Instrument Trialing Guide:
What to Play and Other Tips
In our last blog post, we gave some practical tips on ways you can spare yourself some time and stress while choosing a new instrument. If you haven’t read that yet, please click this link to check it out.
This week we’re going to talk about the instrument trialing process itself. We’re going to layout some suggestions for what to play as well as some dos and don’ts that will hopefully make the process easy for you.
What to Play
Scales are an excellent way to test an instrument because they can cover any range you want. When first playing an instrument, it’s a good idea to play a three or four octave scale. Play it slowly, with long bows, and with plenty of power. Lean into the string and work your way toward the bridge. This will test how much force the instrument can put up with. This is important to know because you want an instrument that can handle heavy playing, the kind of playing that will produce a sound that projects across a concert hall.
Additionally, try playing some single-string scales. Start on each open string and play up to the octave above (or higher) on that same string. A high-quality instrument will continue to respond and produce a good sound even high up on the strings. Lower quality instruments will become muddy and less responsive higher up on the strings, especially the lower two strings.
2. Excerpts of Pieces You Know Well
It’s a good idea to spend some time practicing before you head to a violin shop to try instruments. Set aside some time to polish two or three 30 second to 2 minute excerpts from pieces you are comfortable with. For many students, these may be their most recent recital pieces or perhaps some audition excerpts.
It’s best to pick excerpts of music that cover a wide pitch range of the instrument and incorporate a variety of techniques. Many concerto expositions accomplish this as do many professional orchestral audition excerpts. You want to test the balance of the instrument. An excerpt of music that moves all around the instrument will do a good job of revealing balance issues. Good balance is when all the strings of the instrument produce a similar, cohesive tone. Bad balance is when each string produces a very different tone, almost as if each string comes from a different instrument.
3. Something Lyrical and Something Fast
A great instrument should be able to do it all. That means it shines no matter what style of music you play on it, whether that’s a slow romantic sonata movement or a fiery baroque concerto finale.
When you head to a shop to try instruments, make sure you’ve prepared at least one lyrical excerpt and one fast, virtuosic excerpt. Or at the very least, make sure to pick an excerpt that contains both.
1. How Often Should You Switch Instruments?
Depending on the price range that you are looking in, the shop you visit may have as many as 15 or more options for you to look at. At Terra Nova Violins, we have hundreds of instruments, at least a dozen violins in each price range. That’s a lot of instruments and a lot for your ear to keep track of.
Do yourself a favor and cycle through the instruments quickly at first. Spend 1 – 2 minutes on each instrument before moving to the next. During this process, you will likely be able to eliminate as many as half the options right off the bat for one reason or another. Once you’ve done this, go through the instruments again, this time spending 5 – 10 minutes on each. After that, you may be able to eliminate two more. Keep up this process of increasing the time you spend with each instrument as you eliminate the ones that aren’t a good fit. Eventually, you’ll be left with just one.
2. Acoustic Space
The acoustic space that you play an instrument in can seriously affect your perception of its sound. So, what’s better? A closet sized practice room or 5,000 seater concert hall?
Small, dry rooms can often make every instrument sound dull. Conversely, a concert hall can make even mediocre instruments sound quite resonant and big.
In our opinion, the best space to trial instruments in is a space that is neither too dry, nor too resonant. This will give you the truest sense of what the instruments sound like. The main space of our Austin shop is a good example of this kind of space. The hardwood floors provide resonance, while the insulated ceiling tiles soak up sound.
3. Use Your Own Bow!
This is a huge one!
In our opinion, bows make a huge difference in the way instruments sound and feel to play. When you are trialing instruments, you want only one variable: the instrument. If you trial instruments with a bow you are not familiar with, you’ve added a second variable. This means that certain qualities or aspects of feel that you like or don’t like about an instrument may actually be a product of the bow, not the instrument. But because you’re unfamiliar with both, you won’t know which one is the cause.
If you are able, always bring your own bow to a shop when trialing instruments. If you are in the process of looking for both a new instrument AND a new bow, we recommend that you first replace the one that is holding you back the most. Once you’ve made a choice on that item, move onto the other.
4. Bring a Fellow Musician or Teacher
While our staff is composed of well-trained musicians who are ready to give you honest feedback on the instruments you are trialing, they may not be familiar with your sound or your playing style, and that’s important.
We recommend that you bring a friend or a teacher that knows your playing style and is capable of playing themselves. They will be a better judge of how well your sound and playing style matches up with the instruments you’re trying out. Additionally, they can play the instruments for you so you can get a sense of what they sound like from a distance. Instruments can sound very different from 20 feet away than they do under your ear.
5. Don’t Make Cell Phone Recordings For Comparison
Recording yourself playing with your cell phone can be incredibly useful in the context of practicing. In fact, we highly recommend it.
However, we do not recommend making recordings of yourself playing different instruments in order to compare them to one another. Stringed instruments produce a very dense, rich sound comprised of countless overtones that contribute to their overall tone quality. Cell phones compress audio in order to save space. That compression strips away all that richness and distills the sound into a simpler, thinner version of itself making it of little use in comparing instruments.
That’s all! If you are looking to trial instruments and would like some guidance from one of our staff members, do not hesitant to ask us. Helping customers trial instruments is the best part of our jobs.
Thanks for reading! Cheers!