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'Dear Santa, Don't Give Me a VSO; I Want a Real Violin for Christmas!'

Laurie Niles

Written by
Published: December 19, 2013 at 6:12 PM [UTC]

Dear Santa,

I'm here to reason with you on the topic of gift violins. I know that you mean well and aim only to fulfill the wishes of good girls and boys, while operating on a shoe-string budget during difficult economic times.

Christmas gift violin

The problem is, when it comes to the price of a violin, some things are too good to be true. For example, the $199-and-under violin.

Here is the alarming news: This kind of violin is not really a violin, it is a "VSO," or "Violin-Shaped Object."

I've described it in great detail in this article, but I thought it might bear repeating during the crazed week before Christmas, when people sometimes make impulsive purchasing decisions.

A real violin is an object made with care. It has the potential to lead its owner on a journey of discovery full of hard work, increasingly beautiful sounds, epiphanies of all kinds, and ultimately, a glimpse at the sublime in harmony and art. It costs some money, usually at least $450. Or perhaps you can find one from a relative or in an attic.

But please beware of the shiny-new, super-cheap models peddled by Internet elves.

Here's why: A VSO is a cynically-made copy, a race-to-the-bottom in which every expense has been spared. The VSO is made with bad wood, bad pegs, a bad bridge, bad strings, bad paint, bad varnish, bad sound. You won't "get lucky" and accidentally get a good one. The VSO impedes discovery and takes its owner on a journey of frustration and increasing expense: futile attempts to produce a pleasing sound from the instrument, inability to tune the violin ever, replacing all strings only to find it doesn't help all that much. Its inability to ever stay in balance keeps its owner from being able to get beyond the basic level of fighting the instrument. This is especially sad when the owner is a bright-eyed seven-year-old with great initial enthusiasm for learning to play.

The $199 fiddle is a false economy. You pay for what you save, and that payment can be downright heart-breaking when it leads to a student quitting in frustration, or an adult wondering for years why he or she can't make progress.

An investment in a quality instrument helps pave the way for a special life experience, served by an instrument that was made with great care to do its job.

Thanks for listening, and may your holiday be filled with joy and music.

Love,
Laurie


From Rashmi Thomas
Posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:28 PM
Hi Laurie

I think this is a brilliant article. I received my first VSO when I was 13 and had just started violin. I had been a pianist for about 7 years by then and of course I thought I was rather musical. That instrument was an absolute monster. I sounded horrific. Tuning was impossible, the instrument was strangely heavy, the pegs were not properly fitted etc. It was extremely discouraging and perhaps the reason I did not put as much effort into my playing and practicing as I could have. Two weeks ago, I purchased a beautiful 19th century 7/8 size violin and its like I'm discovering playing all over again. I play all the time, I WANT to play. The sound is incredible, truly feels like it was made for me. It's just sad to think of all the time wasted because of a crappy instrument. I wonder where I'd be now if I'd had my proper instrument from the very beginning. Still, I'm looking forward to going as far as I can now that I have the right intrument.

Merry Christmas
Xx

From 76.28.184.43
Posted on December 19, 2013 at 6:33 PM
The same is true for art supplies. Poor quality supplies lead to frustration. Giving someone the gift of inspiration is priceless. Do it like you mean it and buy good quality.
From Rizky Ramadhan
Posted on December 19, 2013 at 7:04 PM
Hello Laurie

I'm personally not celebrating Christmas actually but this post is making me smiling :)
A couple of days ago I got new violin and my family and friends told me "It's your Christmas gift!"
It's not multimillion dollars instrument but not VSO at all! :D
My very first violin that I got nearly 10 years ago was a $70 violin and I know it's not definitely a VSO (a high self-confident, isn't it..haha)..it sounded good until now but I admit that some of its parts are not quite intact anymore..yes, not excellent materials of course, but at least the "luthiers" knew what they did back then.. Years ago, as long as I remember, cheap violins (in this case, Chinese-made violins, of course) does not always mean VSO, although they're not brilliant instrument, some of them were at least very good beginning instruments. But disappointingly nowadays I always find violins, violas and cellos in market with absolutely the same label/brand/model/serial-numbers are TOTALLY different with the products sold back then.
Almost all of our violin students since past 2-4 years always come with VSO. My thought until now is just: "Kill those VSOs before they lay more eggs!" LOL

Happy Holidays & Merry Christmas all :)

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 19, 2013 at 7:09 PM
Rashmi, I'm so happy your story had a happy ending, congratulations! And same to you, Rizky!
From Zlata Brouwer
Posted on December 19, 2013 at 7:17 PM
Hi Laurie,

I appreciate you are standing on your soap box like this!

In my shop I see so many people that are so frustrated and disappointed when they first bought something ‘cheap’ online and I need to tell them that there is nothing to do about it than buying or renting a decent violin (and then gain their trust that the simple student violin of € 499 is not expensive for a decent violin).

I wish you a merry Christmas!

All the best,

Zlata

PS: Here’s me on my soap box

PPS: I really like the expression ‘standing or your soap box' in English, we don’t have something similar in Dutch, can’t stop using it.

