Search For A Master Violin

August 4, 2008 at 08:20 PM · I would like to know why is it so difficult to get a quality professional sounding violin, in terms of searching and also in terms of price, which can be a tremendous factor with sky high prices? I realize that luthiers must make a living, but I wonder has the true art of violin making been lost and are so called advanced and professional violins overpriced! I have 3 violins, one which I paid ~2,400, and the other 2 which I paid ~1,200. Most of the violins in the range of 2400, which I have had 3 in total, including 2 which I traded off, are considered advancing. To my idea, these violins sound like school band instruments instead of advancing instruments and seem to never open up. Additionally, I think luthiers really don't have the time to set these instruments up properly. You could carve bridges all day long and get a different sound with each one. At one point, I was prepared to put down 3,000 for a violin only to be told there were none in my price range. If a person has good ears, you can tell the difference between a "so called" advancing/professional instrument and something like what Hilary Hahn would play. Additionally, once you get these instruments, they are hard to sell, that is if you wanted to sell 2 for the monies worth and get 1 in a step up. I was told that my violin wouldn't appreciate much because it wasn't high priced and high falutent!!! Can anyone tell me what is going on with the violin market??? Is the market gorged with the newer so called advanced/professional violins and none of the violins that could be masterfully made like the violins that were made by the old masters. Wouldn't I be looking for a needle in a haystack for the real professional sounding instrument at 2500, and why are these professional instruments mostly found at prices of 10,000 upward, and out of the reach of the average violinist? Let's face it, not everyone has 10000 to plop down. Even a monthly installment can be costly.

Replies (26)

August 4, 2008 at 08:51 PM · The violin market is a bizzare thing.

You have several factors to bear in mind:

1) The Luthier needs to make a living, and a new instrument--built by someone who knows what they are doing takes roughly 2 weeks from materials to finish. Of course it is also highly skilled artisan labor. It takes a great deal of time to creat a good violin--and as such they are rare.

1a) Costs of living are going ever upwards, especially in the US.

2) Good tone woods can be a very tricky thing to get ahold of, in addition to being pricey.

3) The continuing descent of the dollar in value.

4) Their are gawd knows how many violinists around the world, all searching for the same rare thing.

5) You have many CEOs and billionaires buying old master violins-as "financial investments", and locking them up under glass or in vaults. After buying them in comical auctions, for absurd amounts of cash.

All of these combine to bring us where we are.

An instrument, that to my standards is a pro instrument (good tone, good projection-tonally even, good range of timbre and dynamics) is usually a $20k and above affair; in the market as it is now, from what I've seen and had my hands on. That is how it is, given how things are.

Getting your hands on good instruments is a VERY difficult thing, there are so many mass-produced (junk) instruments on the market, in addition to the fact that a professional quality instrument takes enormous skill to craft (and the output of violin makers is small, to being with)....many top makers are on a commission basis with leadtimes of years, and few good contemporary instruments make themselves to dealers---where people (like myself) snatch up a good violin the second they see it, because you'll never see it again otherwise

Getting an instrument is a pricey thing, and even then not all instruments appreciate in value. I have loans courtesy of the US Gov't (as I'm a master's student) for my instrument, that is very much a pro level instrument. If not for loans from banks or the gov't, only CEOs would be buying violins--few artists and masters/pros can afford their instruments outright out of pocket.

A good violin is very much a work of art in and of itself. Works of art are a rare and pricey thing. Violins have always been an expensive thing for aristocrats to buy for artists (Spohr and Paganini, were really nobodies--until wealthy patrons purchased them their del Gesu(s)).

August 4, 2008 at 08:58 PM · I disagree that such valuable instruments as the Vuillaume Hilary Hahn plays, Strads, Guarneris, Amatis, and the like should be made more affordable for the "common advancing violinist."

Sure, I'd love to have one of those instruments. However, I think the history of these instruments deserves more respect than the average up-and-comer (like myself) can give.

I think it's more an issue that today's market is so out of whack in general.

