Lately, a few articles about old v. new violins have been circulating. One, written by Daniel Wakin of the New York Times, has even made it onto my Facebook wall. (As far as I know, this article by Nicholas Wade is what set things off.) I have a lot of thoughts about this subject, but I'll begin with a brief history of my own violin experiences.
My first full-size violin was a late 18th century Irish violin (I've forgotten the name of the maker.) As I got more serious about music while in high school, I switched to a 1925 Matthias Heinicke violin. Midway through my undergraduate years, I upgraded to an 1842 Thomas Kennedy violin, which I still own. I have always been loyal to whatever instrument was in my possession, and I rarely tried out other violins that I encountered in shops or in the hands of my peers. Whenever I did try another instrument, I would invariably dismiss it after a few notes as "not for me." I was used to my own instrument, comfortable with the feel and sound of it, and I didn't see any reason to try to get to know any other instrument. I was content with what I had--until a few experiences opened my eyes and my ears.
The first such experience was an audition for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. I didn't win, and I requested feedback. Combing through the comments that I received, I was struck by one comment in particular: "Not a fan of this violin." This was not the first time that my Kennedy had been criticized, but it was the first time that someone had made explicit the fact that my instrument might be holding me back. My feelings toward my violin began to waver.
The second eye (or ear) opening experience was much more positive. I was gifted with the use of a Stradivarius for one week, culminating in a lunch-time recital called "Strad For Lunch." (One might recall that this was also the impetus for this website!) This was my first time putting my hands on such an instrument, and I could immediately feel the difference. That's not to say that I immediately fell in love with it--the Strad was too different from anything I had previously played for me to really be comfortable with it. However, I could feel the depth and power of the old Italian instrument, and at the end of the week I reluctantly relinquished it.
After this experience, I resolved to somehow "upgrade" to a better violin. The main obstacle was price. I don't have the 100k that a really good violin would cost, let alone the several million dollars that Strads generally go for. I concluded that the best value for my money would be a contemporary instrument. Ideally, I would sell my Kennedy and use that money towards a new instrument. In the real world, this is not as simple as it sounds. Violins typically spend a year or more in a shop, waiting to be sold on consignment. But what would I do while my violin was on display?
With the backing of my teacher at Juilliard, I approached the curator of Juilliard's instrument collection. After some forms, signatures, and a few weeks of waiting, I was cleared to borrow an instrument from Juilliard. The school's instruments are stored in a small room, built like a safe. From this room, the curator brought out an instrument for me to try. It was a little big for my taste. He disappeared into the back room, and emerged with a second instrument. This instrument was--I kid you not--a little smaller than I expected. Patiently, he disappeared once more into the back room, and emerged with a third instrument. The instant I put my bow to the strings, I knew this was it. I told him that this instrument was perfect for me, and I asked what it was. It was a Nicolo Gagliano, from 1743. (Once upon a time, Gagliano violins were considered to be affordable alternatives to Stradivariuses and Guarneriuses. Alas, they are no longer affordable.)
So it came to be that, in my quest for a contemporary violin, I wound up with an old Italian violin. An ironic layover, but my sights are still set on a 21st century instrument! Stay tuned for the second installment: New violins.