wendy moes

New Instruments
How to Look for and Evaluate the Work of Today's Instrument Makers
By Wendela Moes

Why are new instruments drawing so much attention? Perhaps people are making better ones. Or perhaps the world's string­playing population is outgrowing its supply of able­bodied old instruments. Or the prices of these antiques are getting too high. Or all of the above. Whatever the reasons, the stigma that once attached to a brand­new stringed instrument seems to be less and less evident. Today, renowned players are recognizing the worthiness of new instruments and using them proudly in public.

This recognition encourages violin makers to invest their time and talents in making instruments to an extent never before possible. Many of these makers have backgrounds in repair and setup. With extensive knowledge of the classical maker's methods, successes, and failures, they are equipped to make real advances in both the quality of sound and appearance of new instruments.

A common mistake is to assume that any old instrument is better than any new one. People come to us often and say, "I already have a new violin." (As if they were all the same.) "I am looking for something better now." (An old one.) Some people think that anything Italian is better than anything that is not. This is certainly not true with modern instruments; there are good contemporary makers all over the world. The very best old instruments can beat the new ones, but there is a lot of middle ground. Unless the status of an expensive old instrument is absolutely vital to your career, you may well consider a new instrument. It could have the sound and playability you are looking for. The lack of interest in new instruments on the part of dealers, though unnerving, probably has more to do with low profit margins than low quality of sound. When a maker sells an instrument, dealers are not usually involved-a good reason for their lack of enthusiasm. New makers have a distinct advantage over the classical makers: They can build for today's players and today's halls, both enormously changed in the last 50­100 years. When players want more focus, quicker response, and a fuller bass sound, they can ask that such qualities be built into their instruments In posing such challenges, they set the stage for creativity and ingenuity on the part of makers. Both players and makers then enjoy a sense of collaboration and of taking a meaningful role in the evolution of instrument playing.

You may not intend to alter the course of musical history when looking for an instrument, but there are several reasons why you ought to consider a new one the next time you do look. By discussing some of the factors that enter into such a decision, my aim is to help you become a free agent in this process. You can then make your own decisions and be confident of them.

When looking at new instruments, you will probably find them falling into one of three categories: copy, model, or original. A copy is meant to look exactly like an old instrument-often like a specific old instrument, such as the Stradivari "Messiah." Copies are given scratches, dirt, wear, and sometimes even cracks to make them appear old. To look more authentic they are usually built to the exact dimension of the original. Undoubtedly some copies were made to be deceptions, but many makers build copies as study projects-the best way to learn another maker's style is to try to copy it. Players order copies for various reasons. Maybe they are ashamed to be seen (but not heard) playing a new instrument, or they want an instrument that looks just like the one they already have. Some people simply prefer the look of an old instrument.

A model is a violin modeled after a specific maker's violins, or after one in particular. A Stradivari model, for example, would have either an exact or a stylized Stradivari outline, f­holes, and scroll. It may or may not stick to Stradivari's dimensions. Some people who make Stradivari models follow Stradivari­like workmanship very closely; others use the outline and/or proportions as a foundation and allow their own ideas to take over from there. Such an instrument is a kind of "variations on a theme by . . . " and is on the way to becoming an original work.

An original is a model designed by the maker himself (or herself), not borrowed from a previous maker. It will have his or her own outline, proportions, f­hole style, and scroll. Many makers begin by modeling their instruments after those of their teachers; they become more and more original (if they ever are going to) only as their careers progress. Stradivari, for example, began by using a model based on Nicolo Amati's violins (during his so­called "Amatise period"). Later he began to make his violins wider in the middle bouts, quite possibly for acoustic reasons; in doing so he straightened the bouts, tightening the curves at their tops and bottoms. Thus his model looked different from Amati's, and so his originality progressed. Because originals often seem to evolve rather than come about by spontaneous generation, it is hard to draw an exact line between originals and models.

When looking for any instrument, the biggest considerations are authenticity, condition, sound quality, and appearance. The harrowing thing about the first two is that both are matters of opinion, and worse yet, usually someone else's opinion. Since violin dealers seem to make a sport of disagreeing with one another, the musician looking for an instrument can be left in a miserable nervous quandary.
One of the biggest differences between looking for an antique instrument and a modern one is that both is that authenticity and condition are both givens in the latter case. The nervousness and resentment that can grow out of the necessity of relying on other people's sometimes fickle opinions is gone. To many people there is also something special about the experience of ordering a new instrument, seeing the rough wood (sometimes even getting to choose it), and watching the instrument grow. This certainly matches the excitement of owning an instrument that has had many experiences you have not shared.

