My search for a great violin

March 13, 2011 at 10:53 PM ·




For anyone who's interested, I just had one of the most interesting years of my life. I am an ophthalmologist who started playing the violin at age 5, but stopped completely about 15 years ago when I began my busy medical practice. Many times over the last 15 years I had fleeting moments of resolution to start playing again, and also to do what I've always wanted to do, which is to find a really great violin to play and enjoy. Until now, I've only had one full size violin, a common German factory violin with the seemingly ubiquitous Schweitzer label dated 1813. So last January I began simultaneously playing again and actively searching for my ideal violin. My journey started fast and accelerated continuously, as I earnestly tried over one hundred violins ranging from very old to very new. Starting with a self-imposed budget of $20,000, I quickly discovered that I could not find a good, old Italian violin that I liked. Likewise the modern Italian violins that I tried in this range or slightly higher were not to my personal liking from a sound standpoint. I also quickly realized that the sound of a violin does not necessarily correlate with the price. I searched in every violin shop in my area, including some very well known and respected ones, and broadened my investigation to include shops in other parts of the country, having violins sent to me to try for a week or two. One local shop owner, after hearing me play the modern violins in my initial price range, handed me a $150,000 Enricco Rocca, saying "This is the violin you're going to want." Indeed, it was a beautiful sounding violin, with a sweet and expressive sound, with versatility and color, but lacking, I thought, in power. In addition, it had a sound post crack repair, which in my mind made this modern Italian violin too expensive and not ideal. However, it did introduce to me to the idea that I might be willing to spend more money if I had to in order to find my dream violin. And although, as I stated earlier, I realized there is not a direct correlation between price and sound, there were certainly more options and a higher likelihood of finding my dream violin if I explored more violins outside of my original price range. Soon after, I tried my first Vuillaume, an 1828 Strad model, and I felt for the first time that I had found the sound I wanted. It was deep, powerful, warm yet bright enough when I wanted it to be, easy to play, pretty to look at, and at $170,000 very expensive compared to what I had been looking at before. Despite the staggering increase in price, however, I seriously considered it, and the shop generously let me hold onto it for several weeks. Over the ensuing weeks, as I considered this great Vuillaume, I managed to try several other Vuillaumes ranging from 1826 to 1867, some Strad models and some Del Gesu models. I realized that in general, Vuillaumes were some really great sounding instruments, and that the first one I had tried would not be the violin I would ultimately buy. So I returned that first Vuillaume, somewhat sadly, but grateful for the fact that it introduced me to this wonderful maker. For several more months I tried many violins, and on a business trip to Baltimore I met Roger Perrin of Perrin & Associates violin shop. He kindly assembled and presented to me about twenty violins by mainly contemporary makers. I had only tried about three contemporary violins prior to this trip, and was not too impressed, but when I played through the impressive array at Roger Perrin's shop, I was awakened to the amazing quality of workmanship and sound achievable by today's makers. Subsequently, I tried several more contemporary makers over the next few months, which resulted in my purchasing a beautiful Gregg Alf Strad copy completed in 2010. This violin has a deep, warm and powerful sound, not unlike the sound I admired in some of the Vuillaumes I tried. In addition, it is a beautiful looking instrument. Six months after I acquired my Alf violin, Gregg's office informed me he would be coming to my area for business reasons, and that he would like to meet me to examine and adjust my new violin. As it worked out, he came to my house, shared a friendly dinner with my family and a couple friends, and spent hours discussing violins and violin making as he leisurely played and adjusted my violin. We were honored to provide lodging overnight at our house, as he had to be at an appointment the following day fifty miles away. There is something very meaningful in being able to talk to the maker of your violin, making the process and the instrument much more personal. Gregg Alf strikes me as a deeply sincere person, passionate about his craft, a leader in his field, and a dedicated family man. He has integrity, which is a trait not universally found in the world of violin buying and selling.

