What to play when violin shopping?

March 25, 2009 at 06:15 PM ·

When violin shopping, what music do you play when you "try a variety of violins" in order to narrow it down to the 1 or 2 you want to take home for the week for a more extended trial?  Scales?  Concertos?  Bach S&P?  Orchestral excerpts?  Do you play the same thing on each instrument?  If you have 5 or 6 instruments in front of you, how long do you spend on each one?  How do you keep from getting overwhelmed by too many choices?

Replies (47)

March 25, 2009 at 06:34 PM ·

Just as with bows, do a simple three octave scale and go right down the line.  You'll knock out the ones you don't like immediately.  If you're unhappy with something in this simple test, you won't be happy with it no matter what amount of Sibelius you play on it. 

Many players will spend crazy amounts of time playing Tchaik or Lalo at this initial test phase on each violin.  Often times what they're doing is trying to like an instrument and ignore its defficiencies by complicating repertoire. 



March 25, 2009 at 06:44 PM ·

A scale is good and will definitely tell you things -- but to narrow it down to 1-2 I need to play real music on it, to get a feel for what the violin's realtime subtlties are. Play a passage from the repertoire that goes across all the strings and a healthy amount of the fingerboard. Last time I looked for a violin the professional who was helping me played the beginning of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Someoen else at the time recommended that I play the beginning lines of Lalo Symphonie Espagnole. Basically, something that covers a lot of ground and has variety.

March 25, 2009 at 08:06 PM ·

Seems like I've been trying violins for years, and I've learned a few things to listen to from the outset:

1. passages high on the G-string: reject if the sound becomes thick/muffled as you go up

2. passages in 3rd position on the D string: many violins have response/clarity problems in this range. In fact, the D is often a weak or muffled string on many instruments. A good passage to judge is the opening of the slow movement to Mozart 39--this really demands a clear and projecting D string.

3. passages high on the E string: does the sound open up on the highest notes, or close up?

4. Wolfs: which pitches? Are they limited to the G string, or do they persist on the higher strings?

5. Percussive double stops (think Brahms Concerto, Paganini 9, or a Bach fugue). Is the sound harsh? Does the violin "give" when you attack? On a poor instrument, passages like these can really tire the ear for both player and listener alike (sorry modern makers--this is where old instruments have the advantage).

6. String-string response: I'd reject a violin that needs extra bow pressure when changing strings (been there, done that). Be aware of a violin strung up with light gauge strings--it may have a response problem. I like to play the last movement of Mozart 39 as a test, esp. the bottom of the first page--some instruments are very resistant to the string crossings.

7. Tonal transition from E to A strings: I like to try Mozart A-major, the opening where I cross to the g-natural on the 6th note. I'd reject an instrument with a noticeable change in timbre.

8. General clarity: does vibrato need to be wide to be perceived? If so, the overall sound may be too thick. This type of violin can sound pleasing, but be tiring to play if extra vibrato input is required.

9. Can the instrument play really softly? I like to try the Scherzo from Beethoven 3rd symphony.


Something I've found over the years is that while an instrument may have a nice sound, you don't want to spend extra practice time and energy just on mastering the instrument's defects.

For example, on No. 6, I've played on instruments that I could immediately play cleanly and easily on Mozart 39, and some I knew that I'd have to spend hours to get the same results.




March 25, 2009 at 10:12 PM ·

One of the things that most people overlook is how a violin will sound double stops and complex chords.  Once an instrument passes the "scale" test, it's important to get a sense of how it will sound "under load."  My inclination has always been to trend towards violins that have a lush, lyrical sound, but at least a few of the ones I've tried over the years fared much worse with double stops--it was as if the overtone series wasn't quite distributing correctly.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the bow that you've carefully matched to your existing instrument may not be a good fit to the instruments you're trying out.  Don't be scared to also borrow a lighter/heavier bow to get the best possible sense of what it may take to get the best out of an instrument.  I have a lovely but heavy bow that I've played for many years.  It sounds, well, ugly on my best violin, whereas a lighter bow I have just makes the instrument soar.

March 25, 2009 at 10:29 PM ·

Quite good advice from Scott.

I've seen many soloists playing scales in pianissimo (ppp) to test instruments also.

