A friend told me a tale of a violinist friend of his who came across a mass-produced violin for sale on eBay for €23. It was even cheaper than it sounds because the price included the violin, a bow, and a case.
He bought the violin, which arrived with a set of terrible strings, so he put on a new set of strings, but that was his only intervention. Then he set about asking people to compare the sound of him playing his own (fine old valuable) violin with the sound of him playing the €23 instrument (in both instances with his own good violin bow). As you might already suspect, not everyone could tell the difference. In a small room, people were pretty sure which was the fine old violin. But in a larger room or a more resonant hall, people often guessed wrongly. He found this distressing.
As a pianist, the result didn’t surprise me, because like (almost) all pianists I have to play different pianos in different venues. I can’t afford to become dependent on the sound of a particular piano, or to think that I cannot ‘sound like me’ on a different instrument. For me, it’s not so much the sound but the way of playing which identifies a pianist. It’s timing, phrasing, the balance between right and left hand. It’s the layering of voices, the approach to tempo, the use of the pedal. All these things can be transferred to whatever piano you’re playing.
I can’t pretend that pure sound quality doesn’t play a part, because some pianos just do sound better than others, but most pianists eventually achieve a Zen-like non-attachment to the sonority of particular pianos. If I think of pianists I know, and whether I could identify them if they played the piano behind a screen, it’s not really ‘their sound’ I’d recognise but rather a composite of elements amounting to what they do musically.
Actually, the same is true of string players, at least in my view. I feel I recognise them from their way of playing on whatever instrument they play. But they generally say that they only feel truly themselves on the instrument which they play every day and in every concert. They are HMHV (Half Man Half Violin).
I have mixed feelings when witnessing this bond. Perhaps I’m just envious, because there’s nothing quite like that for a pianist. But on the whole I feel afraid for them, because basing your musical happiness on the possession of a particular instrument is obviously a fragile thing. I feel they should all perform occasionally on a €23 violin.