How American Violin Society Judges Evaluates The Instrument’s Tone

How can you tell if the instrument has a good tone? How will you know if you had it on your stringed instrument? Jia Kim a cellist says that stringed instrument players have a unique intuition if the instrument is compatible to them and if it is in sound quality. She added that you can sense if the cello is responsive or vibrating. You can also determine if it can take a little pressure, would project and respond quickly if you play close to the bridge. These are the things you should be looking for when selecting an instrument. However, when it comes to deeper nuances, complications can quickly set it when searching for a good tone. This happens especially when you are testing numerous options when shopping for a new string instrument.

You are not alone in the quest for seeking what exactly is a “good tone” and which of the instrument at hand has it. The Violin Society of America holds a biennial competition. Here, you can find experts who would officially judge the instrument. For sure, this is the perfect place to simplify your quest or better yet complete it. Two of the judges Jia Kim and violinist Annie Fullard in the VSA competition last 2016 shared their process in evaluating a tone and their advice to players who are looking for a new instrument.

What exactly is your ideal sound?

You cannot just merely dive without determining your ideal sound. A tone is a subjective matter not like other attributes like projection that can be measured. Kim says that everyone has their own particular sound that can speak only to them. Even when it comes to taste or food, we all have different preferences and palates. As a chamber musician, her tone expectation is naturally different from her fellow judges namely Ralph Curry and Thomas Mansbacher who are both cellists of Cleveland Orchestra. She knew that her ideal cello had a supportive and warm tone with a pleasant tenor on a string and a nice bass. It is also essential for her that a cello possesses multiple personalities.

On the other hand, her orchestral colleagues were prioritizing cellos that are well-rounded. Another thing she knew is the thing that she would not be looking for, and she advised those who shop for instruments to determine the same. She laughed when she said that you wouldn’t want to have a cello that sounds like steel on the A string or someone who is screaming. Kim added that the sound that you should look for is when you first strike the bow on the string it gives you a sense that the instrument possesses something that you can work with.

Annie Fullard is a Cavani String Quartet violinist that uses a unique strategy. She said that being a violinist, she would always relate to tone and sound production as a vocal experience. Fullard would also connect even on colors or through a character like those who would refer to speed and pressure making the bow as a paintbrush. She added she would assign every string a quality of a particular singer. For example, for the G and D string Fullard would assign Ella Fitzgerald, A string would be Cecilia Bartoli, Julie Andrews and Dawn Upshaw would be for the E string and many others that she can think of.  According to Fullard, she would try to reproduce the depth, projection, and resonance of singers when she tests the violins. This helps her to focus on the specific thing she is looking in a sound.

Select a Repertoire that would unleash the Instrument’s Potential

One helpful way to initially tap the potential of the instrument’s tone is by bowing open strings. However, both judges said that the most effective way to awaken the potential of the instrument is by having the right repertoire. According to Fullard, her strategy as a tone judge is to take four or five short parts from the chamber music literature and play these exact same parts them on every instrument. Her choices of pieces are the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 which according to her it catches the touch, range, and ease of the playing. For power and resonance on the G string, she plays the Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, L 85, Op. 10 opening while the opening of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major is for testing the variation of timbre and color in response to pressure and the speed of the bow. For testing the shine and sparkle of E string, she would play the excerpts of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 21 in D major, K. 575; and to check the power and facility of the instrument, she would play the last movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8, Op. 59, No. 2. Fullard said that this does not necessarily mean that one should perform exactly the same choices of the pieces she had. This is just to show that finding pieces that you think can unravel your idealized specific qualities can be very helpful.

Kim also has a repertoire of her own which she uses as a toolkit as a gateway to explore the instrument’s tone. She said she would like to try all these different things personally on high, low and middle registers to find out if that particular cello would respond. According to Kim, for her, it was all about exploring cello’s different personalities. To examine the C string of the Cello, she would choose something like the Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107 which is very loud and articulated and has a heavy bass. She said that the cello must immediately respond. For the middle range of the cello, she opts to perform something from Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 119, or Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69. To examine the A string, she prefers to use pieces that are more lyrical, looking for a bell-clear, beautiful, mezzo-soprano tone. In case you get stumped, Kim’s advice is to go for Bach. She said that you can actually see the sound becomes purer as it gets.

Repetitive listening is the key

Apparently, the core of judging tones is careful listening. During the process, both judges had typically taken down notes. They also strive to keep their headspace in sheer focus and concentration.

It is very essential that they have as many controls as possible like using the same bow for every instrument. Kim said she would try to do things such as the fingerings, dynamics, and other things the same on all of the instruments. She added that when she switched cello, she would play the same passage for two or three times in the same then seconds and she would try it over and over again.

In the VSA competition, the judges can quickly feel overwhelmed due to dozens of instruments they have tested. Kim would try not to compare the previous cellos she played when she played another new one. She would try as much as possible to start to form a clean slate. For the first few seconds, she would try to remember the quality she felt on that particular cello.

According to Fullard, who encourages enlisting colleagues in the hall for blind tests, says it is critical to consider the projection of the instrument’s tone. She said it’s quite beneficial to try instrument on a larger space as well as on a less-resonant and smaller space while listening for a ringing quality or a resonant.

There are also tips that Fullard offered in case the choices should be narrowed down. She said that she can already tell if the violin can express a range of colors and dynamics after the first round of excerpts. From that period, she can return to those instruments and playback to back similar excerpts and a concerto excerpt. According to Fullard, she pays attention to the sound’s personality as well as it sheen or brightness. With this, she can darken with her choices of pressure, vibrato, bow speed, and contact point. For projection, she tries to observe the sound coming back to her from the far corner of the room.

More than what was initially thought; the process can be more straightforward in finding an instrument with a good tone, especially if you have secondary listeners and notes at your side. However, it’s not just as simple as ticking all the boxes you had on your list. It is a more instinctual and more in-depth method as what Kim compares. She said it was just like having all the blueberries shipped to us who are living in New York all our lives. But when we taste all those fresh blueberries which were picked directly from the ground of Maine, we will find something that we never experienced before, a taste or sensation that stands out among others. It triggers our emotion and activates our mind to say “wow! This is something I have never tasted before!” It’s just like the same with instruments, she says. You need to look for that “wow” factor which will make the way you listen to change. The sound that you would want to have is something that you only imagine or dream of, but now it’s a reality.