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How to tell if it is a good violin


Landolfi
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Over the years, i’ve heard people commenting something like “it’s a nice scroll because of the varnish, or the purfling is well done, or the sound holes are interested, or the scroll is well constructed”.   My question is, who set out the standards?   I mean, in order to tell if something is good or bad, there got to be a reference point.  So how can a person decide the scroll or the purfling is well made?  What is the reference point or rule?   

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1 hour ago, Landolfi said:

Over the years, i’ve heard people commenting something like “it’s a nice scroll because of the varnish, or the purfling is well done, or the sound holes are interested, or the scroll is well constructed”.   My question is, who set out the standards?   I mean, in order to tell if something is good or bad, there got to be a reference point.  So how can a person decide the scroll or the purfling is well made?  What is the reference point or rule?   

The music of Beethoven speaks to me more than does the music of Liszt. I would therefore call Beethoven a better composer than Liszt.  How complicated is it to decide whether you respond better to Beethoven or Liszt? To a Ferrari or a Porsche. Whether you prefer a strong cruising yacht or something better for racing?

A lot of the conversation on this site is between makers, and their idea of 'good' is not going to be the same as the values of collectors, or of players, is it? If you blow $2000+ on a pair of hand-stitched shoes and stitching of the sole is not in line with the edges of the sole, the person who teaches that craft may say they are badly made. If they are uncomfortable, the customer will say they are badly made. If they lack style or elegance, the fashion expert will say they are badly made. I don't find violins very different.

You have to nail your colours to the mast and know clearly what you like in a violin, just as you would with anything--an automobile, a painting, an expensive bottle of wine, a yacht. Otherwise you are inviting the dealer to sell you what they want to sell, or wandering round an exhibition waiting for someone to tell you which picture to like. Until you know what you want in a violin, a car, a yacht, or a pair of hand-made shoes or a bottle of fine wine, it would idiotic to buy that item hoping it is 'good' in some abstract sense.

I bought a violin recently. In my circumstances, low resale value + low maintenance costs make more sense than the high maintenance costs you might bear if you are buying for investment.  I knew it would change with time, more so with a new instrument, so like some fine wines you don't just reject it if it is not quite there yet, though you do reject it if it is just too stolid--if that means anything in violin terms.

It is pointless going on with my list of what I want in a violin. When I am buying, I decide what is a good violin, without any expert to tell me, though I'd listen to expert advice. When you buy, just have the balls to state to yourself what you want in a violin, then you decide if an instrument meets your criteria. And if you don't feel experienced enough with violins (or cars or yachts or expensive wine) to work out what you want, it is OK to admit it. Wait until you do.

I chose a violin which speaks to me.

 

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2 hours ago, Landolfi said:

Over the years, i’ve heard people commenting something like “it’s a nice scroll because of the varnish, or the purfling is well done, or the sound holes are interested, or the scroll is well constructed”.   My question is, who set out the standards?   I mean, in order to tell if something is good or bad, there got to be a reference point.  So how can a person decide the scroll or the purfling is well made?  What is the reference point or rule?   

Stradivari ...

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Perhaps i didn’t make the question clear.  When you evaluate things, there got to be some objective measurement or criteria.  For example, you can say it is a nice bow because it’s made of nice pernmanbucko wood, or the Weight is only 8 grams, or the center of gravity is 8 cm from the frig, etc. so fo the violin, how do you judge the scroll is nicely made, or the purfling is detailed, etc. there got to be a set of rule, not just some subjective arbitrary opinion

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A while back, one secret was disclosed to me of telling a good violin.

Bow it close to the fingerboard, bow it close to the bridge, and bow it everywhere in between.

If it sounds the same in all those places, it isn't a good violin.

There is a bit more to it than that, of course, since one wants the right kind of sound that one can use in the different places, but that's a start.

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Just now, Landolfi said:

how do you judge the scroll is nicely made, or the purfling is detailed, etc.

Well, purfling is either detailed or not; that indeed can be determined objectively - does it look like it was put in very carefully.

The scroll, nicely made? While the quality of workmanship is objective - some scrolls are carelessly carved, or carved by clumsy hands - esthetics on which general design is preferred is subjective.

As it happens, Stradivari was a skilled woodworker, so his violins looked nice as well as being superlative musical instruments.

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And when I was young and naïve, I thought you could tell a good violin by suspending it from rubber bands, applying a frequency sweep signal to one side of the bridge, and, using a microphone set-up like that of Heinrich Dünnwald, determine whether or not it had the frequency response curve characteristic of "Old Italian" violins.

Actually, even if plenty of other violins have what I later learned to be the "Bridge Hill", that may still be one indicator of good quality.

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38 minutes ago, Landolfi said:

When you evaluate things, there got to be some objective measurement or criteria.

