Resisting the urge to upgrade
December 22, 2021 at 10:22 am #52974
I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that a different fiddle would help my tone. I bought my fiddle from a neighbor who posted it on NextDoor. As best I’ve been able to determine, it’s a ~100 year old, German factory-made ‘fake’ with a “Schweitzer 1813” label. They seem to be considered fairly decent instruments, and it only cost me about $300. I upgraded the bow to a good quality carbon fiber one, and also had the fiddle set up with a new bridge, properly fitted sound post and new (pretty expensive) strings by a local shop that has an excellent reputation. The setup definitely improved the tone. But I still often don’t enjoy the tone I create with it. It often sounds shrill to me – it’s a very loud instrument. Some days I can barely listen to myself. Then other days I manage to find a decent tone and feel as though I’m making progress. I could afford a better instrument, but I want to wait until I’ve developed enough skill and technique that I will be able to discriminate between different instruments and find one that really speaks to me and helps me create the sound that I hear in my mind’s ear (or at least get me closer to it). I’m only a couple of months into this adventure. I had a similar experience with mandolin (which I started over 10 years ago after nearly 30 years of strictly guitar playing). My first mandolin was a very inexpensive beginner model. I upgraded within months of starting out and bought a wonderful, hand-made mandolin. I’ve since passed that on to my son (who loves it and plays it beautifully) and bought another mandolin that is my lifetime instrument. It was actually less expensive than the one I gave my son, but it has great tone – a lot of which is in the instrument, but much of which comes from the technique I worked to improve over years of practice.
December 23, 2021 at 2:26 am #53004Joanne IlesParticipant
I learned on a fairly nice but mass-produced violin & after about 18 months, decided to upgrade.
I’m lucky that we have a good music shop in a nearby town & they sourced a number of instruments for me to try. Interestingly, they recommended that I try German late 19th century models to suit the folky & country music I play.
They were priced between £1800-£4000. I was amazed that even at my beginner level I could hear & feel the huge differences in the instruments. As you have discovered, the type of bow makes a big difference too.
If you can, then trying a number of instruments before you buy, is definitely the way to go. You will then know when you find “the one” for you.
I ended up with a 1920’s violin made in Plymouth, Devon! Not at all what I’d intended. It looked a state compared to all the others I tried but the sound is beautiful & moved me to tears when I first played it!(in a good way🤣)
As you found with your mandolin, it’s so lovely to be able to play on different instruments & find the right one for you eventually. I think you have to enjoy playing an instrument & be happy with it’s sound otherwise it takes the fun from your practice.
December 23, 2021 at 6:48 am #53005
Thank you for this thoughtful reply, Joanne. I too am lucky to have a good violin shop very close to me. They specialize in violins, and have a very large inventory of instruments at all price ranges. This is where I bought my bow. When I went there, they let me audition about 8 different bows at a range of prices. I asked them not to tell me the prices ahead of time, so I could let my ears guide me (I did tell them my budget ahead of time ;-). I will follow a similar process when it’s time to find a new fiddle. I did play one or two Chinese factory made violins when I bought my bow. However this was literally a couple of weeks after beginning, so my technique was atrocious and I honestly could not hear much difference from the old German fiddle I bought from my neighbor. (Truth be told, I couldn’t hear much difference in the bows either, but something in the carbon fiber one I bought spoke to me.) I think if I manage to hold out as long as you did, and am diligent in my practice, that by the time I go shopping for a different instrument, I’ll be in a better position to find one that will please me for a long time (hopefully for the duration). Who knows, maybe as I refine my technique, I’ll find myself happy with the one I already own!
December 25, 2021 at 2:08 am #53028AnonymousInactive
As long as you are playing this violin, have you considered a practice mute? I sometimes use it when my ears protest. I do think that over time the sound will improve as my skills improve 😀
BTW thanks for sharing, nice to read your story, quite similar to mine.
December 25, 2021 at 7:59 am #53049
Thank you Niels. Yes, I’ve thought about a mute. My teacher also recommended one. I sort of over-shot. Rather than spend a few dollars on a practice mute (which I will probably get at some point) I spent several hundred dollars on a used Yamaha Silent Violin from Reverb. I already own one of their Silent Guitars, so I knew the quality of these instruments before I bought it. (The Silent Guitar has a good enough tone that I often use it for recording projects.) I am quite happy with the Silent Violin (and I realize the privilege I have in being able to afford this – one of the advantages of being old and somewhat frugal over the years). The danger in the Silent Violin is that too much time with it results in loss of tone and feel on the real instrument. But it’s quite a good tool for working on rudimentary skill development like bow technique and intonation without having to injure the local cat population (or test the bonds of my marriage). Of course, the benefit of doing all this work on the real instrument is that you are always working on tone development at the same time as the other skills. But the trade off for me has been worth it. My frustration level has dropped way, way down now that I have the Silent Violin. It allows me to plug in and mix the audio of Jason’s lessons with my playing, and adjust the relative levels of these two signals in a pair of headphones. I try to make sure and play the real instrument every day – ideally more time on that than on the Silent Violin. But I admit that there have been a few days that I’ve only played the Silent Violin – partly just the excitement of a new instrument to explore.
