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Rhiannon Schmitt

Cheap Violins, Sadly, an Easy Sell for Some

April 5, 2008 at 4:20 AM

An "interesting" email came in to my violin shop's email today. Person writes, "you really need to look into some cheaper violins for the people who can't spend a whole lot. I'm going to ebay they are waaaay cheaper!"

Wow, this was certainly a first for me. I was shocked by what I took to be an accusation and even more surprised this person took the time to share it with me.

Sadly, I have seen for myself these $20 Ebay deals and have had students skunked by these violins. Usually the shipping (and duty into Canada) is killer and by the time they replace bad parts and get luthier work done they would have been better off with something for more money that sounded better.

Yet it's hard to share that with a player who sees more importance on "cheap" than on quality, and especially considering they will think I'm just biased. Hence I wrote this reply with hopes to explain why I don't sell cheap violins while also letting this person know he or she is most welcome to shop elsewhere:

"Thank you for your feedback.

"I provide the service of providing high quality instruments which meet my high standards as a player. I have made a very conscious effort not to sell lower quality, thus also lower priced, instruments since they can be found easily in so many other places. My business, being more a specialty boutique, also offers exceptional service and support and has many pleased customers who find great value in the service they receive.

"I understand your request but I will not be carrying cheaper violins as I cannot, as a professional teacher, recommend them as suitable or qualified instruments to new players who trust my opinion.

"However, individuals who wish to spend less on a lower priced instrument are most welcome to shop elsewhere as there are many options online. I hope you do locate something to suit your budget and wish you all the best in your music."

Have any other players/teachers experienced the cheap violins as seen on Ebay or Target? Have you had a difficult time explaining to your students or other players why a good violin costs more and why a deal that is "too good to be true" most certainly is?

Finally, should I have just ignored the email? I felt pressured to write something defending my decision not to sell cheap violins, but maybe it's just that I am 8 months pregnant and feeling particularly vulnerable to criticism...

Will be out of the loop article-wise for a while, but wanted to share this among players who hopefully understand my mixed feelings with this email tonight.
-rhi

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 5, 2008 at 10:01 AM
I've had exactly the same experience and exactly the same reaction you have. It's not because you're in your eighth month. I've also had similar experiences with people who say, "I bought a great violin really inexpensive on the Internet. I did a lot of research before buying it, so I know it's good." I've also heard
"This is not one of those cheap violins made in China." I used to say, "I'm sorry you bought that before talking to me," but that only makes them defend their choice more strongly. If they've already bought the violin, I tell them "After a few months, when you learn how to get the best sound out of this violin, you'll probably want to upgrade. You can do that at several luthiers near here, and I recommend...You rent with the option to pay. You get a fine violin by paying $25 per month." It's been said that the most important violin you'll ever own is the first one. If it produces a bad sound, you'll be discouraged from playing it. Worse still, you'll think it's your fault and decide you can't play well. The incident that upset me the most involved a kid who had been playing for three years, had talent and motivation, and was playing some pretty hard stuff . His father absolutely would not consider buying from any place but ebay, and he wouldn't even do that unless I could guarantee him that a $75 violin from ebay would sound better than a $50 violin from ebay.

I'll miss you when you go on maternity leave. Be sure to send us photos of your baby. I look forward to hearing from you again as a mother, wondering how you'll find the time to practice every day.

From Bob Reese
Posted on April 5, 2008 at 11:54 AM
For people who are interested in learning violin, I think there are probably standard types of reservations for people. On one hand, in many cases they are not really sure if they will like the instrument well enough to weather the storm of learning to play. Because of this uncerrtainty, they don't want to make any significant individual investment. On the other hand, because they don't make the investment in a good beginning instrument, they consequently purchase one that is simply terrible in quality and tone. Very discouraging indeed. The best alternative for these individuals, if possible, would be to rent an instrument from a music store.
Along with those who decide to purchase a "cheap" violin, equally disturbing are those who purchase a good quality instrument and never play it. It is very disheartening to think of the number of good quality instruments that are unplayed, sitting in attics and closets. Voices waiting to speak and sing, but silenced through uncaring and neglect. How terribly sad.
From Michael Czeiszperger
Posted on April 5, 2008 at 2:41 PM
I buy and sell guitars on eBay, and the reason its possible to do this and not get burned is high consistency manufacturing, and I know what problem areas to look for. Yamaha's "XXX model" sounds remarkably consistent from guitar to guitar, so its going to sound like it should unless its damaged.

The reason why violins haven't taken off on eBay is there aren't as many standard models, and reputably the consistency hasn't been there in the models that are popular. Even so, there are surprisingly few quality violins in any price range for sale on Ebay.

I recently purchased a 1/4 Scott Cao 017A '99 for my daughter to use on Book #1 Suzuki. It looks like a violin dealer was using one of those store-front eBay sellers to dump a lot of sub-par merchandise without having his/her name attached. The eBay seller neglected to mention a visible crack in the varnish, the warped bridge, or the numerous dings all over it. It looks like its been rented heavily since '99 by six year olds who dropped it all the time.

