Frustrating Search for a Suitable Violin

March 16, 2013 at 04:40 PM · For some background info:

I would classify myself as an advanced amateur, non-music-major college student who plans on playing seriously for the foreseeable future.

I've been playing for 8 years, the past 6 years on a Chinese workshop violin ~$1600, which I've outgrown a while ago and have had to "fight" my violin to get a good tone and response ever since. Money has been an issue, but I can scrape together enough to get a violin of up to $5000 after this summer. Repertoire I've studied are Bruch, Saint Saens, and Mendelssohn concertos, solo Bach, Beethoven Spring Sonata, Intro and Rondo Capriccioso, and most recently the Tchaikovsky concerto. My violin could get through most of the former, but after starting the Tchaik, I've found passages that my violin absolutely cannot handle no matter what. So that's why I need a new one.

After trying out some violins and doing a bit of research, I came up with a list in order of importance of what I'm looking for in a violin:

1. Response-The next violin should be able to handle anything I throw at it: fast string-crossing double stops in Tchaikovsky, before E; passages on the high D and G-7th position and up; and full and open-sounding chords which can help bring out the themes in Bach. I'm looking for an open sound where I don't have to work to pull every note and is clear during fast sautille/spiccato notes.

2. Clarity-this goes in hand with response. The violin has to be free from nasality and any sort of covered tone, especially in higher positions. My current violin has a muddy sound in higher positions on the G, D, and A, which makes intonation frustrating to pinpoint. An unforgiving violin in terms of intonation will work wonders for technique.

3. Quality of sound-The sound should have a nice round tone with a good core to the sound. I don't care as much about a "dark" or "bright" tone, just something that will play what I need it to play.

After trying out over 80 instruments within the $3-5k range, I've been disappointed with the results. I've visited numerous well-known places in the Los Angeles and Berkeley area, and there were a total of two violins that I'd consider buying, and one of them was slightly above my budget. Despite what I've read on this site, I've found it very difficult to find a suitable violin for under $5000--by suitable I meant the sound is clear and the violin can handle most of the difficult passages in the Tchaikovsky concerto with a good tone. I've heard good things about the Jay Haides but after trying over 10 of their special european wood models, I've found them all lacking in clear high notes on the G string and good response to fast double stops.

Which brings up the question: What should I expect in this price range and am I asking for too much? I know what I'm looking for is basically a professional instrument, and professional grade starts at a couple thousand dollars higher, but I can't swing it with a college student budget. I've pretty much given up hope of finding a "good" violin for under $5000. Should I just bite the bullet and get something that is playable but I'm not in love with?

(On a related note, it appalls me the prices some of these shops are charging for crappy old Germans and even mediocre workshop violins. I understand overhead, but a shop I'll leave unnamed offered an obviously factory made unlabeled chinese violin for ~$3500, although it had a huge, concert level sound. Would not trust that violin to last more than two years.)

Replies (34)

March 16, 2013 at 05:02 PM · I had the same frustration when I was searching for violins, and my budget was $12,000. I looked for anywhere between $8,000 and $12,000. I played on over 100 instruments, and traveled extensively. I only found one at the lower range that I felt could handle advanced repertoire, and even that one was questionable for certain techniques.

Unfortunately, lower priced violins just don't have the ability to do the same advanced techniques that higher quality instruments do...

I'd suggest, when trying instruments, to have a handful of tests to do on them, including fifths, playing in the upper registers of ALL strings, especially G and D (to make sure that the instrument speaks in those ranges), and look for "wolf notes", notes that do not speak. There's nothing more frustrating than a wolf note on the upper range of the G when you are trying to play an espressivo melody.

The good news is that, despite what some people may say, you do not have to spend $25,000 to find a decent instrument. I eventually found an absolutely wonderful instrument by a maker in Kansas City named Kenneth Beckmann, and it was $12,000.

I really recommend getting a personal loan for an instrument so that you can spend a few thousand dollars more. It is REALLY worth it, especially if you're wanting to play the Tchaik concerto.

