Could you love an ugly duckling if it sang instead of quacked?

August 25, 2012 at 03:07 AM · I'm an adult beginner taking lessons on a serviceable student violin borrowed from my instructor. There's no pressure for me to purchase my own instrument, but I really want to. Of course, it feels a bit like a minefield, and it seems difficult to convince folks to show me a 3/4 size instrument when I would probably be fine with a 4/4. But my instructor feels strongly about this issue, and I trust him, so I'm going with it.

On my first exploratory mission this week, I visited a local dealer who offered to let me try a couple of violins on the spot and assembled some ranging from just below to just above my stated price range. There were four, and after playing them, I immediately picked two whose sound stood out to me, without knowing what they were or what they cost. One was the bottom of the range, and the other was the top.

They both have similar resonance and volume, with the lesser priced one having a tinny and slightly muffled sound though it has better action and a very attractive finish. It was definitely miles better than what I'm currently using. It's a 2003 Scott Cao 017 model. The higher priced violin had a positively divine sound (so far as I can tell) both under the ear, and played across the room by the dealer. The big downsides are the price, the large repaired cracks at top and bottom of the right f-hole - extending all the way to the purfling, and the crudeness of the manufacture. This one is a 1900 Maidstone.

This violin is no beauty queen - more like folk art. The scroll is crudely chip-carved with no attempt to smooth it. The ends of the C-bouts don't match up well with the top plate, the cracks, though stable, are very obvious, the fingerboard is a low grade of ebony (very streaky-not all black, but attractive), and the wood used for the sides and back doesn't look like maple at all. It's like a dog that is so ugly you can't help but like it.

I have been allowed to take both instruments out on trial and still prefer the Maidstone enough that I'm planning to take it to my instructor tonight for his opinion. My family has heard it and agrees that it sounds better than the Scott Cao. At this point in time, I know that I want to try more instruments before I make a decision, but this one may be on my short list for a long time because of how I feel about the sound. It fit me comfortably too. The positioning of everything felt very natural. Maybe that's why this crude instrument has enjoyed such a long history. Who knows?

Maidstones don't generally cost as much as this one. I expect the price has to do with the level of restoration it has had rather than its antique value, but it's still above my original price range.

Am I crazy to short list this one? Does a violin's sound really outweigh the poor manufacture? Will I eventually regret owning an instrument that is not aesthetically pleasing? I'm interested in hearing your opinions and your advice on this.

Replies (10)

August 25, 2012 at 03:49 AM · A long as it's sound, meaning it won't be falling apart on you in the near future, I think you should go with what you like, and definitely don't be concerned with superficial appearances. A particular violin I fell in love with in Kansas City was even made just a teeny bit crooked, but I never held it against him. He sounded beautiful.

August 25, 2012 at 04:14 AM · I would not care at all about the appearance but I would be a bit concerned about the cracks and how well that they have been repaired. You will probably get some advice from the luthiers on this site so see what they say. How do you tell if a crack has been repaired properley ?

August 25, 2012 at 06:58 AM · I would always choose tone over appearance.

But crack has more to do with the condition than appearance. I would continue my search - something sans crack.

August 25, 2012 at 03:39 PM · Certainly tone is more important than appearance, and if you have affection for an "ugly duckling" and its tone is divine, then I don't think there is anything wrong with getting that one. But, since you asked what I would do . . . about 3 years ago when I was looking for a violin upgrade, I tested out a Jay Haide with hideous, overdone antiquing. It sounded lovely, though. It sounded significantly better than another one I was testing at the time. My teacher agreed with its nice sound, and it was a good value for the money, based on the way it sounded.

But in the end, I couldn't get past the appearance. Sound is most important, but it's also important that you like the look of the instrument enough to want to take it out of the case and practice it every day. Ideally, you're going to be spending a lot of time with this instrument, and if you cringe every time you look at it, that's not good for your playing or your attitude. I kept looking. Some people like that type of antiquing, so there must be a market for it. I'm just not one of those people. I think that there are enough good makers in this price range, that you'll be able to find something with an equally good sound that also pleases you visually.

August 25, 2012 at 03:42 PM · Deleting duplicate message. Sorry, I seem to have had computer connection issues!

August 25, 2012 at 04:39 PM · Perhaps the fact that you ask here might be an indication that the looks/history bother you a bit too?

But maybe you are more concerned about buying a violin that may not last the duration (that being the period between now and the next violin!). I think in general you are going to find that better playing violins in a price range (below the 'collectables') are going to be less good looking - the ones that have both are more expensive! So one could make an argument for looking at ugly instruments first :)

But, as said above, structure is paramount: no amount of good tone is going to compensate for a violin that is unstable, or worse prone to repair (again, unless it was made in the 1700s ;) ).

I would resist - for now. Look far and wide to see if you can find a violin with less battle scars (hey, ugly is fine ;)). Also don't forget to play it all the way up the fingerboard - some violins are very different beasts up there, not only wolf notes but also disappearence of tone.

Good luck!

August 25, 2012 at 04:48 PM · I would be concerned over such a large crack especially if it is very visible. A good violin with a professional repair would not have been noticed.

You might have to consider a maintenance future for this instrument as cracks can reopen over time.

August 25, 2012 at 06:00 PM · You have tried 4 violins. There are lots more out there. Keep the Maidstone in your ear, and go on looking. If you decide it's what you want after you've tried 12-20 violins, then get it, if a trustworthy luthier says it's sound structurally. NO one needs a violin that isn't a fairly easy keeper, unless you have a luthier in the house.

August 26, 2012 at 12:27 AM · Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful remarks. My instructor looked at the instrument and agreed with me about the sound, but pointed out that the finger board needs to be pulled up and the pegs are close to needing to be bushed (hope I got that term right). Since it is already marginally above my highest price point, I am going to pass.

I'm looking forward to trying more instruments. It is so much fun!

August 26, 2012 at 01:32 AM · Before you look try to get a mindset about what you want and also what you need. Remember that while you are studying (and I suppose for long after most of the time with your violin will be spend alone, not playing to an audience. Getting an instrument that you love the sound of yourself and you feel is easy to play may be undervalued. But beware also that the sound and playability will also be influenced by the setup - in particular the quality and age of the strings.

Its something I don't think I h have read in the advice topics - that before buying you should try a string change - probably to something general like Dominants (with, as we always add, a different E).

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