By the way, I've played (and owned) instruments in the $1200-$3500 range and found some very nice fiddles. Well made, great sound, easy playing... There's no reason an advancing violinist couldn't get far and be quite content with one of those.

I recently purchased an old British instrument for $6500, and I can't imagine upgrading. My professional level and my aspirations just don't require it. There are "steals" out there. I think it's important to keep looking for them and be patient.

August 4, 2008 at 09:36 PM · I'm told that excellent players can make cigar-box violins sound great.

I'm told that most players, when handed a violin that is substantially better than the one they currently use, are unable to change their style of playing to take advantage of the qualities of the better instrument. At least, not until they've had a fair amount of time exploring its capacities while stretching their own.

Your mileage may differ, of course, and the above comments are merely anecdotal. I'm too much of a hack to be able to evaluate their inner truth, if any.

August 4, 2008 at 09:49 PM · Hi Marc,

Thanks for the information. I never thought of the fact that these violins were being hoarded by CEOs. Wow!!!!!!!! That's incredible Paganini got his instrument from someone wealthy. That is mind blowing. With respect to the average person affording a great professional violin, I think that that is where a lot of great violinist really begin. You've got to be able to hear what you're playing. If your notes are muddy and your instrument is imbalanced and of poor quality, then I feel that can be a handicap. A professional violin is one which is highly sensitive to your touch, responsive, balanced and clear even in the upper registers with a beautiful ringing tone which approaches that of the sweet song of a bird. It has a rich tone with overtones. This type of violin will bring out a passion from the player which will enable him/her to surpass each time, reach further each time. You must be able to hear and also feel, I believe, in order to reach higher levels. I believe student grade istruments or instruments of poor quality can cause players to stiffen. I also feel that just because an average person gets a hold of a professional/master violin that it does not mean that it is disrespected. Everyone is learning, even the professional well know players can learn something everyday. If a person purposefully damages or defaces a violin, then that is disrepect for the instrument. If you play a passionate piece of music, then your instrument must also be capable of painting a portrait with brilliant and also subtle colors along with your expertise on the instrument. This is expression.

August 4, 2008 at 11:07 PM · I know "average" people, working professional musicians, with "average" jobs, that got really nice violins. Not Strads, not Del Gesus, but good fiddles that serve them quite well.

They sacrificed a tremendous amount of personal comfort, and saved, pinched pennies until Abe Lincoln screamed, and took out bank loans. Extra gigs, extra students, a lot of extra work. Sometimes it takes years...

Is this inherently fair? Probably not, but that is the way that supply-and-demand works.

The Art of Violin Making has not been lost. There are contemporary makers out there that are making really fine instruments! For the price of a Toyota Camry (hardly a luxury item), you can buy yourself a professional instrument that sounds and plays beautifully. Put it in perspective, and good luck in your search.

August 4, 2008 at 11:17 PM · Sheryl, I agree that the violin market is difficult to understand.

Hang out with a contemporary maker throughout the process of making a hand-made violin, and I think you'll understand the price of those, at least.

August 4, 2008 at 11:53 PM · If you are capable of making a living playing the violin you deserve a professional instrument. For the price of a car you can acquire a great contemporary fiddle. There are many professions that require a much bigger investment in tools or equipment. A great violin will last a lifetime and most likely won't depreciate in value. Violinists get off relatively easy. You are lucky you don't want to be a dentist or an independent trucker.

August 5, 2008 at 10:42 AM · Michael! I'm sorry but comparing violinists' financially with dentists seems totally bizarre! All the dentists I have met have FAR more financial security and income than 99% of the violinists I happen to know.

As far as needing to have a "good" violin is concerned. I can say that my nice but very normal Charles Buthod fiddle got me through high school, university and orchestral concerts in some fine halls. Getting the best set-up on your fiddle that you possibly can is definitely a good bet.

I'm lucky in that my dear dad left me some money to invest in a violin and I love my Johannes Cuypers to bits, but even though my Buthod is no way in the same league, with a fine bridge and set-up he has served me very well.