If that is absolutely out of the question, start with the best $5,000 instrument you can find, and get it from a reputable dealer that does trade-ins. Often, when you buy it, they'll put it in a contract that they will buy back your original instrument at the price you payed for it, and you can get a better instrument in a few years when you have more money.

Good luck!!

Charon

March 16, 2013 at 05:12 PM · I am just curious why you would not trust the Chinese made violin to last more than two years if it already has a great sound ?

March 16, 2013 at 06:51 PM · How good is your bow? Up to a certain value, investing in a good bow can have bigger return in sound quality then buying a new violin.

I can confirm that it is difficult to buy a great violin under $5,000, especially if it is not a personal sale, where you avoid paying the middle man and sometimes (depending on the country) even the tax.

One strategy is to by the best violin you can currently afford and upgrade to a better one after you save some money, year after year. You can to this by buying from a reputable shop that accepts trade-in later at at least 90% of the purchase value. The disadvantage of this is that you are bound to the shop, which at the same time can be an advantage due to time saving and other costs, like traveling, setup expenses, strings, etc.

The other, more time consuming, way is to buy and sell on your own. In this case you have to learn about violin market as you go, and your decision to buy will be mainly governed by the investment potential of the instrument - you must make sure that the instrument can be sold when you need to do so. Here you may have to lose some money and there is no guarantee you will get the value back.

The other strategy is to keep playing your current instrument, no matter how frustrating or limiting it is, save you money and have a major purchase in a few years. In the meantime, you can keep you eyes open for personal sales, especially for the instruments kept in a family for a long time and underpriced.

From my personal experience, commissioning an instrument from a reputable maker is the best way to go. I can recommend 3 great local makers, but the market value of their instruments is twice you budget.

Tough call.

March 16, 2013 at 06:58 PM · Austin,

You sound like an excellent violinist, but when you say your violin can't handle Tchaik, have you let someone else try Tchaik on your violin? Have you played another violin that CAN handle the Tchaik? I don't mean to question your ability, but if you handed your violin to Perlman, I think he'd probably be able to pull it off and make it sound pretty convincing.

March 16, 2013 at 07:02 PM · BTW, I had a budget that was quite a bit higher than yours and I had to try over 100 violins before I found one I liked. I also know someone who had a budget 20x more than mine (a symphony player willing to spend up to 500K) and it took over 2 years to find a suitable instrument.

My point is, price does not equate to good sound or good playing characteristics although odds might improve as price increases, it is not a direct correlation.

March 16, 2013 at 07:06 PM · Forgot to mention, here's a blog about my personal violin search if you are interested. I just have one word of advice -- PATIENCE!

My quest for a professional violin.

March 16, 2013 at 09:32 PM · Thanks for all the replies!

Charon: Could you expand on what you found in the 8-12k price range? It seems a little bit disheartening that this experience extends all the way up to 12000 dollars. As for wolfs, that is the first thing I check for as my current violin can't sound anything above 6th position on the G without a tremendous amount of effort. Unfortunately, I don't think I can take out loans as I still have to pay for school.

Brian: The violin had very poor workmanship, I'm talking about pegs and tailpiece that looked like plastic and wood that looked on par with that of factory violins. No label-was made in a sweatshop in China. And after hearing all these horror stories about thin tops on cheap Chinese violins, I wouldn't be surprised if that's how this violin got its sound. It was booming, but there was not a very nice core to the sound. After looking online for the distributor on the label, I found they sold them for less than half the cost I was offered.

Freida: The sooner the better, as I've been struggling with my violin for a very long time. I can get by with my violin, but it's frustrating in that I need three hours to accomplish what might only take one hour on a better violin.

Rocky: I play a Codabow classic. Not top of the line, but its a very playable bow. I think I will have to settle and buy from a shop that offers 100% trade ins (which luckily there are a few near my area). I really cannot see myself playing my current one for the next few years--it would drive me crazy!

Smiley: I understand where you're coming from, and I had some of the same concerns, but both my teacher and talented acquaintances assured me that it's 99.9% my violin. I've tried it on better violins, it's like putting on glasses for the first time if you had terrible vision. I don't mean to sound arrogant but my level is where it's not the technique that's the concern. I've had advanced people play my instrument and they sympathize with what I have to deal with.

