Your Violin Can Tell Me if You Are Practicing

July 21, 2022, 5:14 PM · I can nearly always tell if my students have been practicing recently, whether they tell me or not. How?

Their violins tell me.

violin resonating

I teach young students and pre-college students, and while many tune their own instruments, I occasionally take their violins in hand for fine-tuning. After 30-some years of teaching, I can tell, from the resonance of each fiddle, whether the student has been playing it, and also if the student has been playing it in tune.

Granted, there are differences in quality among the fiddles in my studio, but I know each one well enough to discern its individual ups and downs.

I was reminded of this recently during a middle-of-the-summer lesson with an intermediate student whom I hadn't seen for a while. With everyone's vacations and traveling, it had been three weeks since the last lesson - a time span can sometimes spell neglect for a violin.

I took the violin in hand, started to tune it, and to my pleasant surprise - wow! The violin was alive and resonant, very responsive.

"This is a happy violin!" I said. And sure enough, my student had clearly been spending time with her fiddle - her assignments were thoroughly prepared, and she had made good progress.

What is behind my seemingly psychic powers to discern a student's practice level from his or her instrument's voice? It's simple and scientific.

When you play your violin, your playing causes the wood resonate. A violin resonates particularly well if you play it in tune, because it picks up the sympathetic vibrations from open strings. The more the wood vibrates, the more the wood becomes responsive. I've also heard the following (though I'm not a scientist or arborist): When the wood vibrates, it slowly but surely shakes out the dried sap that remains in the tiny vessels of the wood. That increases the surface area inside the soundbox, increasing the resonance. Playing the violin in tune, and playing it a lot, creates a virtuous cycle of resonance.

However, when a violin is not being played, it shuts down. The wood isn't resonating on a regular basis, and it gets harder to coax that wood into resonating. And frankly, when a violin is being played badly, it also shuts down. If you don't tune your violin (or tune it badly) it will not resonate in the same way - those perfect fifths create overtones that increase the vibrations. Out-of-tune fifths do not. If you don't consistently find that "sweet spot" where you are playing notes perfectly in tune, then the notes will lay dead, without creating overtones or sympathetic vibrations of other strings, thus increasing the wood's resonance. Said simply: when the wood doesn't vibrate, it doesn't resonate. The violin sounds quieter, responds less, and starts to shuts down.

So tune your violin, play it a lot, and strive for the sympathetic resonance that comes with good intonation. Practicing and playing with excellent intonation not only improves your playing, it actually improves the sound of your instrument!

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Replies

July 21, 2022 at 11:38 PM · Oh Geez…my violin is in tune but with this heat ?? I’m not ??

July 22, 2022 at 11:14 AM · “It's simple and scientific.”

Please provide evidence.

In particular, the following does not seem like a plausible explanation.

“However, when a violin is not being played, it shuts down. The wood isn't resonating on a regular basis, and it gets harder to coax that wood into resonating. And frankly, when a violin is being played badly, it also shuts down. ”

July 22, 2022 at 01:17 PM · Hmmm. Maybe the subtle body language of students communicates their level of preparedness also?

Recently I had not practiced for a whole week and my teacher asked if I had had my violin adjusted because it sounded better than usual! The weather had changed during that week and the pitch of the strings had slipped about a half step down. I thought perhaps because violin had been sitting with lessened string tension, it was resonating better. I've read (on this site) that tuning down violins for storage is a violin dealers' trick for making them sound more resonant...

July 22, 2022 at 03:26 PM · Yes. Kato Havas pointed out in A New Approach to Violin Playing that most instruments sound better when they've been "played in" for a while. Havas mentioned that she could pick up her students' instruments and tell whether the players had been using faulty vibrato, pressure, or even force during the past week.

”Playing the violin in tune, and playing it a lot, creates a virtuous cycle of resonance." My own experience bears this out. My main instrument is the third 4/4-size fiddle I've had. When I first got it, halfway through my degree program, it hadn't been played for a long time and had a closed-up, nasal sound. But I could hear the potential in it right away. With regular playing and consistent tuning, it didn't take long to open up this instrument and get the sound I wanted.

