The Well Aging Fiddler - The Siren's Call........Upgrading a Violin.

August 16, 2017, 4:00 PM · A few weeks ago, the sirens sang to me. They tested me. They called to me. Unlike Odysseys, I was not tied to a mast. I wanted to buy a $5000 violin simply because I’d read somewhere it was the starting price for really good, professional violins. Now remember, this was after only four lessons on the instrument. I could barely play a violin, much less hold a bow correctly. However, I ran – well actually drove my car – to a violin store, and was tempted to buy a wonderful musical instrument. After only four lessons, I was intoxicated with the idea of owning a really good violin.

A couple of months ago I came into a modest inheritance. My first instinct -a good instinct - was to be smart and pay off some bills. Bills can lurk in the back of a persons mind, wake you at 2 a.m. and bother a good nights sleep.

I took care of them. I paid them off.

You know, it’s amazing how quickly money can disappear, even when doing the right thing. In a matter of minutes I paid off credit card bills, paid for the repair of a garage door, a couple other things that needed attention, and I found my inheritance dwindled down to a much smaller number.

The wise person would put the rest of the money in savings. The impulsive person would spend it. Guess what I wanted to do.

I was gripped with the temptation of getting a really good violin. I’d convinced myself I deserved it. I need it. Not having a good violin was simply silly. Along with that temptation came the hubris of assuming money equals privilege. Suddenly, my $400 student violin was something I felt to be beneath my consideration. I’d had four lessons. I had even played in public. It was time for a serious upgrade.

So, I walked into a fine violin shop in Portland, Oregon, the David Kerr Violin Shop. I asked if I could play one of the good ones. The clerk was very gracious. I was shown to a room filled with fine violins, given a bow, told to take my time, and he closed the door and left me alone.

So I chose one, held it correctly, and moved the bow across the open strings.

This was like drinking a 20 year-old single malt Scotch. This was seeing a Van Goth for the first time. It was like flying in my sleep. This was handmade vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. I swear that thing was alive.

I wanted it. I deserved it. There was no way I wasn’t going to own it.

Clearly, I was an idiot. Plus, my wife would kill me if I came home with it.

Sometimes, life can be cruel…. but fair.

Time for some cold water.

If a person is a professional musician, I don’t see any reason for them to have a violin worth at least $45,000 or more. It makes sense. I mean a plumber would buy a truck for more money than that and think nothing of it. It is a tool for his or her profession. It is a necessary part of the business. As a professional, I think spending lots of money on a tool for your profession is not only wise, but completely necessary. It just makes a lot of sense.

But being a student – a 68-year-old beginner – spending a lot of money on something I barely know how to use is flat out silly.

Still, I went home hungry for that SOUND. Indeed, it was the siren calling and I was weak.

But my wife, Juliana, put me straight. She'd heard me play.

“So…you can barely play one of those things, and you want a $5,000 violin just because you can afford it? I want you to think about that.” Then she walked out of the room.

I thought long and about what she said, and then surrendered to reality. I did not buy a new $5,000 violin. Instead, I spent $1,500 on a very good basic violin.


I even did a blind listening test. I went up to Kennedy Violins in Vancouver, Washington. I asked the woman who helped me to play the best three violins in my price range while my back was turned. Then I chose what sounded best to my ears.

I’m very happy with my new fiddle.

What is the point of this?

Be smart. Be wise. Just because you can get something, don’t surrender to the siren call.Pace it. Two years from now, if I'm good enough, perhaps I'll get a $5,000 violin, but not yet. Plus, it's not about the money. It's about the sound. I’ll get a really good violin once I can actually play one, and not before that moment. It is a goal worth working toward, and not a reward for simply having enough cash.