March 16, 2013 at 09:44 PM · In case people were wondering, here is how I test the violins:

1. One string, two octave scales on A, D, and G checking for wolf notes, even tone, and seeing how much the violin can give.

2. 3 octave scales for evenness

3 Meditation from Thais for sound quality on A and E.

4. Opening of Saint Saens Concerto no.3 to check the G string and its potential.

5. Mendelssohn measures 138-172 for tone on A and D and because it's my favorite passage.

6. Tchaikovsky, around C for tone on high notes on E

7. Tchaikovsky, Poco piu lento before E, to see if the violin can indeed handle fast and high double stops.

8. Bach fugue from sonata 1 for chords

If the violin meets the above, I take it on trial. But I only had 2-3 out of 80+ violins in this price range that did meet these tests.

March 16, 2013 at 10:38 PM · For the G string, I'd suggest the Paganini "Moses" Fantasy -- it'll go to the top of the G string and, played at full, rich forte, it will make G-string deficiencies very clear.

I disagree with Smiley here as well -- even a moderately good violin can make certain things challenging. Indeed, by forcing you to do something weird or exaggerate a motion in order to get something to work, it can actually hinder the development of the right technique. And it certainly makes for a ton of frustration. If you can do something on your teacher's instrument but not on yours, it's definitely upgrade time.

But it sounds like you might be trading up from junk to the merely sub-par. It is possible that if you look long and hard enough, you might find something acceptable, but you might be better off waiting and saving up.

March 16, 2013 at 11:53 PM · Agreed, if you've established from experienced players that your violin is difficult to play then yes it might be the violin. One thing that is certainly worth looking into if you haven't already is to take your instrument to a good luthier. Check that the fingerboard has the right curvature and the bridge is cut correctly with the right height and curvature. Small adjustments can make a big difference. Also check the string spacings and the height of the nut and the after string length. A good luthier should be able to check it in a few minutes and probably won't charge you anything unless you want it adjusted.

March 17, 2013 at 01:07 AM · I am going to say something that every experienced dealer knows, but no one wants to be the one to say: when someone looks at approaching 100 violins, and I don't care if the budget is $5000 or $500,000 (both have been mentioned in this thread), and can't find something, the problem is definitely not the violins.

March 17, 2013 at 01:27 AM · What is the problem then Michael? Is there a limit to the number of violins a person can try before the problem is the player? If so, what is the number?

March 17, 2013 at 01:52 AM · Michael: It's not that I haven't found something, it's just that the violins that have more of what I'm looking for are slightly above my price range, and for the one that wasn't, I wasn't in love with and did not receive my teacher's approval. I'm not looking for the perfect violin, I just have strict criteria for a violin that will meet my playing needs. It's hard to find that in this price range.

March 17, 2013 at 02:35 AM · Austin,

Your testing strategy is good. Your results are consistent with mine.... and I found quite a bit of "something" that was not worth spending money on.

Do not tell the dealer how much do you want to spend on a violin. It is an old trick I have seen many times. By some sort of miracle, the dealer will pul that "slightly" more expensive violin after you have tried some junk and got a bit tired and fuzzy. Chances are that the real price of that instrument is well within your budget, but that will remain the secret. In other words, if you tell how deep your pockets are and the prices are not tagged, look for another shop.

This is not to say that there are no honest and hardworking violin dealers, but that they are in minority and very difficult to find.

March 17, 2013 at 09:03 AM · Its possible that you have missed some excellent potential purchases simply because their setup was not ideal - in particular the choice of strings. V.com is bursting with topics where people have found that the violin exhibit significant deficiencies that can be solved by string (or other setup) choices. My own main example was curing a wolf problem on the G with a low-tension string.

I assume you've exhausted this route with your violin? It would certainly be worth it to try setup changes on the next violin that comes close to your needs.

