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How to Buy a Good Sounding Full or Small Sized Violin

by Peter Zaret

Presented at the Suzuki Association of the Americas 2004 National Conference, May 28-31

I have always been interested in what makes a violin sound good not only from the playing standpoint but also from how a violin works. As a child I used to take violins apart, study them, and in a few instances, attempt to build them. The results were so so. After being a professional musician for many years I got frustrated with the struggle so I decided to get into the business end of buying, selling and repairing violins. I soon discovered there was much mythology involved with this business so I made a determined effort to separate fact from fiction with respect to sound, tone, etc. I zeroed in on the bass bar about 8 or 9 years ago and have solved many acoustical problems in the process. .

What defines a good sounding violin of any size? First and foremost, the vioiln must have power. As much power as is possible. Can you remember any instance of a solo violin drowning out an orchestra? Or a violin drowning out a piano?

A small size violin is too small for its acoustical range. A viola is also too small for its correct range. (Any size viola. Ideally a viola would be 21″ long to properly support its acoustical range but that is much too big to handle. Usually anything over 16 1/2″ is too big.) The only two string instruments that are correct for their acoustical range are a 4/4 violin and a 4/4 cello.

Since the air mass in a smaller size violin is less than a 4/4 violin it will have less power than a 4/4 size. A student 4/4 violin will have less power than a good one for other reasons.

Once again, with that in mind the first thing to look for in a small size violin and in a 4/4 violin is power. The louder the better.

A small size violin will tend to be too brassy sounding in the lower register particularly on the G string. For that matter a student 4/4 violin will also sound brassy on the G string. Therefore the second thing to look for in a good 4/4 violin and a good smaller size violin is depth and richness in the lower register. It is a fact that if a violin, whether small sized or 4/4 size with a traditional bass bar, has a rich and dark G string the upper register will tend to be muffled. Therefore in trying a violin be aware that you don’t want to sacrifice the upper register to get a good lower register. (If you want to hide in the second violin section a violin like that will be good). If you must make a choice split the difference: find an instument with a lower register that is not too dark so that the upper register will be more brilliant.

There is a tremendous amount of mythology in the history of violin making and in the history of the violin. What is it that makes a Stradivarius great? Is it power, warmth, resonance, clarity of tone, brilliance, resonance, evenness, richness, lack of wolf tones, lack of nasalness? Yes to all of the above. Or supposedly. Ask anyone what it is that makes a Stradivarius sound so good and you will get a variety of answers most of which are imagined.

Stradivarius improved the design of the violin by flattening out the arching. The flatter arching gives the violin more power and less nasalness. However, Stradivarius used a baroque style bass bar which has been replaced in each of his violins many times over the years. So a Stradivarius is only partly a Stradivarius.

I maintain there is no “secret of Stradivarius”. The man lived to be 93 years of age. During that time you can make a lot of good violins. You can also make a lot of mediocre violins and you can make a lot of lousy violins. The good ones are remembered and used by soloists and the bad ones are sold to wealty amateurs. I remember Isaac Stern showed me the violin he used regularly. It was the Ysaye Guarnerius. At that time about 7 years ago it was worth 4 million dollars. What does that tell me? I don’t know who has it now after his unfortunate death but it will probably be renamed the Stern Guarnerius. The really good Strads and Guarneri’s are passed down from one soloist to another. (Whether this will continue is unknown as I can’t imagine a performing artist being able to afford these ridiculous prices.)

With this in mind it is my opinion that for a child a good new violin that sounds well is probably better than an older one that sounds the same but has had some repairs. Condition is very important for a child as children can get careless. I just took in a fine French 1/8 size for repair: it has a large bass bar crack, the endblock is cracked and the lower rib surrounding the endpin is cracked. The child had dropped the violin. However, the violin seemed to be weak in the first place. There were three old repaired cracks which indicated this. I haven’t looked inside the violin but it probably had been regraduated over the years.

The monetary value of violins is typically predicated on numerous factors, of which tone is only one and not usually primary (factors such as the maker, country of origen and so on play the most significant role). When there is a connection between great tone and high price it is, in my opinion, because the violin was worth so much money that time and money has been spent maximizing everything in the violin. People who own very expensive violins will typically try various strings, adjust soundposts, replace bass bars, regraduate the violin, etc. (Regraduating is a very bad practice that has gone on for hundreds of years.) Ater you get it right you leave it alone. That time and effort can’t (and therefore isn’t) be economically spent on an inexpensive violin.

Once again as far as old versus new all things being equal an older violin will sound better than a newer one. However, it is perfectly possible to find a new violin that will sound fabulous and an old wreck which might sound well for a while but which will eventually succumb to problems. For children, a fabulous sounding old violin in excellent condition is fine if you don’t mind spending a fortune on an instrument that will be used for 1 1/2 years.

I am talking only as a musical instrument. I don’t dispute the historical, or investment potential of these instruments, particularly on a 4/4 size. It is nice to have a musical instrument and an investment that appreciates every year. However, it is a tremendous strain on the emotions, to know that if you lose it or drop it or if it gets stolen you are in hot water. The insurance costs are outrageous and those costs aren’t amortized when you sell the violin. I maintain they don’t sound any better than a good violin with my bass bar.

A good small size violin should sound as close to a good 4/4 size as possible. Don’t worry so much about the upper register as a small size violin should have a better upper register than the lower one. This is a rule of physics. The smaller something is the higher it will sound. Compare a piccolo to a tuba!

On the G string listen for a strong fundamental and good overtones. A dark sounding G string will be appealing at first but won’t carry and with a dark sounding G string the upper register tends to be muffled. The positive side of this particularly with a small size violin is the response will tend to be easier if the violin has a dark lower register.

In general the ear picks up the higher overtones more than the lower ones. That is why that, although a violin produces less sound than a cello for instance, it carries better. 1000 Hertz (high C 3rd finger in third position on the E string is heard the best by the human ear.

Listen for wolf tones — usually on the E string on the smaller size violins. The typical place for wolf tones on a full size is on the notes B flat C natural and C# in first position on the A string. Those notes played up on the G string can be deadly. On the smaller size violins the wolf tones come on the E string. They get higher and higher up the E string with each smaller size. As for having these wolf notes on the G string they are so high up most kids don?t play in that range.

A good small size violin should have an easy response. Lots of times a soloist will want a moderately hard response on a 4/4 size. A violin with a moderately hard response will not crack as much under pressure of the bow. The soloist can dig in with the bow and attack the violin. A 4/4 size violin with a dark tone will tend to have an easy response. For a child an easy response is definitely an asset.