Help! Parents Need Advice on Fiddle Purchase for Talented Kid!

March 13, 2013 at 02:20 AM · Seeking information and advice on shops and dealers

Replies (23)

March 13, 2013 at 05:20 PM · Noel, welcome to the agony of buying a real violin for your daughter. It is a hard thing that you have to do. If you trust her teachers then you should pay one or both of them for a lesson's worth of time to sit down with you, possibly without your daughter being around, and discuss the process and get their advice, especially if you do not have as much to spend as they have recommended. A dedicated hour of consultancy will be worth the investment.

Potter's is a good shop. They will have a lot of violins in your price range. With your location (right near Galax, no wonder she plays bluegrass fiddle!) I can also suggest that you may want to look in Winston-Salem or Greensboro, or possibly Charlotte also.

You should be able to get a decent violin for $7500 but at that price you are going to want to consider instruments from China or eastern Europe too. One reason why the violin professors may have suggested $15000 is because they might not want to have to deal with the Chinese / eastern European segment of the market, with which they may be less familiar. Hopefully you can get an instrument that you can sell again without taking a significant loss. Potter's has a trade-up policy, but then you are locked into to buying from them. Same with most big dealers.

Don't mortgage your property to buy a more expensive violin. This is your daughter's first full size instrument so after a couple of years if you have saved more and she needs something better you can trade up. If she's really that good that a $7500 violin is holding her back then you could, at that point, consider loan options, for example through the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation.

Regarding your daughter "earning" a fine violin, not sure what you meant there. You mean she should make some of the money herself? Fastest way to do that is probably playing fiddle. Have you thought of sending her to an O'Connor camp? There might be some sticker shock but sometimes there are scholarships for those kinds of things.

March 13, 2013 at 09:55 PM · Paul, Thanks for the 'Sound' advice! We have consulted both teachers, and they think that if we look carefully we should be able to find a violin to fit her needs within our price range. I come from the old school that one must put forth the effort to earn that golden slipper. I do want to make sure that the next instrument is decent enough that it helps rather than hinders the learning and execution of difficult technique. And also that after working on a difficult piece that she can walk away from her performance feeling very fine about it all.I am sure that if she takes this new fiddle and climbs more mountains that she will be flying high with the perfect fiddle in the end! Do you know of shops in the Carolinas or Atlanta, Tennessee area? I have been informed that some of the best out there in this range could be Chinese fiddles but one should hire a professional must evaluate to determine the true quality. Yes, I have contacted Potters and shops who are willing to take in our trade. Yes, the fiddling is outside our backdoor and in my opinion it is a wonderful way for a kid to enjoy playing in the most relaxed setting with 100% encouragement; the folks around our area love kids who play traditional music! It's great to see! All the best...

March 13, 2013 at 11:11 PM · It seems to me that when one approaches $5000, one is in the territory of a handmade American violin. Just recently, one of my students came in with one in that range that sounded really good to me. It was by a young maker in Portland. $2500? Maybe Chinese. $5000 and up? No way.

March 13, 2013 at 11:38 PM · I would listen to her teachers, but here's my advice, for what it's worth. Don't let her teachers talk you into making a bad financial decision. There are many excellent violins in the 5-10K range. Teachers always want parents to spend as much as possible, and that's not always the best decision for the family. If you have a price limit, be firm with the teachers. Don't let them guilt you.

I would never by a child a $15k instrument. Kids are just too young to care for something so expensive. I would spend as little as possible right now to meet her needs. In five years, she will have more formed opinions, and she may not like the instrument you picked out for her at 10. Are you prepared to buy another violin in 5 years? If you could find a violin under or around five that would meet her technical needs at this time, I would. Then start saving, because when she's older, she'll want her own violin and it sounds like she's going to need a really, really high quality instrument.

March 14, 2013 at 01:47 AM · Eugenia has pretty good advice. Pre-teens don't need expensive instruments. Especially if they're in any kind of ensemble with kids their age. That's asking for trouble. Actually, the exact thing happened to one of my students: nice instrument+accident=very hefty repair bill. I don't see that fiddling or Scotch/Irish music needs a fine fiddle anyway.