Is it also possible that your standards are now too high? Maybe the instrument you are searching for is unrealistic? From my limited experience every violin has some personal characteristics that the player has to work round - whether its a chinese (or from what I've read) a strad...

March 17, 2013 at 11:10 AM · Rocky: I have had that happen to me, and somehow the most appealing violins are also usually the ones close to the top of my price range. I'm interested in how much this happens even at reputed dealers, and how to respond when they ask you outright what your price range is. I generally like to trust that they are good people, as I'm sure most of them are.

Elise: I think I'm coming to the conclusion that I won't be finding the right instrument in this price range. Most of the places I've visited are very well respected and have very good setups--I can work around characteristics, but I can't play beyond the instrument's potential. I think what it comes down to is if I should compromise and find something that will not hold me back as much as my current violin, or if I should stick it out and save up for a better one in the future.

March 17, 2013 at 04:00 PM · "Personally I find Violin dealers on the whole to be more reliable than internet commentators!!"

Hmmm....

What happens when they're one and the same?

March 17, 2013 at 05:04 PM · one more thing: after trying so many violins you are probably expert at what is available at your price range at a dealers. Why not try buying one privately? At your price range the dealers may only pay 1/3rd of their selling price to a private seller - which means you might be able to find a $15K violin for the money you have in hand. Obviously you have buyer-beware and all that but it may be worth a look.

March 18, 2013 at 01:03 AM · Where have you tried in the Berkeley area? Ifshins has a very good selection, but they do seem to mark up more than many other smaller shops.

March 18, 2013 at 02:28 AM · There is only one way to find out if the pricerange is what makes your limits: Try out more expensive instruments. Every Dealer should be reasonable enough to give you examples of good violins. Some don't really know what is good and only know about market value. But most violin dealers came into this business out of the love to the instruments. It is highly recommendable to test and play as good violins as you can get. That will answer your question and show you what you can actually expect from an instrument and what not. I can tell you from experience, that its not easy to find a good violin, but its very important to always continue the search and try to widen your horizon. Even if you cannot afford the much more expensive violins, you will maybe see qualities in them, wich you can look out for in cheaper violins. On the other hand don't think, that all expensive violins are good. Most of the players impression has to do with playability, wich is a question of setup and condition. You can easily fix the playability of a well sounding instrument. But you cannot make a violin sound good, wich has major flaws in its structure like thin wood, open cracks, imbalanced sound or lack of power. More expensive violins are mostly well build. But look out for black sheeps, some of them sound good at first. Cheaper violins are also often quite quality work, but make sure you check everything twice before investing.

Its a really good thing, that you tried about 80 violins. I hope you gave at least some of them a chance and took them home for a week. Mostly the first impression is the right one though, you learn much more about the first impession, when comparing it to how the violin will be for you after a week.

How to get hands on good instruments? Ask dealers, ask collegues, ask your teacher. I can totally recommend also to expand your search away from your current location. Looking for a violin is really a time and moneyinvestment. but all the travelling will pay off after all. Even if you end up with a violin from a dealer in your city.

March 18, 2013 at 10:11 PM · "when someone looks at approaching 100 violins, and I don't care if the budget is $5000 or $500,000 (both have been mentioned in this thread), and can't find something, the problem is definitely not the violins".

I think Michael is correct with his statement. Its a multi faceted problem.

1. Whoever is doing the buying, its alot of money to them, especially for something that you can't drive or live in, therefore expectations are high, probably too high.

2. Each violin is one of a kind. So a buyer may find something they like....but if they wait, will they find one that is better? and if they wait will the one they liked be sold?

Alot of emotions are involved, which leads to frustrations on both sides of the sales counter. In general I do have to say that violin dealers are quite accommodating in this regard.

I think buying a string instrument is almost as difficult as a house, unless the day comes where you can "trial" a house for a week, before you decide.

March 18, 2013 at 11:12 PM · Yes, its definetely a problem, that the prices are so high. One will always think that for THAT money it could have been even better if I had looked more. This problem will even get worse, if someone has 500,000 at disposal.

I think if one looks for 100 Violins and not liking anything, someone is looking at the wrong places.

