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Karen Allendoerfer

Violin Shopping--How to keep from freaking out?

March 25, 2009 at 11:47 AM

 My daughter's teacher told her she's going to need a full-size violin soon. I had planned to give her my current violin as a first instrument. She's not much beyond the advanced beginner stage, but is freakishly tall. I think she will play on her 3/4 size for the rest of the school year, which means she'll be 10 when she gets the full size in the summer. It was my first full-size violin too, when I was 13.

When I do this, I'd like to get myself a new violin. I've been feeling for quite a while that my violin, which cost ~$900 back in the late 70's and was good enough for me then, is limiting my progress now. I bought a Rudolf Doetsch viola a couple of years ago and the contrast between the two, for me, is already pretty striking, even though the Doetsch is not a professional-grade instrument.

But I've been intimidated by the decision and have been putting it off. This plan of waiting until my daughter needs a full-size was a stalling tactic, and I thought I had more time.

I recently realized that one of the biggest reasons that I'm intimidated by the decision is that I'm afraid of playing a variety of instruments. Because . . . I DON'T KNOW WHAT TO PLAY!

I remember that feeling of walking into the shop, getting several instruments in front of me, and then having to pick them up one by one and play something off the top of my head. In front of all the people in the store.

My daughter completely freaked out last year when we were looking for her 3/4 size. She refused to play anything in the store. We ended up buying one mail-order from Shar.  I'm older and allegedly wiser, but there's still some of that in me too.  I'm not much of a shopper in general.  I tend to get easily overwhelmed by too many choices when they're presented to me in parallel. 

So it seemed to me that maybe it would help if I set some parameters first, such as "I'll only try 5 violins at a time."  And I would like to come up with about 5 minutes of music that I will memorize and play on each instrument in turn for comparison.  Some thoughts I had were:

These are mostly things I've played or performed recently or in the past. Some of them highlight the low-register sound I'm looking for, some highlight the high-register sound I'm looking for. One has double stops, one has bariolage. Are there other things people would want to know?

From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 1:35 PM

I have never tried to buy a violin (my teacher picked out my current one for me when I was 15).  I have tried out bows, and I suspect it is basically the same process.  For that task, I just brought my Bach S&P sheet music with me.  Since those pieces are an entire course in technique, going through some of it allows you to test how the violin or bow sounds/feels for various types of playing.   That said, almost anything you are working on or have recently done is fair game.  Just take your music.  Have fun and good luck!  Fortunately, you are in an area with good luthiers.

From Donna Clegg
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 3:27 PM

  How exciting!  The info below is modified from a local shop here in Atlanta.  I followed their guidelines in selecting a bow and it did help me with the process.  Good luck on your search.

The two most important factors in auditioning an instrument are sound quality and value. Sound is subjective. Everyone has his/her opinion as to how an instrument sounds.  What sound are you looking for?
     Value in a string instrument is based on several factors: heritage (where it was made and age), wood, construction (workmanship), maker (or workshop), condition, rarity, certification and sound.

Bring your shoulder rest and your bow when you shop.  Always use the same bow in auditioning each instrument. 
Some suggestions:
               1.  Play the same scale on each instrument to get an idea about sound.  Which one sounds the best? Which one feels the most comfortable in your hand?
               2.   Play several lines of music on each instrument.  Again, sound and comfort are important.
             3.  Try different dynamics and bow techniques to check for responsiveness.
              4.   Make sure the sound is well-balanced on all four strings. If you find a difference, tell the luthier, who may be able to make an adjustment.

     At this point, ask someone else to play the instruments for you if possible. This enables you to listen more objectively.

     Arrange to take two of the instruments home with you for a trial period. During this time, play each instrument daily to learn their personalities.  If you study with a teacher, take the instruments to her/him for evaluation.
     Outside of your teacher, take caution in listening to other people's opinions about the instruments. You should be the person who chooses your instrument.


From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 3:56 PM

I think it is important to NOT put a schedule on finding a violin.  You can always rent a full size for your kid while you take your time finding the right violin for you.  If you put yourself on a deadline, you might end up regretting a hasty, pressured choice.