March 14, 2013 at 02:30 AM · Never has the word "Engarde" caused so many problems as it has in the elementary school orchestra room.

March 14, 2013 at 02:50 AM · Check out Hiroshi Kono. They are impressive instruments and cost less than $4K. I believe Laurie Niles owns one and so do I.

March 14, 2013 at 04:01 AM · Many thanks to all of you for the wise words. Yes, it is quite a worry to have child, although extremely responsible, using a violin of this high value. I had a luthier once tell me that if a great violinist can make just about anything sound good. Don't know how true this may be, but it did seems to somewhat make sense. I not being a violinist have trouble understanding how a more exspensive instrument can make playing and technique come easier. This violin is definately the one that will be used for Classical Repertoire. I had a dealer mention a Wojiech Topa violin yesterday which was in our price range, Also Bernd Dimbath also heard of a John Sipes in our area. Anyone heard of these makers? We do need to be able to trade this one up in a few years so would like to invest in something that will at least hold the value. I LOVE the idea of buying from American makers or at least American based makers, since our economy is so crummy now and after all we are, well, Americans!

March 14, 2013 at 06:04 AM · "I had a luthier once tell me that if a great violinist can make just about anything sound good"

Only compared to a student playing the same instrument.

March 14, 2013 at 02:28 PM · I thought I'd try to take a crack at answering the OP's wondering how a more expensive instrument can make playing and technique come easier...

It's obviously not the expense, of course; it's the playing qualities of the instrument, which are not directly proportional to the cost. I would think of the cost of an instrument as being more related to the probability that it's a fine-playing instrument. The higher the price range, the more instruments there will be at that price point that have superior playing qualities. You can find something less expensive, but you will likely be spending a lot more time looking, you'll need to try more instruments, and you'll probably expend some money traveling to search for something that's right. The whole thing is complicated by the fact that every player has different tastes in sound, as well as a different approach to sound production.

For a pre-teen child, I agree with the rest of the posters -- get something that's within your budget, but expect to trade up again in a few years, so make sure you buy from somewhere that has a large selection of higher-end instruments and will do a full-value trade-in.

A good violin is responsive. That means that it speaks easily (you don't have to work hard to get it to sound), and that when you do something, it readily reflects your action. Think of it as a feedback loop. A good violin will reflect both your good and your bad technique, which should result in the player adapting so that they do things the good, right way, because they sound audibly better than the bad way. (By contrast, student violins are often characterized as "forgiving", which means that you can do bad things on them and they don't sound horrible, but it also means there's a lessened difference between a good approach and a bad one.)

A good violin produces a broad range of tonal colors. This is essential for being able to develop artistic expression, and of course it's critical for hearing the differences between one technical approach and another approach to producing colors. Its sound needs to be good regardless of whether it's being played right at the bridge, over the fingerboard, or in-between, and there needs to be an audible change in sound with the change in that bow sounding-point. It also needs to respond properly to different amounts of pressure and bow-speed. If it's not, the player doesn't get the proper aural feedback, making it very challenging to learn to the technique to produce a wide spectrum of colors.

The sound also needs to be good all the way up the fingerboard on all four strings, so that every note speaks readily, with minimal wolf notes. An instrument that can't do this will frustrate advanced players who need to be able to use the full range of the violin.

A player needs a decent bow for similar reasons. A good bow responds properly to the subtleties of different right-hand techniques, creating a feedback loop that encourages doing the right thing.

March 14, 2013 at 02:41 PM · Lydia brings up a great point- don't forget about the bow. She won't be able to handle the repertoire she's about to be playing if she's using a mediocre bow.

March 14, 2013 at 04:40 PM · I've been banging on about this on another thread, but I seriously question the need to spend $15k to find a professional level violin.

There are many emerging young luthiers making wonderful instruments in the $5k - $7k range. You'll get the best deals if you go to them direct. But many dealers also carry a selection of good new instruments, and they may offer an exchange option, which reduces your risk in return for a higher outlay. When I was looking, I found that the dealers would offer a discount without too much prompting.