As I was searching I tested myself through all the violins availible in my town at the dealers I could trust. Then I went to other cities and did the same. One time I went across a privat collector and dealer. 50 % of his violins were better than most of the violins I played in shops. The condition and setup was mostly good and the prices were low.

So, if you know a collector or player with many instruments, ask him if he can show you something in you pricerange. Other musicians also know often, where to organize good deals. If you only go to the official shops its like if you would repair your car only at Mercedes shops. With small shops one often has less security, but if you know what you are looking for...

March 19, 2013 at 12:12 AM · Simon,

thank you for contributing to this discussion with many valid remarks. From your web site, it is obvious that you are from Germany, one of the most successful countries as far as violin making is concerned. You are also in the middle of Europe and that might explain the difference in your experiences with dealers.

Here in Canada, the situation is different and, at least, in Toronto, I could not find a good violin between $10K and 20K, not to mention those below 5K. Our dealers travel to Europe and bring the instruments from auction sites and elsewhere (your dealers perhaps?), sometimes in poor or less than optimal condition. Then a local shop does a bit or a lot of restoration and new price tag is set. So, the price does not necessarily correlate with the quality of the instrument. I am not talking about personal preference in timbre, what is another level of assessment. Most of the instruments do not satisfy basic conditions of playability; the strings are not even, there are wolf and/or weak sounds, the violin is muted, does not project, is not resonant or responsive - any possible combination of those. Those that do have the basics and a little bit of personality go way beyond 20K.

I feel that similar is in at least some states of the USA, and Austin is witness to that.

Cheers!

March 19, 2013 at 12:19 AM · @Elise, yes, setup and strings and the like can be important factors in how a violin sounds. I struggled with that when I was violin shopping. Do you ask a dealer to please change the strings on a $5000 violin because you think it might sound better with Larsens? Do you suggest trying moving the sound post around? I always assumed they would set it up as best it could be for maximum sale value, but then I noticed in the shops I went to that 75% of them were strung with Dominants!

I have to agree with whoever suggested that you look for a private sale. Probably there are others in your situation -- but at the next rung of the ladder. Maybe talented kids heading off to conservatory in a year's time hoping to sell their $5000 high school violin so that they can reach just a bit higher, say from $25,000 to $30,000, to get the violin they need for the next leg of the journey -- and wondering if they're going to get ripped off by a dealer on the trade-in.

And Austin, after working out measures 138-172 of the Mendelssohn an extra 80 times that ought to be one heckuva smooth passage by now!

March 19, 2013 at 12:34 AM · Regarding the issue of trying 100 instruments, I can honestly say that I liked 3 or 4 instruments during my personal violin search and seriously considered buying them, but in the end I am VERY happy that I waited because when the right violin came along it was obvious and I am certain I would not have been as happy with any of the others.

Finding a violin has an element of luck. You can walk into a shop and fall in love with the first violin you try, or you can play 20-30 instruments and not like any of them. That happened to me on several occasions.

March 19, 2013 at 12:39 AM · BTW, I second the recommendation of finding a private seller. That is how I found my fiddle. It was a private seller and I fell in love from the moment I first played it. The problem is finding the instruments. The best fiddles are usually not for sale. I know mine isn't.

March 19, 2013 at 01:52 AM · Thank you everyone for your responses and insights!

Joseph: I've been there, with mixed experiences. There were two pretty decent violins, just slightly above my price range, but each was still lacking in some area.

Simon: Thanks for the great advice, I haven't tried out better/more expensive violins in fear that I would fall in love with something I can't have, but I think I should at this point. I took around 5 violins on trial, picked the best two and took them to my teacher--she said I could do better with $5000. What do you mean specifically by fix playability--do you mean wolf notes, fast response, or other aspects?

Paul: I only played it for the 20 or so instruments that made it past my scale/tone tests, but it was still good practice!

March 19, 2013 at 01:58 AM · Also, I will definitely be upgrading to the ~$10k range hopefully within 3 years (4 max), so I've been trying to go to shops that offer 100% trade ins. The problem I'm facing right now is whether to get an okay instrument now, and trade up with limited selection, or to wait until I can afford a better one. I just want to make good progress, and I'm not sure if I can do that with my violin holding me back.

