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Terez Mertes

Decision Time

August 19, 2006 at 4:05 PM

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 student violin’s place.

I’ve sampled roughly 40 violins in the past 4 ½ 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 five 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, a Strad copy. 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. Hey.

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.

Forty-five 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.

The test during my class the following day—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 extra for a 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.”

Decision time. Meaning pre-purchase jitters. It has to be the Romanian, of course. Too much points that way. But I’ll have to let go of something in my heart. An illusion, perhaps nothing more. But oh, such a sweet illusion. Such bittersweetness to choose.

Would welcome anyone else’s story of violins acquired and difficult decisions made.

From Theresa Martin
Posted on August 19, 2006 at 6:55 PM
Oh man...that's quite a story. If all three truly spoke to me, I would definitely go with the Romanian, but it would really have to sound as good. Do all three PLAY as well as well as sound as good?

I haven't bought a new violin yet (my borrowed instrument is still better than me, and I still very much love its sweet--though not very powerful--sound, which, incidentally has improved a lot since it was re-set up so the string length behind the bridge was the proper length), but I have played on some very fine instruments that are really amazing. Way way way out of my price range, but I really can see the difference.

I did go bow shopping earlier this summer, and tried out probably several hundred bows, both in and out of my price range. In my case the dilemna came because in my price range, the carbon fiber bows really sounded better than the wood ones (and we did many blind tests), but I really didn't want a carbon fiber bow. But I kept looking, and eventually found a bow that I was really happy with. At one point, I had five different bows at home, and it was very interesting doing the blind tests--for handleability and all kinds of sound tests, and there were very clear differences. We had three players, and tried them on three different violins, and it was interesting in that the very fine bow that belongs to my friend clearly sounded the best on his violin (regardless of who was playing), but didn't sound the best at all on my violin, and my crappola bow (which our local luthier kept trying to claim was actually a fairly decent bow) sounded clearly the crappiest on all three violins, played by all three players, and the ones under consideration came in differently depending on the instrument and player. But I'm very happy with my purchase.

Good luck with your decision--what an exciting time!

And think--if you end up with the new instrument--its stories will start with you!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 19, 2006 at 7:18 PM
>And think--if you end up with the new instrument--its stories will start with you!

That was an argument someone at one of the shops was making for the new ones. It's 100% yours, in that sense.

Your bow story is dizzying - I can't imagine trying out so many w/o getting caught up in the need to buy one. I always seem to react strongly to an instrument (or bow) I try - either push it away or buy it. (Come to think of it, that was how I approached dating as well!) Wish I had a more patient nature here, to hold out for That Really Perfect One, but I suppose I at least achieved my goal of shopping at five different places. And in the end, That Really Perfect One is the one you buy after sleeping on it (not the violin, mind you),whether or not it matched your preconceived expectations.

Thanks for the shared story, Theresa!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 19, 2006 at 7:24 PM
Oh, and to answer your question, Theresa, I would have said that the Czech one played the best in terms of feeling comfortable like an old pair of sneakers. But I think part of that is because it's set up like my own violin (strings closer to the fingerboard). It's not as loud to my ears, which feels comfortable, but also translates as an instrument that doesn't project as well as the others (a biased opinion here, based on what another violinist said when he played it).

The Romanian feels like one I will grow into, which is not a bad choice to make when you're an adult beginner who doesn't want to stay a mild-sounding beginner forever.

I think you can tell which way I'm leaning here. : )

From Maura Gerety
Posted on August 19, 2006 at 10:53 PM
Hmm. What you just said about the Czech feeling more comfortable to play but seeming quieter than the Romanian struck a nerve. Several years ago I was looking to upgrade from my old 1900 German Strad copy to something more high-end. I fell in love with this ancient (1776!) Klotz from Mittenwald--like your Czech, it must have been full of stories, and it had such a nice sweet sound that was soooo easy to get out of it. At the same time, my luthier got in a brand-new American violin, straight from the maker. Well, I hated that one. It was ornery, hard to play, stubborn, it hated me, whatever, I wanted that Klotz that I could effortlessly draw that sweet, singing sound from.
And then I took them into a concert hall. Oooh boy. The Klotz turned out to be a sweet, soft-spoken shy mouse of a violin best suited to Mozart sonatas in a small room. There was no power, no projection, the sound just died off past about the tenth row of the hall.
I bought the American and have never regretted it. Once I got it set up right and played on it for long enough, it settled into a rich, powerful, distinctive tone that keeps getting better and better. :)
From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 19, 2006 at 11:59 PM
Oh, Maura, I'm laughing at your story. I was so afraid you were going to tell me to go with the soft 'n easy one and I felt something in me clutch. Instead you finished with what, deep down, I sense to be the case with these two violins as well. Not as if I'm going to have to worry about filling a concert hall, but I just sense that the power I hear right now that sounds a little daunting (from the new one) will probably be more along the lines of what I'll be craving 5 yrs down the road. I'm practicing on the Romanian right now (with a quick stop to yell at my son and check this site for replies) and it's feeling better than it was yesterday. And it's so pretty, it made my heart flutter just now. Cool.

Off I go again - but thanks for your story!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on August 20, 2006 at 1:22 AM
You can't tell what you'll crave five years from now. Go with what you love and where your heart leads you now.