Playing ppp away from the bridge and slowly increasing the volume and aproaching the bow to the bridge till fff is a good test too. On a good instrument you will notice a wide dynamic and different colours as you move the bow towards the bridge and increase the "pressure". 


March 25, 2009 at 10:27 PM ·


>2. passages in 3rd position on the D string: many violins have response/clarity problems in this range. In fact, the D is often a weak or muffled string on many instruments. A good passage to judge is the opening of the slow movement to Mozart 39--this really demands a clear and projecting D string.

Scott, that was a superb list, with the above point being extremely importnat.  Thank you very much! 

I note rather sadly that it has yet to be posted in the fourth estate though....



March 25, 2009 at 11:00 PM ·


Thanks. The problem with the "4th estate" is that too many people thought they should have one as an investment, and now they're renting them out just to cover the mortgage.....


I like the point about checking the violin's reaction to contact point. Some violins will let you play easily right up to the bridge, but some others (like the one I'm selling), sound very nasty.



March 25, 2009 at 11:16 PM ·


Scott,  I did pointedly ask my cat just hw many bedrooms one could really sleep in.  He responded somewhat laconically `all of them.`

Back to the drawing board.

In the meantime i think it is also importnat to check the sheer comfort of the instrument by playing large leaps with the left hand.   Neck shapes nd sizes are variable.



March 26, 2009 at 11:05 AM ·

Some excellent ideas...

Jumping the gun, when you do have it narrowed down to 2-3, try my violin comparison test on my website in the "writings" section - http://rkviolin.com

As far as not getting overwhelmed, experience helps - though I know that in some cases this is a bit of a 'catch-22'. I have a lot of exprerience going through many of violins at auction showings, and at collectors' homes. At the initial testing, I look at the violins as auditioning for me in a preliminary round. I'm frankly looking for what's wrong, what I can easily eliminate. I can often tell that within a few notes. Then in the later rounds I do a shorter version of my test. Chromatic scales in 2 octaves up each string can ferret out wolves (can a ferret really do that?) pinched notes, uneveness etc. But only repertoire can show character. I like to begin and end with something that goes up and down the strings, e.g. the opening of the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky are my favorites. Then on to characteristic passages on each string. There are so many choices for the G. The passage in the Sibelius 1st mvt. after the cadenza, challenges the G to the max. For a little more easy going expressiveness, the opening to the same concerto's 2nd mvt. or the opening to the 2nd mvt. of the Brahms d minor sonata. For the D, I like the opening to the 2nd mvt. of the Bruch. For the A, I like the opening of the Scottish Fantasy or the opening to the Mendelssohn 2nd mvt. For the E, the start of the Mendelssohn, or later in that mvt., the 2nd theme, 2nd time in E. Also the opening of the concertmaster solo in the 2nd mvt. of the Brahms 1st. For chords I like the opening of the Bach Chaconne and the chordal passages in the Brahms concerto.

It's the violin that's being auditioned (for a change!), not you. Don't worry about playing perfectly. However, you should play passages that are fairly in your fingers. If you're struggling with technical difficuties or memory, it only takes attention away from the violin. I'm willing to put up with normal levels of response/resistance of a new violin. But it shouldn't feel quite like pulling teeth! Even with a lot of experience in trying a lot of violins at once, everyone has limitations of concentration and discernment. It helps to make some notes. But when you've had enough, stop!

PS - I see that somehow the issue of cats has come up. My dear departed cat was my biggest critic. She didn't care for my playing at all - especially the high notes!

March 26, 2009 at 01:42 AM ·

Stairway to Heaven?

March 26, 2009 at 04:04 AM ·


I think you mistyped the word "cat" when you really meant "Irish Elkhound," "Mastiff," or Weimaraner. 


March 26, 2009 at 02:01 PM ·

Wow, thanks!  These lists are extremely helpful.  However, I'm not ready to attempt the concertos of Tchaik, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Sibelius in public at this time.  Or Lalo.  (Maybe later, in the privacy of my own home, for the guinea pigs.)   But the orchestral excerpts and Mozart concerto are great ideas, which I will seek out.

