The Pros and Cons of Violin Making Competitions

Strong underestimation about acoustic possibilities of new made qualitative musical instruments from violin family exists at present. Instead of providing and rising the acoustic qualities of modern instruments, the violin making competitions with their regulations have a strong tendency towards the appearance only. There is an alarming trend on a world scale that the sound direction of the instruments in violin making as a function of contests valuation differs extremely from musicians expectations. Aims are divergent in achievement the following: sound characteristics and objective and precise estimation of acoustic qualities of modern instruments.

In the field of violin making there is a small number of worldwide recognized competitions, having an eligible history, recurring at regular intervals and proven presence for impressive appearance and performance of participants. As I am interested in European development of violin making, the competitions which I review and consider are held as follows: Triennale in Cremona, Italy; Mittenwald, Germany; Wienyavski in Poznan., Poland; Pizzone in Italy. The competitions held in America are completely different, but they affect too less on the development of Europe luthierie, and hence perhaps the world violinmaking.

The Jury for sound assessment in European competitions does not include acoustic specialists. The sound is estimated by musicians who simultaneously play and asses the participants in a competition. In accordance with the Regulation related to sound evaluation, its characteristic as sound volume, timbre and balance as well as ease of sound derivation and comfortable playing influence differently on the total assessment. According to my opinion that regulation of appraisal is deeply inaccurate.

A huge variety of accessories are used in the contemporary violin making. Most of them are directly influenced on the sound characteristics. However, their use is related to the requirement of specific transformations in manner of holding the instrument, speed and compressive force of the bow and the way of sound derivation with left hand. Assessors are not acquainted with the effect of different accessories on the sound and the need of change in playing technique in instruments use. The main problem is that the musicians do not recognize neither different types of strings (at present for over than 100) nor the type of a tailpiece, tailpiece cord and cellos’ endpin. That leads to improper conduct of audition that could compromise the proper assessment. The problem becomes complicated by the proven fact – the good instrument, assembled in different ways can produce a high-quality sound in different instrument mount only under condition that requirements for specific features of used accessories are observed.

Another reason for inobjectivity of the Jury assessment is that musicians are burdened with tasks during competitions. In competition in Triennale 2009 the admitted to the second round violins were 198 violins which should be listened to together with 92 violas and 46 cellos within one week. Assessment the qualitative playing and listening was physically impossible by the group of five members of the Jury. Similar burdened activities had the board of examiners in Mittenwald 2010 and Poznan 2011. Instruments assessment should be made for a short period of time, which was unreasonable, if professional method of evaluation should be followed. According to us – the acoustic specialists, professional assessment of the instrument sound should be carried out by following requirements:

  • An instrument shall be tried with more than one bow. Bows made in different schools allow to be comprised and used all possible techniques of sound derivation;
  • We should be obligatory informed (if we do not recognize) about what kind of strings, a tailpiece and a tailpiece cord are used for the instrument. Different types of strings/ with a high string tension or large mass require serious changes in bow technique. Tailpiece, tailpiece cord and the endpin have significant effect on the sound and there are specific requirements to the right hand during playing. 
  • An access to information of the instrument related to mass, maximum depth of the boards and resonance frequency of the body, the angle between the neck and fingerboard and the presence of specific acoustic tunes should be available. 
  • The model, shape and the method of a bridge release should be also recognized. 
  • New instrument characteristics should be taken into consideration as they often require about 10 minutes playing and after that their real qualities are shown. 
  • After information analysis but not less than half an hour playing, professional and objective conclusion for sound quality and potential of the particular instrument could be given. 

The musicians of the Jury should not give concerts actively during competitions. For the last 10 years as well as during the time of writing my dissertation I have concluded that as to be maximum objective in assessment, the professional assessors during their time of self-training should not play more than a week on one and the same instrument. It is caused by the fact that musicians playing on stringed instruments look for a specific sound timbre during playing. They form a clear view for the instrument and subconsciously strive to find it in each instrument on which they play. If musician used to listen the specific sound of his/her own instrument or the specific way of sound derivation, as is often practiced at playing on “old Italians” , then he/she will have exclusively subjective and not applicable method of trying every new instrument.