A couple of months ago, a local professional violinist, whose beautiful 1867 Strad model Vuillaume I had coveted for over a year, called me indicating that she was willing to sell it to me. My heart leapt, revealing to me that my violin search had not ended with my cherished Alf instrument. At the same time, a local violin dealer that knew I was interested in Vuillaumes called with news of a recently available 1870 Del Gesu model Vuillaume with an incredible sound. I loved them both, as they were certainly the two best sounding violins I had tried to date, albeit very different from one another. The Strad copy was powerful and bright, with a "shimmery" quality, and in immaculate condition. The Del Gesu copy was deep, warm and powerful, with a complexity of color and rich overtones, also in great condition. I realized that I was about to decide to buy a Vuillaume, and that I would have to decide on one. After playing them for my family and my violin teacher (with whom I had recently begun lessons again 28 years after my last lesson), I decided on one...the Strad copy. This was based not on the sound alone, because I loved the sound of both, but ultimately on the incredible condition of this particular Vuillaume, and the extra fine detail that went into the making of this particular bench copy. However, this was not the end of the story, as my family was so impressed also with the quality of the other violin. To my great surprise and joy, my family informed me that they would like to buy the other Vuillaume as in investment for the family trust, and that I would be it's player and caretaker. So it turns out that after a little over a year of intense playing and searching, I am now the proud and undeserving possessor of three of what I believe are among the finest violins on earth: a 2010 Gregg Alf, an 1870 Del Gesu model Vuillaume, and an 1867 Strad model Vuilluame. Playing the violin again, and having a great instrument to play, has returned a great joy to my life that I had neglected and taken for granted before. I plan never to let that happen again.

Now I need to find a good bow...

Replies (42)

March 14, 2011 at 03:42 AM ·

Congratulation on coming back to the violin world! And gee that's a lot of money to spent and glad you're able to afford and enjoy fine instruments!

As for the bow...seriously, for a price of the vuillaume, you can probably find a nice F.X. Tourte bow, a great investment like your vuillaume alongside with its fame on playability and sound. If you're not getting a Tourte, you can definitely get 2~4 great old french bows depends on the maker. Good luck to your fascinating journey on violin and bow hunting!

March 14, 2011 at 04:09 AM ·

Congrats!  I have heard good things about Alf, but have not had the opportunity to sample his work.  I also had a similar experience with a Vuillaume once, but managed to keep my money in the bank :-).  And I also noticed that the strad patterns tend to have a sweeter sound while Del Gesu's tend to be warmer with more overtones.  Please keep us informed on the bow hunt.  It is always fun to live vicariously on other people's investments.  I'm anxious to see what you decide to buy -- perhaps a Sartory, two Tourtes and a Peccatte?  :-)

[edit] BTW, I went through a similar violin hunt about two years ago and found a contemporary Italian that does what I want.  I also went through a bow hunt and ended up with an older German bow.  Don't overlook the old German bows if you are considering cheap bows, e.g., under $10K :-)  They seem to offer the best bang for the buck in that price range.

March 14, 2011 at 02:20 PM ·

 this thread reads a little differently from the one on arts being held hostage:).  it may pull some out of depression and push others into depression:)

but seriously, congrads on a success story-i am grouping all 3 violins in one-on many levels.  once in a while, it is refreshing to read about people doing good and doing well in a world full of chaos and problems.

as smiley has previously exhaustively illustrated, and reaffirmed in this thread,  even with disposable resources, buying a great sounding violin to one's own liking is no walk in the park and requires due diligence of the highest level.

since steven must be overwhelmed by 3 new additions to his family, i would like to be the first nice person to house one of the violins for him if the need arises:)

March 15, 2011 at 11:03 AM ·

 Regarding bows, I heard of a player who owned a Strad and 6 Bultitudes ! I have 6 Watsons, but alas, no Strad.

Congratulations on finding satisfaction. As I expect you have read on these threads, some players take far longer to come to a decision - and it isn't always just a matter of spending megabucks. 

Looking back to the days when I owned a circa 1850 "Strad" reproduction Vuillaume, I think I was daft not to look around for a Tubbs, which in hindsight I think might have suited it well. I feel sure that as an opthalmologist you will be able to see your way clear to seeking out one for trial, but try to avoid the really whippy ones.


March 23, 2011 at 07:52 PM ·

Thanks guys for the kind words of congratulations and bow advice.  I know it's a lot of money, and I don't take it for granted that it is a huge blessing and a privilege to be able to own these beautiful instruments.  I don't mind so much that I won't be able to eat, buy any clothes, go on vacation, or pay for utilities such as water and heat for the next several's worth it. 