I always tell my students that the most important things to consider are:

Work out a budget, get your teacher to help you (shop contacts, playing and trying out for you, etc), and good luck!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 4:06 PM

Anne, that makes sense, except for me and my peculiar psychology, if I don't give myself some kind of schedule or deadline, I'll just never do it.  I'll always find some excuse not to. 

It's a little embarrassing to admit how much I'm influenced by "performance anxiety" even just in a violin store.  When I was buying my viola I played a few excerpts from movements of the Bach suites from memory, and I brought along "Solos for Young Violists" and that was okay--I mean, I got through it, I bought a viola, and I'm still happy with it almost 2 years later.  But even then I felt like all these random people were listening to me and I was quite self-conscious.  Then the woman who worked there said she "enjoyed listening" to me play, which probably sold a viola right then and there (whether she was just being polite or not).

From Wiebke Nazareth
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 5:26 PM

Hi Karen, I agree that buying an instrument can be quite an intimidating endeavour... Once you have found an instrument that your daughter likes, take it home for a couple of days, before you commit to buy it. Show it to the teacher, show it to other violinists. Try to play it in a big hall, because some fiddles might sound nice in a little room but the sound gets lost in a big hall. On the other hand, really good instruments don't sound spectacular in a little room but the sound will open up in a hall. Okay, okay, the really, really good instruments sound great everywhere... but we don't talk Strad here I guess ;-)

Good luck and let us know when you have found your instrument!

From Marianne Hansen
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 5:32 PM

I know what you mean.  I tried out some bows about a year ago and found the entire experience deeply embarrassing.  I'd only been playing a year (perhaps 200 hours) and I did - and do - very little memorization.  ( I can't tell you how happy I am to see that people are talking here about taking sheet music in with you.)  In the midst of my humiliation, the shop owner suggested she hand me bows while I had my eyes shut so I wouldn't have a preconception about which of the three I was trying I was actually handling.  Total disaster - I pretty much couldn't find the strings.  And it was clear that, unlike your saleswoman, mine was deeply disgusted by the procedure.  Result - I am still playing with the same bow. 

I have bought another fiddle, though.  I did something I think is risky and suboptimal - I bought it on eBay - but it worked out very well.  Bid on an antique instrument being offered by the dealer pahdah_hound, whose reliability has been praised in this forum.  Waited for one that was described as an instrument I thought would suit me.  Won the auction.  When the instrument arrived I had two weeks to make up my mind.  Played  on it.  Played for other people.  Had my teacher play it.  The calculation part of this plan was that I do not desperately need an instrument right now and I was truly ready to send it back if it didn't suit.  The luck part was that I love the instrument, as does my teacher, my husband, and everybody else who has heard it.

Guess that doens't really give any more useful info or advice about how to try instruments out in a shop.  But in terms of having trouble facing it, you are not alone!

From bill platt
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 6:24 PM

Every violin we have tried has come home with us for at least a week. You shouldn't have to try it outr in the store only...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 7:06 PM

Bill's right. I suppose this is unusual, but I played on mine for several months before buying it. That's especially important with a bow.

I usually have my students pick three violins from the store and try them out for a week or two, and I try them out with them as well.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 8:04 PM

Laurie's comment about having someone try the violins out is a good piece of advice.  As with bows, you want to not only get a second opinion but hear someone else play while you listen to see how the violin sounds to listeners.  It can be quite different from what you hear when it is under your ear.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 8:54 PM

I think I'll be okay once I have 1 or 2 instruments to take home, take to a lesson and orchestra rehearsal, etc.  My teacher has already offered to listen to and play for me anything I bring to my lesson.

It's just getting over that initial hump when there are lots of them in front of me and I don't know where to start or how to narrow it down.

From sharelle taylor
Posted on March 25, 2009 at 9:34 PM


The first time I tried out a different violin was so embarrassing - I couldn't event keep the bow on the strings.  a year later, when I spontaneously decided I would get a 3/4 to learn vibrato on, I had called the shop nearest where I live (still an hours drive away) and told them what I was doing, and the guy sounded nice and had already prepared half a dozen smaller (French as it turned out) 4/4's and the shops range of 3/4's for me to try. I was extrememely nervous, but told him so and said that I really didn't play in front of anyone and he was very nice about it.  As far as what I played, I had a beginner's repertoire, so there was no way I was doing unaccompanied Bach or Mozart, except for the Papa Gino's aria from some opera. I could play that, and that Welsh folk tune (daa daa daa, da da dum dum daa ....) and a G and D 3 octave scale.  It wasn't much, but you know it was quite adequate to show which instruments to give back, and it left me with 3 to choose from. I'm going off soon to try bows, and I think I'll do the D 3 octave scale, Bits of Handel in D (as it has some good string change and fast passages) and Dvorak sonatine, since it has good opportunities to see how much colour I can get becasue of the  bow, as opposed to how much colour I can get because of me :)

Good luck. 

