Over many years I have observed all manner of tonal tests by retail buyers in the string instrument market. Some of these tests are more effective than others, but no one method for testing an instrument can tell players everything they need to know in evaluating an instrument or bow for purchase.
In order to understand the different ways people test instruments and bows, it is first necessary to sort out the different motives and conflicts inherent in trying a new instrument or bow. With few exceptions, there are essentially two categories of players with regard to equipment satisfaction: those who are forever searching for an improvement to their equipment—let’s call them the Fussbudgets—and those who adjust to whatever they play on and forget about it—we’ll call them the Whatmeworrys.
The Fussbudgets are forever heading into the shop for special rehairs and soundpost adjustments. They experiment endlessly with all kinds of new accessories such as strings, shoulder rests and rosins, always in search of the optimal confluence of factors. In trying instruments, Fussbudgets tend to be suspicious of an instrument or bow until they have tinkered with it in the pursuit of their personalized sense of ideal equipment performance. Sometimes a Fussbudget does find what is believed to be the perfect instrument in optimum adjustment. But this arrival is frequently short-lived as some flaw in the instrument or adjustment soon becomes apparent to the player. Some Fussbudgets will speak wistfully of a particular violin or bow and set-up that was perfect and then “died.” More often than not, they may simply have become aware of a drawback that was not initially evident to them, but ultimately spoiled their enjoyment of the instrument. Fussbudgets are wildly frustrating to dealers and repairers, who perceive their endless quest for perfection as a mysterious sort of “holy grail” search with a constantly moving target.
The Whatmeworrys, who simply adjust to what they are playing on, pose a completely different set of issues: a Whatmeworry can sometimes present a violin with its bridge warped and nearly ready to topple over, yet completely unnoticed and unattended to. A Whatmeworry’s violin may have open seams, or the handle of the bow may have been allowed to become terribly worn in some way. If a Whatmeworry is given a new piece of equipment to play, it may rejected it instantly, simply on the basis of its unfamiliar feel. The Whatmeworry cultivates ignorance, resists change, and generally holds to a very narrow concept of what is desirable.
Most of us share the traits of both Fussbudgets and Whatmeworrys, becoming at some times obsessed with equipment, and at other times unmindful of it.
Because of the subjective nature of tonal issues with musical instruments, understanding which of the two categories you fall into and how extreme your tendencies are is key to effectively evaluating instruments and bows. If you perceive yourself to be the sort who always looks for improvement, try to develop a more open attitude toward the equipment and set-up of equipment when testing it. Try to adopt the policy of exploring how much adjustment you as a player can make to accommodate the differences in the instrument or bow before trying to adjust the instrument. For example, I would suggest that one play any instrument that a repairman believes to be well set up, for at least a couple of hours before touching anything on the set-up. You will then have time to really discover the virtues and drawbacks of the instrument and its set-up before making alterations.
If you are the sort who adjusts to your equipment and forgets about it, then try to develop an open attitude toward instruments that don’t initially seem to fit like an old shoe. Remember that every old shoe began its life as a new shoe. In ways that may not feel immediately comfortable, the unfamiliar instrument or bow may offer improvements over what you have been playing.
There will always be different opinions about the quickest way to uncover the attributes and drawbacks of an unfamiliar instrument. The first thing I want to learn when trying a new piece of equipment is whether I can develop a voice with the new tool. Importantly, this should be the sort of voice which one normally uses in one’s work. It makes as little sense for a soloist to begin trying an instrument with extremely soft orchestral excerpts, such as Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night Dream, as it does for an aspiring orchestral player to begin the discovery process with a very bombastic solo piece, such as Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol. Eventually many players seek to test instruments in a larger space. This only makes sense if you are testing the instrument in the size space in which it will be used by the player. Ultimately one will want to put an instrument through its paces completely in the discovery process, but to reject an instrument solely on the basis of it’s relative unsuitability for an application for which you will not use it makes little sense.
As a start, try to begin in the manner of a normal practice day with the new instrument in question. Possibly play scales, arpeggios and etudes that explore a wide range, or practice the repertoire that you are currently working on and have in the best possible shape. Try to develop enough comfort with the unfamiliar instrument to find the nuances in your connection with it. You are looking for a voice and this is a personal thing. Be patient as you work on the new instrument. If the setup is new, the instrument will be changing even as you adjust to it. Allow time for this process.
After gaining initial familiarity with an instrument, and enough confidence to begin trying the instrument in varied situations, one of the most important tests for ensemble players is to try the instrument in the normal ensemble situation in which they play. The sense of confidence and creative license that a player derives from playing an instrument in the usual performance setting is more important than all other considerations put together, save for adequate projection. If an instrument projects well enough and you feel good playing it, then you will sound the way you want to sound. The decision about whether to switch instruments need be no more complicated than that.
Many players rely heavily on the influence of trusted outside opinions where tone is concerned. Some players wind up playing for committees of tonal evaluators in a concert hall, moving back and forth between instruments as the committee listens. I have never been comfortable relying too heavily on a committee’s concept of what I should sound like. As far as outside opinions are concerned I advise keeping it simple. The most important issue for anyone listening in a hall to advise you about is whether or not the instrument in question projects well enough. It doesn’t actually matter if one instrument projects more than another or if an instrument is perceived by someone listening to have more color, or quality than another. Only two things matter at this stage of the test: whether the instrument has enough power to be heard appropriately in the applications for which it will be used, and whether the player feels comfortable making music on the instrument.
For a professional string quartet the issues around a change of instrument are more complex. String quartets sometimes require that every member of the group demur from a change of instrument within the group. This may seem extreme until one considers that a quartet must function as a single voice composed of four separate voices, and as a single organism governed by four individuals. All four must be comfortable with a change of instrument within the group. But the quartet paradigm is a unique situation. In most cases committee-based decisions are less reliable than a decision based upon the player’s own unique relationship with the instrument.