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Instrument Snobs

Michelle Jones

Written by
Published: April 8, 2014 at 3:45 PM [UTC]

As a professional violinist with many different symphony orchestras throughout the years, I have learned that your value as a musician is not solely based on your performance, but rather how expensive is your instrument. One would think that the pettiness of the cost of any item fades after high school where they are more concerned about what name brands you wear on your clothing. The truth is, it only accelerates and magnifies as you get into the professional world. Usually, other musicians don't care what brand of clothing you wear, but they certainly want to know what kind of strings you use, the maker of your instrument, who does your luthier work, what brand is your bow, how old is your instrument, etc. I have been judged based on the TOOLS I use for my job. That's what an instrument is: a tool. I have seen symphony personnel managers and music directors dismiss musicians based only on the instrument that they can afford/use. Teachers tell their students and parents to spend more and more money on instruments, going vastly into debt that will likely carry for 30+ years. And yet, these same musicians are vying for those "coveted" symphony jobs that don't even pay enough to make the instrument payment each month, let alone give them money to pay for the essentials of life (housing, transportation, food.)

If you are wanting to be a concertmaster or soloist, you must shell out more money than any other player in the orchestra as you are "expected" to have the most expensive violin. If you don't, then perhaps you are not worthy of being the concertmaster or soloist. I realize this is my opinion, but I know many violinists who will agree with this statement. Why? Because I have asked them. It's conversation. Yes, musicians do talk and discuss instruments backstage. The problem is when you are judged based on your instrument value alone.

Of course I know the difference between good instruments and not-so-good ones. But my value of an instrument is not based on the price. It is based on the sound, response, touch, feel - qualities not tied solely to the price. Once you get out of the student models and into really professional instruments, it's a personal choice for what YOU like. After all, it's your ear next to it for unending hours of practice and playing. I actually use different instruments based on the styles and venues where I perform. A friend sent me the link to this article where professional soloists are asked to select which instrument they would prefer to use on tour. They compared newer and older fine violins, without knowing which was which. It is definitely worth the read!

Overall, I do believe that one should try to obtain and purchase their desired instrument that they can afford to do their job well. However, in any professional career, one should not be judged on the "name brand" of the tools they use. But life is not fair, and as long as other musicians perpetuate the idea that the cost of an instrument is tied to the value of the attached musician's abilities, it will continue to be unfair. And most symphonic musicians will continue to be debtors and starving artists just to pay for their instruments to keep their jobs and appease their peers.

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From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 8, 2014 at 8:57 PM
Seems like if your violin sounds good enough so that you can win your job behind a screen, it doesn't matter.
Posted on April 8, 2014 at 10:16 PM
I don't know what kind of circles you move in, but in the professional environments I've been in I've never seen or heard of anything close to this happening.
From elise stanley
Posted on April 9, 2014 at 12:57 AM
On the upside, the purchase of a special instrument and the struggle to pay for it can serve as a significant element in the retirement plan!
Posted on April 9, 2014 at 1:42 AM
don't have any wish to disrespect this post but it really doesn't ring true for me. I accept that even professionals have distorted perceptions of the quality of instruments based on famous names, age etc. However, this does not, in my opinion, influence how musicians judge other musicians.
Frankly I am puzzled ,
Posted on April 9, 2014 at 2:59 AM
Michelle, I've heard a number or stories like that, first-hand. In one case, a player successfully won a prominent concertmaster position. Later, after other orchestra members asked what he was playing, there was pressure to purchase a more expensive violin.

On the bright side, the former concertmistress of the Detroit Symphony performed successfully on a relatively inexpensive violin for many years, despite occasional suggestions to get something "better".

One would hope that such peer pressure goes away after high school, but I guess it never completely does. There will always be someone who judges you by the kind of car you drive.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 9, 2014 at 1:17 PM
I guess it is one of the perks of being an amateur in a volunteer orchestra, that this is just not an issue. I've played a handful of solos now on a Carlo Lamberti violin from Shar that I bought a few years ago. It was an upgrade from my older German factory violin that my parents bought me when I was 13.

I have had several people complement me on this violin and its sound, which is quite bold, especially in comparison with the old one, which was muted and didn't project well in the low register. I don't advertise that it is a Carlo Lamberti from Shar, but I don't lie about it or withhold that information if someone asks.

When I bought this violin I thought that if I kept playing, I would eventually want to upgrade again, but so far I'm still feeling satisfied with it, like the limitations in my playing and sound come from me and not from my instrument (unlike the previous instrument).

Usually when I have a conversation about instruments with other adult amateurs we end up talking about how much better the affordable instruments are nowadays than they were when we were kids.

Posted on April 9, 2014 at 2:05 PM
I understand why some musicians desire to play an instrument with history and 'legacy' at their fingertips at any cost. Maybe it's status, maybe it's just a personal choice which they feel would give them identity or set them apart. But if a affordable modern instrument does the job 'indistinguishably well', it should be enough. And that decision alone I think would set me apart from my peers. Reminds me a quote from one of my favorite movies. "Religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid."
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on April 9, 2014 at 8:42 PM
There seems to be a fairly crucial misunderstanding about what was actually written iby the op here. Being pressured (if that word is appropriate) to buy a better instrument is not equivalent to being judged as a musician or player.
From Trevor Jennings
Posted on April 10, 2014 at 5:37 PM
Some of the comments remind me of when I was a schoolboy in the '50s (1950s, in case of doubt), and already a cellist, walking home from school every day and passing a violin shop (it's still in business) which had an Amati cello for sale - for £400. In those days £400 was within the reach of a professional musician or an amateur with a significantly above-average salary, but well beyond my parents' means. Anyway, the cello that my teacher had obtained for me at a small fraction of the price of that Amati served me well then, has since, and still does now. Those halcyon days of good instruments more or less accessible to a significant proportion of musicians, professional and amateur, seem to be long gone.
I heard that that Amati was eventually purchased by someone at Bristol University.
Posted on April 12, 2014 at 3:33 PM
This attitude is embedded at a young age.  How many music teachers scorn VSOs without taking into account the sound generating quality of such VSOs.  It continues through Youth Orchestras and Summer Music Camps where they use phrases on auditions such as "the practical range of your instrument" when performing audition pieces.  It becomes quite clear to parents and students ($$$ = success).  Disagree all you want, this is the reality that confronts every parent.

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