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Master Hand Violin Shop

  • 546 S Main W Street
  • Broadway, VA 22815
  • 630/ 292-2641

    Store Hours

  • By Appointment Only
  • Owner

    Elizabeth Ecklund

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    How Old is Too Old?

    by Diane Bruce

    If you are a follower of our blog, by now you have probably deduced (and it's no secret!) that we at Master Hand are fans of nice, used instruments. Used instruments are often "played-in" and have rich, complex sounds. Used instruments can also be old. A natural concern of many of our customers is that an instrument can become or already is too old. This concern is valid, as wooden products do eventually get too old, and it's very difficult to peg down exactly when an instrument is at the "too old" stage. Sciencists, in their quest to solve the Stradivarius secret, are currently helping determine when violins get too old. While they continue their work, our best response is to recommend you not worry about this question too much and instead focus on preserving your instrument as best you can.

    From a purely physical standpoint, we have no idea how old is so old that the wood on the instrument will rot or otherwise become unplayable. There are still playable violins from as long ago as modern violins were being made. An Amati violin from 1560 is known to exist and be playable. So if you are worried about your old instrument falling apart, it is probably safe to assume that if you care for your violin (or viola, cello, or bass), it should outlive you... and also your great-grand children. Relatively less is known about how long bows last, as the oldest modern bows are only from the mid-1800's. Because of all the physical demands on bows, it does seem that they may not last quite as long as your violin. But again, your bow should also still outlive you.

    However, there are many people who think that instruments can be "too old" to sound their best. These people suspect that some Strads, for example, are past their peaks. In a recent study published in PNAS, several violinists were allowed to play multiple violins and rank them. The oldest Strad (incidentally from Stradivarius's "golden era") was widely regarded as the least enjoyable violin. Of course the study was far from flawless, as few people are willing to let anyone else touch their Strad. But the study at least concedes the possibility of what scientists know to be true empirically: instruments change over time. They could possibily even go past their primes.

    When an instrument is first made, the properties of the wood are different from the properties after several years of age and playing (as proven by several scientific studies with debated mechanisms that I will not discuss and do not understand). As the instrument is played, its wood changes in such a way that the violin relaxes to produces a clearer, more resonant and less harsh sound. This sound is usually more desirable than the original sound. Some modern makers try to reduce the maturation time by various tricks ranging from having the violins "listen to the radio" prior to sale to using wood from old church pews. In a similar way, bows also change over time. The bonds between the wood molecules change and the bow can make more complex sounds. The sound frequencies from playing and the tension of the hair encourages molecules in bows to change.

    It is hard to determine how long it takes for a violin or bow to peak because many factors help determine the time to maturity, including climate and amount of time spent playing. It seems with bows that the concensus is that 10 years or so of regular use will see a bow closing in on its maximum quality. For a violin, it seems that there is an initial "playing-in" period of a few months to a few years, but violin (or viola, cello, or bass) may not really hit its stride until 25 or 50 years of use.

    So when do all these wonderful resonances wear the instrument out? Well, if the PNAS study is any indication, perhaps good instruments start becoming geriatric after 200-300 years of age and good use. (Or not, as the younger Strad and Guarneri could also have just been better for the past 300 years). Science has yet to determine a time frame for instrument molecule optimization, and most people were not alive for 300+ years to hear all the changes that these Strad violins have undergone. But one thing is certain, and that is that even after a good violin or bow has hit its peak, it does not have a precipitous decline. The violin can continue to be played happily for many, many years as it declines.

    At the end of the day, it's probably safe to assume that unless you own an Amati, your instrument is not "too old" or in danger of becoming too old any time soon. Therefore, it is our duty to exhort you to take good care of your instrument so that it can outlast you and your great great great grandchildren.

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