August 17, 2017 at 12:41 PM · I have had lessons now for about half a year on a loaned instrument, which was a € 1.000 violin, so not bad for a beginner. Now that I decided to keep on learning the violin I decided to buy one. I set myself an overall limit not just for the violin, but also for the bow. My violin teacher recommended a luthier to me and his approach to selling instrument is in my opinion the perfect way. You tell him your limit and he gives you four instruments that are within your limit to take home and to test for as long as you need. The clue is, he tells you absolutely nothing about the instruments - not about the age or the maker and most importantly not about the price. Thereby you can decide completely by your impression, by what you hear and how the instrument feels in your hands (and of course I head my violin teacher play them so to hear the full range of the instrument and get her opinion). From the first four instruments you choose two favourites and then he replaces the ones you didn't like with two others and that can go on for quite awhile. Once you have chosen an instrument he will give a number of bows that are within your price range and then you test again.

What did I learn from that process. Violins sound different in different rooms and it also matters how they sound directly at your shoulder. And never underestimate that some violins just feel good to play immediately while others feel quite foreign in your hand. And also, never underestimate what a good bow can do for you. The difference from my loaned (and quite cheap) violin bow to the the first one the luthier gave me was just enormous.

I haven't chosen yet which instrument I will finally buy, but I know for sure that it will be an instrument that I have tested and listened to and compared to otheres and that thereby I will be not dissapointed by my choice.

August 17, 2017 at 03:57 PM · I would say that price is not an exact indication of sound. There are nice cheapish violins and terrible expensive violins. Therefore, it is a good idea to try a variety of affordable violins and pick your faves and run various tests to pick one from your faves list. I do not believe you need to spend $5000+ on a good violin as a beginner-intermediate amateur/student.

August 17, 2017 at 08:46 PM · I am like you, an older beginner. I have been taking lessons for 3 1/2 years and after the first year, I decided to invest in a better bow. After I paid off my rental for the he violin I was using I decided to purchase a good violin. It took 4 months of research and traveling and different shops sending me violins to try. But, it was worth it because I bought one last summer and I love my violin. It was 3500.00 and worth every penny. I recently bought new strings, but that's another story!!

August 18, 2017 at 03:12 AM · A decent violin can be purchased for about $1,000-$2,000. I have bought violins in the sub-$1,000 range and they have turned out to be great for what I play. A Coda bow to go along with the violin should do the trick.

August 18, 2017 at 08:37 AM · I've been playing 35 years, and am still on the £400 violin my Dad bought me (with my teacher's assistance) when I was somewhere about 5 years onto the path. It's crossed my mind many times, about a more expensive instrument. Once I was lender a £1000 violin for a year and ended up doing some recording with that one - it was definitely a nicer sound. Whilst there's an emotional connection for me with my violin, the principle is to do the best with what you have, and to seek the anointing. When you play 'in the Spirit' it's more than notes and sound that connects with the hearer.

August 18, 2017 at 11:45 AM · I have a tendency to seek closure. I'll hyper focus on a thing, anything I take a fancy to focus on, and then drive for the resolution that fits best.

Looking at violins for a few years before I choose one is really hard for me. Visiting shops, trying violins and leaving with no purchase would be difficult.After a protracted time of hyper focus I start to wear down.If I don't have a resolution I pull away for a break and likely repeat the cycle later. If I found a few I like I would be torn between, "Just pick one" and doing a bit more research.

If I find one I like, I would think to myself, there could be one I'll like better. Then I'll worry if I don't buy the first one I like it will be sold while I'm out testing other violins.

And here's the thing,If you find a good deal on a good violin you usually can't afford to deliberate or someone else will be along to buy it.

In the case of a beginner adult or not, we don't know what we don't know.

I recently found a late 1700's early 1800's saxon violin. The price is right, but the timing is off for me right now. It's these kinds of things that can drive me crazy. He isn't in any hurry to sell it. It may or may not be something I would like.Although I like most well made German violins for their tone and projection.

In the past I've let my need to resolve override the need to further investigate.

August 18, 2017 at 04:37 PM · On his web show, "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee", Jerry Seinfeld was talking with Joel Hodgson of "Mystery Science Theater 3000". The dialogue went like this:

Hodgson: Jerry, do you own a guitar?

Seinfeld: I have three.

Hodgson: I have four. Do you play them?