Regarding my bow hunt, I have been looking.  For my Alf violin, I had bought a nice Pascal Camurat bow (a contemporary Parisian maker), that sounded and felt very good with that violin.  A few months later I was offered a nice gold and tortoise shell Roger Gerome bow that played even better on the Alf, and it was a great I have that one too.  Since acquiring the Vuillaumes, I've been trying more bows.  I am currently trying a great Yannick Le Canu bow and a Sandrine Raffin bow, and a beautiful gold mounted Stephane Thomachot bow with a mesmerizing flame pattern on the stick.  Of these, the Thomachot feels the best, but it's a little heavy at just over 62 grams.  I'm  thinking seriously about it though.  But the most exciting development in my bow hunt occured just last week when a friend of mine with an amazing collection of bows allowed me to choose a couple of bows, an opportunity I just could not pass up.  So after an intensive session of bow trying, I got a mint-condition black and silver Sartory with an amazingly solid yet deft feel, and the ability to draw the nicest tone from all my violins, especially the Del Gesu copy Vuillaume.  I also got a never used gold and tortoise shell William Watson bow, which is octagonal and surprisingly agile, also with a great sound on my violins. 

So, I should be set for a while.  However, I see how dangerously addiciting bow collecting can be, as every bow has a unique feel and playing characterstics, and it's fascinating to experience the different tonal colors and textures each bow elicits from the same violin.  But I think I need to wait until I win the lottery before I consider anything else. 

May 10, 2012 at 04:55 AM · Mmm... I would suggest softer bows. It should really bring out the tone of both of your violins. If you prefer a very stable bow then you can consider Voirin, Lamy, and pre-1900 Sartory. Stephane Thomachot makes his wonderful bows in this style. I owned one for a long while. If you are like me, who now prefer the flexibility and enjoying letting the bow plays it self, then consider makers from early to mid-1800 such as the Peccattes, Maline, Simon, and Henry. Many contemporary makes bows are made in this model too, especially the contemporary French makers. There's always Charles Espey!

May 10, 2012 at 05:47 AM · Steven -- I enjoyed reading about your search for a new violin. Similar to you, I took a long break from the violin before taking it up again last year. I didn't enjoy/appreciate it as much growing up, but since last year, I've been hooked... A few months ago I also began a search for a new violin. I trialed a few modern violins, but then I started experimenting with different strings on my current violin and got a bow re-hair as well. The tinkering made a big difference and I'm thinking that I'll keep my current violin for a while. Although I'm constantly wondering if there is another violin out there that I would enjoy playing much more than mine. Perhaps it's best I don't find out so I can keep both my bank account and my wife happy!

May 10, 2012 at 10:38 AM · Thanks for sharing your search journey. I was particularly struc by "There is something very meaningful in being able to talk to the maker of your violin, making the process and the instrument much more personal." because thats exactly what happened to me with my violin - also 2010 (I'm the first owner) made by local (toronto) luthier John Newton.

I wonder if one can become violin-gypsies - constantly looking for that perfect instrument that is going to improve your sound just that bit more. Of course, its always a ballance between how good your violin is and how good you are but the temptation seems to be very strong to up the game with a better instrument! But for me I'm happy where I am, 'Gravitas' still has a lot more in him than I can yet express.

May 10, 2012 at 01:32 PM · Congratulations, Steven.

My Vuillaume was lost in my divorce. You are set up now for 2 divorces.

May 10, 2012 at 01:36 PM · Just a trifle cynical Mr Beck... Maybe the sweet sound of the violins will enrich his relationships and make him too valuable to loose .. :p

May 10, 2012 at 01:47 PM · Or if he is mormon, he can have a matching wife for each violin :-). Only problem, wives are sometimes (not always) more expensive than violins.

May 10, 2012 at 02:14 PM · My second wife bought me a bow.

May 10, 2012 at 02:27 PM · There's a continuing thread on the forum about age, whether you can learn when you're older, etc. Well, here's an example of the good side of it. All those wonderful instruments one may have dreamed about when young now become possible, having built a successful career. Not all of us can indulge ourselves so generously, but what a wonderful story this is, of a man with real passion (would you have the energy to search for and try so many violins?)liberated back into the music he had to put aside for so long.

And I will make a second point here: once music is a part of you, it will never disappear, and is always ready to come back when you're ready for it.

