Shopping for an instrument may feel like an overwhelming and deeply complex process. This article will hopefully demystify and break down the details of each step and clarify some of the more peculiar aspects of instruments. A quick search on the internet brings up several articles, gleaning over these one might be more lost than when they started. I have found that there is a plethora of information on the internet regarding stringed instruments, unfortunately much of it is false with hints of truth here and there. The reality is that violin family instruments have seen very little change in the past 200 years, most being in the development of endpins, chinrests, and shoulder pads. There are no secrets of Stradivarius or secrets to making any great instrument, just long hours of hard work, study, and dedication. There are more secrets and discoveries to be made in playing the instruments then there are to building them.
The information that follows is what I have come to understand through my experiences as a salesman, bow maker, and musician. We will cover what I believe is pertinent to the process, as well as address some of the typical questions that may arise. Much of the data presented here is not statistical but merely empirical. This article is intended mostly for parents of students, and students in general. However, anybody might find the information presented here useful and interesting.
Find a good and reputable shop.
When purchasing an instrument, you are not just acquiring an instrument, rather you are entering into a long relationship with the shop you purchased it from. They will work with you on adjustments and are willing to guide you in maintenance, setup, and repairs. A good shop should stand behind the instrument and allow you to trade-in and trade-up for the price you paid minus any devaluation for damage or excessive wear it may have incurred. They will help you determine a suitable budget and direct you to the right selection of instruments. They generally will have over a dozen instruments in every price range, not just two or three. A good and courteous sales staff will tune the instruments for you and give you some background information. Whether a handmade or workshop or a new or used instrument, a good shop will have priced these items accordingly so you are looking at comparable instruments in each price range. The sales staff should be able to get an impression of what you might like during the selection process and direct you to more instruments that will suit you. Ask a teacher or a fellow colleague, call around, visit, and feel out the local shops. Sometimes you may have to travel a distance, even across state lines, but believe me this relationship is worth it no matter how little or how much you are willing to spend.
What about working with an instrument maker directly?
There is the option of working with a maker directly and commissioning an instrument to be built specifically for you. There are many great violin makers in the United States and at this point in time, Americans are producing some of the best modern instruments. One of the benefits to this process is that a maker will work with you and tailor an instrument specifically to your wants and needs. This should be reserved for musicians who can articulate exactly what they want and have had some experience with instruments by this maker before, whether hearing one in concert or recordings, or perhaps having played one owned by a colleague or a violin shop. Knowing the maker of your instrument and having a personal relationship with that person can be very gratifying. It is much like knowing the details of your family tree or cultural background, but for your instrument. If you decide to go this route, I would recommend some additional research on this topic.
“Professional” vs “Student”
Let us define these words so we can be rid of them. A professional instrument is defined by an instrument that one uses as a source of income. An $800 violin could be considered a professional violin. A student violin is one that is used during the study of the instrument. A $30K violin could technically be considered a student violin for a graduate student. For that matter any violin could be considered a student or professional instrument, or both. Is not a professional musician still a student of sorts? These terms should seldom be used in describing instruments as they are flowery words that salesman and the uninitiated throw around. However, that being said, these terms may be used in describing the musicians that use these instruments.
What is available?
We should begin with what is typically available to give you an idea of some of the price ranges of violin family instruments. This may be of some help when determining your budget.
You might find the following in their corresponding price ranges for violins, cellos of comparable quality cost twice as much as their violin counterparts, with price ranges for violas somewhere in between at about 15% to 20% more than their respective violin prices:
Under $1K Mostly newer Chinese and Bulgarian instruments.
$1K to $2K Mostly newer Chinese, Romanian, Bulgarian, German instruments.
$2K to $4K Mostly newer Chinese, Romanian, Bulgarian, and some older German and Czechoslovakian instruments.
$5K to $10K Just about every nationality is represented in this range with new and older instruments, Chinese, Bulgarian, German, French, Italian, and American to name just a few.
$20K to $50K Mostly finer French, Italian, German, and American instruments.
$50K and Up Italian, German, and French instruments, most having notable makers or workshops associated with them.
Note that the nationalities listed are not a complete list but are typical of what you will find, there are always exceptions.
“Handmade” vs “Workshop”
“New” vs “Used”
Just about all instruments above $50K are used as they tend to be antiques by notable makers and workshops, some easily over 200 years old. Violin family instruments are not like most consumer products. They do not lose value when you leave the show room. In fact, instruments either hold their value or some of the finer ones tend to increase in value over time. Most instruments under $50K are rarely investment quality instruments in the financial sense. What you are investing in, is your sound and ability to connect with an instrument to make music. If someone gave you a Stradivarius to play, but you just cannot stand the sound and just cannot seem to connect with it, you are almost better off playing a shoe box with rubber bands that you can connect with. If you are looking to make a financial investment in instruments, like all investments, it takes money to make money and this article is definitely not for you. Foundations, museums, and the like, are the typical organizations who purchase these types of instruments anymore as they are generally out of reach financially for most musicians anyway.
