How to Try a Violin, Part 2

I am frequently contacted by string players needing help with tonal issues in their search for an instrument. Many string players have trouble sorting out what tonal criteria are important in the process of selecting an instrument. Problems arise most often when string players attempt to objectify issues of tone. A player’s interface with an instrument is largely a subjective matter, and as such it is best dealt with using subjective criteria.

One client wrote:

I like a wide, sweet sound which also cuts through. It seems that fast notes sound clearer on some violins, while they sound fuzzy on others. If that is dependent on the violin, then I obviously would prefer a violin that easily sounds clear. My testing procedure so far has involved this:

  • Playing a high F sharp and surrounding notes at different dynamics. All notes should sound powerful and even.
  • Playing fast scales in first position, checking for “fuzziness” in between the notes.
  • First few notes of the second movement of Brahms’ third sonata. It should feel and sound very wide, fat, settled, comfortable.
  • Loud heavy notes at the frog and across the range of the G string. The violin should sound loud and even a bit edgy, not “crushed.”

This client has missed the boat. Violins, like people, each have unique attributes and drawbacks that must be factored into the development of a relationship with the instrument.

As an analogy consider that some people go about the process of identifying a romantic match by subjecting every potential mate to a rigid and extensive set of criteria. Any potential mate is cast aside who does not conform. Usually this strict culling process results in a sample of zero.

When considering people who sift the sample of potential mates in this way, but complain about a lack of success with the search, one wonders if they really want to find a realistic match, or are actually just not quite ready to settle down. If they do happen to find someone that strictly meets all of the criteria, there may be no chemistry between them after all, and in any case they will have missed the chance to learn about themselves from having had to adapt to another.

Similarly, musicians operating this way in the selection of a string instrument, could easily be missing the opportunity to learn about their own playing, through learning how to extract the best out of any instrument, and to adapt to many different instruments. A more subjective and adaptive approach to a search will often actually cause players to modify their criteria and substantially improve their playing.

Specifically, I recommend that players abandon any so-called “objective” testing procedure altogether, in favor of the method detailed below, which I developed for myself, based on my years of experience playing on many different instruments:

  • With each new instrument just practice as you normally would, exploring what changes you must make in your playing to find your voice on the instrument. In effect see how quickly you can FORGET what you are playing on and feel comfortable in the playing itself.
  • Don’t look to isolate problems with the instrument; rather, try to find what works well for you with the instrument and what gives you trouble. After a while you will have a sense of the balance between attributes and drawbacks with the instrument as you relate to it. Over time you should be able to intuitively adapt to the instrument. If, after a couple of hours of scales and normal practice you are frustrated, the violin may be in poor adjustment (a frequent problem), or the violin may simply not be for you.
  • If you try violins in this manner from a major shop where most things are set up well, and the available inventory is excellent and plentiful, and you come up with no instruments that you can feel comfortable playing on, you should work on your ability to adapt to different instruments before setting out to find a violin to purchase.
  • Once an instrument has passed the personal test and you have become nominally comfortable with your own voice on it, the most important part of the process can start. Play in ensemble with people to see how it feels to actually make music with others while playing on the instrument.
  • Play in the settings for which you will actually use the instrument. If you are not a touring soloist, you don’t need to have a violin that will project well for the Brahms Concerto. If you mostly play in orchestra, definitely try the violin in orchestra to be sure that you are comfortable and can hear yourself and your colleagues when playing in this setting. For me the sonata and chamber music test is the most important one as I normally play in these settings. I want to feel good touching my colleagues’ sounds with my sound, on whatever instrument I am playing.
  • Avoid taking too much advice from others about how you sound on an instrument. Do not be too comfortable with anyone deciding for you what your voice should sound like. The main things you need to know about the tone of an instrument are:
    1. Do you feel comfortable in your voice and able to sing on the instrument?
    2. Can you be heard by others to the extent you need to be in the contexts in which you will use the instrument?

All other issues or concerns are irrelevant to the process of establishing your tonal connection with an instrument and dialogue around such issues is to be avoided.

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