May 10, 2012 at 02:33 PM · "once music is a part of you, it will never disappear"

Agreed ! Though I underwent many orchestral experiences that might have acted as aversion therapy, I never managed to kick the habit.

May 10, 2012 at 03:09 PM · But its odd how, even after immersion in it, we can ignore it for decades. Or at least playing it - I'm willing to bet that every (classical music) returner is also an avid classical music listener..

May 10, 2012 at 03:29 PM ·'s been a year+ since the original post...I wonder what bow Steven has purchased? :D

May 14, 2012 at 04:26 AM · MIke's comment about softer bow is very interesting to me. I would greatly appreciate any thoughts or elaboration on what qualities make a "softer" bow, and whether the actual tension (e.g. distance between the stick and the hair) by itself would make a bow softer or less soft or have no overall effect. I have a 100 year old French bow that I really like playing and it is a very flexible stick. I like the sound most when its tension is pretty minimal (distance between stick and hair not more than stick diameter) but I keep hitting the wood on the strings and it gets annoying. Thank you. Tom

May 17, 2012 at 08:51 PM · Congratulations Steven! How I wish I could allocate so much fund for violins! You kind of completed your journey of searching, but I just started. Hope mine won't be a tough experience.

May 17, 2012 at 10:09 PM · always keep in mind that the setup of the violin is also important. If an instrument sounds good but has problems lets say in higher registers, maybe other strings could help. Sometimes changing just the a and e can make a differnece to the whole violin. in terms of playability many things are adjustable too. Response depends mostly on the bow and the player in my opinion.

i am a little jaelous of people owning two vuillaumes and a fine new violin! You are very lucky!

May 17, 2012 at 10:14 PM · What Simon said. Also see my comments on your other thread, Kevin. I hope you have some experienced violinist with you when pick an expensive instrument. And don't rush. There are more good violins out there than you'd believe:)

May 18, 2012 at 12:44 PM · Thanks Yixi! I'll be patient to some extent :-)

May 19, 2012 at 03:38 AM · Perhaps one of the flaws in the OP's initial approach was needing to have something Italian?

May 19, 2012 at 06:28 AM · First of all, congratz..

but damn. I envy you. lol...been playing for years but I still can't afford a quality instrument.

still playing on my $700 violin and nameless bow

May 19, 2012 at 06:39 AM · Boy, I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world by owning a Guarneri Vuillaume violin,a Sartori and a voirin bow, but I see there are guys out there that are even luckier than me.I bought My Vuillaume in 1990 from Hills in England. And I was told by Andrew Hill that they kept it in their vaults for the last 80 or 90 years as it was one of the finest they ever encountered. At the time they were selling everything as they were going out of business.It is a 1857 violin, has no cracks, and the most beautiful scroll you could ever encounter on a Vuillaume. It has been compared with other Vuillaumes, even with ones that sell for a premium because of beauty or superior sound and mine comes up on top. It comes out on top even when compared with violins 4 times the price. I don't know Vuillaumes secrets, but he surely had some.I paid a premium on this violin at the time, but I never regretted buying it.I implore violinists to buy Vuillaumes as because they are French they do not command the price of old Italians, are healthier and sound every bit as good as an old Italian.

May 22, 2012 at 04:51 AM · I noticed my thread from over a year ago has been resurrected! I truly appreciate all your kind words of congratulations for my good fortune to have these beautiful instruments. I know it's a blessing, and I also view it as a great responsibility to preserve them and play them as well as I can. For example, I keep them carefully in quality cases, gently wipe the rosin off the strings and wood after every playing, and store them in a 700 lb gun case with a hygrometer to measure humidity. I'm no David Fulton with a climate controlled vault room, but I do the best I can.

Regarding bows, I'm still looking (and I always will, I fear). I love my Sartory. It's in mint condition and will be included in a book on Sartory bows by a prominent bow expert. So I am very careful with it and am conscious of trying to minimize wear to it. I am enjoying my Yannick Le Canu bow, which actually produces a fuller sound on my Vuillaumes than the Sartory, but is not quite as nimble. I have commissioned a bow from Isaac Salchow recently, which may take up to a couple years to get! I've fallen in love with another players Lamy bow, and yet another's Vigneron. A couple Voirin's have crossed my path, and I wish I had one of those too! This is a dangerous yet wonderful passion that has come upon me. I am currently borrowing a beautiful Vincenzo Panormo violin which is in amazing condition and has a gorgeous sound. I'm pretty sure that I will be trying out beautiful violins and bows for the rest of my's too much fun!