I purchased my instrument direct from an emerging maker. I've had the chance to compare it with fine Italian, French, German and English instruments costing up to 10x as much, both under my own untutored hand and in the hands of pros. I wouldn't change mine for any of them.

It took some time, and I covered some miles. But it was the only way I could afford a decent instrument and boy, has it paid off!

Why not reframe your question and ask the list to put you in touch with talented young makers in your area? At the very worst you’ll meet some great people and your daughter will play some interesting instruments. At best you’ll make a big saving and help support the career of a good young maker.

March 14, 2013 at 05:32 PM · If Knoxville is within your search area, I would heartily recommend that you give Kelvin Scott a call (ksviolins.com). He's a great maker and a nice guy. While his violins are out of your price range, when I was purchasing a violin of his for my daughter, he mentioned that his assistant also makes instruments of his own, and for a lower price (can't remember exactly how much, sorry). Possibly worth checking out.

If you ever come up to NYC, David Segal and Gregory Singer and others have an abundance of oldish instruments from various places in your price range.

March 14, 2013 at 06:44 PM · Lydia, Thank you and many thanks to all of you for your time. So, does anyone know if Potters sells these 'high-end' instruments that we may need in future years? I am concerned about buying directly from the wrong new maker, only because of the inability to possibly trade up (we will need to get our 5 or 6K back out of it). I see how it works now with the larger shops and why it may be worth paying the higher price to secure the trade value in a few years. I will try to determine what shops are dealers of both levels in quality.

The learning of the technique and mastery of 'colors' is a higher level of thinking and awareness that my daughter will need to be able experience with her violin in her continuing education, otherwise, I see it becoming highly frustrating and quite dull. How many fine young players have hit this wall with a tired and unresponsive instrument? Sadly, I would guess, far too many. Gosh, all should be of great quality and free in life; just think of our potential!

Also, she has a perception of oneness with the previous players, as well as the maker of her present instrument which is 1930 German hand made. She likes the drama and the mystery of the older instrument. After recently trying a fiddle which belonged to a historically significant person, she was inspired and reminded of the musicians of the past; wondering whose chin this instrument may have held and the people whose days it may have made a little brighter.

I would assume that the more often one changes an instrument (meaning every few years) the better one can play a variety of makers? Almost like working with a living breathing thing,the player who has developed a special feel for a variety of responsiveness would achieve a higher level of mastery. Thanks again, shop suggestions welcomed!

March 14, 2013 at 06:57 PM · Yes, Potters has high end instruments. They also have Hiroshi Kono but they put a different label in it. It's a marketing thing, but totally dumb IMO.

I would recommend String House of Kanack in Rochester, NY. They also have a good selection of higher end stuff and they can get Kono's since they work with Bill Weaver. But they have a better trade-in policy than Potters. Basically, you get 100% when you trade up. They will be happy to ship instruments to you on trial. I think you just need to pay the return shipping.

I live in the DC area and decided to go out of state to Kanack to take advantage of their trade-in policy for my son's instrument. He started on 1/10, went to 1/8, 1/4 and is now playing 1/2. With each upgrade, I gave received 100% of my investment towards the upgrade. Without the generous trade in policy, it would have costed me thousands. One day, I plan to spend >$10K at Kanack when my son is ready for a full size violin. It is good to know that every penny I spend through the years will go towards that purchase.

March 14, 2013 at 06:58 PM · BTW, I have nothing against Potters. It is a great shop. It just made a lot more sense financially to go with a shop that offered 100% trade in, especially when I expect my son to go through 6-7 instruments, bows and cases.

I would recommend the same thing for the bow. Get it from Kanack, or a similar dealer that offers a good trade-in policy.

March 14, 2013 at 07:03 PM · I don't think frequent changes of instruments are good, as learning to get the best out of the instrument that you do have is probably the most practical skill. Good players can manage to make anything sound decent, but a much smaller number of players can really make anything sound good. (Elmar Oliveira has a particular talent for this, for instance.)

