make it project better. Those of those things which I have quoted from here might have been false generalizations, but I think I can manage to sift through that material.

But I haven't seen much about making a violin more responsive to the player. So I was asking: is this something you pay attention to when making a violin, and, if so, what steps do you take to try and achieve that goal?

Maybe by warming up to the question the way I did, it made it look as if "oh, this isn't a question, it's just more pontificating about Stradivari". If so, I apologize, but I think that it's useful, in case my question is based on a boatload of wrong assumptions, and so it can't be usefully answered, these assumptions need to be visible.

And, indeed, in addition to asking how one makes a violin more expressive or responsive, I also did ask something which involved Stradivari: since I don't hear much about the responsiveness of contemporary violins, compared to their tone and projection, has this ground been conceded by default to the proponents of the myth of Stradivari - or have I just not been listening?

Edited by Quadibloc
Further clarification

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Quadibloc,  I’m still not sure where you’re coming from. Are you a player, collector, classical music lover, writer?  Your questions are broad and Ill defined. Without a context for why you are seeking answers it is difficult to frame an answer that is contextually meaningful. 

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3 minutes ago, Jim Bress said:

Quadibloc,  I’m still not sure where you’re coming from. Are you a player, collector, classical music lover, writer?  Your questions are broad and Ill defined. Without a context for why you are seeking answers it is difficult to frame an answer that is contextually meaningful. 

Oh, dear. I've worried that in order to establish where I was coming from, I let my question be too verbose.

Right now, I am just an interested enthusiast. But as for the kind of answer I'm seeking -

I would like the kind of information useful to someone actually making a violin for making it a more expressive and flexible instrument with which the performer can obtain a range of sounds.

Also, I would like more general information. The myth, or otherwise, of the Stradivarius is... pervasive. It affects profoundly the making and sale of violins. It's easy enough to objectively prove that modern makers can, and have, made violins that project as well as a Stradivarius, or even a Guarnerius. When it came to sweetness of tone, I was initially confused, but now that I've learned about the term "bridge-hill", I see that I had leaped to wrong conclusions from Dünnwald's graphs, and modern makers do have that covered as well.

But I haven't seen so much about expressiveness - and, as that seems to be what partisans of Stradivari's superiority to the moderns are most prone to rave about, I'd like to know if I just missed what they have to say for themselves... or if this part of the myth is being allowed to stand by default.

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I have been reading MN threads since 2004 - and I  still know very little. I  think you have to progress slowly and keep building on what you learn - otherwise it is overwhelming.

There really are no short cuts or instant answers. Too many variables and too many opinions.

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11 minutes ago, Quadibloc said:

Oh, dear. I've worried that in order to establish where I was coming from, I let my question be too verbose.

Right now, I am just an interested enthusiast. But as for the kind of answer I'm seeking -

I would like the kind of information useful to someone actually making a violin for making it a more expressive and flexible instrument with which the performer can obtain a range of sounds.

Also, I would like more general information. The myth, or otherwise, of the Stradivarius is... pervasive. It affects profoundly the making and sale of violins. It's easy enough to objectively prove that modern makers can, and have, made violins that project as well as a Stradivarius, or even a Guarnerius. When it came to sweetness of tone, I was initially confused, but now that I've learned about the term "bridge-hill", I see that I had leaped to wrong conclusions from Dünnwald's graphs, and modern makers do have that covered as well.

But I haven't seen so much about expressiveness - and, as that seems to be what partisans of Stradivari's superiority to the moderns are most prone to rave about, I'd like to know if I just missed what they have to say for themselves... or if this part of the myth is being allowed to stand by default.

That was direct enough for me to follow.  The ability and degree in which a player can express his/herself lies primarily with the player. The bow and violin are the facilitators that allow the musician to occomplish this. For the maker, one must first be able to make a quality instrument. With time and player feedback a maker can refine his/her craft to both the player and playing style. In other words the makers target customer. One size definitely does not fit all. 

Should curiosity turn to the obsession that is making, then the best thing to do is just make. Then you will have lots of questions. The more specific the questions the more specific the answers. 

The opposite is equally true. Vague questions will get you vague answers at best. 