I can honestly say that since owning these great violins, not a day has gone by that I haven't practiced at least two hours, unless I was away on a trip or interrupted by a family medical crisis. My life has been transformed by the rediscovery of my love of the violin and music, and I feel that my more mature state now fosters a more mature appreciation and study of the violin. My life has known great joy as well as great tragedy with my wife being paralyzed in a car accident several years ago. I believe that being subjected to these extremes of life, and being open to the lessons that are available from them, has informed my appreciation for the magnificence of the violin. For I now view this amazing instrument as one of the truly great accomlishments of mankind's creativity and intelligence, maybe even inspired by the creator to be used for his glory. I know of no other musical instrument that can evoke the range and intensity of human emotion that the violin can, and it is supremely unconquerable in terms of its potential for beauty. Please forgive my schmaltzy ramblings, and thank you for indulging me by restarting this thread.

May 22, 2012 at 08:13 AM · Best wishes to you and your family, Steven.

May 22, 2012 at 08:49 AM · Steven,

Thank you for sharing - both about your passion for violins and 'violining' - and also about your life.

I find I have a few paralells, with the violin passion at least. I too returned a few years ago, feel incredibly privilidged to be able to play and also do so at least 2 hrs a day 'come rain or shine'. If I had the resources I would no doubt go on the merry chase of instruments too, its another route to immersion in this other world. But I have spent all I can - and have found an instrument that fulfills my needs (made right here in Toronto - I am 'Gravitas' first owner and a now a good friend of his creator too (we play quartets).

For me its not using the violin to provide sound for others, although I do get tremendous pleasure from performing (despite anxieties) its because the violin permits me to express something inside that can not come out any other way. And like you the instrument is a solace for life. Perhaps it is so for every player.

May 22, 2012 at 02:52 PM · Vincenzo Panormo's violins are a joy to play. Would be great to have one for chamber music. Among my favourites too, but not in the budget.

July 3, 2012 at 06:07 AM · How much does an ophthalmologist in private practice pull down these days? Since you are entertaining everyone with the details of your buying spree, can you comment on what percentage of your business is via medicare? I am willing to bet it is a lot ( > 80 percent). So are you essentially a highly paid government worker spending other's tax collections on your violin collection??

July 3, 2012 at 06:24 AM · Tom, you are going too far on this thread. So much jealousy in some of you people!! He has studied hard to become a ophthalmologist, and let him enjoy it by investing into violins and telling us. Its amazing stories. I don't earn much and grew up in a poor family, but why would I be irritated on Steven? I am glad for him!! And I perform on a 300 euro violin with a 15 euro bow regularly.

Being happy for others rather than directly putting them down, is a way of keeping the good atmosphere in the society, and supporting individualism. Steven is no extreme case as are hockey players, hollywood movie actors, etc. These extreme cases, where little studies and little efforts are needed to suck money like a black hole, you can question, as well as superrich companies such as Apple, etc.

If you come with arguments such as "80% of your salary comes from taxes, and you waste it on violins?" OK: so whats better to waste it on?

A house? -- waste of energy, what a shame!!

Travels? -- turning taxes into pollution! unforgivable.

Family? -- our planet is already overpopulated, and there is limited amount of natural resources.


A violin is the least harmful of all the options what you can invest the money into.

July 3, 2012 at 08:50 AM · Tom, an ophthalmologist earns his/her living by providing medical services. What difference does it make whether it's the government, insurance company, or individual paying the bill? And who are you to decide how others should spend their discretionary income, whether they are government employees or not??

July 3, 2012 at 12:37 PM · Tom,

Nice of you to take time away from the "occupy" movement and respond to this thread. Now, go back to your tent.

July 3, 2012 at 01:03 PM · why ridicule the Occupy people by way of this comeback, Smiley? many would not assume such an attitude as tom's. they just want to have decent livelihoods. you're only batting from the other side now, thus playing that game started by tom that you would purport to ridicule.

