This is the second installation of my two part post on shopping for an instrument, if you have not read Part 1, check it out.
Begin with a small selection.
A salesperson will set out two or three instruments for you and tell you who made them, their nationality, age, and condition. At first, this information may not seem useful but it is worth getting a general knowledge on the instruments you are trying. During your first appointment, focus only on overall character and judge solely on sound. Dimensions across instruments can vary as little as a tenth of a millimeter, it is enough to make an instrument initially feel awkward and unfamiliar, kind of like a new pair of shoes. You will get used to them as you try several more and take a few home on trial. Do not be quick to judge, but take time to get to know them. Just experience the instruments and get a feel of what their personalities really are like. No matter if you have done this process before in a different price range, this initial visit is much like wine tasting. First, experience everything to get your aural palette in tune with the nuances and then make a general assessment of each instrument’s overall character.
Shopping for an instrument is much like shopping for a suit or dress, you find one that overall fits and then get it tailored just right to you. You are not going to ask the tailor to make it all over again with different fabrics, or to change the color, these are character traits of the garment itself. Chinrests can be swapped out, tailpieces changed to accommodate fine tuners, bridges lowered, even soundposts adjusted to effect response. Much of the feel can be adjusted for comfort and to suit your playing, however the character is innate to the instrument specifically and therefore cannot be changed. Judging solely on character is preferred at this time.
Strings don’t matter as much as you think.
No string can change the character of the instrument, only enhance different aspects. It is important to have good quality strings on the instruments you are trying, though they do not all necessarily have to have the same set on each of them to adequately form an opinion of the instruments. Trust the shop you are working with to know which strings bring out the best of an instrument.
Start with a scale and listen.
There have been sometimes when I have shown instruments to customers and after making recommendation on how to try them, by starting slowly with scales and to just experience the instruments for what they are, then they tear off sawing blindly on the instrument. They will play each for thirty seconds and then tell me that they do not like any of the instruments. It is of no one’s fault but the musician’s that the instruments sound bad because they failed to warm up and play them as they desired to played. Warm up your ears to the instruments, and to the room, warm up your hands and take a few moments to find out how to play each instrument. At least budget 5 to 10 minutes for every instrument you try. It would be like if you are used to driving sports cars and then go test drive an SUV and drive it the exact same way, you will definitely end up upside down in a ditch! Go through each instrument with a scale, full long bows on each note, just experiencing them. Then go through them again and listen for the differences in character not which is better or worse. From here you will get an impression of how the instruments sound and play.
Play short passages of music that are memorized and polished.
Since we do not perform scales, you will then want to play some music. Do not use sheet music at first. It would be like reading a book on how to drive while driving a car, not a good idea. Play something that utilizes the range of the instrument so you can hear the balance of character across the ranges. I like a lot of J.S. Bach compositions for this, as most of them utilize the range of the instrument, do not play just all on the A string or G string. You or with the help of your teacher, should prepare the music of very short passages ahead of time. This will make the process more systematic and considerably easier. The goal now is to quickly switch from instrument to instrument with each phrase as to not have your ear become too accustomed to the sound.
Eliminate one instrument and add another.
Eliminate one instrument for now, you can always revisit it later, but to assess instruments, you need to experience a good selection first. Even if you have done this process before, instruments in higher price ranges offer more subtleties that take time to fully understand and hear. Pick one that you like the least and swap it out for a different one. Think of this as a process of elimination and not selection. Eliminate the one that just does not speak to you, the one that does not allow you to make music, the one that fights with you when you are trying to phrase passages.
Look at no more than seven or eight instruments.
I do not recommend trying more than seven or eight instruments at one time. After a while your ears get tired and everything starts to sound the same. You will have a chance to try more and even revisit some instruments at your next appointment.
Take the instruments home for trial.