From enion pelta
Posted on December 19, 2013 at 8:47 PM
It's important when shopping for a fractional size violin, to remember that many shops allow you to trade-up. So you could conceptually get each new violin for the cost of a set of strings until you reach full size. I am seriously considering spending $800 on an 8th size violin for my song, who is by no means exceptional, because I know it will make a difference in his enjoyment of playing violin, and because I know when he outgrows it, I can trade up and not feel as if I've lost money.
From Paula Luther
Posted on December 19, 2013 at 9:21 PM
I respectfully disagree here--not all violins under $450 are garbage. My first violin was under $100, but it was far from unplayable. It actually had a nice clear sound and stayed in tune well. For a beginner's instrument and a basic introduction to the violin, it was solid, and I'm glad I was able to find it.

That was my experience, anyway. I realize, of course, that it may simply have been extremely good luck on my part.

From John Pierce
Posted on December 20, 2013 at 3:08 PM
Laurie,

He's a side argument...

We hear about somebody buying a $5, $10, or $20 violin out the Sears catalog in the late 1800's, and marvel at how cheap that instruments must have been. There were indeed dreadful fiddles made at that time, but there were some that survive today as pretty decent instruments. The better 1880s workshop violins would today might go for $1000 - $2000 or more, if made today.

But then, stop and think: what would $20 buy back then? That would be enough to live on for quite a while. I don't have the exact figures, but somebody could probably live for a month or so on $20. Somehow, people dug up the scratch for those fiddles.

If you look at the ratio of price to cost-of-living, Today's under-$1000 instruments look like a comparative bargain.

From N.A. Mohr
Posted on December 21, 2013 at 1:46 PM
I also started my violin life with a VSO and I agree with Laurie. A poor instrument will hold you back and you won't know enough to know it's the instrument and not you.

For some reason I'm currently exploring my fascination with 'cheap VSO' vs. cheap 'better violins'. (I'm one of many...lol...)

It's quite difficult for rank beginners especially, to know where to even start. Price point is a good start...BUT it is only one factor because you can certainly be overcharged for a VSO and not know it.

I just bought an inexpensive violin for under $200 that I really like. It plays better than a 'recommended' package I paid $1200 for. The workmanship on the $1200 instrument is obviously better...but it doesn't sound better. It doesn't play more easily.

So...you have to be careful. And I suggest you have to not be stuck on a 'one and only' forever violin in these introductory models.

I'd also like to add that the 'cheap' German cottage violins of the late 1800s - early 1900s are taking on a bit of a mystique of their own that may or may not be warranted. While you can argue that age might improve a violin...it doesn't guarantee that it will improve a violin.

I'm projecting that in 100 years we'll be sorting out all the 'cheap' Chinese violins that are currently getting a hard knock and finding the gems amongst them or ascribing to them magical violin properties that they just don't have...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 6:07 PM
Under $199 was the mark I gave above. A violin might be priced lower than that, particularly if it's from a garage sale or estate sale, for example: someone selling a violin that they are no longer using. But there is a certain genre of shiny-new ones, going for as low as $37 -- buyer beware of those.
From John Minnich
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 7:41 PM
There is a danger in the other direction, too. It's one I fell into a few decades ago: paying too much for a violin just because, as a beginner, I couldn't tell a $2,000 fiddle from a $200 fiddle. That, too, can be discouraging.
From 108.176.208.105
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 1:24 AM
During my masters degree session, I bought a flea-market viola...15 1/2" body....not a bad playing instrument..It had been refinished...and I paid $12 for it...Taking it to my college instructor for evaluation, he examined, flipped it over and studied the finish.....played on it for about 10 minutes and asked, "You really only paid 12 bucks for this viola ??? Gosh, it's worth at least $15 !" Good humor...we laughed....and it is a good instrument for electric gigs...



From jean dubuisson
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 12:25 PM
I just clicked randomly on the ad of a violin dealer who advertises on this site, and indeed they have a $159 instrument. However if you read the description it explicitly refutes all things that are normally wrong with a VSO. It is hand-made from tonewood spruce and maple, it has ebony fingerboard, pegs, endbutton. It does have steel strings though, which does give an impression of a shrieking sound coming out of the thing. So I am really curious about it!

$159 violin, or VSO?

From 66.72.174.14
Posted on December 24, 2013 at 4:43 AM
Thank you so much for your experienced clarification. I'm surprised these violins appear so frequently! I would trunk which came to me, a second generation American. It's no loss to me, I never cared about money from it, simply is it worth repairing. I suppose I'll buy a new one for my granddaughter. Thank you for your prompt advice.

Santé

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 26, 2013 at 1:43 AM
Jean, that's a good question, as Southwest Strings tends to be reliable. That's an extremely low price point.
From 68.73.215.107
Posted on December 26, 2013 at 2:49 AM
I had no intention of making the old attic violin a gift for any reason I own this. If it's worth repairing then I will do that. I'm sorry to infer your soap box was necessary!! I just wanted to know whom you would advise to give an opinion. I did not receive my piano or my flute for a birthday or Christmas gift I had my flute re-padded for my own daughter. I bought my younger daughter a coronet and my son played anything with a reed. Music is a gift some have tis true. But that gift comes from our maker, not a marketer. I didn't want anyone to think I don't value my attic violin for what it might have been . But since I inherited it I have nothing to lose. I am sorry for making you dig out your boiler plate about stupid people passing off some junk to a child I love music, but not at the cost of a grand child's interest in it! Especially ehen there are 8 grandchildren

Santé

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