From Jennifer Chen
Posted on March 26, 2009 at 4:57 AM

It's normal to get embarassed, I find it easy to just say up front that you're bad at it and you don't know what to do, and please help. The first time I went in a violin shop, I stayed there for like 3 hours, mostly becuase the guys are friendly and very helpful.

Although I couldn't play much only some random notes or bad scales, but you can still pick up the ones you like and the ones you don't like. Try not to play an entire piece at the shop, human's sound memory can't last very long. Most of the time, you'd forget the sound of the first violin when you're trying the second violin.

Also, ask the staff to play it for you to listen. It sounds different from what you hear when you play. And lastly, as everyone had said, pick the ones you like take it home and try for a while, and ask the violin teacher to make a decision for you.

From Royce Faina
Posted on March 26, 2009 at 5:27 PM

When taking an instrument/s home, sould the buyer leave a deposit and if so what is a fair % to leave?


From Jennifer Chen
Posted on March 27, 2009 at 1:49 AM

I'm not in US and I can't comment on the % of deposit to leave, but usually they do ask you to leave a deposit. Although the two violin shops I went didn't ask me to leave deposit. The simple reason was becuase one of the shop sort of knew my teacher, and the other shop was introduced to me by another violin teacher. (The violin I took home to try out priced ranged between 2000~3500 US. )

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 27, 2009 at 9:53 PM

It's best if you can have a sound you want in your mind, and look for instruments that help create that sound.  At the same time, be sensitive to the instrument since you might get that sound in a way you weren't expecting.  If you don't do those things, it's a big cluster ---- because you'll even be changing your mind about what sound you want.  Another way is try a big name, and simply trust the name, and adjust to it even if you don't like it at first.

From Angelo Eftimeo
Posted on March 28, 2009 at 5:03 PM

In my shop our policy is to let you take the instruments home to try in a more comfortable and less stressful setting.  We typically don't require a deposit but do have a form to fill out with your information.  We normally allow 2 to 3 instruments and 1 week although we often need to extend the time, especially for the local University students who may have to show it (and get it approved) by their professor, their TA, and their private teacher.  Trying to get it to all of these people and get their feedback can extend the process, but can also help the player feel better about their final decision.

Most shops understand the stress of trying an instrument in the shop, and should understand that trying an instrument, especially one over $1000.00, can be best done in a more relaxed setting and at more liesure (time-wise).

From the players side understand that no matter how large the shop is, the amount of available inventory is a finite amount, so try to narrow down the process in the store, take ones that you are (potentially) serious about, and make every effort to return them in a timely manner.


From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 30, 2009 at 6:45 AM

Last year I bought my 2nd violin in Shanghai. I like it very much, and my teacher and all others heard it agreed that it’s a responsive and very well crafted violin.  I would absolutely have asked my teacher to shop with me to pick a violin or a bow if I were buying here, but at the time I had only two weeks in Shanghai and I needed a violin to play to my dying father.  I visited more than dozens of shops before buying (yes, you’ll find more violin shops in Shanghai than in Cremona these days). I brought my niece (she also plays violin) along just like I would when I need to spend big money on cloth shopping for a 2nd opinion. And like shop for clothing, I asked them to bring out one of their top of the line and one with middle of the price range and trying out without knowing which is which. Each time I’d try at least two or three and compare to get an idea where I would like to land. I used the same pieces (ones that I’ve recently finished so they were still "fresh and warm" and I felt confident and capable of producing the sound I wanted) on each violin I was trying.  

I think the bow makes a huge difference in how each violin will sound, unless you want to buy a bow that sounds particularly good with the violin you choose, it’s not a bad idea to bring your own bow along to the shop so that it will give you a better idea when compare different violins.

Good luck and have fun!



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