“Antiquing” is the process of distressing to make an instrument look much older then it is. It is much like purchasing distressed jeans or clothing. Most instruments have some sort of antiquing or least some color shading. This is usually an aspect that a maker uses to show off their varnishing and finishing techniques. Done tastefully a brand new instrument can look like it has been loved and used for several decades. Any color variations are applied under the top coats of varnish and is no thinner or less durable at the appearance of wear. The instruments should not be judged on appearance as long as the instrument has its original varnish and has been maintained. The way an instrument looks and how old it is are not nearly as important as the condition of the instrument. You should expect a new instrument to be free of repairs but perhaps a 200 year old cello is expected to have a saddle crack and some rib crack repairs. It is important that any repairs have been done correctly, this includes its structural soundness along with its minimal to no visibility.
Determine your budget.
Keep in mind we are only dealing with art and music, this is not life or death. No one needs to go into serious debt to find a suitable instrument. There are nice instruments in every price range and most shops will let you trade up giving you what you paid for the instrument to go forward. If you are in the market for an instrument and have a teacher, this is something you should discuss with them and they can give you some direction in price ranges for instruments. Also keep in mind that a $2K instrument is not twice as good as a $1K instrument and a $10K instrument is not five times better than a $2K instrument. If we try to put it in quantitative terms, the difference between a $1K instrument and $5K is something like 10%, between a $5K and $20K about 5%, and between a $20K and $1 Million maybe 2%. Now if you are a top notch seasoned musician, that extra 2% is going to make a world of difference. Like a new driver trying to drive a Ferrari, they are not going to come close to tapping into the full potential of the car as a professionally trained race car driver.
As aforementioned that most shops will allow you to trade up, as one progresses I strongly recommend this. You would not give a new teenage driver the keys to a Corvette, correlative as a beginner, it is not recommended to buy a $10K instrument. As you progress you may find that it no longer represents your ideal sound and limits your ability to convey compelling music. Now you are stuck with an expensive fiddle that to trade up from that would be an additional $5K to $10K, a lot of extra cash to pay just because you had cash to blow when you started. Spending that much money up front also puts a lot of stress on the process and can turn you away from purchasing anything or upgrading at all. Shopping for an instrument is supposed to be an enjoyable and educational process. One a good teacher and salesperson can guide you through.
As always there are exceptions, but the following would be an adequate break down of what I have found to suit violinists at different skill levels and stages of playing. Once again cellos are twice as much, for violas add 10% to 20%.
Under $1K Rental level instruments, beginners of all ages.
$1K to $2K Middle school and high school students that study privately and enthusiastic amateurs.
$2K to $5K Advanced high school students and intermediate amateurs.
$5K to $10K College students, high school students auditioning for music schools, and serious amateurs.
$20K to $50K Graduate students, serious amateurs, and professionals in major orchestras.
$50K and Up The same as before but leaning more toward investment quality instruments.
While determining your budget keep in mind room for an adequate bow and case to pair. Shopping for a bow deserves as much attention as shopping for an instrument, and a dedicated article to this is needed, look for a complete write-up on this aspect in the future.
What’s with Chinese products?
Just with any country of origin, there are good and poor quality products. Much of the instruments you find online under $200 are typically from Shanghai, China or even Korea. These look like a great bargain, just like they “look” like violins. They might last a month and discourage anyone from trying to play violin ever again. However, there are some really fantastic workshops and makers in Beijing that outshine some American and German makers for instance. A good shop that carries Chinese instruments has done their research and have made connections with reputable workshops and makers. Once again echoing back to how finding a great shop is important. Sure there are Chinese products in other industries that are known to be of poor quality, but the reality is, some Chinese instruments really are fine pieces of craftsmanship. When I was a child, many of the instruments in the $1K – $5K range were saturated with German instruments. They were thick so they had a nice even sound, but they resonated as good as a brick, they had a very limited usable dynamic range. The “varnish” on them was made to be very durable and it was really laid on thick. The Chinese violins in the aforementioned price range are crafted like real violins with real varnish. They respond well to the nuances a player might try to retrieve from them. More recently the Chinese workshops have really stepped up and unfortunately a number of much older teachers and players avoid them as the quality was not there more than two decades ago. At this time, these instruments should not be avoided, but given serious consideration as they are reasonably priced.
Check out Part 2 which covers the actual process of trying out the instruments and a guide of what to look for!