Speaking of tuning: I use the A-440 tuner religiously at the start of each practice session to get an accurate A - and then make sure the other strings are accurate so that the open-string fifths are pure before I start my warm-up routine. As long as I'm practicing each day, the composite-core strings I use are great at holding their pitch from one day to the next. It's only when I take the occasional week off that they go noticeably flat or sharp, depending on weather conditions; and sometimes, even then, they stay well tuned. Haven't noticed loss of resonance after just a week off, although I might after a month off. For that long a break, I would store my instruments with the lessened string tension mentioned in the preceding reply.

July 22, 2022 at 04:17 PM · It's an interesting thread. Obviously Laurie is a wonderful violin teacher to be listening to her students so closely and sharing in the tender loving care of their precious instruments. Her students are lucky to have her.

But I feel compelled to say that her claim is anything but scientific. The whole thing smacks more of "pseudoscience": Magical, pretentious claims are made without any provision whatsoever for the exclusion of bias, and then rationalized by specious appeal to "facts" about the relevant materials or various "physical laws."

The reason we need to teach science at every educational level in the United States is so that people learn what science is, and what it isn't.

To be fair, the kind of controlled experiments that one would need to conduct in order to verify (or not) this kind of claim would be extremely difficult, especially in view of their reliance on human judgment and the observation of human behavior, because of the number and complexity of parameters that would have to be controlled and the enormous difficulty of excluding bias.

But stuff like hanging instruments in front of speakers pumping out A-440 and tuning instruments down for storage to improve their resonance ... I'm calling all of that out as voodoo. The emperor has no clothes. I'm willing to be proven wrong -- that's the hallmark of real science -- but not by one anecdote or two or fifty. That's how you end up with crystals or copper bracelets (not to mention weed) as cures for diabetes.

July 22, 2022 at 06:13 PM · Anecdotal experience that violins which have been played recently are more responsive than those which have not: general agreement.

Theory espoused about why this is so: total malarkey.

It is worth remembering that the observation may still be of merit even if the proposed explanation is not.

July 22, 2022 at 07:00 PM · Paul, After all, the hallmark of science is not the method but the reproducible results.

July 22, 2022 at 07:27 PM · You could measure the circumference of the earth three times with a flawed method and reach the same incorrect distance each time. Reproducibility isn't adequate alone. The hallmark of science is being able to reproduce (or not!) results obtained by applying current best practices of experimental design. As those standards continually improve, findings can be revised or rebutted.

The problem with anecdotal evidence is that the person who doesn't get better after putting on the copper bracelet doesn't talk about it on the internet. A bias arises that amplifies itself over time, such that after a while one draws the erroneous conclusion that bracelets are healing because the favorable reports outnumber the neutral or unfavorable reports, possibly by large measure. Bias is a formidable adversary.

July 22, 2022 at 09:18 PM · I'm skeptical of the particulars of the claim, but I bet that there indeed is something that you can intuitively pick up about whether your student has practiced or not. Perhaps it's something more psychological, as Jocelyn mentioned, and there is a kind misattribution going on.

July 22, 2022 at 11:24 PM · It's true that teachers have many ways of discerning whether or not their student have practiced. However, the subject of this blog is simply the resonance of the violin, when it's handed over to the teacher. It can be a really obvious tell, one way or another. And yes, it's scientifically established that wood responds to sound vibrations. And it's well established within the string-playing community that a violin or other bowed instruments respond to being played. It's why, for example, the Smithsonian puts a priority on having their Stradivari instruments played from time to time.

July 23, 2022 at 02:18 AM · I of course wasn't referring to inaccurate measurement but to the myriad fields which are called "sciences" but which are not because they can never attain reproducibility.

As far as violins changing with time or with playing, there are a few things that can happen such as the very long term conversion of cellulose to hydroxycellulose. I suspect that the "opening up" of a brand new instrument such as mine may be due to adjustment or settling of the joints from vibration. Not all instruments do this and I have heard of some that sounded worse than when they were new.

July 23, 2022 at 01:19 PM · The very "scientific" Carleen Hutchins examined this question, and found measurable differences.