Take home a couple of instruments that you selected, use them in the practice room and run through your practice routine. Your impressions of the instruments will change over the week as well as your ability to discern the finer details and really develop your aural palate. If you have a teacher, it would be good to take it to them for assessment and direction. They understand where you are at in your playing and where you are going and what would fit you best. A good teacher should guide you to the right instrument for you, not just what they like the best, not all teachers are great at this. For some teachers, the last time they shopped for an instrument might be when they were in college. That could have been at a time when Stradivaris were only $25K and not $2 Million or more as they are now. Keep in mind, at the end of the process you are the one who will be playing the instrument not your teacher, so sometimes you will have to take their advice as not absolute.
There is no perfect instrument.
There is no such thing as a perfect instrument, no matter how much money you spend. There are things that an instrument is going to do great, and other things that it just does okay. For example in the $1K – $2K range, some of the violins may die off in the super high positions. If you do not play up their right now and will not for a while, then this deficiency should not matter. You will likely upgrade by the time you are ready for those positions. You would want to make sure that it sounds awesome in the first few positions though. Once again something a good salesperson and teacher can help you sift through. Even Strads, if you look hard enough have very subtle deficiencies. Your goal right now is to develop the ability to discern the differences of the instruments and develop a preference for character.
How will the sound change over time?
Never focus on the potential of the instrument, focus on how it sounds now. You should not think about well if you put this or that string on it, or use different rosin, or if you had a different bow. Take the instrument for what it is, with the bow you are using now. Yes the instrument does change over time, new or used, as you play them the sound changes. A healthy instrument will subjectively always change for the better. As in it will always get better sounding to the player as they “break in” their new violin. So what happens is as the player works to pull specific sounds from the instrument, the next time they try to retrieve that tone color or response, the instrument will access them more readily and easily. This is the concept of playing your sound into the instrument. So if you like your sound, you will like how the instrument sounds even more.
Things to try out:
Type of character
You can’t judge an instrument on its own, it is all about how it compares to other violins that you are trying. One violin can seem darker or brighter than the other. One can be more raw or boisterous while another can be sweet and refined. Your goal would to be to listen for these differences and then after trying several determining what personality you like. Do not let only one or two of the following be the determining factor, but how the many qualities are combined to create the character of the instrument as a whole.
Evenness of character
As you switch strings and positions, how consistent is the character? Yes it will have a different timbre, but how much does it still sound like the same instrument. Some people prefer instruments that sound really even, others a little less balanced for a more unique color to the possibilities of phrasing. One can test this by playing scales in different positions, noting the difference over the string crossing. The other test would be to play scales on each string up the fingerboard noting the difference as you progress up the fingerboard. Finally a passage that you know well that utilizes different strings and/or positions. Does the melody sound consistent or does it sound like at times you are playing a whole other instrument?
Do not play with pressure when testing this! Focus on bow placement and speed. Too much pressure and you choke some instruments and never hear the full possibilities of it. A number of players unaware do this because they have developed habits on their own instrument to make it sound a certain way. Try to test the instrument with very little input and let the violin do all the work. A great instrument for you will make you sound better while doing very little.
This is very important, it deals with how the instrument responds to your input. Some instruments respond quicker than others and affects how much work you need to exert in order for the instrument to do certain things. There are two main parts to the sound coming from a stringed instrument, the attack, the initial sound of the bow catching the strings, and the sustain, the sound as the bow continues to move along the string. There is the resonance the instrument still has after the bow has stopped, but this has to do with how “live” and reverberant this instrument is as discussed below. Quick passages with slurs are a good way to test this, listen to see how clean every note sounds, not with the attack but with the tone produced on each note. Does it sound like “wha wha wha wha”, slow attack, or “cha, cha, cha, cha”, all attack, or “ta, ta, ta, ta”, clean subtle attack with a nice tone and pitch?
Some players like the double stops to blend real nicely and hear a very balanced interval, while others at time want to hear one note clearly stick out over the other as the melody. Now much of this has to do with technique, but instruments still have a natural tendency to do one over the other. Listen for these and determine what you like.
There is the resonance the instrument still has after the bow has stopped, this has to do with how “live” and reverberant this instrument is. Some people prefer a more “dry” sound while others prefer a more reverberant sound. Too dry and the music lacks depth and fullness, too wet and quick passages sound muddy as the notes overlap. Determine your preference as you try out several instruments.