There are differences between big sound, loud sound, sound that fills a concert hall, dominating sound, insistent sound, etc. Even an intimate sound can carry well. Obviously, the words I use don't really describe the sound. If you don't think you'll be playing in a concert hall, consider other aspects of "big" and "small" sound. Does the sound carry well? How good is the sustain? (Sustain is very important to me.) Does the violin hold its own character when playing with others. It doesn't have to insist on being the boss, but it shouldn't sound pale when it's played with another instrument. I assume you will play it sometimes with other people. Some people use a feedback mike when testing a new violin to see how the sound blends when it leaves the fiddle and travels through the air.

Could the muffled sound of the G string be affected by the bridge, soundpost, or something else that can be modified? What about the kind of strings? The bow?

How responsive is it? Does it sing along (vibrate in sympathy) when it's next to another instrument singing? Does it have internal resonances within itself? These things would make it more sweet and warm.

If the new violin sounds very good now, it will probably sound even better after you've played it for a few months or years. It will develop a history based on its relationship to you.

These issues are very, very personal. You may even be able to tell something about my personality by the issues I consider important.

Remember that Laurie said that it took her months of thinking and consulting to make up her mind about what she knew she wanted from the start. Go with your heart, and you can't go wrong.

I hope thast you and your new beau have many happy years together.

From Alison Smith
Posted on August 20, 2006 at 10:47 AM
Hi Terez, Can sort of understand your dilema. Last summer having sold my house, and feeling cash rich but asset poor, I decided that it was a good time to buy a new violin.
Didn't try as many as you, but at one point there were five instruments in my flat. The one I really loved was dark and sonorous, over a century old and made in Dresden. Now, we (the British) blanket bombed Dresden in the second world war, and this gave me some negative and positive feelings about this violin (both guilt and atonement), but besides that it had one wolf note. Otherwise it really suited me, and was easy for me to play (non-violin players don't understand this statement, but you will).

I was in even more despair when one summer evening having played them all again, I decided that they all sounded terrible and could go back to the shops. The morning after the storm, playing in the clear air led me to the violin which had originally been my second choice, on the basis that it sounded good playing the kind of music I enjoy playing.

Having made a decision took a great weight off my mind, and anyone asked for an opinion agreed with my choice, although before that there had been no consistency in feedback.
My decision was made, and I never looked back, which makes me feel I made the right choice. But things had to reach a crisis point before I could understand which violin was for me.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 20, 2006 at 3:52 PM
Pauline and Alison, thank you so much for your comments. Pauline, your questions were wise and wonderful, and Alison, I can almost feel the turmoil of your story. The Dresden/German thing - it certainly does come up in my mind, as well, what with the drama of 20th century Europe. It makes the 1930 German one all the more intriguing.

But that's my imagination and writer's mind running off again. In the end it's all about sound and how I feel when playing the instrument. Which is still not 100% certain. Or is it? Oh man, pre-purchase jitters.

Wish I had years more experience on the violin so that my ears and fingers could be better informed. My hub takes that as all the more reason to buy the $850.00 one, and save the $2200 purchase for ten years down the road. He has a point.

From Maura Gerety
Posted on August 20, 2006 at 6:15 PM
Ooh, as much as I adore my modern violin, I DO wish it came from somewhere/sometime cool, like Budapest 1848 or something. I saw a violin once that had been made in the Warsaw Ghetto, it had a little star of David inlaid in the back, at the base of the neck, and it was all beat-up. Unfortunately I never got to hear what it sounded like.
From Alison Smith
Posted on August 20, 2006 at 8:06 PM
I understand what you are all saying about wanting a violin with a history, but beware anyone telling you an old vioin is an antique and therefore an investment. My last violin cost £500 about 10 years ago, and last year was valued at £300. Hmmm. At least there was the consolation that I had really enjoyed playing it.

If you get a new one, your violin's history is your history. Like my old East German violin, which played at my niece's christening ten years ago, and went on holiday to Turkey last year.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on August 20, 2006 at 9:29 PM
I bought an old violin in 1990 for $2000, and in 1996 it was valued at $1800. Now it's worth about $2000 again, due to inflation. So you never know what kind of investment you're looking at. That price range doesn't usually give you a huge amount of investment potential.

I'd just make sure that whatever you choose is of sound quality so that you don't have to sink money into it later to get it fixed.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 21, 2006 at 1:13 AM
>I saw a violin once that had been made in the Warsaw Ghetto, it had a little star of David inlaid in the back, at the base of the neck, and it was all beat-up.

Oh, Maura, wow! It gives me chills to think about it. (Part of this is due to the fact that my next novel is going to have a WW II Jewish persecution thread running through it - so compelling to me right now!) And very interesting, Alison and Emily, about the price/investment angle. You just never know what one is going to be worth, ten years down the road, do you? Thanks, all, for the great comments and shared stories

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on August 21, 2006 at 6:04 AM
I like Emily's suggestion to make sure that the violin is in good shape before you buy it. An ounce of prevention...
From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 22, 2006 at 4:59 PM
Decision made! I'm in love.

Thanks everyone for all your comments - they really helped.

(PS - It's the Romanian, with a slightly adjusted set-up.)

From Theresa Martin
Posted on August 22, 2006 at 9:26 PM
Oh--thank you for telling us your decision. I was going to say to BE SURE TO TELL US what you decided. Congratulations! Now be sure to keep us all updated on how it goes.

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