Seinfeld: Never

Hodgson: Me either. You know who makes money from guitars? The guy who sells them.

I have to admit I've owned probably 20 guitars, and 4 mandolins. They are so tempting. So when I took up violin last May, my guitar instincts kicked in, and I almost transferred it over to violins. Fortunately, I came back to earth, and noticed violinists don't have that same obsession (or am I wrong?). I'm quite happy with what I have and, frankly, I doubt I will be buying another anytime soon.

All the same......I avoid violin shops.

August 19, 2017 at 05:24 AM · Yay my first post :D


Ok so if i may.

I started with a 90 dollar violin

To 800 then 1300.

The difference was staggering each time.

Lemme educate ya xd i feel so snobby but i spend lots of time with luthiers and reading.

Maple spruce ebony. Holy three. So long as the violin is made with these and decent proportions it won't sound like cardboard.

Obviously the varnish affects the sound but that's a story for another day.

Incredibly cheap violins will be made of boxwood. Big nono.

Good job with the Kennedy i just read up on them today before seeing your post, they're decent for that price range.

The fiddlerman ob1 s are good too. Around 300 have more warmth.

So those are basic violins.

Starting from 700, stop looking at modern instruments and just go to Corilon, whilst the service is horrible the instruments are genuine antiques.

Within that range the sander concert violin costs 800 is very nice. Warm sound opens up more easily than the Karl hofners

Above that price, honestly leave it to the violinists, we can get snobby because of makers but most of all with the sound.

We like old instruments because the wood dried up. The glue as well and as such the space between the wood in nil and it's more resonant.

Remember that violins are like wine.

Good luck :)

August 19, 2017 at 09:05 AM ·

As an older learner, I have also heard the call of the siren! Wouldn't it be nice to buy a great sound!?!

A year or so ago, I told myself that I wouldn't even try any better violins until my playing justified it. SInce then, I've found a great teacher, joined a small baroque group, practiced a lot, worked hard on my intonation (still much hard work to come)... and suddeny my own violin is sounding different, resonating better... maybe even singing.

I'm not sure that you can "buy" a great sound... I think the blood, sweat and tears "produce" a great sound instead.

Maybe one day I'll feel I've earned a new violin - or maybe my current violin will just get better and better as I learn to play it better.

Happy playing!

August 19, 2017 at 08:50 PM · I somewhat agree with Pamela. I began my journey with the violin 40 years ago and somewhere around year 10 I got the itch to upgrade. I spent hours in the local violin shop trying just about every instrument that was in my price range. I boiled them down to two and then had my teacher play them and give me their opinions. He loved, and could really get great tone out of, the Reinhold Schnable. I wasn't able to get the same sound, but Germaine assured me that with work and practice I would equal what he could do. So I purchased the Schnable and retired the family fiddle.

The years that followed were frustrating. While I got better with the Schnable, I never came close to my teacher's tone. Then Germaine died and since I'd been studying a little over 30 years and was satisfied with my community orchestra and church playing I did not seek out another teacher. However, the frustrations with the Schnable continued. Then I got a high travel job with Bell Labs and hardly played anything other than the occasional hour of a weekend when I wasn't headed out on the road on Monday.

I sold the Schnable because I wasn't playing and it should be in somebody's hands being played. I retired and pulled the family fiddle out of the closet where it had been retired, got it back in shape and resumed regular playing.

I wondered about my violin again and asked a professional I know to play my instrument and give me his opinion. What I heard floored me she got sounds I never did and she told me that my instrument was just fine for community orchestra and church playing. She, and some other professionals I know give me occasional coaching on how to improve my tone but I'm back to where I started.

While some disagree, my personal take is that until you can get what the instrument is capable of, you really don't need a better instrument - you need teaching/coaching until you can no longer get anything better out of the instrument.

Now, into my 70's the family fiddle is just fine and someday I'll pass it along to someone else.

August 19, 2017 at 09:04 PM · I don't know what the number is now, but when I was at college, we used to say that you could pay up to $5,000 and get a better violin, after that, you're collecting autographs.

