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Caeli Smith

FACTS ABOUT FRACTIONS: A Conversation about Small Intruments with David Michie

September 7, 2006 at 10:49 AM

Philadelphia-- If you're a parent looking for advice on where to buy a fractional instrument for your child and are within driving distance of Philadelphia, the first words out of the mouths of teachers and other parents is: David Michie.

Over the past 16 years, David Michie, a full service string instrument dealer on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, has created a niche for himself dealing and repairing of fractional violins, violas and cellos. At his shop on Locust Street, he has a seemingly limitless display of adorable, tiny little violins. Some of these violins look like toys, too small to play. But in the hands of a highly-focused three-year-old they make real, albeit squeaky music. In fact, my very first violin, a 1/16th size instrument was purchased from David Michie by my parents in 1995.

When we were little, my parents decided to buy rather than rent instruments for my sisters and me at the advice of our violin teachers, because the rentals my older sisters had been using were of poor quality. And it turned out, for a relatively small investment, there was a huge leap in quality. When I interviewed Mr. Michie in his shop on a recent summer afternoon, he confirmed the wisdom of my first teacher's advice.

DM: The only reason the parent of a young child would want to rent instead of buy would be if there's not a real commitment to the violin, from the parents or the student. They might study for three months, then want to quit. The parents might lose $100 or so, but that's all. Buying from a recognized violin shop gives you an instrument of decent quality that is set up appropriately. String instruments are hard enough to learn in first place. It's a recipe in frustration to try to produce a decent sound on a inferior, poorly set up instrument.

Michie's shop on Locust Street in Philadelphia.

CVS: Some people wait until their kids are ready for a full size before purchasing a violin.

DM: Given the trade-up policies of most reputable dealers, it's really pointless to wait. Why not have the best affordable tool to learn on the entire time you're studying?

CVS: When my parents bought instruments for my sisters and me, they did it because they that would trade up our instruments for larger ones as we outgrew them. Is this a universal policy?

DM: Every shop has its own policy. Many shops take a blank percentage off the purchase price for trade-ups, I don’t charge for case usage, but some shops will. My shop's policy is that you purchase a violin for x amount of dollars. We offer a 100% trade-up, minus whatever it costs to return the violin to the condition it was when it was initially purchased in the store. That can be as little as the cost of a new set of strings and a bow rehair, or as much as cleaning and varnish restoration. Generally, if instruments are abused, the policy is voided. Bottom line: customers should always check what their shop's policy is.

CVS: Here's a recurring question: what's the best way to measure kids for their fractional instruments?

DM: I put the violin up to the player's neck, ask them to look at ceiling, lower their neck, and extend the left hand around the scroll. Their fingers need to comfortably go around the scroll with a relaxed feeling in the arm. I tend to be conservative, and I would always say go for a smaller size, when in doubt, than a larger size.

CVS: Do size of a player's hands would make a difference in choosing an instrument size. For example, if you have short arms but big hands, should the measuring system be any different?

DM: I focus on arm length. When you extend your arm, you're using back muscles, and even if you have a large hand but short arms, you have to extend and work your back muscles harder if the violin is too large. This makes you tired, and bad habits tend to creep in as you compensate for the strain.

CVS: Obviously, if you can visit a violin shop with your child's teacher and try out several instruments, or sign them out on approval and cart them back to your teacher, you have the best chance of finding the perfect violin. But, what if you live in an area where there are no dealers who specialize in fractional instruments?

DM: If you can't travel, mail order is the way to go. Personally I prefer not to ship, but there are many reputable shops that have shipping departments.

CVS: Any suggestions off the top of your head?

DM: Potters Violins in Bethesda, Johnson String Instruments in Boston, Claire Givins in Minnesota, and Reuning & Son in Boston. A violin shop is the best choice, as opposed to a mass-market music store. Of course, with mail order, you do run the risk of shipping damage. And the instrument may have been disturbed during the shipping process and need to be seen locally. Having a direct interaction is always more beneficial for a player, because whatever issue a player might have, their words and what the luthier's idea of what these words mean, are sometimes very different things.

For example, if somebody comes in with a repair saying that they hear a buzz when they play, I much prefer for them to demonstrate to me what are they hearing. Because, without their specific input, I might look for something entirely different than what they thought they were describing to me. The solution to their problem might be as simple as a string change, or getting out a piece of dirt that’s stuck in the f-hole, which can create a huge noise, but without direct, face-to-face communication, it's hard to know."

CVS: Do fractional instruments increase in value, decrease, or retain their value?

DM: If they're well cared for, they'll hold their value. With a fractional instrument, you wont' see the sort of dramatic appreciation you see in full-size violins. But, on the other hand, they're not as expensive as full-size violins, either.

CVS: How much more would a typical player need to spend when they go from a 3/4 to a full-size instrument?

DM: There's a huge price point between a full size and a 3/4. To retain a similar quality, when going to a full-size, you may need to at least double the price, by my estimate. Some dealers will say to more than double it.

CVS: What about insurance for fractional instruments?

DM: Some fractional instruments can be quite expensive! Generally, if the instrument is worth $1000 or more, I recommend that parents get a separate rider for each instrument on their homeowner policies. I advise my customers to look into their insurance policy guidelines to see what would be covered in case of a loss. Sometimes if you list your instrument, there is no deductible.

CVS: What company do you use for your own instrument insurance?

DM: I insure everything through Heritage.

CVS: So do we—when I had an accident with my violin at camp last year, they even covered the shipping charges.

Multi-tasking during the interview: David Michie reshapes the arch on top of cello bridge.

DM: Last week somebody bought a violin from my shop for $2500. The same afternoon it was purchased, the violin was damaged in a freak accident in a regional orchestra rehearsal. There was a crack straight down the back—a devastating injury—and it was not insured. An unsolicited piece of advice: mo matter what size violin you have, I urge everybody I talk to, if it is not under your chin or arms, it should be in the case.

