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Trying out a violin or fiddle
I get frequently get “checklist” email:

"I like a warm, open, tone with a firm center."
"The top end should be sweet."
"The midrange needs to be warm, but capable of cool
intellectual detachment."
"I generally play through [name some pieces designed to
impress the dealer]and see if I like it."
"I especially don't like a fuzzy tone when I play very firmly."
  These people are on a course to unhappiness.  The more
criteria they invent, the fewer violins fit.  Think about
people who approach selecting a mate this way.  No one
ever quite fits, and if someone did, the match would likely
be horrible!  Violins are each unique and exhibit
advantages and drawbacks.  Finding that good marriage is
the important thing.  There is no rule and no test.  As a
maker, I play an octave scale on each string, listening for
irregular response.  Then a scale across all four strings
listening for balance and consistency.  Then comparison
of open D, A, E to the same pitches on the G, D, A
strings.  But these elements can be adjusted to a
substantial extent.

More important, I watch or listen (on the phone) to clients
for that special "chemistry" and interview carefully to match
the capabilities of a particular violin to the real needs and
desires of the buyer.  But no single evaluation method will
work for everyone.  Violins are very subjective.  As with a
mate, players need to look for that chemistry, for that
workable loving relationship.
Kinds Of Players

That said, some people (you know who you are) are
always looking for an improvement to their violin or bow or
shoulder rest or rosin or whatever.  I call these people
"Technicians".  On the other end are those who get some
equipment, learn to work with it, and don't worry about it
again until something breaks, the "Happy-Go-Lucky"
players.  Of course, I love the Technicians!  They want
their violins adjusted just so, but change their mind later.  
They trade for this and that.  They go through strings by
the dozens.  A problem with the Technicians is their strong
need to mess with things before they are happy.  The
violin must be optimized for a Technician, even if it is just
perfect the way it is!  If the violin is perfect, I generally tap
the soundpost with the adjuster and pretend to do
something to the bridge to make them happier.  Often they
say "That's it, you got it that time" even if I didn't do
anything at all.  But they aren't inherently happy people.  
Technicians are often fickle and unyielding.  The search
becomes an obsession.  The object of desire is always out
of reach.

The Happy-Go-Lucky crowd tends to neglect their tools.  
Bridges warp, cracks form, the bow warps, and the player
simply adapts.  In the worst stages, the Luckies
intentionally stay uneducated about violins and becomes
stuck in the view that what he has is ideal and the best he
could have.  These folks sometimes refuse to consider a
much better newer piece of equipment simply because it
doesn't feel instantly familiar, yet they accept that
something isn't right with what they have.

Buyers don't really fall into these end members.  Knowing
where one fits is important for choosing and for listening to
your advisors.  The Technicians among you need to give
yourselves time to really explore each likely candidate to
find the good points and any less desirable aspects before
messing with the strings or setup. The Luckies need to
open up to new tone possibilities and different playing
characteristics and feel.  Something initially bothersome
may well be better once accepted and worked with.
  Evaluating The Violin

In evaluating violins, be very open minded.  Don't miss the
chance to learn about one's own playing or preferences,
about getting the best out of any instrument, and learning
to modify one's playing to any instrument.  Effective violin
trying and buying is inherently subjective.  For some
equivocal buyers having a cognizant expert select a violin
to try for a while may be the best course.

One a violin is in hand, find whether one can develop a
distinctive and consistent voice.  Is this a voice that fits
what and where you play?  Try out what you actually play.  
If you're an orchestral player, play orchestral material.  
Play in the kind of place you play or will play in.  If you only
play at home, how the instrument does in a concert hall
isn't going to be very useful to you.  Use this initial stage
for screening.  One shouldn't eliminate a candidate
because it lacks intense soloist characteristics if you don't
play solos.

Next, I recommend testing a violin in a normal practice
session.  Technical work, etudes, whatever one is
currently working on: things one can actually play and play
well, or that one is working on challenges in.  Develop
some comfort with the violin.  Find the subtle relationship
with it that underlies comfort.  Let the voice become more
refined and distinct.  Figure out what has to change in
your technique and whether that is acceptable.   It is a
very personal thing.  Time!  Take time!  This will not
happen instantly. If you've had the setup adjusted, the
violin will also be settling in.  Watch for comfort, for
recognition of the "right stuff," and for that little glow
starting in the heart.

If a violin passes in practice, play enough to develop
confidence and then take it on the road.  Play where you
normally play, be it small ensemble work, orchestral work,
fiddle competitions, whatever.  Confidence in the normal
performance setting is the key to selecting an instrument.  
See if the other players are comfortable with your new
voice.  Unsolicited complements about your technique
improvements or your voice are a good indicator of a
successful selection.
Beware Of Outside Influences

Keep outside opinions minimal and certainly not definitive.  
Focus on whether the instrument has sufficient power or
projection for its use and whether one is comfortable
playing it in one's usual circumstances and with a voice
that works for you and the environment.  I cannot
emphasize strongly enough that one must find one's own
voice, not the voice another likes.  Teachers are especially
bad about imposing their taste on the student, making for
an unsteady and possibly unhappy marriage.
  I am always happy to help players figure out their old violin
(is it good enough?) or find a new one via
email, telephone
or in person (Gianna Violins is located in Eastern
Tennessee, near Knoxville).

Stephen Perry, Luthier, Gianna, Inc.
Gianna Maker and seller violin, viola, fiddle, violin case, violin bow, accessories, support, appraisal, restoration, Eastman mandolins &

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