-Jim 

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A very good musician can make even a mediocre violin amazing, so the answer to your question is: good playing can make a violin more responsive.

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8 hours ago, Quadibloc said:

It has been suggested to me, since I am only an interested layperson, that instead of repeating things I have read which, in some cases, may be fallacious, given that many of the participants in this group are highly able and knowledgeable professionals in lutherie, I should ask questions.

My advice would be to be quiet and listen.

As a tyro, your score of 280 posts in your first three months is ridiculous (and annoying).

Andrew

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7 hours ago, Quadibloc said:

I accept that. Which is why I waited to ask a question until I knew enough to ask a meanigful question.

Admittedly, by including comments about where I am coming from, I made the subtext of the question visible - but I think that your questions address the subtext and not the question itself.

Putting aside the Stradivarius instruments, and the controversy about whether or not they're magical, I instead asked a question about the expressiveness of violins. How much does expressiveness figure in the thinking of modern violin makers, and what things do they do to obtain it?

Of course, by saying that current violin makers realize they are making tools, you did address my question a little bit.

If I may venture a suggestion, you should make your questions more specific and limit to one question per post. That way you have a slight advantage in obliging the knowledgeable members to actually say something. "How to make a violin more expressive" is at the core of violin making preoccupation and those who have some idea of that might not be inclined to share it freely. In the end makers need some competitive advantage.

And here's some food for thought : for the past 200 or so years the instruments of a Symph. Orch. have become less and less expressive. Pianos are an excellent example though not the most extreme. This was not an accident, it was intended. Sometimes went a bit too far but in general it was done in response to audiences. Audience was not happy with something, fixing that changed other things and audience might not've objected to those etc etc. The very general trend was to make the instruments louder and this happened at a cost towards expressiveness. There are ways to change certain expressiveness aspects of a violin's tone, to the point of getting too much of those. It won't make it a Strad though. There are also ways to "stiffen" an otherwise excellent violin though again, if you started with a Strad it won't complete kill it's character.

In the end, modern makers make violins which need to be sold to specific markets. And for example, the market of hard working teenagers is not that much into expressiveness. It's into loud, clean and accurate

 

 

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8 hours ago, Quadibloc said:

Admittedly, by including comments about where I am coming from,.......

Like I mentioned elsewhere I don't mind reading what you type here but now I haves the question to why?

Would you have answers to the following?  Have you held a violin before, played other stringed instruments?  Can you read some treble, alto or bass clef sheet music?   Have you procured a set of violin making plans yet?

  If not, who are you trying to pad your totals against - other scientists or writers?  

fyi - At the beginning,  I had to go thru the same interrogation process you're starting to go through now.  Long story short, if don't make something with wood,  process wood, use or used some sort of instrument to make music with,  paint, or choose to analyze historical musical pieces with most or some of your time then acceptance here at Maestronet can be tough.  

 

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I think the question is a good one. 

I don't believe response and tonal variability are limited to Strad and the Cremonese, but I expect that you will not have the makers who can accomplish either one telling you what they know about the latter, especially. You will also have makers assuring you that whatever quality you consider important is something they already do: "Can your violin fly while doing the mambo?" "Certainly, they do that all the time." So this is a topic where you need to go hands-on if you really care. Once again, as  you have been advised, random interaction on the Internet is not the place to learn. You might try using your ears---there's lots of primary source information on YouTube!

In my experience, really cheap violins don't do much in tonal variation, so it's a shame that a lot of teaching energy early on goes into tone production that can't be realized on the instruments involved and then never gets learned. That's why when good players hook up with a good instrument you hear them talk about how long it took them to realize what they had, if they do get it at all. I believe there are some other forces working against this understanding, as well.

Contrary to what several people have said above, if the qualities are not there in the violin, the best player in the world can't bring them out, though skill can go a long way towards making you not notice their absence--there's a whole lot to a great violin performance, and most people won't notice if a piece or two isn't present.

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16 minutes ago, Michael Darnton said:

 

-there's a whole lot to a great violin performance, and most people won't notice if a piece or two isn't present.

At least 90% of any musical performance is rhythm and timing. Most of the rest is intonation and a tiny fraction is the vagaries of the instrument it's played on. None the less just as in auto racing it's the last .001% that either wins the race or finishes somewhere in the pack.