Unfortunately the seller was unrepentant about not mentioning the instrument's defects, using the justification that I should be happy because it was so cheap.

The good news is a luthier looked it over and found no structural problems, and even after paying for the luthier inspection and a new bridge I've still only got $180 in it including shipping.

From my point of view it sounds better than the violin I was renting for her, and its cheaper to boot. The rental was $100 plus $21 a month, which quickly will go over what I've got in this, plus it should fetch in the ballpark of what I paid give than new outfits go for ~$350.

The key thing is, I was prepared to risk the money on an instrument for the potential reward of getting a decent factory-made instrument for less than new. It could have been a total bust.

Now, I'm in the process of purchasing my own violin, and visited a local store to try out a bunch of models, and certainly won't be buying a high quality violin on eBay. Strangely enough, I got the money to purchase a violin by selling my Chapman Stick, which has appreciated in value over the years, and people by and sell them all of the time on eBay.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 5, 2008 at 8:55 PM
My public school kids have the cheap violins, so I have to tune them every week. They are indeed awful, and I think the kids are less likely to take to violin playing because of them. Not sure how to solve that problem for my program, as we have 16 decent school violins and always about 60 kids sign up for the class. Most of them can't afford to rent or buy a nice violin. What to do?
From Emily Grossman
Posted on April 5, 2008 at 10:02 PM
Laurie, I'm never more worried about being injured than when I'm tuning cheap instruments. The amount of torque you have to use to get them to move or stay put can be incredible! How do you manage when you have to tune so many in a day?
From Michael Dowling
Posted on April 5, 2008 at 10:50 PM
The amount of time it takes to make a quality violin dictates that it has to sell for much more than $30.00. If you sell cheap garbage that's what your shop will be known for. I can't blame a dealer or shop owner for not selling cheap garbage and going with higher end or quality.

If someone can't afford an expensive violin they can always rent and have their rental fee go towards the purchase of a quality instrument.

From Bonny Buckley
Posted on April 6, 2008 at 1:41 AM
I have had the same problems with kids and instruments before. I started to have this problem here in Shanghai but decided I would do my own searching as ebay is not really an option for our students anyway, thank heavens. I was fortunate to find a violin maker's store that has 5 grades of student instruments after looking at several shops. (The most laughable shop - Best Friend Music and don't ever go there - refused to let me play any instrument they had because their logic was then the violin would not be new and how could they then sell it?!!!) The difference in the grade is apparent in the sound, which has increasingly aged woods per grade. This way I was able to explain to students and parents the difference in prices, ranging from about $120 for the grade 1 which I did not recommend, up to about $400 for violins with 20 year aged woods. The quality is good for these instruments and I feel fortunate the kids can afford them. I was even thinking about getting one for myself for teaching. I am afraid every day bringing my own professional instrument to a school where you just don't know what is going to happen from day to day. And it is so worth it to buy from a luthier who knows what he/she is doing as the service and follow up is just as important as the initial purchase.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 6, 2008 at 2:54 AM
There is one seller of violins on ebay whom I trust, wsh519. One of my students had bought some good beginner violins from him at reasonable prices, and he let me play them. I bid, set a low dollar limit for myself, and kept doing that until I got what I wanted.
From Peter Kent
Posted on April 6, 2008 at 1:05 PM
While all said is valid, the problem continues into stratospheric price ranges. To explain the esoteria between a $3.5 million and a $125,000 violin might also take a bit of sweet talking of less valid credibility. And: Are there violins in the say, $400,000 range, or is there a void before the jump to Stradivari and Del Gesu ? Fascinating topic...and the First Act brand of band instruments sold at the big box stores also is a problem for teachers and repair persons, as they are generally unplayable.
From Maria L
Posted on April 6, 2008 at 5:21 PM
I guess this is about the very cheap eBay violins, but there are also better violins for sale on eBay apparently. An acquaintance of mine bought a Hondge (or Hongde?) violin from a seller that sells them under two different (seller's) names. They sell anywhere from about $350 to about $800, and they sound as good or better than some $2000 violins she had tried!
From Anne Horvath
Posted on April 6, 2008 at 6:11 PM
Yoo Hoo, Emily, I have found that "Peg Drops" work well for ill-fitting pegs on student violins. I put a drop on each end of the outside, where the peg fits in the peg box, and then tissue off the extra moisture. Not a perfect solution, but it helps. I get my Peg Drops at the large mail order company in Michigan, but they are easily available elsewhere.
From Rhiannon Schmitt
Posted on April 8, 2008 at 8:51 PM
Wow! Thanks everyone for the comments and support. I guess it's not just the sensitive pregnant ladies who find this upsetting! Thanks again for the feedback and I will certainly post my baby pics when the little one comes along! rhi

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