Tips on trying out new instruments and bows

July 25, 2011 at 01:22 AM ·

I live about 130 miles from the nearest violin shop. I defiently need a new bow and a new viola. The bow is for the up and coming concert season in October because my current on needs duct tape (guess that is what happens when you buy a cheap second hand brazilwood bow). The viola is because the one I have now (student level) dosent handel (get it....Handel?) very well. It feels uncomfortable to play. When I do get these rare chances to go to a violin shop, there is so much to chose from. I get overwhelmed. Any particular thing s I should look for in bows and insturments other than they sound good and are easy to play?

Replies (29)

July 25, 2011 at 01:31 AM ·

There is no need to limit yourself geographically.  You can try instruments and bows by mail.  Most shops will ship you several instruments and bows at a time.  Just make sure to get your teacher (or other proficient musician) involved.  Play the instruments yourself, but also listen to them from a distance as others play on them, preferably in a large space.

I can't advise you on the characteristics to look for.  It is highly personal for both the instrument and the bow.  Two qualities that are pretty universal though, most people want projection, and also an even response across the strings.  Other than that, the type of sound (warm, dark, rich, sweet, bright, pick your adjective) is very personal.


July 25, 2011 at 09:22 PM ·

With violas, the first issue is size.  How big is the one you're currently playing?  How does it feel?  Do you have access where you live to try other kids' or a teacher's instrument?  I know you are a teenager, but I'm not sure how old.  Do you think you have most of your growth, or do you still have some growing left to do?  Even if you're 6' 4" with long limbs, if your hands are smallish, you'll need to take that into account.

Next, what's your budget like?  Are you looking for both an instrument and bow right now?  It sounds like the bow is high-priority, as duct tape usualy doesn't add anything to the handling of a bow, no matter how stylish it looks.  A better bow may well bring out things in your current viola you didn't know were there.

130 miles is a long ways.  Are there several shops with lots of choices available once you have gone that distance?  You'll want to take stuff home on approval before committing- how hard is it to get back to the city 5 to 7 days later to return stuff?  If this is a problem, you might want to consider mail order.

With instruments, look for something that just feels right.  Violas are so variable- body length, string length, neck width.  Are the upper positions easy to reach?  How's the C string? Is the tone even across the four strings?  Does it allow you to play both piano and forte?  Sweetly and forcefully?  Play a 3-octave scale.  Dead spots?  Have someone listen to you play, then you listen to someone else play.  Can you take your teacher with you?  Don't fall into the trap of going for something similar to what you're trying to replace just because it feels familiar.  Take your top two or three choices home to play with for a week or so.  Same procedure for looking at bows.

Finally, keep your mind open.  Something that costs less than the others may be your favorite.  Don't be afraid to try a Chinese viola, a carbon fiber bow, or an instrument in a color that doesn't first catch your eye.  Old, new, give it all a try.  Keep your mind open and have fun.

July 25, 2011 at 09:34 PM ·

It is extremely important that whatever you do, you take them home on trial. You need time to play all of the good candidates. This is really critically important . It is pennywise and pound foolish to, say, worry about paying as much as $150 shipping various instruments back. As you are upgrading, I assume you are already prepared to pay something north of $1000?

July 26, 2011 at 12:32 AM ·

 Lisa made a very sound point; violas are MUCH more variable in sound than violins, so much so that 2 16" violas, say, can be entirely different 'sizes' in every dimension except length.  

If you can try people's instruments around you, that would give you some 'language' to tell a dealer--do you mind a bit more length if the upper bouts are narrower?  and the neck--omg, that can be a huge deal!

It's a very exciting journey, but you need to plan to take the time it takes.  If that violin shop 130 miles away is a good one, might be worth an overnight trip, so you can try things twice, take home the three/four you like best and give them a good trial.. NEVER buy on sight (falling in love at first sight isn't hard; staying in love for the long haul is where the care in selection comes in).

