Buying a violin: 10 things to consider

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So. You’re thinking of buying a violin, making this big step. Exciting times, huh? Or are you rushing the decision and not giving it quality thinking time? How about a quick reality check from The Classical Girl before you take the plunge?

Buying a violin: 10 things to consider

  1. Are you in love with the violin and its playing potential, or how it looks?
  2. Is it [mostly] within your budget? (Do you HAVE a budget? Please have one. And if money is no object? Consider the beauties mentioned HERE.)
  3. Have you shopped around? A lot? (4 stores, 25 violins tested, minimum. Doubling that number is even better.)
  4. Have you had a luthier or other trusted professional look at it and offer their opinion?
  5. Are you too caught up in the price (a bargain!), or the country of origin, or the century it was made?
  6. Are you super-excited, but not so excited your judgment is getting clouded?
  7. Has your teacher heard you play it? Have you heard your teacher play it?
  8. Have you done a blind test with aforementioned teacher, comparing it to at least two other comparable violins?
  9. Are you judging the instrument independent of its current setup? (Bridge placement, nut grooves, fine tuners on one string versus five – all these things are adjustable.)
  10. Does the acquisition of the final pick make you want to run home and practice on it, or are you a little intimidated, or deflated, or uncaring about it? (Because, then, DON’T.)

Here’s my own Big Violin Acquisition story, first published at Violinist.com in 2006.

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Three violins sit in my guest room. I can feel them throbbing, giving off invisible energy in their respective cases, like radioactive material. At least one of them will go back to its shop on Monday. One will most likely remain and take my $200 student violin’s place.

I’ve sampled roughly forty violins in the past five months. One, three months ago, made my heart catch: a late 19th century Stainer copy, Czech, with that battered, scratched look I find so intriguing. A look that tells me it’s been Somewhere. It has a story to tell. Just what I’ve longed for. But, at $2200.00, it’s a bit over budget. My instincts (and a clerk at a competing shop) tell me it is overpriced. The workmanship shows flaws and it will need some touching up. But it has continued to tug at my heart and beat out competitors I’ve introduced as I’ve made my rounds to music shops in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Berkeley and San Jose.

I’m in no hurry to buy. I told myself it would be a year-long process. My goal has been to visit a half dozen shops and listen to at least 50 violins before embarking on any sort of decision. The queen bee, the Czech violin, located in the Santa Cruz music store where my lesson takes place, has been hanging in the shop for some time now. I’ve told myself if it was meant to be, it will wait for me. It has.

Last Monday, a breakthrough in the fifth shop—a Palo Alto store that specializes in guitars. Low expectations from the start. The first violin the clerk hands me seems equally unassuming. A new violin. Romanian. With a budget of 2K, I have little interest in testing an $850.00 violin. “Trust me,” the man says.

I trust him. Damn. He’s right. A feeling of quiet excitement descends over me.

But wait—my heart is set on something old. Yes, I tell the clerk, I realize the new ones, particularly those Chinese-made ones, generally cost less and sound better than their elders. Much better. But they have no story, no soul. The clerk nods and brings over another contender—a German 1930 Strad copy, at $1880.00.

Nice. Big sound, clear tone, much like the Romanian. This, then, might be the best compromise.

Thirty minutes later, I hear myself asking the clerk what their policy is on taking out two violins. Wait. I’m not ready to advance to this level of commitment. Am I? Because I sense Something is about to happen and there will be no turning back.

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The test during my violin lesson the following day—Czech queen bee meets the contenders—is objective and unbiased. My eyes are shut as my teacher hands me one violin after another to play. Deprived of my vision, my other senses leap around. Feels nice in my hands. The tone—wow, it’s clear. This one, not so much on the G string. Sweet E strings, all of them. The bow skitters a bit on that one—must be the higher bridge. But which one is my queen bee? Damn. I’m not sure.

Next, my teacher plays all three, while my eyes remain shut. Ooh. What a sound, soaring from that first violin. And on that one, as well. This one—it’s the German, for sure. And the other one with the slightly muffled G string—that must be the queen bee. I feel a pang of disloyalty. I realize I’m not rooting for the queen anymore.

The results after thirty minutes of this are comically mixed. I have ranked all three as first at one point or another. My teachers confesses that she, too, can’t name one clear winner. “I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these,” she tells me.

My heart is in turmoil. The test has done its dirty work. Could I possibly justify paying so much more for an older Violin With a Story? The painful truth: the story has no bearing on the sound. The second painful truth—when my eyes were shut, all three violins sang to me.

“Want to know the prices?” I ask my teacher as I pack up.

“It’s not what’s important,” she says, “but… what the heck.”

I relish the stunned expression that crosses her face when she learns the Romanian comes in at $1350.00 less than the queen bee. Only then does the full impact of it hit me too. “Well,” she says, “Easy to see where the value is.”

The time has come to choose.

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And here we are, in 2016, ten years later. Happy Anniversary to my sweet little Romanian friend.

Want more tips on buying a violin? Here you go!

  • Don’t get attached to how it looks, but how it sounds
  • Don’t ask a non-violin person to help you decide; seek out your teacher’s advice.
  • Do that blind testing. Have someone hand you the violins one at a time. Play them. Then listen, as that other person (preferably your teacher or a violin peer who’s better than you) plays each one. Now switch, and perform the test on them
  • Don’t get snobby about going to a violin-only shop. I found my winner at a guitar store.
  • Don’t rush a decision. Sleep on it. Wait one more week.
  • Be honest about the violin’s condition. An old one can feel much more exciting to hold but it might not be in the best shape, and might cost you hundreds more in repairs in the long run.
  • After all the above has been said, go with the one that makes your heart race and sounds the best to your ears. And when that’s two different violins? Well, trust your gut instinct.
  • Got a $10 million budget? Have fun! Check out some pickings HERE

2 thoughts on “Buying a violin: 10 things to consider

  1. Amanda V.

    WOW!, what a great story. That leap into the next level of violin acquisition is not to be taken lightly. Hesitation and turmoil are totally warranted when considering a next-level instrument – you want to spend your money wisely, and you want to keep your senses happy at the same time – ugh!! Choices!
    Thanks for sharing
    A.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      And thank YOU for your reply, Amanda! Truly, not an acquisition to be taken lightly. And it’s nice, 10 years later, to still feel good about the choice I made. Best sign of all!

      Reply

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