If you do not play the violin or seen one up close, you may misconstrue that parts of the violin are not removable such as the bridge which can actually be moved rather easily and is just balanced in its place by the tension of the strings. Upon loosening the strings, the bridge will come off as it is not glued on.
Almost the entire violin can be taken apart just like it has been put together, which is why a very delicate part such as the neck needs to be well taken care of as without care, the violin’s neck can collapse and this would affect the string height and the violin being acoustically balanced or even in some more extreme cases, the violin would not be playable. Humidity plays a large role in the expansion and contraction process of the fingerboard/neck area. (For more on this, do read this article from Strings Magazine) As the neck is in constant pressure with the tightness of the strings pulled all the way from the end pin of the violin to the pegs at the other end, it is only a matter of time that the entire Neck angle is affected and not where it is supposed to be. And when the violin is played even more pressure is exerted with the fingers and the bow. That’s why it is important to keep the violin in an ideal environment. (A tip on care for this is to leave desiccant gels in the violin case if you live in a hot humid tropical country like me or during the more humid summer months.)
During the Baroque period (1600-1750), where the fingerboard was shorter, the neck angle was also in a kinder position that the strings could be closer to the fingerboard. However, when the concert halls became larger than just chambers or rooms where the violin was being performed, more projection was needed and sought after. The fingerboard was extended to take in a higher range of notes for the compositions in the Romantic Period of Music (late 18th and early 19th century) radically changed the angle and position of the neck of the violin. Inserting and setting the neck had to ensure a more stable method. Do read Michael Darnton’s article on how to set a violin’s neck, he goes into great detail on the specific measurements and method.
If you suspect that your violin neck was not set correctly as it is visible that it veers towards an angle or to one side; if you feel difficulty pressing the strings than previously felt when u first got your violin, this could be due to changes in the string height. If it is ruled out not due to your bridge, do not despair as this can be repaired by a good violin luthier such as Andrew Carruthers who has extensive knowledge and experience with neck repairs. This repair could really alter the sound of a violin and it could be a night and day effect! So do go and check on your necks, you never know how your violin (or you) may be suffering.
Over the years having performed and taught many students in different countries, I have had the privilege of playing violins in every size and lineage of American, Eastern European and European makers to the China makers and I even now sell my own line of violins. So what makes a good violin and why do violins differ from a meagre $100USD to $20million?
I recently have been on a journey to rediscover my own violin. My violin is a beautiful Guarneri Del Gesu remake by an Italian maker in 1966. I bought it at a hefty sum (well at least to me it was my entire savings at that time! Thankfully then I still lived with my parents so I didn’t have to become a starving artist as I had already quit my job as a lawyer at the time of buying the instrument.) This violin has brought me through my Journey from playing it in the early days for my boyfriend (now Husband) to impress him and then with my Professor in Beijing-with the tireless and grueling on some days, 10 hour practises and the meaningful time I had spent with him under his tutelage to understand so much more about playing and learning the violin. It has a lot of sentimental value and to me so predictable. Perhaps too predictable, that in this hot and humid climate where I live in at the moment in Singapore, the violin just sounds under the weather lately and I find myself on days too frustrated to work with it. Wood certainly doesn’t fair well in humidity and heat! It does something to the otherwise crisp tone.
So when a friend of mine told me that he could alter the acoustics of my instrument and make it come more alive, I jumped at the prospect that there could be a change without having to change my violin to an entirely different one. It has been hard, because I do love my violin so much even though it is not one of the Greats. I remember being in New York on Labor Day and had the whole music shop to myself, they brought out Strads, Guaneris and an Amati all for me to have a go. The cheapest violin that day I played had a price tag of $300,000USD. I remember being very disappointed as I left the shop I thought I’d be overwhelmed by playing such an expensive instrument commanding a priceless sum, just to discover it’s power to be the same as my ordinary violin just with a more historical tone color due to its aged wood. So since then, I’d been aware that my violin lacks this certain richness of tone color that comes automatically in an aged instrument dated in the 1700s, but not the playing experience and projection so I had no more excuses not to play as good on it as if it were one of those.
This same friend of mine has proved me completely wrong with the minute changes that he made to my violin (he did more than move my sound post and bridge and other movable parts but am not at liberty to disclose as he guards his brilliant skill and precision as one BIG secret). All I know is that my violin now sounds absolutely spectacular, I will not be selling or ditching it anytime soon. And I’m so excited to be rediscovering my Pieces and working through new ones with my more balanced and better acoustically attuned instrument. I am eternally grateful!
Incidentally this article from the Strings magazine resounds my new found understanding of the value of instruments and what makes a good violin. It is a myth that all old violins would sound better than a new one. As new violins these days by good experienced makers go through a lot of research and development to achieve better acoustically sounded violins with quality aged wood that they use.
To sum up what makes a good violin, Wood plays an important role, the maker plays an important role to gathering the wood and materials and the carving the violin out to precision, the luthier can play an important role too in restoring and upkeeping the violin, the violinist plays an important role in ensuring that the violin is well kept (sending it to the Luthier for periodic checkups) and preserved (buy a good case and keep it out of harsh elements such as the sun or rain and too much or too little humidity) as each violin is unique and some violins can be important historical pieces just like art, it is important to be sensible to keep your violin in good shape as you are responsible for its well-being. You will find that these people and factors surrounding the construction and upkeep of the violin would make a good violin. And if you are famous, the violin you own may also appreciate in its value. Although most incredible violinists have their expensive instruments sponsored and loaned to them including the great Maxim Vengerov!
Here are some pointers from Strings Notes for those of you with a budget to buy a violin at (USD) $10,000 to $15,000. This category price would also put you in what is classified as “Professional Instrument” category.
According to this article, this price range is very safe especially if you were to buy an instrument from a modern maker who made the violin from start to the very end. (as opposed to it being assembled by different hands) from experience, the violin would retain its value just in case you would like to resell your instrument in the future. This means, a cheaper violin may cost less but when selling it, it may be harder to change hands without incurring a loss. You will also get what you are paying for as the maker would have had the necessary experience, tried tested to incur a sale of his masterworks at this price range.
Buying old French and German Instruments at this price is also a safe value. Of course, do make sure your violin always comes with a valuation or maker’s authenticity certification and check for cracks and other flaws. Some maybe easily fixable while others may cost hefty sums to reinstate its condition. For such old instruments, it is advisable to seek help from an external Luthier to give you the correct advice before proceeding with your purchase. You may want to consider all costs before buying the instruments.
In this regard, a lot more players are turning to modern instruments as it is now well researched that modern instruments can sound as well or if not better than their older contemporaries. Ever wondered how much to spend on a violin? Now we know the price tag!
It is true and well known that antique violins fetch high prices for their antique value if made by a famous maker. It is well documented who these makers are and there is actually a guidebook with their names recorded in it. To think that that all violins that are old would be worth that sort of value though, is untrue. In fact many old violins that are kept for a long time are just old violins. To be of value, they must be made of fine pieces of wood and accurate craftsmanship.
Violins made today with these fine woods such as Tonewoods (The photograph taken above is by the supplier Tonewoods of fine quality European wood where Violin makers can get fine quality woods to make their violins) or other good sources can fetch high prices for the workmanship. The fame of the maker if he is well known, also attributes to the value of he instrument In some cases, much research and development into choosing the wood and developing the right sound through modern technology. I have tried modern instruments that sound and play as good as old ones. So the next time you do choose a violin, do give the modern instruments a chance as they can sound just as good for the value you are paying for and sometimes in fact better!