Don't be afraid to look under your top price range--although an instrument may not be worth as much to a dealer, it may sound under your playing to be much better than a more costly one.

Sorry for the long post, but you're gonna have this puppy intimately involved in your life for some years (at least) so it pays to be picky now. 

July 27, 2011 at 02:17 AM ·


Having been on a viola bow-hunt recently, and a viola-hunt several years ago, I feel your pain ;)

Since it sounds like the most pressing issue, I'll talk about the bow first.  The most important thing to look for is balance.  It should not be too heavy at either the frog or the tip.  Ideally, it should feel nearly weightless in your hand regardless of the actual weight.  Read back through my blogs earlier this year about my bow trial experience.  It may (or may not) help.

When looking for a new viola, the first thing to consider is sizing that you cannot change.  That would be the overall length, depth and width at the upper bouts.  Your left hand should be able to curl around the scroll with a very slight bend in the elbow.  

As controversial as it may seem, take off the chin rest and use the SR you are used to to check for comfort in the thickness at the chin.  Swap out chin-rests at the local shop until you find a comfortable one, or improvise by using a those red foam pads.  Unless you are planning to play baroque style, most violists DO use SR.  Test shifting in higher positions for comfort navigating over the upper bouts as far as you do now and a third above that at least.  They shouldn't be so wide that it hurts.

Then there are things to look for that can be changed with minor adjustments.  The scoop of the fingerboard / bridge height shouldn't be so much that you feel that you have to apply extra pressure to block the strings at higher positions.  The neck thickness should be comfortable enough that the C-string is a joy and not a pain in the ......   Neck thicknesses can be adjusted a little bit, but not too much.  The sound in the lower register should be like melted chocolate.  Swapping out strings can make a difference, however if the C strings sounds dead and muted, a string change may not make much of a difference.  

Once you get past all that, take your choices to your teacher.  It is worth its weight in gold to have a pro that knows you to provide input.  I'd definitely look into the trial programs at places like Shar and Johnson Strings.  Where you live at, that will most likely be your best option for exploring what is available.  

July 29, 2011 at 01:32 AM ·

An instrument / bow should be evaluated with pieces and techniques the player is comfortable with.  The teacher should evaluate the instrument for what the student can grow into musically (and physically as well).

Evaluating an instrument based on techniques beyond your skill is akin to judging a book by its cover.  

Disclaimer:  No violists were injured in the forming of this reply

July 29, 2011 at 02:26 AM ·

COMFORT? Playing a viola in comfort? Surely you jest!

But, really. Comfort in playing a viola can depend on many things starting with the chinrest and running all the way down to the nut. It is not uncommon for some violas to have been made just like scaled-up violins, in which case, the neck will be too thick. Another possible problem is the "roundness" of the neck cross section. If the neck cross section is not carved as a decent ellipse, it can play the devil with your left hand (even worse on a viola than a violin). Another problem is the size of the upper bout that can really get in your way on a viola as you get up above the 5th position.

My practice in going instrument and bow shopping has always been to have a routine to play that covers the fingerboard and bowing techniques, at least to the extent that I am able to play. With this sort of approach you may be able to quickly eliminate unsatisfactory instruments and bows and concentrate on the ones that will actually work for you. Just don't limit your test playing to "church solos," which fail to cover the range of the instrument you will be using for many years to come.

You will certainly be more likely to find your dream instrument in a "brick and mortar" store than on line - just because you will have so many more samples to try. And just remember that matching the bow to the instrument is an additional problem. There are very fine bows that do not match every instrument - so select the instrument first!


July 29, 2011 at 06:54 PM ·

Hunter -

It took me a while to find my dream viola, but I did.  Picking out any instrument is very personal.

I would have to say that projection is a big deal - would you be comfortable with an instrument with a loud set of lungs?  What about travel?  I found that I had to order a case large enough to hold mine.  Do you care if it looks a wee bit different, or if it's been around a while?