Of course everyone tore her methods to bits..

She suggests/claims that when the instrument is played, the resins in the wood break up, only to re-form when playing ceases.

May I add that for many of us our ears are more attuned to this than are scientific measurement displays.

July 23, 2022 at 02:06 PM · Is it scientific? Not in the formal sense of science as we know it now. Yet, I think most string players have had the same experience. Even the instrument that we just bought tends to "play-in" over time. It could be the microstructure of the wood, or just the process of getting-to-know-you between player and instrument. Let's admit that many of us get very anthropomorphic about our instruments.

As far as "congestion" of the instrument - I've experienced it but was is the fiddle that hadn't been played, or the musician who hasn't been playing?

It's all part of that magic between teacher and student - somehow we know if you practiced almost as soon as you walk into the studio.

July 23, 2022 at 04:46 PM · Ann wrote, "I suspect that the "opening up" of a brand new instrument such as mine may be due to adjustment or settling of the joints from vibration."

How do you rule out that the player (you) adjusted to the instrument, learning how to improve the sound generated from that specific violin with its myriad subtle idiosyncrasies? "Opening up" is rubbish too. Well, let's just say that to my knowledge "opening up" by means of playing a violin hasn't been confirmed by statistically validated, fully controlled experimentation. I don't know how that would ever be possible.

Suppose you tell me, oh, I heard this new violin, and then the student played it for six months and now it sounds so much better. Isn't that evidence for "opening up"? At first glance it seems to be, but did you compare an identical violin that was only stored in its case for the same interval? No. Of course I understand those kinds of experiments are impossible because every instrument is unique. But just because experiments are difficult or expensive does not change the basic requirements of scientific inference.

Laurie wrote, "It's well established within the string-playing community that a violin or other bowed instruments respond to being played." And you knew this "established" fact prior to making your own observations? If ever there was fertile soil for bias, surely that's it.

Something in the internal structure of wood changes when the material is subjected to vibration. Okay. But if so, it should be possible to characterize those compositional or morphological changes by various physical means. But that still doesn't mean that these changes underpin any observations you may be making. You'd have to establish a logical progression from those structural changes to the observed change in sound. What you have now can be charitably described as conjecture.

July 24, 2022 at 08:40 PM · In 1999, I bought a beautiful newly made Italian violin. Since I was the only owner, I talked with the dealer about how I could best train the violin to open up and reach its full potential - if there WAS such a thing. My violin already had a full, beautiful tone - despite the fact that it was less than a year old, it was not closed in. The dealer, Al Stancel (from Indianapolis) was an engineer for RCA before he became a violin dealer, and I know that he often used his engineer's way of looking at things in his violin work (adjusting the instruments for sound, etc.). He told me that if I really wanted to push the envelope on my new violin, to play (in-tune) dissonant intervals, like 2nds, 7ths, 9ths, etc. He suggested I do it with melodic intonation (exaggerating the tuning of the second pitch in the direction of melody - a minor 2nd would be smaller than it would be on a piano - a major 2nd would be larger than it would be on a piano. I started each practice session by playing simultaneous intervals like this. I also would do it with different dynamic levels - from very soft to very loud, and also doing crescendos and diminuendos while playing the two notes. Something I noticed with this violin was that when it was really vibrating, it gave off a beautiful odor. I asked the maker what it was, and he said it was a bee product - propolis - that was used (either in the glue or the varnish - I don't remember now which - I think it was the glue). I noticed this on another violin made by a completely different maker, from a different continent! Even now, more than 20 years later, when I'm playing in tune and things are vibrating just right, that wonderful smell emerges.

July 24, 2022 at 09:14 PM · I agree with Bill Palmer, and would like expand a bit on that. There is a huge amount of pseudoscience in the music world. I did substantial research into various claims made by violinists (and violin makers), and I learned a couple of things:

1) When a violinist says something along the line of "this violin is quick to speak" or "responsive", etc., you can believe that the violinist (or luthier) knows what s/he is talking about, and is qualified to make that sort of judgement.

