Science Schmience: Violinists Blast Holes In Violin Experiment

Since the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper titled Player preferences among new and old violins which chronicles their experiment during the Violin Competition of Indianapolis from September, 2010 the results have received a good bit of attention. Initial reactions were mostly positive but that ended up being short-lived honeymoon.

Over the last few weeks, a number of prominent voices inside the violin and culture blogging communities have been pointing out that the Emperor Has No Clothes in numerous areas where the study seems to come up short on its scientific methodology.

One of those is Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Frank Almond who authors the culture blog non divisi. Almond published an article on 1/9/2012 that blasts a number of holes in the experiment and subsequent report. His points caught the attention of one of the paper’s authors, Claudia Fritz, who submitted a comment taking issue with Almond’s observations. In turn, Almond posted a second article which responds to Fritz’s issues.

Next up is violinist Laurie Niles who is also the founder of Niles, who participated in the 2010 experiment, published an extensive article on 1/7/2012 detailing her experience. It’s loaded with all sorts of violin geek goodies but you don’t have to be a player to get a lot out of her post. In general, she observes many of the same issues Almond addresses in his post.

Lastly, The Strad editor Ariane Todes, who also participated in the 2010 experiment, wades in with her own article on 1/5/2012. Although clothed in oh-so-polite UK literary warmth, she ultimately suggests that “It’s a stretch to get to the myth-busting generalisation that violinists can’t tell a Strad from a modern instrument. There are too many philosophical issues and variables to be definitive about that.” At the same time, she remains open to the notion that preconceptions made be more artificial than not.

Ultimately, intent, process, and more can quickly become mired in an entanglement of subjectivity and ignorance. The point, beyond melodrama, is that wading into the field of valuation and preference of rare or contemporary string instruments is a dangerous business.

It isn’t quantifiable in a cut and dry fashion (not even close).

These instruments aren’t commodities.

And rushing in to leverage any position, regardless the desired outcomes, can lead to very unhappy conclusions unless you have a great deal of time, experience, and broad based buy-in from various constituencies. The Axelrod/Machold scandal at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra should be proof enough that the land of string instrument valuation (rare and contemporary alike) is territory where angels fear to tread.

Even with science as your compass.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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