August 5, 2008 at 11:17 AM · I hear a lot of you folks out there have great violins, which is beautiful. Maybe you even traveled to get it, but I've also heard that sound difference begins to change at around 5,000. At this point in my life, being disability retired and supporting a music production business on a disability annuity, I don't see 5000 in view yet as with a lot of people. I think that great professional violins at an affordable price should be available to everyone who cares and has the passion and desire to move forward with this instrument. I myself have been badly burned by violin purchase, having 3 violins from 3 different luthiers, none of which, so far, suit my current needs, and being retired has left me stuck with them since you usually must upgrade with the same luthier. I took 3 risks (possibly even more with one luthier) and lost and can't afford another at this point. I also believe that the ones I purchased (I could be wrong) had a very small window or tolerance for adequate operation with change of environment from the luthier's shop to my home environment even though I kept proper humidity. I believe that super violins have a greater stability and wider window of tolerance for adequate operation. Operation for a beautiful tone even though it may be slightly off the center of its tolerance window.

August 5, 2008 at 01:01 PM · Sheryl,

It sounds to me like instruments don't necessarily need to become cheaper, but that you got burned by 3 local luthiers, spending lots of $$ on instruments that don't suit you as well once you get them home. I don't know what the conditions were, but I would definitely request to take instruments out on trial for at least a week when purchasing to make sure that doesn't happen.

If you can exchange one of the $2400 instruments for a $3,000 instrument there may be a noticeable improvement. You could use craigslist or local newspaper ads to try to sell your instruments independently, as the combined sum would push you up to the $5,000 range, where there is definite improvement.

Perhaps there is a luthier you have heard of that you like, and maybe they'd be willing to take all 3 instruments, even though you didn't purchase them from them? Doesn't hurt to ask.

I am able to purchase my $6500 violin with $3600 trade-in and a private teacher's salary (30 students in my roster-ish). I'm hardly a Rockefeller. I hope you find the means to finally get your dream violin!

August 5, 2008 at 08:00 PM · Hi Sheryl,

I sympathise with your situation. There are, however, a few points I'd like to raise to help you find what you are looking for.

If you're looking for an ideal violin in a price range like you've stated, you're probably going to have to try out a lot of violins. You mentioned you've been burned by purchases in the past - did you show the instruments to anybody? Did you have a professional/your teacher play them? Did you ask the tough questions - and not just to the dealer selling you the instrument? Were you convinced of the sound at the time? If so, how did it change afterwards? If not, why did you buy the instrument?

You may be able to trade in your other violins at another shop if you find an instrument you like, or at least to put them on consignment there. Otherwise, do look into private sale. You may not get back every penny you paid for them, but it'll give you a bit more working capital.

That fine instruments appreciate in value more than your average 'advancing' violin lies in the fact that they are works of art, and rare - if not one-of-a-kinds. A Picasso painting, for instance, has appreciated much more than a print with a certain number of copies.

And lastly, don't underappreciate the impact a player can have on an instrument. Sure, some instruments are more difficult to play than others, but a good violin doesn't solve all your problems. In fact, it often takes a certain type of playing and player to pull a proper sound out of some of these famous old instruments at all! I've just been through a phase where I was frustrated with my own violin, but after working with sound and colours in some new ways, it's opened up so that I'm no longer convinced I've found its limits.

August 5, 2008 at 08:52 PM · Sheryl, I feel your pain. I like to drive, and in fact I'm a pretty good driver. I think it is so unfair that all I can afford is a 20-year-old Toyota Camry. I think that my vehicle really limits me in my driving pursuits and that I could fulfill my driving potential if only the market for cars wasn't so skewed. I can't believe that a BMW 740il costs over $70,000. It's just not fair. I've considered saving up and buying a new Honda Accord or the like for around $20,000, but I feel like I'd be disappointed, after all, while it'd probably be an improvement over my current car, it still wouldn't allow me to drive as well as say, a Mercedes S600 would - they are so responsive, I know that I deserve one, and they really ought to sell me one (new) for $5000 or so.