On my blog I had put together a short list of things I have worked on and/or performed recently or in the past, which are comfortable under my fingers:

  • 3-octave G-major scale
  • Fantasia on Greensleeves (has a variety of ranges and styles, some high on the G, some nice high E parts)
  • Handel sonata in F Mvt. 2 (string crossings, A&D 3rd position)
  • Ben Clapton's Pachelbel canon arrangement with double stops (easy double stops that I can play off the top of my head and that sound nice when I do)
  • Excerpts with bariolage from Bach Preludio from Partita in E (bariolage bowing and string crossings)
  • Excerpts from 1st violin part of Dvorak Slavonic Dance #1 (to watch out for screeching)
  • Opening of 1st violin part of Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien (high on G)
  • Clarke Passacaglia for viola transposed up a 5th
  • Cincinnati Hornpipe or Harvest Home fiddle tunes 

And I'm still not sure if I could identify a wolf tone if I heard one.  Do most instruments have them?

March 26, 2009 at 02:17 PM ·

A wolf note is a note that does not sound continuously, the sound is "broken" or "rasped". In general you will find it on the 7th position on the G string,  around the C.  Some players will discover it just when they start to study some difficult solo pieces.


March 26, 2009 at 02:16 PM ·

LOL...I'm obviously very low tech.  I play a couple of fiddle tunes (with lots of open strings).  I play up the E string to make sure it's clear.

I always play the same stuff...so it's easy to compare whatever I'm comparing...(be it instruments, strings - but that's harder, bows, etc.)


March 26, 2009 at 09:41 PM ·

FWIW, my daughter had an abbreviated way of trying instruments. She would play scales to pick out a few from a bunch shops laid out. On the few selected she played Saraband from Bach D minor partita to narrow it down. Before deciding which instruments to bring home to try, she played Mozart #4. Those were pieces she was working on at the time.

I am sure this is not a professional way to shop for an instrument. It worked for her, a kid. The procedure was very short. She could keep her focus. Her teacher agreed with her selections every time. They are still happy with her final choice after about a year.

March 26, 2009 at 02:25 PM ·

March 26, 2009 at 02:51 PM ·

I follow the same routine of musical segments that I use when bow shopping. However, for violins there are a couple of things I do to quickly reject some instruments.

1. 2-octave scale on the G string.

2. Natural (and fingered harmonics) to reject those instruments that are too unforgiving or weak in this area.

I see no point in doing a complete trial of an instrument that will fail in these two serious areas.

Unfortunately, sometimes an instrument can fail either or both of these tests (or any others) simly because it does not have strings that are right for IT.


March 26, 2009 at 03:39 PM ·

1st open strings, with varying weight-to judge natural resonance.  Then play and compare the ringing tones across all strings and positions to check for evenness and tone across every G, D, A, and E on the violin.  If you don't like an instrument after this, you won't like it much later.

2ndly scales 3 or 4 octave.  How the instrument sounds across a continuum of notes, both resonant and not so....more fiddle will get nixed here.

Lastly-a few rep samples.  Paganini caprices are great, as they require the full range of an instrument in terms of tonal ability high and low on the fingerboard, agility in response, as well as varying tone colors...they are also short and compact so you don't need to jump around excerpts.

March 26, 2009 at 04:04 PM ·

Yes a Paganini Caprice or two.  If I can play them I'll buy the violin.  Though with a nagging suspicion I have just sold my soul to the devil.  A very useful discussion, which confirms what I suspected, that until I can play more stuff it is premature to be looking for a better instrument.  But at least my cats no longer run away when I go towards the case.

March 26, 2009 at 07:54 PM ·

>Yes a Paganini Caprice or two.  If I can play them I'll buy the violin. 

Same goes for me.  If I can play a couple of his caprices, I will pay $1 million for the fiddle.

So it's probably safe to say, I'll never spend $1 million on a fiddle  :-)

March 26, 2009 at 05:44 PM ·

I would think whatever your routine is, to play that.  Until you are playing in the upper positions and using the harmonics why pay for something that can do what you cannot do just yet?  I mean, when you get to the point of playing beyond intermidiate say Bachlor's level, Master's level, Ph.D. level THEN get the instrument that will do what those levels do.  And as you advance, your tastes will change, you acquire a more mature taste.  As your ear develops what you thought was sounding elegant may seem otherwise.  Does this make any since?


ps: And I play Pagannini Caprice #1. The first note is a down bow, the second an up bow and the metranome is set to 10 beats a minuet....so there!