Like you, I was overwhelmed at playing instrument after instrument.  They all blurred together, and I got so frustrated I really had no clue which viola I liked and which one I didn't like.  Then one day it happened.  I picked up my dream machine and when it spoke, I knew I had to have it.

----Ann Marie


July 30, 2011 at 02:01 AM ·

Well I found a viola in Austin that I really liked. Really liked. It felt like I didnt have to think to play, the music just came out. It kinda scared me, because I had never sounded that good. The bach that I was playing, I had been playing for about a week. It sounded almost flawless. 5 people were in that room. my mom, a professional, two parents and a little violin student. I was looking at the wall, but from what I can tell, at least 3 people in the room stoped what they were doing and listened. The best part is when I turned around, a few of them were smiling. But I cant buy it. the reasons: 1. I dont have the money (4900)

                                               2. If I did my mom wouldnt let me spend 4900, even though it is my own money, that I got a job to earn.

                                               3. They say I already have a viola, but I cant convince them that I have a hard time playing on it.

                                               4. My instructor says I am doing excellent and are somewhere around 5 yrs. ahead of him when he was my age. They think that if I am doing that good, why buy a new viola? (that I would buy with my own money.....)

                                               5. Why buy a 50 yr old viola when you can have a new one>

                                               6. They dont understand quality in this field comes at a very high price.

July 30, 2011 at 06:05 AM ·

Ugh. The road to success in strings is riddled with so many broken dreams.

You are correct on all counts and your parents value money differently. They do not understand stringed instruments. This is too bad. They might come around, but you'll have to be gentle, and patient, and you'll need to get the help of other people.

On the other hand, all is not lost even if you cannot buy this viola now. Do what you have to to get it, or one that doesn't cost more, to play better/more easily for you, and save your money for your 18th birthday:-)

P.S. remember that your savings are a fungible asset under college aid formulas--all the money you have saved is spent first before you get any aid. A viola, however, is not a fungible asset. So buy it before you go to college, as long as you have a financial plan to get through college without needing that money. If you turn 18 at college, you are out of luck, unless you defer a year, to work, and then turn 18, and buy a viola, and start college, with money to boot, ad more wisdom than your peers, and a whole extra year practicing rational functions, integral calculus of rational functions etc, Tertis arrangements, Primrose arrangements etc...

too bad you didn't put your viola trial on youtube along with your existing viola in the same room...

July 30, 2011 at 06:16 PM ·

Just think, somewhere there is a pair of musicians whose son is ticked off that they won't let him spend the summer at football camp, old hippie parents whose daughter is studying corporate law, and the cattle ranchers whose kid is a vegan.  God must have a pretty wacky sense of humor sometimes.

Hunter, if your mom was willing to go to Austin with you, she must be somewhat open, on some level, to helping you upgrade.  Have you had a talk with her about how much and when?  Money is tough subject between parents and kids, I know, but you need to get a sense of the parameters here.

Sounds too like your folks are totally unfamiliar with the stringed instrument business.  Are they willing to learn?  How do they feel about your teacher?  Maybe he or she could have some influence on them.  (They might be more open to what another adult has to say.)  The people who publish Strings magazine have a couple of books out on how to buy an instrument.  Would your mom be willing to look through anything like that?

I'm sure you are beyond frustrated.  Did you have a chance to look at bows?

July 30, 2011 at 06:29 PM ·

 Hunter, maybe your parents are open to being shown (probably not by you...) that good instruments, well cared for, are an investment, not like cars, or clothing (or i-pods, or whatever else you or your siblings might generally ask for).   Bill's point about college is definitely worth exploiting; he' s right on about how the lending institutions view assets.  Not only that, but one or two paying gigs would make it professional equipment, so if you already have a job and are doing taxes, it's worth considering that playing the odd wedding would help you earn your instrument in more ways than one.  At the same time, in most households, $5000 is a big chunk of change. Before you go campaigning, make sure your teacher agrees this instrument will BE an invenstment--for you--not just a slightly better instrument you will outgrow in a hurry.