The above mentioned considerations that are the reason to predicate that Boards of assessors in competitions for a sound cannot be objective explain discrepancies between evaluations of the Jury and professional acoustic specialists.

Unfortunately the competition results are often used as a proof of reached level in sound quality.

Most of competitions in violin making specify the total assessment of an instrument. Evaluation the type and manufacturing under regulations is with the greater value than that of sound qualities and convenience in the final defining. In that way of assessment it could be made a conclusion that instruments are not directed to the musicians but the users of works of fine art. When sound qualities have no priority over the type of instrument, it occurs that musicians buy their instruments with “competitive history” but not a musical instrument.

I have had the chance to play and listen to a number of awarded instruments in European competitions for the last 10 years. In my practice I have helped in acoustic tuning of such instruments. In most of competitive instruments it was noticed an extremely unpleasant feature. All they sound without any potential. I gave advises to musicians who purchased competitive instruments. The general trend among all is the fast loss of sound quality for several months after manufacturing. The explanation is that by reason of special feature in the way of instruments listening at competitions, many violin makers brake roughly rules and norms indicating the minimal limit thickness allowable by violin makers good practice. They make boards very thin and by this a fast reaction, comparatively good timbre, low range and false sound deepness. Such type of instruments stand the bridge pressure raised by used strings and the angle of the neck not less than 6 months and very rarely up to one year.

Unfortunately, that is a practice disseminated among a part of violin makers who are not participants in competitions. It leads to musicians withdrawal from “new” instruments and their direction to relatively older (over 50 years) ones that are significantly seldom manipulated.

Unfortunately, there are still violin makers who imitate some European and Chinese thinner made instruments.

Competitions in violin making have less prestige for participants in it. Retailers of musical instruments from East Asia accept that competitions do not carry any useful information for the instruments sound but only for their appearance. Their specific method for instrument selection refuses the “staggering” in a direction of appearance to the detriment of the sound.

The modern violin making is away from the musicians not only because of “specific” methods of estimation of instruments sound characteristics at competitions. Limit conditions for participants are set concerning the following: body models – specific improvements are not allowed; accessories – mostly strings are limited to several ordinary models and only specific material for tailpieces, tailpiece cords and end pins are permitted. Very often the innovations that are made with a purpose to satisfy musicians demand for qualitative sound are prohibited when preparing the instrument for competition. It is unacceptable at competitions to be required the following: type of instrument to be a copy of those from 1650 – 1750. In 21st century the pitch for La from 1st octave is not 415-425 Hz but is 442-445 Hz. The total string tension is not 12 kg but it reaches 60 kg. Bridge pressure is not 2-5 kg, but is between 25 and 35 kg. Many innovations are not allowed for use in competitive instruments. In some competitions it is prohibited to use them in spite of specific positives, elements of violin making from 21st century as leather strings, a tailpieces with movable nuts , bridges with acoustic tuning in conformity with the instrument, varnishes that are not on alcohol or oil base and etc. Those are things that violin makers and manufacturers of accessories are developed with a purpose to improve sound quality but not instruments appearance. Just their application is an expression of a progress of violin making. Traditional and classical methods for assessment of sound quality in competitions drift away that kind of art from the only professional users –musicians.

Not accidentally, the market of “old” instruments is not affected by the financial crisis comparing with those of “new” ones. The expressed discontent of “competitive instruments” for years among the musician is transferred to all new manufactured ones. Thus development of violin making is stopped and as a sequence a few new instruments have real high sound qualities. As the conservatism in competition regulations is very high, new regulation will be generated and it is quite probable that their sole purpose will be focused on new qualitative instruments that will be assessed only by their sound characteristics. Such trends are noticed in American Association in Acoustic whose members include a number of American and European violin makers – the champions of changes.

                                                                                          

Dr. Hristo Hristov             

Ph.D. of Music, D.Sc of Music        

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