Potter's has high-end instruments through their association with Weaver's. There are a number of other fine violin shops in the DC area, though, and I'd recommend that you look at Philadelphia and possibly New York as well if you're shopping around.

The suggestion of trying the violins of assistants to excellent makers is a good one. My own childhood violin was made by Rafael Carrabba, at the time an assistant to Carl Becker Jr., and it's a technically impeccable piece of work with the Becker varnish. Carrabba's current work is much better than that violin, and in time I needed a better violin than that early effort of his, but it was a reasonable choice given what my parents could afford back then.

March 15, 2013 at 02:16 AM · Noel, you mentioned a violin by Wojiech Topa. I own a 2006 Topa and I love it. His shop is in southern Poland. I selected this violin from a group ranging in price from $3500 to $18000. What is interesting is that the $3500 violin, the least expensive of the group, came in second, so I bought it as well. I have played two other Topa violins (I think they were 2009 and 2012) and on this basis I conclude that his work is quite consistent.

You've asked a few questions in this thread about the policies at Potter's. Just call them up, they will be happy to answer all of your questions. You cannot be shy in this game.

I think the thing you have to remember is that for a 10-year-old you do not need THE violin. You need ONE good violin, and there are lots of them out there. I agree with others that there are plenty of good American makers who sell violins in your price range.

And I agree with the suggestion to save money for a bow. On the other hand if you are going to spend $2000 on a wood bow (about right if you are spending $7500 on the violin), then you probably will get the same sound quality and playability in a $600 carbon fiber bow. I will stipulate that this opinion is not universally shared.

March 15, 2013 at 02:30 AM · Lyndon I appreciate that feedback because quite honestly the one thing I don't like about the CF bow is that faint sizzle. I'm not that sure of myself when it comes to judging high-frequency portions of the sound spectrum because I have constant ringing in my ears. Also when I bought my violin I wanted to get used to it for a year or so before bow shopping, and I might be ready to do that now. Probably I will look more carefully at wood bows now. (On the other hand I am not limiting myself to $2000.)

March 15, 2013 at 03:04 AM · "I would assume that the more often one changes an instrument (meaning every few years) the better one can play a variety of makers?"

Just get her something decent and get on with learning repertoire. This kind of instrumental obssession will come later in life anyway. There's no point in hurrying it.

March 15, 2013 at 03:10 AM · Paul, I am fishing for opinions at the moment, no worry. I prefer to hear what the violin public has to say. Nice to hear that you like the Wojiech Topa. We may try this one. Also spoke with Klevin Scott who was quite helpful, and may have an option for trial. Presently,she uses a pernambuco bow in the $1500.range. She tried the $600' carbon fiber but as much as she wanted to be green and like, she had a strong dislike. Yes,George,at Potters is wonderful. I had already spoken of course. Also, a few regional shops...

March 15, 2013 at 04:49 PM · My perception is that you are in the phase where you are trying to get your head around the idea of buying a fairly costly (to you) instrument and just exploring a little what people think about the process and assimilating thoughts and opinions from a variety of sources. That is totally normal.

The next phase will be to go to shops and try violins, and then after that you may bring some home for a couple of weeks, depending on shop policies.

The main concern that people often have is about getting ripped off somehow. There is no easy way around that unless you are buying your instrument from someone in whom you already have placed your trust, which is what I did. Eventually you will show a few violins to your daughter's teacher and (s)he will help you make a selection that is a good instrument and a good value. Does that mean you cannot possibly be paying more than the instrument is worth? Does that mean you cannot take a loss when you resell it? No and no. But at least you know you did the best you could without losing your mind over it.

Scott's advice is actually quite good. It will apply best, I believe, at the stage when you have a few violins around the house on loan from dealers.

One more thing -- when the teacher is examining the violins, make sure there are no price tags and do not tell the teacher what they cost until the consultation is over.

March 16, 2013 at 02:49 AM · Paul, You do speak for me so well! Thanks again for the advice and time! I am sure that the right violin, for the right price, that everyone rightly loves will arrive at exactly the right time! Thanks again to all! I tried to kill this thread but I suppose that once it is up it stays? All the best... ;)

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