August 5, 2008 at 09:20 PM · I love shrimp raviole, but it's quite expensive on those posh "ristoranti" in Venice, so eventually I started making it at home, in two hours it's done!

Perhaps you could try making violins... I play on a viola and violin I've made myself. I start with the neck and scroll, you can study how it's done step by step here (but in Italian):

www.manfio.com/scultura%20del%20riccio%20secondo%20manfio%20finale.pdf

www.manfio.com

August 5, 2008 at 09:12 PM · Hi Megan,

Thank you for your sympathy and advice. I appreciate that. The last trade I did, I spent 2 days searching through the violins in my price range and was convinced when I made the purchase. I played it at home for a long time, and then there appeared to be loss in sound. I feel it was change in environment. I was my own toughest critic since I use these instruments for my music production recording. I bought the instrument because I needed it for my work. I had exhausted all the violins in that price range in the shop. I hired a person 2 years ago to advise me on what I should do about my violins. She offered to take 2 of the violins to New York for a trade to 1 violin which would have left me with no backup violin. I also wondered if my 10 year old violin had appreciated enough for me to sell it and get a better violin with a little cash left for necessities. She did not feel I could sell it, and that there was not much appreciation. She said I would need around a 5000 violin to hear a change in sound. My luthier also said the same thing. I ended up keeping my same violins. Though there are some great luthiers out there that you may have to travel to get to, I have lost faith in the process. There has been heartbreak and denigration of spirit. I, of course, realize that sounds can be pulled out of an instrument, but you can only get turnip juice from a turnip. I also understand that there are violins of antique and fine art value, but it would be a thrill and wonderful experience for anyone who appreciates fine violin music, has a golden ear and a passion for the instrument to be able to own and afford a professional one at affordable prices.

August 5, 2008 at 09:59 PM · Hi Luis,

Thanks for that info. also. I am working with and on an experimental violin that I made myself. I did it just for fun and to see what would happen. It still needs work and I don't know if I can get it to sound like a professional violin, but I'm trying. I plan on willing it to a museum probably on my death.

August 5, 2008 at 10:23 PM · Sheryl, I think it's a "crap shoot," but there have been some very good "regional violin makers" whose prices remain quite low.

Two whom I think of were the late Carl Holzapfel of Baltimore MD, and Henry Meissner of Loma Linda (and later of Carpenteria) CA. Their prices (last I heard) have remained close your desired price range. Not all their instruments are as outstanding as their best, but their best will hold their own for almost any purpose. I suspect there are (or have been) other comparable makers in various parts of the country (who remain "local secrets.") I have actually played these instruments of mine in the company of instruments costing 100 to 1000 times more (which I also played), and I went home without significant jealousy.

There are also some individually made violins coming from China that are magnificent.

The problems with the "local specialties" and the Asian instruments, is you have to try a lot of them until you find one that is completely satisfying. When you do, all that you thought you knew about "price points" on instruments vaporizes.

You have to realize that the going price these days for new master-made instruments (by national or international prize winners) is based on a basic desire by the makers to be paid about $100 - $200 per hour for the time they spent making the instrument. This is actually a fair professional "wage" if one can get it. But it is not impossible to find a fine instrument made by someone willing to get $20/hr.

Andy

August 5, 2008 at 11:03 PM · Hi Andy,

You've gotten me excited. This is the first time I am hearing the name Holzapfel. Thank you! I will definitely keep this in mind. I have begun to look up already. Thank you.

August 5, 2008 at 11:16 PM · Trust me, there are solo quality violins that won't break the bank out there.

August 5, 2008 at 11:14 PM · Andy,

Yay, you mentioned Henry Meissner. I was going to mention him, as well. Actually, his son, Fred Meissner, has taken over the business. He lives in Washington State now, but will ship out an instrument to test for no cost. My son has only ever had Meissner violins. His current violin cost $5000 but it's worth $10,000 but there's a long story behind why we were able to get it for that great, great price. (Well, my son's former teacher is a good friend of the family) If my son ever needs a really expensive instrument, say >$20,000, I will start with Fred. Anyone can contact me for his contact information if they'd like.