If I buy privately, is it generally hard to unload an instrument without a significant loss?

March 19, 2013 at 02:17 AM · reselling is of course harder if you buy private.

regarding fixing of playability I mean the height of the bridge, the saddle, the fingerboard, good strings and sound post position. Sometimes also a change of the chinrest can make the difference.

edit: maybe you can lend an instrument for now wich works better than your old one and continue looking for something really worth buying.

March 19, 2013 at 02:21 AM · Why should you assume, right out of the gate, that you're going to take a substantial loss on an instrument after owning it a few years? I think you need to trust yourself a little more to be a good judge of value in violins. You seem pretty selective, so if you are able to buy a violin that appeals to you for $5000, chances are it's a good violin -- better than the other 80 you played at that price anyway. The way you take a loss is if you get impatient or if you have to sell the instrument during the two weeks that the dealer is holding the next instrument for you.

The shops want you to believe that you can't sell a violin on your own -- that the only way to recover the money you put into it is to go the trade-up route. It's the same with cars, except with violins there's no blue book. The reason trade-up works for the dealer is because the profit margin is even higher on your next, more expensive purchase. The advantage of trade-in is peace of mind if you are risk-averse, and of course big-time convenience. The disadvantage is that you are locked in to buying from that same shop next time. Do they have 300 violins for you to try at your next price level too?

March 19, 2013 at 03:50 AM · This sounds familiar, though on a different scale for me. When I bought my violin, I could hardly play, but though I tried every instruments available in my town up to $5K like you. What I've learned in the process (in spite of my very limited experience) is that it isn't good enough to try them. Once I got an instrument that seemed a good candidate, I actually discussed what I felt its weaknesses were (and they had to be rather obvious given my inexperience) with my vendor (a luthier and professional player), and then he adjusted the instrument post and strings to bring the best out of it to reach the balance I was seeking. That could include changing/adjusting the bridge as well. A violin is the sum of compromises. A slow instrument can be made more responsive, a weak note stronger etc. with proper setting. Hence you can/shouldn't reject an instrument right off if it is close to what you are seeking until you've attempted all possible tweaks. I've ended up with an old restored Bohemian, un-labeled instrument ($3500), which challenges me greatly, though sounds wonderful when I listen to a professional playing it (important to hear it from an audience's perspective also). I've come across much better instruments, but all over $7K. Is a $50K always better than a $15K instrument ? Perhaps, perhaps not. Sound quality is one of many elements that sets the value of the instrument. Mine for instance, had it not had the extensive restoration it was subjected to, could have sold at twice the price perhaps. I'll agree though, finding the right instrument is not easy.

March 19, 2013 at 01:16 PM · I would submit there is no such thing as a perfect violin regardless of price. Each fiddle has its strengths and weaknesses. Violins that sound best under ear might not offer the best projection in a large hall. And those that project might not be the most pleasant under ear. Then there is the subjective nature of sound, some prefer sweeter others warmer. It comes down to personal preference. Even playability is subjective. One violin might be set up perfectly for me, but a person with large hands might not find it ideal. It's like finding the perfect wine. After a certain point it is very subjective.

March 19, 2013 at 06:59 PM · "Why should you assume, right out of the gate, that you're going to take a substantial loss on an instrument after owning it a few years?"

Because it's the safe assumption, the likely scenario. The only things harder to get rid of are horses and yachts.

March 21, 2013 at 06:04 PM · My experience in the UK was that anything with decent sound cost well above $5k in the main dealers - even for no-name trade fiddles. I visited 4 cities and found nothing in my price range.

So I tried going direct to emerging young luthiers who seemed to be getting good testimonials. The value seemed notably better, and I found an instument I love. It involved a fair bit of travel, but I made a big saving.

Of course, there's more risk as you can't fall back on a trade-in as you can with a big dealer. But if you trust your judgement, you may well get a much better deal.

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