And check with the dealer; often they have 'trade-up' policies.  'Course that might limit you to the one dealer, but if that person's selection is big enough, probably not a problem?

July 30, 2011 at 07:09 PM ·

Could you put the college thing into terms a teenager can understand? You kinda lost me at P.S.......I am worried about college because I want to go to a conversatory. I part of my dad's GI bill, but from what I read that only pays for a public school of higher education. And from what I have read, all the schools I would like to go to college to are private. So that throws out Juilliard, Curtis, Eastman, Harvard, NEC, and Yale. God does have a werid sense of humor.....

July 30, 2011 at 07:46 PM ·

What Bill was saying is that if you have $5000 in a savings account, a school will expect you to put that towards your education before they kick in financial aid.  If you have $5000 sitting in a viola case, they don't expect you to sell the viola to pay for school.

July 30, 2011 at 08:15 PM ·

Colburn offers full scholarships to all its students including tuition, room and board. Curtis is tuition-free, and starting from this fall, all incoming unmarried students between 16 and 22 must live on-campus in the first two years, which is supposed to reduce financial burden for the students. You really have to be phenomenally gifted and hard working to get into either school though.  I know of someone who did not get into Curtis but was accepted by every other school he auditioned for, including Julliard, NEC, Eastman, Peabody, Oberlin, etc., and was offered full scholarships by several. So, if you are really really good, money will be there for you, but it's never too early to start looking into scholarships if finance is a concern.

Apparently, you have set extremely high goals for yourself, and that's very commendable, but have you figured out how you compare among your peers - not just the ones in your city and state, but the best from all over the world?  Have you communicated your goals with your teacher and your parents? What do they think? Are they willing and able to help you reach your goals? You cannot do this alone, regardless of how talented and hard working you are! You will need top-rate instructions, guidance, and support. Even if your teacher is the best in your area, does he know what it takes to get you into the schools you aspire to?  If the best teacher is in another city, will your parents be able to drive you to your lessons? First-rate private instructions are expensive; if your parents are not able to afford it, will they or you be able to find sponsors or scholarships? Or if you are extraordinarily talented and hard-working, a top teacher might be willing to work with you regardless. Anyway, it's not too early to be thinking about these, and planning for your future!  Wish you best of luck!

July 30, 2011 at 10:33 PM ·

Thank you for explaining. i forgot about Curtis's scholarship policy. I dont know where i rank compared to other students. People say I am good, but I dont think I am. I just dont know  who or what to believe anymore.

July 30, 2011 at 10:34 PM ·

Don't get an oversized viola.  Small violas can sound good, but they are harder to find.

Pay attention to the dynamic range the instrument offers, in general the dynamic range is too narrow in a viola and that is BAD. That - and a good C string - are hard to find in a viola too.

Try playing near the fingerboard with little weight and then start approaching the bridge as you put more weight to the bow. Doing this you have to listen a drammatic change in volume and sound colours, that will help you to shape your sound and interpretation.  Hard to find too.

The instrument must be balanced. The strings must have the same type of sound and volume, and all strings must sound balanced in low and upper positions. Also hard to find. 

Good instruments will have a quick response too.




July 31, 2011 at 12:27 AM ·

 Hunter, you don't say what year you are (or I missed it?) but you can get a good musical education at places less prestigious than the big-name schools.  You'll look for a teacher, at least as much as an institution.  If you have a teacher you trust now, talk to him/her, so that you are both on the same page (I hadn't bothered to tell my teacher I planned to major in music -- this was back in the 1970s, more relaxed -- but she was pi**ed because she had no input in where I ended up!)

But that's a horse of another color.  You're trying to cover too many things at once: stick to the instrument question.  If you have the GI-bill, you'll only need loans to cover living expenses--but those lending institutions will still look at your cash before they decide how much to lend you--so a viola is a useful investment.!