March 26, 2009 at 07:35 PM ·

What if you can't play advanced level repertoire, ie Pag, Tchaik, Sibelius?

March 26, 2009 at 09:30 PM ·

Again, play what you're comfortable with, and what's fairly in your fingers. Think of your own repertoire, and whether you can find some representative passages that go across the strings (-the beginning of Accolay comes to mind-), and others that focus on each string. Also, at any level, it's a good idea to play fairly short passages on each instrument for comparison purposes. Play a passage on vln. A, then the same on B. Repeat. You should start hearing differences.

Speaking of levels, once as a fairly advanced high school senior I was at the Wurlitzer shop not long before they closed, trying a couple of fiddles. In a nearby room was another violinist doing the same. He played expressive passages with a level of polish, beauty and sophistication that made the idea "better than me" beside the point. We were in entirely different worlds. I decided to cease for a while and stop my comparitive caterwaling. I also sneaked to the window of the room where the heavenly sounds were emenating from. I recognized the player. It was David Nadien!

March 26, 2009 at 11:00 PM ·

Michael, I'm in that boat also.  As I said, I'm not ready to inflict my rendition of Tchaik or Lalo on innocent violin shop sales staff or other shoppers.  But thinking about your point got me back to thinking about why I want a new violin in the first place.  I feel that my current instrument is holding me back in terms of being able to achieve a rich, warm sound in the lower register, on the G string in particular.  I recently discussed with my teacher that I would like to spend more time and effort on that, and on the right hand in particular.  I'm tired of sounding like a student.  I probably always will, to some extent, but I can get better.

The reason I think this has at least in part to do with my hardware and isn't just my lack of technique is that I come much closer to achieving the sound I want on my viola.  Other people can do it on a violin as well, so I'm assuming it can be done, just not by me with my current violin and bow.  It's that rich, warm, sound in the low register that I'm looking for most of all.  But then I have to make sure that I don't get so wrapped up in that search that I lose the things that my current violin does reasonably well, such as its clear and bell-like A and E.  

March 27, 2009 at 10:39 AM ·

When trying a number of violins at the same time, a common mistake I see people make is to start out playing long excerpts. This is when I see the greatest confusion. Precise memory of sound degrades badly with time. Play several measures, or a one octave scale, and move quickly through the lineup. This will quickly eliminate a few.

Then do the same thing in a different register. If the first scale started on the G, start the next on on the A, and run down the line again.

At that point, it might be worth looking for playability problems which haven't been noticed yet with the violins which have survived so far, like a wolf. If a violin sounds good, it will have a wolf. It's only a matter of degree. Some might be bad enough that certain notes are unplayable, or a wolf might be mild enough that only one who is skilled in bringing them out will notice. Some players are skilled at compensating for a wolf, and this gives them choices of instruments not available to others. If looking for a wolf has been the first thing on a player's agenda, the player has always been an amateur.

Balance is something that there's not wide agreement on. I've heard some top players say things like, "Why would I bother to play something high on the G string, if the D string sounded the same, and playing on the D would be easier?" In other words, the same sound across all the strings isn't necessarilly a desirable trait.

The next step might be to see how well the instrument works in the higher positions. This can be quite a revelation! Some choke up (especially on the G), and some are amazingly sonorous and easy to play.

Only then (I believe) is it worth the trouble of putting a violin through its paces, as you would use it normally, playing longer selections.

This hasn't been an attempt to cover all the bases. There is so much more. Does vibrato sound "magical" and "wet", or boring? Will it respond at pp and ff? How about various bowing techniques? How hard can it be "pushed"? Can you hear yourself when playing in an orchestra? How does it sound at a distance, or in a hall? Has one played enough violins, and is one's technique variable enough that each violin tried can be optimized, or will a limited playing palette limit the choices?

March 27, 2009 at 01:30 AM ·

Well the question was posed as "what do you play..." ;>)


Play pieces that are fluent in your playing and memory--things that are both in the upper positions and low, with a variety of bowings.  The Paganini Caprices have all this-hence my personal preference. 