July 3, 2012 at 01:18 PM · I have to admit that my first reaction to the original post was to roll my eyes at the grief that the author must have endured choosing among astronomically expensive violins. But I soon realized that it's just as reasonable for an amateur violinist who has made his fortune in the practice of medicine to collect rare violins as it is for a professional soloist to do so. Joshua Bell has written about his tribulations purchasing his violin, and nobody seems bothered. Elizabeth Pitcairn's father gave her a Strad and nobody questioned whether his income came from federal contracts.

Nobody complains when a small business owner who sells some kind of high-tech widget makes a bundle of money, because we understand that such entrepreneurship embodies significant risk. What is often poorly understood is that service professions such as law or medical specialties are often "small businesses" too, and the preparation for those careers and the establishment of private practices involve the same kind of risk and sacrifice. There are a lot of un- and under-employed (and bankrupt) MDs and JDs out there.

And by the way, I would consider it a good thing if the author made a large proportion of his income from the government because it would mean that as a society we are able to provide the less fortunate with specialty medical care such as ophthalmology. Sounds quite civilized to me.

July 3, 2012 at 02:12 PM · Tammuz,

I believe Tom's reply embodies the sentiment of the 'occupy' movement, a resentment for people who have more money than they do. While I sympathize with people who are having financial difficulty, I think the 'occupy' folks are barking up the wrong tree. Everyone is entitled to a decent standard of living, but camping out in public places is not the way to get there.

July 3, 2012 at 02:44 PM · Smiley, somehow I have a different take on Tom's political affiliation, as he showed disdain for government (and its workers), Medicare, and tax in the same breath... So do we have a Tea Party Occupier here?

July 3, 2012 at 07:38 PM · public places are for the people and if people are discontent with their government it is their right to camp out, protest and so on. you think afroamericans and women were given their rights on a silver plate? if anything, the sad thing is that Occupy is not enough and probably hasnt done a lot...because your country has gone so far down a particular route, its so engrained and the Occupy people dont know where to catch this huge slippery monster from. by the way, i'm not calling it "your country" as if i self righteously think that other countries might not bee scrwed up. but a rich country that throws its sick out of hospitals for not being able to pay the exorbitant fees... anyway, i won't talk more ideology. back to violins...

July 3, 2012 at 08:05 PM · I love it when politics is forced upon a conversation on instrument acquisitions. I suspect Smiley's assessment is more spot on than Joyce's--and Joyce, I didn't note any disdane for taxes by Tom. Just a disdane for the opportunity of someone making money, and the fact that someone ELSE has earned, through his own individual work and initiative, more than he deems they should. That item alone eliminates any conservative leaning of Tom's. If Tom is a player, he probably doesn't like seating assignments either, because someone else is always better. He probably doesn't like orchestra donors either for the same reason...well, at least in principle. On that note, I would hope we could refocus on the subject, since Tom's posting seems to have thrown on the wet blanket.

Steven, I am so glad that not only do you have the opportunity to pursue obtaining wonderful instruments and bows, but that you reflect on the blessing that they are to you, undoubtedly your wife, as well as probably others, and also the added responsiblility that you feel to both preserve and play these violins and bows. May your life and the lives of others be made more full, and may whoever is the recipient of your instruments in the far, far future, appreciate your stewardship.

July 3, 2012 at 09:05 PM · Jim, I have been called 'neurotic' and 'perceptive' by different posters on this forum, so I see your post as an opportunity to find out which I really am... :)

I just did a little digging, and you can find Tom's post with a YouTube link here. From there, you will find more about his political views...

Personally I'm very happy for Steven and the fine violins - they are in good hands, as they will be played and cherished, instead of languishing in a collector's vault. On the other hand, Steven's story makes me a little scared of going violin hunting... ;)

July 3, 2012 at 09:32 PM · The only thing scarier than a neurotic person is a perceptive neurotic person :-) Regardless who is more "spot on," I think we can all agree, Tom needs therapy.

Congratulations Steven! Keep buying those violins.

July 4, 2012 at 03:08 PM · Hello Steven! Are you still looking for a good bow?

They have a trial program and some very good BOWS

July 4, 2012 at 03:12 PM · A lot of employer-provided health plans don't either. You can get a Cadillac package with optometry and orthodontics, but the premiums are such that you're just paying for your care in advance. It's not really insurance then.

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