Sound quality is still the major factor in choosing an instrument, new or old. So a little preparation is necessary in order to learn what sound you like best. Before you spend time and money going around looking for instruments, play every instrument you can get your hands on, borrowing them from friends, teachers, and stand partners. Play every instrument at length-for hours, not just minutes. Instruments vary in material and build, and each will make subtle, or even drastic, demands on your technique before you get the best sound. Chances are great that the technique you use on your present instrument won't be an instant success on others. This does not make them bad instruments. Try changing the bow speed, pressure, and sounding points. Be able to play on different kinds of strings. After doing this for a while, you will get used to changing instruments and finding out how each responds. Discuss the pros and cons of each with their owners and anyone else who cares to take part. This is very good for opening your eyes and ears, and it will help you develop a definite opinion of what good sound is and what suits you best. Then, with new ears and playing ability, you can start looking for an instrument of your own.

This vital knowledge applies to new and old instruments alike. With new instruments, one question that often arises is whether the sound will change. This is an age­old problem with improperly built instruments, and it deserves some demystification. Everybody knows a young branch will bend and an old one will snap. This stiffening process goes on long after the tree has been cut. A stiff piece of wood vibrates differently than a flexible one, resulting in a higher and more complete overtone series. We can't hear all the overtones, but we perceive the sound to be more full and pleasant. This means a well-made instrument will improve with age as it stiffens, but it should sound good to begin with. A bad­sounding instrument will not necessarily get better and could get worse.

Proper arching and graduations are also necessary in any instrument. An instrument built to be too thick or strong will gradually become too stiff to vibrate freely. Be cautious about an instrument that feels heavy, and of sound quality that is quite good on the top string but fades toward the bottom string. The lower register requires more flexibility and suffers first when the instrument begins to stiffen.

Another factor that can cause New Instrument Syndrome ("It sounded great to begin with, but now . . . ") is improper varnish application. Watch out for thick varnish and varnish that soaks into the wood. This is often the case when the wood looks stained and the grain is reversed. These instruments can sound fine for a while, until the varnish begins to harden and hamper the vibrations. A knowledgeable maker can avoid these problems. The violin maker, like a painter, must know his or her materials, how they age, and how they affect each other.
If you have a particular maker in mind, play as many of his or her already existing instruments as possible. Play those that are as old as possible to see and hear what age does to them. Discuss sound and changes, if any, with the present owner. There are also a few further considerations. When you find a maker whose instruments you like, consider whether he or she is easily accessible. This is important because a new instrument, like a new car, needs extra service for the first year or so. After vibrating and being under tension for a while it can settle, as do older instruments that have been opened for repair work. This settling usually takes the form of soundpost tension and changes in the neck angle. Be prepared to make several trips to the instrument's maker during that first year. If settling problems go unadjusted, the instrument could appear to change or lose some of its sound quality, causing the owner to worry that it is afflicted with the dreaded New Instrument Syndrome.

Is the maker you have chosen also knowledgeable about setup and sound adjustment? Is he or she able to perform necessary bridge and soundpost adjustments? A maker is ultimately responsible for keeping his or her instrument in tip­top playing shape; only if you live too far away should you need to go anywhere else for help. This crucial ability of the maker's usually comes from years of repair work or direct work with players in fulfilling their setup requests. Makers should welcome feedback and the chance to monitor their instruments' progress, and players welcome a truly caring service.

It very often happens that players with new instruments from other makers come to us for adjustments, saying, "He makes fine instruments, but he cannot adjust for beans." Some players and makers are almost proud of this, as if it proves the makers are artists and not mere mechanics. To us, it means the maker doesn't have a full understanding of how instruments work. Violins, unlike art, must not only look appealing, but they must also function very precisely. Understanding how they work and how to make them work- and there is a lot that can be understood- is absolutely essential and comes before artistry. The maker's artistic merit will show up automatically in the amount of personality and character he or she puts into the work, not in how well he or she can copy a modern­day conception of a Stradivari, nor in machine­age ideals of symmetry and workmanship.
Until recently, a great number of musicians were reluctant to play any instrument that looked new. But that prejudice is rapidly disappearing. The instruments of Stradivari, Amati, and Guarneri were all once new. They looked it, and they looked great-fit for kings. They were not antiqued. It is not the newness of some modern instruments that makes them unsightly, and it is not the age alone of old instruments that lends them their charm. The charm was there to begin with in the character of the work and the varnish, and it should be there in new instruments too.

Audiences, by the way, are notoriously unable to hear the difference between old and new instruments. Any soloist who owns a new instrument-and there are many now who do-can tell stories by the dozen of green­room compliments on the Stradivari or Guarneri, when the performer had actually played the new one that night. The best instrument is the one that performs and handles best for the player, not the one with the biggest price tag or the most venerable reputation. When you next look for an instrument, keep that fact in mind. You may end up living happily ever after with something brand new.

Copyright by "Strings Magazine"

  back to: articles