Harmonics can be very telling on how the clarity and resonance of the instrument is. It can tell you how healthy the instrument is, generally you want the harmonics to be easy, resonant, pure, and clear. However, don’t let this be the sole deciding factor if you like the instrument or not.
A wolf tone occurs when a played note matches the natural resonating frequency of the instrument. This produces a sympathetic overtone which causes an oscillating beating which sounds like howling. This may scare some players away from an instrument, but wolf tones are a sign of a very responsive instrument and may occur in several places on the instrument. It is important to note that these usually do not occur on actual notes but in between notes, for example between F# and G. If it occurs on a note or open strings, sometimes this can be adjusted, silver bullets may be in order, or simply a wolf eliminator. Commonly used on cellos, not so much for violins and violas, a wolf eliminator does not actually “eliminate” the wolf, but moves it to a frequency that is not an actual note. If the wolf cannot be adjusted to unused frequencies then it may be a sign of an unhealthy instrument and should be avoided.
Return for a second round of trials.
It is common to go through a second round of instrument trials. Over the week you will have developed your aural palate and probably some preferences as well. It may even be worth revisiting some of the instruments you have previously tried. This time you will go into the trial room with more of a purpose. If you have a teacher, they surely will have given you some more direction after showing them the instruments.
Purchasing the instrument of your dreams.
Shops typically will work with you on the price of the instrument, especially if you are purchasing a bow and case as well. It never hurts to ask. It might seem like a good idea to do a little research online, but be aware there is a lot of misinformation about stringed instruments and their prices on the internet. Auction prices are not a fair comparison either, think about why people send things to auction. Usually to get rid of something they can not sell through more traditional means. Maybe the instrument is in poor condition or it does not have solid identification or certification. This again is one of those things where you have to trust the shop you are working with and should trust your instincts.
No matter how much you spent on your instrument, it is recommend to get instrument insurance. There are a number of companies that specialize in stringed instrument insurance, most having a minimum policy of $10K, if the combination of instruments, bows, and cases that you may own total $10K or above, definitely go with one these companies. Not only do they cover the general theft and total loss, but they generally cover repairs as well with no deductible. On a $10K instrument or up, it would not be unheard of to see a major repair in the $1K-$3K range. Not much compared to the cost of the instrument to keep its value, but that is a lot of cash to come up with out of pocket. If you are below the $10K mark, most home insurance companies will cover the instrument, get a separate policy, one such as a personal articles policy akin to one for fine jewelry or media systems. Do your research and call around, get a few quotes and price shop.
Maintenance of your instrument.
When the instrument is not in your hands, it belongs in its case. Wipe your instrument and strings down every time you are done playing. Change strings on violins anywhere from 4 to 8 months, cellos 8 months to 1 ½ years. Rehair the bow anywhere from 4 to 8 months. Bring your instrument into the shop immediately if you notice any scratches or nicks on the finish, buzzes or rattles, a new or more pronounced wolf, or any significant changes in the sound. Even if you do not notice anything and everything sounds and looks good, it does not hurt to have a wellness checkup every 6 months or so. Regular maintenance and checkups of your instrument will ensure that it sounds its best and can preempt costly repairs.
I hope I did not make a simple process seem much more complex, but hopefully this helped you organize and give you some understanding of the overall process. As a lover of the music played on these instruments, I feel it important for players to find a good match. And as lover of these instruments, I feel it is also important for the instruments to find a good home. Many of these instruments will outlive us and it is our responsibility to care for them while in our possession. I would not expect everyone to fall in love with an instrument with the first note, but it takes several weeks to really get to know an instrument. The love usually comes over time, like some relationships, it starts off as smitten, then like, love, and perhaps obsession. Hopefully you get giddy every time you practice, lose track of time and play for hours before realizing that it is 4am. May your performances be full of confidence and passion while sharing a meaningful message with the listeners.