August 6, 2008 at 12:11 PM · Andrew Victor wrote:

"You have to realize that the going price these days for new master-made instruments (by national or international prize winners) is based on a basic desire by the makers to be paid about $100 - $200 per hour for the time they spent making the instrument."

___________________

Andrew, I think your estimates of income are quite optimistic. :-)

I'd consider that to be highly atypical, even for multiple international prize winners.

I made pretty good money for a few years when I was working 80-90 hour weeks, the equivalent of working two full-time jobs.

Most of us live quite modestly.

August 6, 2008 at 09:52 AM · Sheryl,

You'd be surprised just how much the player can do - a fellow student of mine won a major audition, playing a $1000 student violin.

Also, for the violin search in your price range, I'm not convinced two days will cut it. I'm thinking more along the lines of six months, with trips to different areas. Prince Charming didn't find Cinderella in the first house he visited...

August 6, 2008 at 09:56 AM · Rosalind, I never said violinists earn on average as much as dentists. Though I am sure there are plenty of violinists that earn much more than dentists. All I was trying to say is that many of us have to invest in our careers and I think the price of a violin and a tuxedo is reasonable considering the potential return. Obviously, if you are not very successful as a violinist or are an amateur it is more difficult to justify spending $20000 plus. Most people spend well over $20000 on hobbies and recreation in course of a lifetime, so even if you play just for fun owning a professional instrument is within reach.

August 6, 2008 at 11:26 AM · Hi all,

I have decided to close my comments on In Search of a Master Violin, and I would like to thank those who have given me helpful comments and resources and have been sincere and feeling. I would like to add, though, that if you have ever lived off of a disabilty income and support a business (a business which I love and don't want to dissolve) you would know that it is extremely difficult, especially with the type of business I do, music production for the movies, a tough industry to tackle. I didn't have life handed to me on a silver platter. It has been the contrary and extremely difficult for me financially, both in living and supporting my business and also with the battles of life which I have faced as a female in business pursuing a predominately male career. I sympathize with the luthier, believe there are some great ones out there, and realize they must make a living, of course. I do, however, believe that there is a solution for making professional sounding instruments available to everyone who is sincere and passionate about the instrument and cares. I think it stiffles the arts when there are double standards as to who can afford and who cannot. People may stop and say well I play 10 instruments. I raked and scraped to get them, some on layaway. It takes that many to do instrumentals for movies. I have not made a lot of money, but I am successful within myself, within my heart. I hope, sincerely, that one day everyone who is desiring and passionate about the violin will be able to afford. I didn't use any word, but passionate. I also feel that currently there is no way to inexpensively grade these instruments scientifically to distinguish what it is you're buying in terms of violin sound dynamics. I think the grading system/of classes if any is very dificient. I am looking forward to the day when everyone who is passionate about the violin will be able to afford. Thank you all for your comments.

August 6, 2008 at 01:52 PM · Buying is not the only way.... Yesterday I left a viola for a gifted student on loan (free)for one year, his teacher Peter Pás asked me that and I allways do it whenever possible.

www.manfio.com

August 6, 2008 at 02:24 PM · DAVID, My estimate was based on about 120 hours of labor per violin. This says nothing about "drying time", etc., and the many hours spent in other activities that may be necessary to get the instrument made and sold.

Andy

August 7, 2008 at 05:48 PM · Hi Sheryl,

I bet Hilary Hahn would sound great on your violin, however to be helpful I suggest going for a French violin around 100 years old from the workshop of JTL > Thibouville-Lamy.

The best violins were made by good craftsmen and a good one can sound really great with a decent setup.

Beacause they are classed as trade violins the best sould be under $3-4000 and their antique value is limited.

Good Luck.....Mike

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