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I like something that Solti supposedly told the CSO: only about 5% of the people sitting out there will understand what you are doing, so you should be doing it for yourself, not the audience. You and I aren't being paid to be members of the deaf 95%. :-)

 

15 minutes ago, nathan slobodkin said:

At least 90% of any musical performance is rhythm and timing. Most of the rest is intonation and a tiny fraction is the vagaries of the instrument it's played on. None the less just as in auto racing it's the last .001% that either wins the race or finishes somewhere in the pack.

 

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36 minutes ago, Michael Darnton said:

so it's a shame that a lot of teaching energy early on goes into tone production that can't be realized on the instruments involved and then never gets learned. That's why when good players hook up with a good instrument you hear them talk about how long it took them to realize what they had, if they do get it at all. I believe there are some other forces working against this understanding, as well.

Contrary to what several people have said above, if the qualities are not there in the violin, the best player in the world can't bring them out, though skill can go a long way towards making you not notice their absence--there's a whole lot to a great violin performance, and most people won't notice if a piece or two isn't present.

Yes! As a Cello teacher, I can only agree to that. Though there is a difference, some Instruments allow for more than others, good setup is often what is lacking. But it is one of my biggest frustrations, and many students just don't hear it either. Just three weeks ago I was told by an advanced student she she simply doesn't hear a difference and doesn't understand what I mean…. I could cry when a student tells me that.

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27 minutes ago, baroquecello said:

Just three weeks ago I was told by an advanced student she she simply doesn't hear a difference and doesn't understand what I mean…. I could cry when a student tells me that.

A cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra taught me a trick: play open strings in one long bow stroke from a couple of inches up above the board to down near the bridge. Some instruments change a lot, some a little, the worst ones not at all. The best instruments make the absolute maximum variation you can imagine. If you can't make those sounds that way, which is the easiest way, you probably aren't going to get them any other way. If those sounds are there, you can use them. You might try that trick with your students. It's got the most impact when you are the one making the sound, not the one hearing it at a distance, which is why such a simple test is nice.

I have noticed that this test correlates with instruments that many players say have a "complex" sound, but not all complex instruments show variability---some simply have the complexity pedal welded to the metal, and you can't change them to anything else. This characteristic of fine variations with tiny nuances in bowing goes a long way towards making a complexly varying sound that doesn't wear on one like the unrelenting sound of a shop vac because every note, every instant, is slightly different from what's around it. Once I learned to hear this, I got a lot choosier about who I could listen to. I don't get it right away, but about three minutes with headphones sure separates the sheep from the goats. 

I think the main impediment to knowing this for students is that Suzuki teaches the "Kreisler Highway" and the concept that there is one "good sound" you are looking for that way. The implication is that all of the other sounds are the "bad way". I did this for a pretty good maker once, and when I commented that his violin didn't have any foggy sounds, and no grindy ones he replied "Isn't that great--you can't make a bad sound on my violins!" No, that's not great at all, but it's attractive to 12 year olds buying their first full-size who like an instrument that sounds great no matter how badly they approach it (and this is a huge percentage of the new instrument market!), and to other musicians with no control (because they never had an instrument that called them out on this factor).

To some extent both this characteristic and response are adjustable by a good setup person if they are present at all, but often they are just not.

I have had non-violinist audience members tell me about nearly walking out of concerts when the violin is a shop vac replica. The 5%, presumably.

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I see expressiveness as an interaction of a player with his/her instrument in a dialogue form. So it is neither the instrument alone nor the player alone. Maybe a good analogue is a team where one knows exactly how the other feels at the moment.

When it comes to making  there is no constructional feature which can explain 'expressiveness' as such. It is in my view it is a long process which extends to adjustments long time after completing the instrument to achieve an expressive quality. 

However if you would pressure me to say one thing I would put it in a negative statement: Symmetrically calculated instruments are IMO not capable to develop this quality. 

In many cases players discover the expressiveness of their instrument only after years of playing. A cellist  and student of Piatogorsky I knew put it like this: 'A great musician knows how to make love to his/her instrument'. For demonstration he played me a recording of Richard Strauss'  Till Eulenspiegel with Piatigorsky and I could see how he was moved to tears. 