December 29, 2021 at 1:48 pm #53143KvmceffParticipant
If you enjoy your instrument you will play more. If might just be a change not necessarily an upgrade. I will say that a ‘better’ instrument can be easier to play. As for the brilliant sound you are experiencing from the current strings. You could try different strings. Check out the chart at Shar Music which rates them Subtle to Direct and Warm to Brilliant. It also gives price ranges for the strings on the graphic.
Also Joy Lee did a nice video on upgrading strings. She has a YouTube channel.
January 5, 2022 at 7:24 am #53239
Welp, my will power is breaking down. I set up an appointment for later this week at the violin shop in town. I spoke to the owner and explained what I was looking for – chiefly an instrument with a darker tone, less piercing. He said they carry a Romanian brand that a lot of trad players prefer due to its darker tone. I am going to bring my fiddle down there and play one, and see how it sounds compared to my current fiddle. It’s in the right price range – won’t break the bank. But if I don’t hear a big difference between my current fiddle and these Romanian instruments then I guess it’s all about my technique……
January 5, 2022 at 7:45 pm #53261kate.kakaduParticipant
Fascinated to see how you go, and the price and brand of what you get. When you’re after that elusive tone it’s hard to know if it you or the violin. I’m pretty convinced it’s my technique. I’ve been playing a cheap electric full size, but have a wooden 3/4 student violin and am keen to upgrade. There is no shop close to where I live so I’ve been looking online. I agree it’s so important to play first. It would be good to have some expert advice and there’s a music shop in Brisbane that I’m thinking of visiting which has a range of violins that they play for you on the website and provide a overview of the sound palette of the instrument. But you need to feel it yourself, like a wizard with a wand, you hope it will select you!
January 6, 2022 at 7:38 am #53268
Thanks for the encouragement, Kate! I did a search on Romanian fiddles and found this very interesting discussion thread: https://www.fiddlehangout.com/archive/1395
I’ll share my experience after I visit the violin shop tomorrow. I love playing different instruments so this should be fun.
January 7, 2022 at 6:03 pm #53332
I spent around 2 hours at Loveland Violin Shop in Santa Rosa today, and played over a dozen different instruments. My intent was to audition a ~$500 Romanian violin that the shop owner told me was quite popular with trad players due to its darker, more subdued tone. I brought my violin with me so that I could compare any instruments I tried with the one I currently own. The Romanian instruments I played (they had two of the same make/model) were definitely mellower than my German factory-made student instrument from the early 1900s. However after playing them a while (along with a few Chinese-made, sub-$500 violins, none of which sounded ‘mellow’ or sweet to my ears) I realized that 1) the woods and workmanship were notably sub-par compared to what I envision as an instrument that would satisfy me long-term; 2) the tone of these instruments, while not as harsh, wasn’t what I hear in mind’s ear as the tone I want to achieve; and 3) the nut width was slightly wider than all the other violins I’ve played, making them feel notably different in my hand. After about a half hour of focused attention with these Romanian violins, I realized I wouldn’t be satisfied with one of them.
I moved on to Chinese-made violins of comparable cost. I played around a half dozen sub-$1000 Chinese-made violins, and there was one in particular that I kept picking up to play. It had lovely figured wood for the back and sides. The finish had been purposefully ‘aged’ at the factory to make it appear as though it was an antique instrument. I was more focused on tone than anything, but I did like the look of this instrument a lot. I spent a good 45 minutes or more with this batch. I was pretty much sold on the one that I kept coming back to, with the pretty antiquing treatment and nice warm tone. I asked the shop staff if they had any more inventory of that particular make/model, since I’ve learned from years of shopping for guitars and mandolins that every instrument is unique. They only had that single fiddle, but said they could bring out a few others that were similar, so it was back to the audition room.
This time, I was presented with five more violins, ranging in price from about $800 to $1400. Every one of them – except one – sounded too bright/loud for my taste. But there was one of these that had the warmest, most open, resonant tone of all. It was much more complex and ‘open’ than any of the violins I had played up to that point. The figure and finish were really beautiful as well – with much higher grade of wood compared to any of the ~$500 violins I played. I spent a long time going back and forth between the antiqued, $500 violin and the higher priced one with the fancy woods and amazing tone. The less expensive violin was really nice, but it didn’t have the complex, open, resonant tone of the higher priced instrument. That one was priced quite a bit more than what I had planned to spend, but the shop offered me an additional $100 off their already-discounted price, and I took it home. I know I’ll never regret stretching my budget for the better instrument.
I’m really excited to have this instrument to inspire me – I’ve been struggling so much to get a sweet tone from the old German violin I’ve been playing, but now I have an instrument that is intrinsically more pleasing to my ears, even with my beginner’s bowing technique.
Speaking of bows – I also played three new wooden bows at the shop – all in the ~$100 price range – but none of them sounded as good as the carbon fiber bow I purchased there a couple of months ago.
January 8, 2022 at 12:03 am #53336kate.kakaduParticipant
Thanks so much for your detailed experience. It was a really honest and makes it clearer to me that playing the instrument will be the way that I will go when it comes to getting a new one. You’re right, the instrument has to provide the sound and feel that resonates with you. Can’t wait for you to post a video playing it. You should do a comparison with the German fiddle and the new one for us, unless you traded it in already. Also bow advice is good.
January 8, 2022 at 4:45 pm #53358KvmceffParticipant
Congrats on your new find. I do like the carbon fiber and other non-wood bows. And thank you for taking us on the journey with you.
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