CVS: Let's change the direction of this conversation to an even more controversial topic: fractional violas. They are known to sound horrible, particularly the cings. Do you recommend stringing up small violins with viola strings?

DM: You have to remember, that violas are, in a sense, at war with the laws of physics. And the smaller the instrument, the less tension there is on the C string. Up until a few years ago, stringing up little violins as violas was the only option available. Now, better quality Chinese workshops are making small size violas that don’t sound all that terrible, and for a reasonable price. So it's now possible to buy the equivalent of a 1/4 size and 1/8 size violin that has viola ribs on it.

CVS: While we're at it, could you clarify the sizes of these instruments?

DM: Well, violins are graded in one-inch increments. A full size violin has a 14-inch back, a 3/4 has a 13-inch back, a half size is 12 inches, and so forth. (And by "back" I am not including the length of the fingerboard.) A 1/4 violin translates to a 1/8 viola. Which means that a 1/8 viola would be 11 inches.

CVS: A 1/8 size viola?

DM: I sold a 1/8 size viola to a family last week. And it's playable!

CVS: How did you get interested in dealing and repairing violins?

DM: Well, like so many of us, I had dreams and aspirations to be a pro violinist. I started playing violin when I was eight, growing up in Haddonfield, New Jersey (a suburb of Philadelphia). My older sister played, and when she went to full size, I was given her 3/4. Which you can see right away was a problem—not many 8-year-olds are large enough to play a violin that large. My son is ten now, and he's playing a half size.

CVS: I played a half-size when I was ten.

DM: I enjoyed violin, but I didn't have the discipline or the proper instruction, really to make a career of it. But, I'd always enjoyed working with hands. Growing up, there was an antique brass chandelier in my dining room, and every Thanksgiving I'd dismantle it, polish it, and put it back together again. When I was a senior in high school, I was a client of a violin shop in downtown Philadelphia. The owner's daughter was going to the shore for the summer, and he needed someone to do office chores. Once he realized I could type, I was valuable to him. So I guess you could say that my career as a violin dealer, hinged on a typing class I took in high school!

I was your typical apprentice. At first, I wasn't even an apprentice. I was a gofer, customer-dealer, and office assistant. But it was upon being around instruments that I eventually contracted "violin-making disease". I was in the shop for five years learning things that are not taught in schools.

One of my first great lessons was how to use my eyes. For example, in terms of repairing a crack, making a bridge, even making instrument, if you can conceptualize it – see it in your head – you are so much further along in being where you want to be. This kind of skill only comes from exposure to good instruments. I have a photographic memory, which is a critical asset this business. In fact, most people in my profession have photographic memories.

CVS: Even though you're not a pro, I understand you're an active amateur player.

DM: I've been the concertmaster of the Philharmonic of Southern New Jersey for 13 years. I'm also the former concertmaster of the Haddonfield Symphony, and I've played in the Concerto Soloists (now the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia), the Philly Pops, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. In the past, I've played in music festivals, in Italy, England, Australia … This season I'll be the soloist in two movements of Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole with the South Jersey Philharmonic.

CVS: And you're still studying? Yes, I currently take lessons with will William dePasquale, who's the retired co-concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I just had a lesson this morning, in fact.

CVS: How has your training as a violinist affected your career as a dealer?

DM: I find to be extremely beneficial to be a classically-trained violinist. I don’t play cello and I find it I'm at a disadvantage dealing with cellos.

CVS: But your knowledge of violin-playing carries over to viola?

DM: Pretty much, yes.

CVS: Where do your instruments come from?

DM: I have various sources depending on what's demanded. For inexpensive, entry-level violins, I have a supplier. I also have various dealers that in the trade are called "pickers". Pickers go to markets and estate sales throughout the U.S. and in Europe and bring instruments back, unset-up and in unplayable condition. I can generally determine how an instrument is going to sounds by its looks. I can tell whether the maker is known; I can determine the age, country of origin, and I can negotiate a price. I used to do a lot more traveling to hunt for instruments before my children born, but now I prefer to stay at home, if possible. There is a fantastic online auction company, Tarisio, that I find very helpful. And of course, when an instrument I've ordered is delivered, my assistants and I make it a priority to do the set-ups personally.

CVS: Can you explain what's involved in a set-up?

DM: Fitting the pegs, dressing the fingerboard, cutting bridge and soundpost, and various acoustical adjustments.

CVS: How long does that take?

DM: For a typical student violin, about one-and-a-half to two hours. But for anything rarer, older, more expensive, it could take much longer.

CVS: So how is it that you got to be the biggest source for fractional violins in this area?

DM: Early in my career, I noticed there was that a dearth of small instruments in the region, so I was able to create a niche. People are willing to drive far to come here for a wide selection. And, as you know, little musicians grow up to be big musicians, and I not only do I retain my customers, after 16 years in the business I'm starting to see the next generation of players. Some of my former customers are teachers now, and they're sending me their own students.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 8, 2006 at 8:51 AM
Thanks, CVS, for that very interesting post. I have personal experience with Potter's in Bethesda, which was mentioned in the interview. Potter's has good quality fractional instruments, at prices similar to those you mentioned. People can rent with an option to buy, and 100% of the price paid can be credited for the next larger size violin when the student is ready for it. The people at Potter's know violins. I go there with new students and their parents and help with the fitting. I have a lot of fun doing it. It is definitely worthwhile to get a good quality violin for a beginning student.
From bill Pratt
Posted on September 8, 2006 at 5:19 PM
Great Article!
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 10, 2006 at 5:11 AM
Thanks again, Caeli. I've sent a link to your article to the parents of all my kid students.

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