 And as in an erotic relationship it takes time to know your partner. In this sense the player must be willing to explore the instrument.  The instrument teaches him/her how it needs to be treated for (bow) position,  speed and pressure. 

If this view is still appreciated in our days where players are asking all too often if an instrument has 'power' is debatable. I see in this attitude a sort of domination over the instrument. 

For me as a concertgoer there is nothing more exciting than listening to a beautiful pianissimo passage somewhere to convince me that I am listening to a real great musician. 

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MD, that is a lot of good stuff.  But I think maybe constant "complexity" isn't such a shop vac.  Maybe we are talking about variations in complexity within complexity creating interest,  or maybe I don't know exactly what you mean by complexity.  Personally I'd love "pedal to the metal" complexity -- which wouldn't bother me at all if it was a very interesting sound.

Regarding color, etc., I think a lot of people think of variations in color in a musical line, like Berlioz's color, but it might be better to think of color as the spectrum of what can be had from the fiddle as its basic sound in the right hands.  Somewhere in that spectrum might be what I've read you calling magical quality,  and that's where you would like the pedal to be stuck.

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3 hours ago, Michael Darnton said:

A cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra taught me a trick: play open strings in one long bow stroke from a couple of inches up above the board to down near the bridge. Some instruments change a lot, some a little, the worst ones not at all. The best instruments make the absolute maximum variation you can imagine. If you can't make those sounds that way, which is the easiest way, you probably aren't going to get them any other way. If those sounds are there, you can use them. You might try that trick with your students. It's got the most impact when you are the one making the sound, not the one hearing it at a distance, which is why such a simple test is nice.

 

Yes indeed! And we see few players doing that.... you can evaluate the dynamic range and colors that way. With a bad instrument you will change your bowing and almost nothing will happen in terms of volume and colors.

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4 hours ago, nathan slobodkin said:

At least 90% of any musical performance is rhythm and timing. Most of the rest is intonation and a tiny fraction is the vagaries of the instrument it's played on. None the less just as in auto racing it's the last .001% that either wins the race or finishes somewhere in the pack.

I agree with Nathan's first two sentences but he follows them with a terrible analogy. Successful musical performance isn't about being fastest, loudest or even the "best", because most great music admits of a range of interpretations. When listening to a violinist my attention is occupied firstly by the music (and whether it is being faithfully presented), secondly by the expressiveness of the player and only thirdly by the tonal variety. Yes, expressiveness depends to some degree on manipulation of tone colour but is much more dependent on phrasing which is almost entirely under the control of the player. I would far rather hear a good violinist play an ordinary, even a poor instrument than an indifferent player play you-know-what.

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very interesting...

 

My stepdaughter got a chance to try a super master violin bow - and while she realised its greatness, she found she couldn’t control it at all. It was just too sensitive to the tiniest variation for a 12 year old girl to use, even on her own familiar violin.

Which of course means that the violin is really good too. She was told by a player (who prefers his own composite half Stradivarius to the famous instrument he has on loan) that she won’t need another violin in a very long time.

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1 hour ago, Bill Merkel said:

MD, that is a lot of good stuff.  But I think maybe constant "complexity" isn't such a shop vac.  Maybe we are talking about variations in complexity within complexity creating interest,  or maybe I don't know exactly what you mean by complexity.  Personally I'd love "pedal to the metal" complexity -- which wouldn't bother me at all if it was a very interesting sound.

Regarding color, etc., I think a lot of people think of variations in color in a musical line, like Berlioz's color, but it might be better to think of color as the spectrum of what can be had from the fiddle as its basic sound in the right hands.  Somewhere in that spectrum might be what I've read you calling magical quality,  and that's where you would like the pedal to be stuck.

No, I really did mean the shop vac analogy: maximum possible spectral complexity, delivered with unrelenting lack of change. There really are violins like that, and some people, players and makers both, really do think that this is a good thing. If you had The Perfect Sound, why would you want less of it at any instant? This unrelenting lack of change is exactly what the people I mentioned named to me as the problem. If sugar is good, infinite sugar, for every meal, is not best.

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