I bought my Jais for $450.00 in 1968; I bought a new bow for $500 in 2008. Choosing the bow from half a dozen lent to me was a wonderful experience. Grabbing one and playing it for ten minutes; grabbing another, and so on. I'm 68, like the writer, and an amateur, but I had real pleasure in choosing my violin and bow. It should be that way; the money, if you cam afford it, doesn't matter. Price isn't value.

August 19, 2017 at 10:08 PM · An intersting article, thank you. Sadly, there is a lot of prestige value attached to expensive violins. What's the expression about a poor worker blaming his tools (or similar)? Surely, it is about making the best of what you have and if you have the means, aspire to something better if you can. However, it should not be the driving force.

August 20, 2017 at 01:53 AM · I fell in love with something enormously expensive last year. After much agony I bought it, also with an inheritance. I am not a professional player, but I justify my purchase by saying I didn't make it to being professional because of certain physical limitations, and this instrument makes it so much easier for me to play. Several professional players I know think my instrument is amazing, and they are soooo right!

August 20, 2017 at 03:05 AM · I had a similar experience as OP. I'm an adult beginner and I was tempted to go all out for my first violin. I initially set $1000 max, but I was drooling at $2500 violins too. I was thinking I might as well start learning with the violin I would use for life.

For my first three months, I started with a rental violin. I had an option to rent a $500 or $800 violin. The $800 violin easily beat the other. Not even close! Near the end of the third month, I have decided to commit to playing the instrument -- now I just had to choose whether to buy my own or continue renting (rental after the 3rd month can go towards my purchase).

I initially asked my teacher if he would help me pick a violin, which he gladly agreed to. However, I eventually decided to go on my own. Even though I'm a complete beginner in playing the violin, I am confident with my listening skills. One of my hobby is trying out different quality headphones and other audio gear like DAC (digital to analog converters) and amplifiers.

I found a shop (Rolland Feller) in San Francisco where I'm allowed to "sell back" a purchased violin for 100% of its value towards an upgrade. I was given 8 violins below $1000 to try, but none matched or beat the $800 rental Chinese-made store-specific violin. I raised my price to $1500, so they brought out 5 more violins. I kept my top 2 from the first batch and liked 2 more from the new batch. I asked for some help for someone to play the violin for me since I'm a beginner and I also wanted to hear it from a distance. Narrowed it down to 2 violins. One had a better projection while the other was softer and more mellow. If I was an audience, I would prefer the former... but under my ears it was too loud so I went with the latter.

I truly enjoyed trying out the different violins. It was similar to my other hobby that I very much enjoy doing. I wanted to go to other shops, but none of them had the 100% towards upgrade promo. Knowing myself, I will definitely be tempted to upgrade in the future when I can play better.

Eventually, my teacher noticed my new violin so I told him that I went ahead and purchased without him. I asked what he thinks of the sound. He replied, "eh it's ok." I could tell his disappointment from his facial expression, but I'm not sure if it's because of the sound of the violin or because I went without him or perhaps both. Either ways, I'm not surprised since so far he has disapproved all of my purchases including my Bon Musica adjustable shoulder rest (he literally said "this is the worst kind") and my modern-looking rugged case because it doesnt have a top cloth cover placed over the violin.

Anyways, back to the reaction I received from my violin purchase. I told myself that I'm an adult and trust myself that I can pick a violin that I like the sound of regardless of what would be preferred by others. Since I took full ownership of the selection, I would not blame anyone else if my violin turns out to be a bad one. At the end of the day, it's my ears and I will be the one hearing it 95% of the time. Right now I like its sound. I am happy with my violin and that's what matters.

P.S. Side story. I recently tried Dominant strings on my violin and didnt like it at all. A lot of the violins I tried uses Dominant. I wonder if I would have liked any of those better had they had the same Vision strings. Has anyone here asked to have the strings changed to your preferred one before trying them? Seems like a lot of work and too much to ask.

