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Does This Violin Make Me Look Fat?
The never-ending search for the perfect instrument.

by Holly Mulcahy
May 5, 2008

May is here and along with ushering in a new summer, it also serves as the gateway for swimsuit shopping. As magazines begin telling us which suits are now fashionable and how certain ones work best with certain body types, many of us are beginning to think about how we've changed over the winter and if our current swimsuit still fits. At the same time, I'm comfortable with my body and don't lose sleep over whether or not I conform to the latest fashion craze. Tired clichés such as "Does this suit make me look fat?" and "Does this one make my butt look big?" just don't go far with me.

But as of late, I've discovered that variations of those same clichés have worked their way into my life in a different way. Instead of badgering my husband with fashion phrases, I find myself saying "Listen to my violin, don't you think it is sounding off this week?" or the more irritating, "Which bow do you think sounds better?" The latter being most annoying since my bow is the most recent of my instrument purchases and at the time I firmly believed it was definitely "the one."

It seems that no matter how often I ask those questions I keep arriving at the same answer: "I think I need a new violin."

Just like fashion writers and models conspire to create designs that keep women on a never-ending quest for the perfect swimsuit that will make us feel as good as they look, there are instruments that get musicians shopping with the same determined frustration. But in the case of musicians it isn't a designer or a model who gets that ball rolling, it is a fellow musician.

A few months back I unthinkingly tried playing a $4 million violin along with a $100 thousand bow. Nearly everything about the pair made me feel like I could play anything. I sounded amazing and the lack of effort to produce such a wonderful sound made playing joyous. My professional self esteem went through the roof but playing on that fantastic duo instantly made me see flaws in my own violin and bow, perhaps much more than really existed. It became very difficult to enjoy my own instruments and that is what started my violinist's version of "does this make me look fat?"

It is not just string players that experience the euphoria of trying better instruments. Last week I listened to three flute players try six different flutes, each sounding distinctively different and some literally blew me away. Small changes in equipment made tremendous differences in how each flute sounded. In reality, the same is true for all instruments: brass players tinker with different mouth pieces, bells, and slides while oboe and bassoon players are constantly coming up with better reed making skills.

What struck me while listening to the flute players me is the universal desire of all my musician colleagues to constantly improve their sound regardless of how comfortable they feel with their current instrument. In many ways it is something of a musician's Holy Grail quest: the search for the perfect instrument. For most, the search will never come to fruition but the effort yields better musicians who reach new levels of balance and blend within their section.

One can only hope that the improvements in quality get noticed. In the meantime, I need to go ask my husband to listen to a few things; I think my fiddle is sounding funny.

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