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Violin vs. Fiddle: It’s All About Attitude

When I’m asked what is the difference between a violin and a fiddle, my usual answer is, “With a violin, you drink wine; with a fiddle, you drink whiskey.” It’s a rather silly question, because they are both the same instrument. “Fiddle” is just a moniker that was given due to the slang of one playing the violin was sometimes referred to as “fiddling” with it.

However, there is generally a big difference between violinists and fiddlers:

  • Violinists want perfection
  • Fiddlers work with what they have

I won’t get into the performance of music. There are tons of videos on YouTube showing classical violinists being exact with their playing, while bluegrass and country fiddlers are being improvisational, going where they feel like.

What I am looking at here is the choice of instrument. From what I have seen, classical violinists (as well as other classical musicians) feel the need to have the most perfect instrument in order to do their job. Now granted, their careers depend on having the right equipment, just as a carpenter needs the best tools to build a house. But I have seen so many examples of mid-level classical performers wincing and getting frustrated about making a mistake and blaming it on the instrument. Now I have never seen someone like Itzhak Perlman do this (that man can make a Fisher-Price toy violin sound like Heaven!), but I have seen a number of other classical musicians pull this, especially string players.

I recently watched this YouTube video of violinist Rob Landes comparing five violins ranging in price from $70.00 to $10 million.

After one listen, one can easily tell which one was the $70 cheap model. It sounded boxy, like one was listening to it through a paper towel tube. Yes, the others sounded better. However, he was still able to perform the three songs on that cheap violin without difficulty. He then proceeded to talk to the shop owner, who recommended the $450 model as a starter. Sorry, but I’m sure that there are a number of kids who would love the learn the violin but cannot afford even $450, let alone millions of dollars.

On the flipside, I rarely see someone playing roots-based music blame any mistakes on the equipment (although it does happen, especially with the male and female divas). I have seen old bluesmen make a pawnshop guitar sound like the Earth shaking. I have heard beautiful sounds from instruments that look like they were pulled from the trash. Yes, a 50s-era Gibson Les Paul Goldtop plugged into a 60s-era Fender Twin Reverb is going to sound a lot better than a Hondo LP copy plugged into a solid-state practice amp when you strum that open G chord. And the same can be said about violins to be sure. But how are words like this going to motivate the kid in the inner-city who actually has an interest in playing music to pursue it when they cannot afford it?

The past few years have seen tremendous improvements on beginner instruments of all sorts – guitars, violins, drums, even some wind and brass instruments. The problem is that many professional performers look their noses down on such products without even trying them, or go in with a pessimistic attitude trying the instruments out and refuse to change. It is as if they either do not want someone to start playing an instrument because it will eventually be competition, or they enjoy belittling those people who cannot afford an expensive instrument.

There are brands out there such as Glarry, Mendini, Paititi and Bailando that are producing decent-quality violins for the beginner. Yes, these are made in China or some other Asian country where the factories are paying terrible wages and are mass-producing these instruments to keep the costs down. However, this has been going on for decades, ever since someone figured out that every kid in America would want to play guitar just like Elvis. Fortunately, not all classical violinists and luthiers take the bad attitude toward these beginner models.

Esther Abrami is a French model/violinist who has a YT channel and often posts about product reviews. She is an absolute sweetheart to watch. Here is one where she reviews a Glarry violin:

Rosa String Works is a luthier shop in Missouri that works on all kinds of string instruments. In this video, owner Jerry Rosa reviews a Glarry violin and shows what he does to improve on its playability before donating it to a school:

This is a review of three different violins available on Amazon for under $100 (Mendini, Bailando and Paititi), which when played by a professional violinists, shows that they are great starters:

The Piano & Violin Tutor is a popular British instructor/reviewer. While I do not agree with most of what she says regarding beginner violins, she does have one good video on how to improve the sound and playability of a $100 violin:

I could go on, but I don’t want to get long-winded and start rambling. The truth is, there is very little to argue about a $100 violin not being a good beginner violin. Bluegrassers work with what they have when starting out. Not every beginner guitarist gets to start off with a Martin. Not every beginner banjo player can afford a Gibson or Huber. And not every beginner fiddler can have an Amati or Stradivarius at his/her disposal. Those of us already performing with quality instruments need to be as supportive as possible to those who are just starting out. Whether it is assisting with modifications, lessons, or just some advice, it should not be tolerated to lose a young person interested in music from discouraging words from an elder.

Chew on it and comment.