August 20, 2017 at 05:28 AM · Charlie Chapline once said, "What do you want a meaning for? Life is a desire, not a meaning."

i am also an adult student. My first student violin was like my first boyfriend. In most first time relationship, we test the water. It's all learning experience and finding out what is it you are looking for in the future once you are ready to "settle down."

I have this violin for 3 months and decided that this is not what I want to settle with.

In the other hand, being in my 30s, I really don't have the time and the desire to keep on upgrading violins until I find "mr. Right." I want a perfect violin now so we can grow old together!

So, I went and try different violins. My budget was flexible. I wanted something that I will be happy with for the next 20 years. I was told that a good violin will get even better with age (or skill improvement). I found a violin which has a warm, dark, but cheerful tone. It was strange because I knew That this was the violin I wanted to buy, before even knowing what it sounds like. It was a feeling, or intuition... or luck. I think it has to be luck that I found this violin. At this point, I feel like I have to have this violin no matter what. Luckily for me, it happened to be 1/3 of my price range. I choose this violin over the other more expensive or better quality ones, purely because I like the sound.

It's only been a few months and I am still very happy with my choice. And I know I will be for many years to come.

I hope you will enjoy your violin for many years to come, best wishes :)

August 20, 2017 at 01:32 PM · I am 71 and restarted the violin after a double car accident

leaving me with a moderate brain damage in 194 a day after my 48th birthday. That changed my life and after finding the notes and more importantly a nice tone on each of them on a borrowed Chinese 7/8ths instrument my Mother gave me £220 (UK Pounds) to buy a full size instrument.

I had then previously tried out on costing £800 and was 'blinded' feeling the more one spends then better the instrument. So I thanked my Mother and found a 'cheap looking' instrument in Chester (Dawsons) UK.

I found Kato Havas's Books and attended some workshops. These helped me improve my relaxed playing and I found that one has to continually search for the tone on each of the notes. I have done some 'busking' and played at Churches, Wine Tastings (yes a wine can have a sound) and Old Folk's Homes; plus a local Folk Club.

My technique and sound is improving since I am part way through Maurice Onderet's Methode de Violon. However the Practicing The Violin Mentally and Physically by Louis Kievman was my first permanent practice book on my music stand.

Oh I forgot the price I negotiated for this fine 1886 German factory made instrument 25 UK pounds and I do not see me parting with it since I have not yet mastered it.

The rest of the £220 was spent on a case, two cheap bows, new bridge and strings.

Since then perhaps another £250 has been spent on getting it in shape.

Stewart H Holder

August 20, 2017 at 05:51 PM · So it happened to me as well, the sirens called... after all, “Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man," Odyssey. So, I answered that call.

August 21, 2017 at 12:45 PM · Before thinking of changing a violin for another instrument with a better sound, I would advise to study all the possibilities of tuning correctly your actual instrument. Go to see a luthier who LIKES (important) to adjust meticulously the violins. He will check if there are any open spaces who need gluing, check if the bridge has to be changed (also height), as well as the soundpost (too long/too short/fixed at the right or wrong place), have appropriate strings mounted). You will be surprised of the result.

August 21, 2017 at 12:58 PM · One more thing. A quality bow is maybe even more important than the quality of the violin.

August 22, 2017 at 01:30 AM · At this point, I have a good violin, and for the next couple of years I just want to focus on getting the basics down. My entire episode of looking for a really good instrument was last May, It was more of an impulsive hunger based on a history of being a guitar player who was drawn to the next new thing. Since I went through that entire episode, all I've been doing is focusing on making myself better, rather than worry whether my instrument was up to the quality I needed. Indeed, I may never buy a new instrument. We'll see what time brings.

August 22, 2017 at 11:33 PM · Previous commenter wrote: "I don't know what the number is now, but when I was at college, we used to say that you could pay up to $5,000 and get a better violin, after that, you're collecting autographs. I bought my Jais for $450.00 in 1968".

If you were in college in the 1960s, then a $5k violin back then would probably be in the six figures now. Not all of the instruments have appreciated handsomely, of course, but a significant number of makers have escalated hugely over the past 50 years.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

Metronaut Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine