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Andrew Lukonis

Can't buy me love?

April 8, 2013 at 5:34 PM

Have you ever been to a violin shop and instantly spied that curvacious beauty from across the store, standing out from among all of the other models? Like a enchanted rendezvous from a scene out of Shakespeare, you slowly make your way to where this lovely charmer is beckoning you. Just inches away now, you get a better look at the smoothness of the neck, that perfect body, and oh those silvery strings! (Yes, we still talking about violins, remember?) Timidly, you reach out and rest this vision of perfection under your chin, bowing your first note. Your heart skips a beat and you are instantly in love! Then with a newly acquired confidence, you look at the price tag and your heart skips a beat again - from shock! This costs HOW much??

Dejected, you feebly place the violin back where you got it, knowing that this love that could have been is out of your league - and greatly out of your price range! With a sigh, you turn away and move on, with a feeling that you will have to settle for an instrument that's better in tune with your bank account.

Does this sound familiar? Well, unfortunately this is an all too common scenario that many folks may experience when out shopping for a violin, and it can really have a negative impact on a budding musician. But this does not have to be the end of the story! There are many other violins out there that are equally beautiful and wonderful to play while still remaining within a modest budget.

If you have been following along with these series of posts from the beginning, you should now be able to find and identify a good violin fairly accurately. But how much should you pay for one? Well, this is a loaded question, isn't it? To be honest, this is one of those questions that does not have a direct answer because there are so many different facets to take into consideration. On the one side, you have to determine the true monetary value of the instrument. On another side, you will need to see through the perceived value of the instrument. And yet still on another side, you are going to have to weigh these values against your personal finances and what comfortably fits your budget. As you can imagine, we have quite a task ahead of us. And while this post may end up being a little longer than usual, I believe it to be a most important one. Let's face it, even though shopping around for a violin may be fun and exciting, the majority of people are truthfully just concerned with the bottom line, as they should be. So let's just jump right into unraveling this seemingly complicated tangle of why violins are priced the way they are.

First, we are going to take a look at the true monetary value of an instrument. As mentioned in a previous post, violin making is a form of art. It is a craft, a creation, a technique. And like any crafting profession, there are masters of the trade. They can have many years of accumulated experience or they can be prodigies, gifted with a natural talent. Their attention to detail is astounding and their expertise is unmatched. They carefully choose the tonewoods which allow each violin to achieve a perfect resonant frequency. Every cut and movement of the carving blade is made with exacting precision. The shape and curvature is specifically measured to achieve a particular desired sound. Each joint is pieced and glued together flawlessly. The varnish is evenly and smoothly applied without a noticeable blemish and each fitting is meticulously adjusted and perfected. And oh, the pure resonant sound they produce when the final work is complete!

These master luthiers almost seem to have some supernatural ability to bring inanimate pieces of wood to life, giving them personalities and melodious voices of their own. These are the new violins you will find being sold for many thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. And rightfully so! Just like any masterfully created work of art, you are paying for the renowned expertise of the artist, the name on the label inside of the instrument, and their time in creating such a treasure.

The upper price tier is also reserved for older instruments of equal quality but more importantly, their survivability. Because a violin is made of wood, it is still subject to the natural decay of the elements, as well as the use & abuse of its owners. Just like a well-made and maintained structure will stand for an innumerable number of years, so will a violin, given equal attention. And just like a heirloom piece of furniture, a violin can achieve the status of an antique, thus raising its price. These violins also tend to have increased tonal qualities as the wood & varnish age to perfection like a fine wine.

Is it any wonder why these instruments are priced and prized so highly? For these violins, I believe the maker or owner deserves the right to price them as they wish. But the only problem is that when out shopping, we as customers tend to have this unjustified reasoning that ALL violins with a higher price tag are like the ones mentioned above and we really don't think to question their true value. This is just an estimate, but I would venture to say that the type of violins described above represent 5% or less of the total that are out there for sale, and they are mainly targeted towards professional musicians who demand such exactness for their profession or otherwise wealthy collectors.

But what about the other 95% of violins and their prospective players? I think this is where you will find the widest range of prices based on the differing levels of craftsmanship mentioned above. So what's a decent price for a "good" instrument? $600? $1200? $8000? While certainly I mean no disrespect to the many fine violin makers out there, I believe the answer to this question lies more in the next area of focus - the perceived value of a violin.

So what exactly do I mean by the perceived value? Simply put, this is what we think a violin should cost, based on our own biases, preconceptions, experiences, or cultural influences. I provided a great example of this in my previous post when I mentioned violins made in China. Made in China - what thoughts or feelings do these words instantly bring to your mind? Well, it depends on what part of the world you were raised in or where you currently live, doesn't it? Generally speaking, those living in Western society may hear these words and think of cheaply made mass-market junk while those living in Eastern countries may think of cost effective daily essentials. Another example, one person may consider $5000 to be a relatively cheap expense to toss away on a violin for their child who may not even like playing it, while someone else with an inborn natural talent and love for music scratching a menial living may see $5000 as the investment of a lifetime.

Another cultural bias is the value we place on our time. How much do you get paid per hour? How much is my time worth? TGIF!! Shoot, I hope the kids' soccer game will be over in time so I can make my hair appointment! These are all things you may hear in a Western society, where again, generally speaking, a very high value is placed on time. While many Eastern societies tend to place more value on things like community, family, or excellence. I certainly do not intend to stereotype or fit people into a certain way of thinking, but the fact remains that the price or value we place on things is largely dependent on our own perceptions.

So how does this pertain to the price of violins? For one, where the violin is made or sold can certainly affect the price. I have been personally told by a Chinese luthier and businessman that even though they may be master craftsmen, their violins will be cheaper because the price is not determined by how much time it takes to make it, rather the quality of the finished instrument. In contrast, luthiers in Western countries will oftentimes count how many hours it takes to make an instrument and determine a cost-per-hour price tag for the finished product. This is neither a good nor bad thing, it's just a difference in cultural economics. And quite frankly, it takes much less U.S. dollars to live comfortably in China than it does in the U.S.

This same principle also goes for selling violins. Most violins will be cheaper to buy from Chinese luthiers than from American or European ones. So buying wonderfully made violins made in China and selling them in America for a profit makes good business sense, which is what a majority of violin shops do. And regardless of whether you see a recognizable or top manufacturer's name on the inside label, many of those suppliers have also moved some of their workshops to China for the same reasons mentioned above. Quite simply, they can get the same top quality violins made there for a fraction of the cost. But because they know your cultural biases, they will still charge you the same price as other violins to increase their profit margins. Also, since many master Chinese luthiers do not place much value on their time, they often will not even place a maker's label on the inside of the violin, which allows for the more unscrupulous sellers to place their own label in it! So guess what, that brand new $6000 violin in the store that sounds soooo much better than that other new $600 one you may have tried from somewhere else may in fact be made by the same person, at the same time, in the same shop, and may actually even sound very much alike.

This leads us right into the other main perceived value - how much you think a violin is worth and your perceptions about money. When looking at violins, do you think that a higher priced one is automatically better than a lower priced one? Do you care where it was made or who made it or just that it is made well, plays easily, and sounds good? Do you believe that if you do not purchase a violin from an established violin shop that it can't possibly compare to one that was? These, my friend, are all questions you must answer yourself, as they are all based on your own preconceptions. But I will help you out by telling you that they are all based on false premises. I personally have purchased violins for a few hundred dollars that I (and everyone who plays it!) love! I have also played violins for many thousands of dollars that I wouldn't even consider giving to a 5-year-old beginner. Ok, maybe that's a bit harsh, but you get the idea. ;)

The point I am really trying to make in this long-winded section is that the price assigned to any one violin and the price you are willing to pay for it will largely be determined by the perceived value of both the seller and the buyer. Sometimes it will be accurate and sometimes it will not. But the purpose of all the posts previous to this one is to help you see through the veil of these preconceptions in order to determine its true value and thus, whether you feel the price of the instrument is justifiable in your own mind.

Which brings us to the final, and I must say, the simplest of the three determinations of how much you should pay for a violin. Quite frankly, how much do you have to spend on one? This is really the most important question and probably should have been asked near the beginning. However, I first wanted to shake your mind free of any paradigms that may have held you back in the decision-making process. I especially wanted to point out that even though you may believe that you don't have a lot of money to invest in a new or used violin, this alone will not prevent you from acquiring a really good one! This was the position I was in when I first started looking for my own violin, which is the primary reason I began investigating and researching the subject instead of settling for the only ones that seemed available to me at the time.

My advice to you is to look at your own personal finances and choose a set price that you would like to spend on a violin. It can really be any price you wish. Then go searching, equipped with the knowledge you acquired from this blog and other helpful sources. I can almost guarantee that you will be able to find what you are looking for because I myself have done it...multiple times! And while I tend to focus mostly on those who may be limited on funds (with the global economy being as it is), I certainly do not want to dismiss those who may have a great deal of expendable income. Just as someone with little financial means shouldn't feel limited in their purchasing options, neither should you feel ashamed or held back from buying a higher priced violin! I purposely did not put a lot of weight on that end of the price spectrum because in my experience, there is certainly no shortage of great violins in the $1000's price range and you should be able to find one that suits your needs pretty readily.

I hope this post helps you in determining what you should pay for a violin. It really is one of those topics that can be highly subjective. But only you know what is best for your own wallet. The good news is that you can find a good violin that you will love to play no matter what your budget is! Can't buy me love? Oh, yes you can!!

Visit lukonisviolins.com for the official website of Lukonis Violins to view more of my blog posts.

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