2) As soon as the violinist adds ", because..." -- regardless of the supposed reason for the quality being described (varnish/wood seasoning/bridge cut/f-hole shape/etc.) -- you can ignore everything said after that point, because the violinist is no longer speaking from a position of expertise (even if correct).

So if Ms. Niles feels a difference in a student's violin, I would be inclined to believe her. When she starts guessing about why that might occur, I am not inclined to believe her.

It's quite possible that a violin might be noticeably more responsive because it is recently and accurately tuned. Or maybe Ms. Nile's guesses as to the difference(s) might be correct. But they are just guesses.

BTW, I am more of a scientist than a musician. If my hearing had been just a little better, I might be a starving violinist instead of a well-fed engineer today :)

July 25, 2022 at 02:02 PM · Laurie writes "When the wood vibrates, it slowly but surely shakes out the dried sap that remains in the tiny vessels of the wood". If this is correct, wouldn't it be profitable to play a violin also in positions other than with the front plate uppermost, so that the sap in the back plate can fall out, rather than just being loosened? Pity Father William is not recorded as having played the violin! But as a compromise, one can play the instrument while lying in bed, as I have know at least one invalid to do. Or get a cellist to play it from time to time.

July 25, 2022 at 05:18 PM · Propolis is used by some in violin ground (a layer under the varnish that fills the pores of the wood and adds some color) and varnish. It smells, as you say, and may continue to do so for a very long time. It is also reported by some that it appears to hinder the drying of varnish in some cases. I suspect that any time you literally get the violin warmed up, you’ll be able to catch a whiff. Tying this back to Laurie’s hypothesis, that odor when you are playing well in tune is probably you spending more time playing the violin and warming the parts of it coming in contact with your warm body. I can tell a violin that has been recently played, too — feel the chinrest!

The notion that the violin is not “waking up” but it is just the player adapting has never seemed a satisfactory one to me. With a number of instruments at my disposal, I definitely notice that the ones not recently played seem sluggish. And as some of those instruments are played by others on occasion, comments are often made as to whether the instrument feels like I have been playing it recently or not. But here’s the thing — I notice the effect even with an instrument that gets as much as 8 or 10 hours of playing some days (usually in bursts of a week or so when that happens). Hard to imagine that I am “getting used to the violin” again when it has only been an hour or two since I last played it, and I haven’t been playing some other instrument in the meantime. If we think it is sap particles being knocked free from the matrix, can they be detected? What happens to reverse the process when the violin isn’t being played? In my experience, instruments from the early 1700s exhibit this effect just like instruments from 1968 — shouldn’t they have lost all of those sap particles by now? If there is a semi-infinite supply, how could dislodging just a small fraction make any appreciable difference? It must be a small fraction if centuries-old instruments still have them to lose!

Color me skeptical on the notion that small differences in intonation have an effect that can be detected. This instrument is no good because it was used to play too much piano chamber music? Someone ruined this one by playing a piece with a lot of quarter tones? Rainer Küchl et al had to retrain those instruments lent by the Austrian National Bank to principal players in the Wiener Phil to play at their appreciably sharper pitch?

July 26, 2022 at 05:30 PM · Here is a little more about the physics of intonation, and how it affects the resonance of an instrument: Intonation, a Physical Phenomenon.

If you play an instrument in a way in which it does not resonate (ie, out of tune), it does indeed affect the instrument. If the instrument is tuned to, say, a rather sharp A=443, the instrument will still resonate more if you play with proper intonation, relative to the way it has been tuned.

July 26, 2022 at 10:34 PM · I have not conducted a thorough literature review. Further some papers may never have been published.

I found the following article on the effect of a device that is used to vibrate a guitar.

https://www.savartjournal.org/articles/22/about.html

I am not familiar with the journal or the authors. Their conclusion was the device did not have an effect on the acoustics of the guitar. To be fair, it is a guitar, and not a violin. Further, they state that the device does not produce as loud a tone as playing the guitar.

It should be fairly easy to create some kind of experiment to try to test Laurie’s hypothesis. However, devising a proper one may be difficult, as there are many factors to control.

July 27, 2022 at 08:33 PM ·

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