Choosing the Right Violin

Duke violinist Eric Pritchard discusses the virtues of a new instrument

A music test set musicians' tongues wagging this week. It found that 10 well-respected violinists, performing blindfolded, preferred new violins to those made in the 18th century by Antonio Stradivari, widely considered the greatest violin-maker of all time.

Eric Pritchard, a Duke violinist, professor of the practice and first violin for the Ciompi Quartet, has spent a career performing mostly on aged instruments. He recently made a dramatic change, shifting to a brand new violin crafted by a German instrument maker. He says he's never been more pleased with an instrument.

He spoke to Duke Today about his experiences and the connection a violinist has to his instrument. Here are excerpts.

What do you make of the recent news regarding violinists preferring new violins over the Stradivarius versions?

It's a fascinating subject to me but not one that is easy to generalize about. It seems that we are in the midst of another golden age of instrument making, and there are some wonderful makers at work both in the U.S. and around the world. It's also true that some of the old violins on the market don't sound their best anymore but they are still valuable for their antique value. Because opinions about sound quality are so subjective, the price of historical instruments is based primarily on the name and fame of the maker and structural condition of the instrument rather than the way they sound.

I don't think that the recent experiment is terribly conclusive, but for me and many other players these days, playing on a brand new instrument is proving to be the best option.


You recently switched, after years playing old violins, to a brand new one. Why?

I had reached a point where I felt like the violin I had been using for the last several years, a 19th century Hungarian instrument by Samuel Nemessanyi, was actually holding me back. I needed to try something new. I had heard about Martin Schleske, a German luthier, and I found his philosophy of instrument making -- which incorporates a high degree of both science and spirituality -- so intriguing that I was inspired to commission him to make me a violin without having ever seen or heard one of his instruments.

Is the sound different? How about the feeling of it? Its weight?

The sound of this violin isn't so different from an old instrument. That's the appeal of this violin for me and the main selling point of every contemporary maker. I'm also happy to say that it actually feels like an older instrument, meaning the response is very responsive and flexible.

Does it fundamentally matter to you, in practice or philosophy, to use a new or old instrument?

I think it's possible for musicians to have a very strong emotional connection with their instruments if they are so inclined. I've had that experience to a greater or lesser extent every time I've gotten a new instrument. It can be very much like falling in love. Spending a small or large fortune on a rare antique instrument is one way that people can enhance that experience of connection. This time, I'm enjoying a different story, which is about cultivating a relationship with an instrument from the very beginning of its existence.

Does every violin have a distinct sound?

Yes, I think that every violin has its own sound and feel. However, like any subjective process, it can be hard to make clear decisions about exactly which instrument works best and why.

Has your new violin changed since you got it?

Yes, my new violin has evolved quite a bit this past year (becoming more complex and variable) although it's been consistently easy to play.