No there hasn't. Not unless you live in a world where there is an objective measurement for whether a car is good a good one (some might buy on max speed, I suppose) or whether a fine wine is good, or whether a pair of shoes is good. Bourdeaux wine is a close parallel: it is all made of grapes, of pretty much the same varieties, by a set of people using similar methods, with similar training and traditions, in similar conditions. The only measure which more objective than whether you or I like a particular wine, is whether an expert maker, or critic, or clllector, says it is good. If you want an objectively 'good' wine you can go with Robert Parker's view, and drink the wine he likes. If you have a bit more confidence, you can go with your own view, and drink the wine you like. How are violins different?

You could show up at a car showroom, or an automobile museum, and ask 'is a Mercedes SL250 objectively a good car? or is a Porsche 911 better?' What will you learn from the answer? Not much but certainly more than you will learn if you ask experts about violins because with cars you can measure performance and fuel consumption. With violins there is little useful to measure apart from price, weight, very minor differences in size, approximate age, and I suppose loudness.

On the concept of what is quality, it is always worth reading / re-reading Zen and the of Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

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15 minutes ago, GeorgeH said:

Not there does not, nor is there.

Ah, but when the mind of man cannot explain what makes a violin, or a car, or some other thing "good", there is still that amazing thing...

which can do what even Einstein couldn't do, that is, manufacture a pencil from the things nature provides, (the reference is to Leonard E. Read's essay, "I, Pencil" from 1958, which makes the point that essays are written by fools like me, but only the Free Market can make a pencil)

and it can determine what violins are better than others!

Yes, I speak of none other but the Free Market, the ultimate arbiter of all values (except, of course, moral ones)... and thus one can tell a good violin by how much it brings at auction.

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You can get some useful experience by going to violin shops and trying many violins.  Dealers won't mind if you explain that you want to try several violins in different price ranges.  Play then with an open mind and notice their sound, response, how easy it is to get the effects you want.  You aren't trying to select the best one, just trying them.  Do this for a lot of instruments, 50 or 100.  Then you will have some idea of what instruments can do.  You can then start to search for one you want to buy.  If you are looking for the best instrument you are setting yourself up for frustration because whatever you have tried and liked there might be a better one that you haven't found yet.  So look for something you like and are satisfied with.

The OP asked for measurable qualities.  Good wood, craftsmanship, neither is quantitative.   Unless you have experience it's hard to judge the wood.  Again, without experience you can't evaluate workmanship in detail.  Furthermore, great makers vary in both of these categories.  Storioni often used wood that would be rejected by modern makers yet still made great instruments.  Guarneri del Gesu also worked fast and sometimes sloppily and made great instruments.  Finally, the quality of the  sound also can't be quantified and measured.

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2 hours ago, Landolfi said:

Perhaps i didn’t make the question clear.  When you evaluate things, there got to be some objective measurement or criteria.  For example, you can say it is a nice bow because it’s made of nice pernmanbucko wood, or the Weight is only 8 grams, or the center of gravity is 8 cm from the frig, etc. so fo the violin, how do you judge the scroll is nicely made, or the purfling is detailed, etc. there got to be a set of rule, not just some subjective arbitrary opinion

Here's the only 'objective' test: collect a large number of 'violin experts' (players, dealers, makers identified by your previous 'objective' polling analysis of 'violin stake holder' 'subjective opinons'), then 'objectively, poll and analyze their 'subjective opinons'.

 

Frustrating as it may be, violin quality is a subjective matter of expert opinion.  

It's subjective. And worse, outside of experts, opinions and answers don't matter. 

 

But an 'appropriate' violin is a more approachable question.   No need to reach beyond the values that the player and perhaps teachers etc. around the player can directly perceive with their own eyes and ears and sensibilities.

In short, what makes a fiddle appropriate for Perlman doesn't matter to most any third year player, and vice versa.  But the notion of quality derives from historical preferences of top players.

 

A very simple test is try handing a fiddle to a wonderful player.  If you can't get them to touch it, not a good sign.  If you can't get them to give it back, good sign.

 

 

 

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First you have to have an educated eye for detail, and then the more violins you examine, the more you learn to discern details in workmanship, design and beauty. Stradivari is generally used as a standard to which all others are compared, but to my eye, I find some details from other makers superior.

In my eye, Amati family violins appear to have more graceful curves in the scrolls and f holes, and Guarneri del Gesu always struck me as slipshod, hasty work, although he has been put on a pedestal of veneration in the eye of other critics.

Look, look, and look some more; examine details closely and decide for yourself what constitutes beautiful work.

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45 minutes ago, David Beard said:

A very simple test is try handing a fiddle to a wonderful player.  If you can't get them to touch it, not a good sign.  If you can't get them to give it back, good sign.