July 31, 2011 at 02:39 AM ·

If you aspire to being a musician, getting into Curtis, or other top school with full scholarship, is like winning the lottery. It is worth what, 200 to 300 thousand dollars of tuition you do not have to pay. That is a lot of money. Regular folks take over 20 years to pay off loans that size--at a couple thousand dollars per month!

Getting in is super competitive--as it is to get into Harvard etc.

Sure, you can get a good education at lesser schools, but then you are paying for it. Makes a big difference. You cannot believe how friggin rich my old schooolmates are--the ones who got free rides at Ivy. They were literally swimming in dough.

If you think you can do it, go for it! Work hard, audition, do not be a potted plant. You need to get out and play in situations that test you and put you with the very best. That is the only way you can really gage this.

You should be going to the most prestigious summer camps you can get into. Too late this year. You need to pay a couple grand for them. You need to audition for them. It is really hard to do this without parents who are actively doing the research for you and making the calls. But if you want it, you can do it--you have to be your own representative and make the calls, get connected.

July 31, 2011 at 03:52 AM ·

 Actually, some public institutions offer good scholarships, too.  Sure, Curtis and a few others are the star on the top of the tree.  I just hate seeing someone on the way to thinking he's going to be a failure, or have an unsatisfying musical life if he doesn't score the gold--as if all the happy athletes won the Olympics.

There are LOTS of ways to succeed in music.  Sure, try for the top, but bloom where you are planted.  

July 31, 2011 at 05:54 AM ·

Marjory you are right about that and not only in music. After 20 years nobody give a darn what college you went to.

July 31, 2011 at 07:22 AM ·

Marjory  - I love your line:

"There are LOTS of ways to succeed in music.  Sure, try for the top, but bloom where you are planted. " 

If I might play with it a little: "Follow your passion flower but bloom where you are planted."

:)  ee

July 31, 2011 at 07:53 PM ·

I didnt mean it to come across that I wouldnt be happy if I didnt go to one of those schools. I would love to, but either way, I am still going to play. I dont think I am going to fail, it is just that I kinda get conflicting messages when people say I am good, but I dont feel like I played it good. I just have a hard time telling flattery and the truth apart. But back to bows (I might have to run another discussion about this soon), I have seen different grips. Right now, the bow I have has a wire and leather grip, but I have seen something that looks like plastic (?) that spirals around the stick like the wire but is thicker. Does anybody know what this is, and  is this material better than the wire grip?

July 31, 2011 at 11:46 PM ·

Hunter, if it's alternating strips of black and white, it's faux whale bone.  Some of it is quite nice looking; some of the rest looks like the stuff kids weave lanyards out of at summer camp.  If you have looked at antique bows at all you may have seen genuine whalebone.

There's no good and bad.  The nickel, silver, or gold wire is heavier, and the maker will choose to use wire or bone depending on which will best help balance the bow.  Some people like the looks of one more than other, of course.

August 1, 2011 at 02:55 PM ·


Hunter, I have never heard you play, but I have some idea of your position, having read your posts over the past few months. Although, as a general rule, I believe that it is best to aim high, I think that setting your sights on Curtis or Colburn is a waste of your precious time and energy.

A Curtis audition costs $300, and that is only the application fee. You would need plane fare and hotel, as well. A Colburn application is less expensive, but you would need to make a pre-screening DVD (pre-screening is required for most major conservatories, but not all.) If you passed the prescreen you would need to fly to LA and stay in a hotel near campus. 

These expenses would not be justified because you have almost no chance of admission to either of them (and neither do most violists who have had the benefit of training under top teachers, including the faculty at these very institutions, and who play $50,000 instruments.) Admission is that competitive. And even if, by some act of congress or miracle, you were admitted to these institutions, they would not be appropriate places for you to grow and develop, given your current level of experience. I'm not being harsh; I'm giving it to you straight.