Often times a violin will require a certain approach to get the best sound out-you don't want to short a set of excerpts, otherwise you don't have time to experiment with how you are playing the instrument.

An otherwise good violin, played in a manner it does not like-can get written off.

March 27, 2009 at 01:46 AM ·

It may sound silly, but after trying  more than a dozen violins, my daughter tried the one we bought. It only took her a few moments but she played a little bit and then said that this is the one she liked.

The price was a bit higher than what we were expecting but it felt like 'the one' to her and we went with it.

March 27, 2009 at 04:28 AM ·

Fiddle tunes.... since that is about all I know.

Greensleves, Fire on the Mountain, Devil Went Down to Georgia, and just for fun, a waltz.

March 27, 2009 at 05:42 AM ·

A beautiful sounding violin will bring you to tears, even though you're playing something pretty simple like minuets.

I was playing for a product launching dinner, client wanted some soothing background music. I played some slow and simple celtic with my beloved violin, it was catching everyone's attentions. I don't think my playing is great, but the violin did offer me to express myself so much easier, an experience I never had during the past of violins I've owned.

March 27, 2009 at 12:13 PM ·

just want to respond to a point made by scott earlier in the thread where he talked about string-string response,,,

i have one violin which has a very good sound, but i felt the string-string response is lacking, that is, i have to press harder when moving onto the second string. 

turns out, the issue is the set up.  with a higher bridge in this case, that problem completely went away and other things kicked up couple notches as well.  so, it can be challenging what to make of a violin that does not sound out right desirable, taking into consideration that not all violins are necessarily at their most optimal set up states.

in this link (a quite long art history class that reminds me of the college days for that easy A:),  in the second half of the clip, they talk about the type of sound that different violinists are looking for...the modern bigger sound vs the softer, colorful sound of older instruments..   at about 1 hour into the clip, she plays the violins.


March 27, 2009 at 12:07 PM ·

I actually wouldn't disagree with Roland or Casey. You do need to play what you know and what you're comfortable with. And if the excerpts I suggested are not those that would readily come into your fingers, then there's no point in trying to play them. Just playing on the open strings of a fine violin as I begin to tune it, gives me pleasure. (Finishing the tuning process to my satisfaction is another issue!)

However, the question is: when having a number of violins before you, what to play and for how long, so that in a short period of time, without too much confusion, you have a fairly decent idea of what the instrument is capable of - at least to the point of narrowing down the candidates, and wanting to take one or two home for  more extensive trials.

Our needs and purposes must be factored-in as well. What are we going to do with the violin - and bow, too for that matter - most of the time? To what use will we put it? As a sometime soloist and frequent professional orchestral musician who also plays chamber music, I may have different criteria for challenging an instrument to see if it can aid me in trying to meet my own challenges.

March 27, 2009 at 05:19 PM ·

I'm glad that somebody got accross what I was trying to say earlier. :^)

March 27, 2009 at 09:16 PM ·

It makes sense to play things that you know, but I was just a little bit confused becuase it seemed like you could only play virtuosic things to pick out the best insturment.



March 27, 2009 at 10:52 PM ·

Sorry Karen, this is somewhat afield, but I wanted to mention there is an interesting question about what a violin can do and what it can't do--how much of what you hear is the violin and how much is the violinist?  I find trying violins to be as much a test of myself as the violin.  Where is the line between the violin and the violinist?  Not to be more confusing . . . I don't have any answers, I just think it's interesting.  It has a lot to do with why we end up with the instruments we choose--because they're right for what we need and what we can do at the time.

That's why, in my opinion, it's most important to pay attention to what you enjoy.  I bet if you gave each one of the violins a few minutes, you would start to get an idea of which ones you preferred.  You've already had great advice about what to play.  I'd also suggest finding a proficient violin friend to play them for you in a hall.  I did that before my recent violin purchase.  The way the violin sounds against your ear can be very different than the way it sounds in the hall.  I was shocked at how much actually. 

March 27, 2009 at 11:06 PM ·

This is a very illuminating thread, even for those of us who are not currently in the market.  Without minimizing the contributions of others, I'd like to express my particular thanks to David Burgess, Raphael Klayman, Marc Bettis and Scott Cole for generously taking the time to share their knowledge and experience with the rest of us.