 

 

 

This is a very telling scenario; I've witnessed this myself where a great violinist doesn't want to put the instrument down. The more they play it, the more intrigued they become if it's a good instrument.

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3 hours ago, Quadibloc said:

A while back, one secret was disclosed to me of telling a good violin.

Bow it close to the fingerboard, bow it close to the bridge, and bow it everywhere in between.

If it sounds the same in all those places, it isn't a good violin.

There is a bit more to it than that, of course, since one wants the right kind of sound that one can use in the different places, but that's a start.O

Or maybe it's just set up poorly.  Which you can only determine by handing it to an 'expert' set up person, etc.

Expertise is the inescapable essential in these matters.  There's no getting around it.

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I am actually surprised that no one has given me an objective measurement how to judge if a scroll is well made or if the purling is detailed etc.   If that's the case, how do one generation passes down its standard to the next generation?   If judging a quality is such a subjective acquired skill, how can a novice learn to appreciate a good quality violin?

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3 hours ago, Quadibloc said:

Ah, but when the mind of man cannot explain what makes a violin, or a car, or some other thing "good", there is still that amazing thing...

which can do what even Einstein couldn't do, that is, manufacture a pencil from the things nature provides, (the reference is to Leonard E. Read's essay, "I, Pencil" from 1958, which makes the point that essays are written by fools like me, but only the Free Market can make a pencil)

and it can determine what violins are better than others!

Yes, I speak of none other but the Free Market, the ultimate arbiter of all values (except, of course, moral ones)... and thus one can tell a good violin by how much it brings at auction.

So you're saying the best violins are the best selling cheap like VSO student models?

Best wine?  Do you mean best selling, or 'best' in the sense of best connoisseur wine to go with dinner at a five star restaurant?

Best in the arts is not objective, nor democratic, nor merely a matter of market forces.

It's insteady a deeply human and subjective thing.  And it's significantly elitist.  Whether the elitism of class, or wealth, or gangster cred, or fashionista, etc.   The opinion of some eyes will be valued more highly in the arts than others.

You could use word 'expertise' to sum things up.  But no matter how you slice things, arts are subjective, complex, and human.   The dead opposite of objective.

 

 

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47 minutes ago, Landolfi said:

I am actually surprised that no one has given me an objective measurement how to judge if a scroll is well made or if the purling is detailed etc.   If that's the case, how do one generation passes down its standard to the next generation?   If judging a quality is such a subjective acquired skill, how can a novice learn to appreciate a good quality violin?

IMHO, at the moment, only through apprenticeship to a mentor, and hands on experience.  To simply take your question about a scroll, compare that of a first-rate modern Chinese trade fiddle with those of some very expensive originals (GDG comes to mind).  If you're going by sheer technical perfection of the workmanship, who wins?  Obviously, you can't judge violins on that basis. 

For picking some simple things up, you're in the right place already, by being here.  :)

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1 hour ago, David Beard said:

So you're saying the best violins are the best selling cheap like VSO student models?

Nope. I'm saying the crass materialistic thing that the best violins are the ones that can get away with the highest price tags. Stradivari, Guarneri, those guys.

3 hours ago, Bill Yacey said:

and Guarneri del Gesu always struck me as slipshod, hasty work, although he has been put on a pedestal of veneration in the eye of other critics.

I don't think anyone denies that there are some aspects of the production of Guarneri del Gesu that reflect "slipshod, hasty work"; however, he got to his spot on a pedestal thanks to the ear of various critics. Any violin that serves as well, or better, than one by Stradivari as a musical instrument can hardly be claimed to be undeserving.

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6 hours ago, Landolfi said:

I am actually surprised that no one has given me an objective measurement how to judge if a scroll is well made or if the purling is detailed etc.   If that's the case, how do one generation passes down its standard to the next generation?   If judging a quality is such a subjective acquired skill, how can a novice learn to appreciate a good quality violin?

As i said, compare it to a Stradivari.

Symmetry, perfection of curves, precision of carving, elegance of lines, lack of mistakes etc.

Purfling - regularity, even spacing, mitres, how it inhabits the corners, lack of chipping.

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9 hours ago, Bill Yacey said:

This is a very telling scenario; I've witnessed this myself where a great violinist doesn't want to put the instrument down. The more they play it, the more intrigued they become if it's a good instrument.

I start counting   "one thousand one,  one thousand two...."   to see how many seconds a good player will play my instrument.  

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7 hours ago, Landolfi said:

I am actually surprised that no one has given me an objective measurement how to judge if a scroll is well made or if the purling is detailed etc.   If that's the case, how do one generation passes down its standard to the next generation?   If judging a quality is such a subjective acquired skill, how can a novice learn to appreciate a good quality violin?

A novice has better to trust the opinions of more experienced people until he gets some experience of his own. Standards do change over time, but often very slowly.

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