However, if you work hard and continue striving, you may be able to gain entrance to a conservatory where your gifts will develop and where you will be able to blossom into the excellent professional violist that you endeavor to become. In your search for schools, I would advise you not to rule out private institutions. Private schools do give out need-based aid as well as scholarships. You cannot predict in advance what aid packages you will get at any given conservatory; there are many factors involved in these decisions and quite a few are opaque to the students auditioning. 

At this point in your high school career, it would be prudent for you to create a list of potential schools and to catalog or diagram their application requirements. You are probably going to need to to make a prescreening recording, so you should figure out in advance which places require sound only and which require DVDs. You should start strategizing about repertoire requirements-- there will be a lot of overlap, but some institutions will have specific demands, such as etudes, sonatas, or even excerpts.

Here is some concrete advice: 

*Start reading the Music Major board at College Confidential. You will find a wealth of substantial advice relating to your situation there. 

*Look into Peabody Conservatory (they have an excellent viola faculty and I have seen them admit talented students who are somewhat behind the curve due to a late start.) Other schools to consider: Temple University in Philadelphia; Indiana University Jacobs School of Music; McDuffie Center for Strings in Mercer, Georgia (and do apply to their Labor Day Festival for next summer-- it's a wonderful and free festival for high school musicians; the faculty is superb. By the way, the college program at the McDuffie Center is tuition-free, and students can also receive further financial aid through the university itself); Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Virginia; The University of Colorado at Boulder; the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami; the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State College in Georgia. These suggestions are off the top of my head-- they are certainly others. These places may not be Juilliard or Curtis, but they are places where you could grow under the tutelage of excellent faculty. 

*Bill Platt makes an a prudent point about the viola not being a fungible asset. In plain language, what he is saying is that if you have money saved up in a college account, that money will count against your need-based financial aid. If you invest that money in a viola, your savings will not be counted against you. A musical instrument is an investment (if you choose wisely.)

*If you cannot finance a viola on your own, you should consider trying to borrow one. There are several non-profits whose mission is to lend instruments to aspiring students. I don't mean the Stradivarius Society. Rachel Barton Pine has a foundation, and so does Bill Townsend. Both are members of If that does not work for you, consider approaching a patron in your town-- for example, a wealthy person for whom you have played a party gig, or a local business-- with a proposal that they invest in an instrument and loan it to you. A fine instrument is an investment (do some research on the appreciation-- increase in value, I mean-- of stringed instruments and you will see that they increase in value and are apparently a safer long-term investment than real estate.) This may be too large a project at your stage, and you would need to cover the insurance costs on the instrument, which in itself can be burdensome, but it is an idea. 


August 1, 2011 at 06:14 PM ·

Many thanks for offering your advice to Hunter, E. Smith.  I'm taking notes as well. Some interesting ideas and schools I hadn't heard of that I'll definitely check out.  (My daughter is just entering her junior year and starting this -- incredibly daunting -- process.)

August 1, 2011 at 10:39 PM ·

 Thanks, Sean. And I do recommend reading the College Confidential discussions. There you will find a lot of parents of musicians from a range of backgrounds, instruments, and genres. There is a generous exchange of information.

After reading Bruce Berg's post on a different thread I am reminded that Baylor and of course UT Austin are two Texas institutions with great music departments. 

August 1, 2011 at 10:46 PM ·

Great info E! Thanks.

Speaking of Texas, James Dunham teaches at The Shepherd School at Rice in Houston.

Kenneth Goldsmith
Eric Halen
Paul Kantor (Fall 2012) 
Cho-Liang Lin 
Kathleen Winkler


James Dunham
Ivo-Jan van der Werff 

August 2, 2011 at 01:03 AM ·

 So true, although I think Rice would be a reach school for this candidate. However, it might be the perfect reach school as it is relatively nearby and offers excellent financial aid.

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