March 28, 2009 at 04:26 AM ·

Aw shucks, Bill - :-) and Michael, if you'll notice, the majority of my repertoire suggestions above are expressive passages from various concertos, etc. Some 'toughies' can't be helped too much -eg chord tests - though of course, some chords are easier than others. In that experience I had with Nadien, he was also playing expressive passages (-don't remember what). I might play faster things to test an instrument's response.

Also Kimberly is absolutely right that when it comes time to test for projection, you need a friend to listen at a distance. But in absence of that, I sometimes compare instruments while holding them at arm's length - an approach that obviously limits what I can play, but is still somewhat useful. Even at a distance of a couple feet at arm's length vs a couple of inches under the ear, some differences can emerge, with a seemingly weak note of one fiddle beginning to catch up to the earstwhile stronger note on the other. It's still no substitute for a real projection test. 15-20 feet away in an apartment already makes a difference. A couple of times I had the privilege of doing a comparison test in Carnegie Hall - that was a trip!

March 28, 2009 at 09:29 AM ·

My previous response was a bit too wordy. ;-)

What I meant to put special emphasis on is that quick A-B comparisons of 5 - 10 second passages in individual registers will provide both sound and playability comparative detail which will be lost otherwise. Keep going back and forth between instruments, with short passages in each register, and eventually you've covered the entire range of every instrument.

The reason I suggest breaking the testing up into registers is that If you end one passage on the E string, and start playing the next violin on the G, you will have already lost some detailed memory of what the previous violin's G sounded like. Compare the G with the G on another violin, the D with the D, etc.

The iimportance of a short time frame has been reinforced again and again, particularly when doing sound adjustments, where we're trying to hear very subtle, almost indistinguishable changes.

It's somewhat like trying to pick a  paint color at the paint store to match your wall at home, from memory. Never works. When you get them side-by-side and can go immediately from one to the other, the differences stand out.

March 28, 2009 at 11:23 AM ·

Raphael, I see what you mean.  But it probably couldn't hurt if you played showy stuff, right?

March 28, 2009 at 12:02 PM ·

Of course it couldn't hurt! This sort of process can be very tiring, but it also should be fun.

March 28, 2009 at 12:35 PM ·

I just wish I could play those flashy things


March 28, 2009 at 04:46 PM ·

"I just wish I could play those flashy things"

Keep working at it and you will!

March 28, 2009 at 06:12 PM ·

Ideally you would get someone else to play it so that you can get a chance to hear what it sounds like out from under your ear

Sure, you should try violins in the shop to narrow down the selection to a few contenders, but at that point I would then want a trial period. The tryout room at one of our local shops has hardwood floors & lots of cabinets with glass. Very resonant & instruments tend to sound brilliant in there (I think I had the same impression at Reuning, btw). I'd need to hear the violin in the surroundings that I frequent (at home, in orchestra and at chamber music get-togethers) in order to make the final decision a more-informed one.

March 28, 2009 at 10:24 PM ·

To hear an instrument from a distance, you can record yourself.  I use a Zoom H2 recorder and the sound quality is terrific.

March 29, 2009 at 12:18 AM ·

For the violin, first page of the Tzigane then the slow theme end of first page of the Brahms on the E string.  For the viola I'd test the G string with part of the Bliss Sonata, along with low C and high A resonances.

April 1, 2009 at 05:09 AM ·

 I play a fast piece and a slow piece where I can test out the resonance. For slow, I would play Chorus from Judas Machabas by handel, or something of that nature. For a fast song, I would play Hungarian Dance #5 by Brahms.

April 1, 2009 at 12:23 PM ·

Romance in B flat major by Joseph Joachim -- the Strad had it on its web site some time ago.  Every string gets played in up to at least fifth position.

Good luck, and let us know how things turn out!


April 1, 2009 at 03:22 PM ·


Since you're working on Barber 1st mvt why not use that? It covers all the strings, including higher positions on each string. It needs a variety of colors, and a beautiful legato. Top of the 2nd page you'll find out about response. Between 10 and 11 you have double stops, and also in the cadenza. Lots of high E string - is it thin or piercing?

But try a couple of other styles as well. I really like to use Mozart for trying instruments. Doesn't have to be a concerto - could be a symphony or quartet mvt.

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