I have a dilemma on how to handle a local Seattle area luthier who is using disturbing techniques to encourage sales.

March 18, 2016 at 08:32 PM · I have a dilemma on how to handle a local Seattle area luthier who is using disturbing techniques to encourage sales. This shop owner is in a convenient location for many of my students and so I will send them there for minor work on their violin i.e. bridge or nut work, small repairs, touch-ups, rehairs - nothing major. I also send students to him for their rentals. He is great with the rentals but my concern is for my students who own their instruments.

Every time, with no exception, when I send a student to him he will run down their violin and bow telling the student/family that they need to get rid of their current setup and buy something else. He goes so far in his ridicule of the instrument that I've had families call me in tears wondering what to do. Just last night one of my high school students said they had gone to him to have a groove in the nut raised a little for the A string. This owner not only refused to do the work but he told this student that the whole violin was so badly made (crooked and uneven) that they should take it back to the shop where they bought it and implied they should buy the next violin from him. I spent a good part of the students lesson last night reassuring him and his family that his violin is fine and not a screwed up mess like he was told. I have no doubt that this owner is doing this. Because in the past he's done this to me when I had brought my very nice violin in for work. But I have a thick skin and just ignored his tactics. Most of my students who own their instruments don't have high-end violins and violas but they are good quality instruments purchased from other reputable shops here in town.

My dilemma is this: In the past, I've had a good working relationship with this owner - especially with rentals. But right now, I'm tempted to instruct my students to use other shops in town to avoid this kind of treatment. Do I tell him? I'm also active in the music scene around here and I don't want to burn bridges or start a war with someone but I am sick and tired of his methods. Or do I just pull my business and not tell him? I understand that shops have a tendency to push their own inventory but this is way out of hand.

Any suggestions on how to approach this would be greatly appreciated.

Replies (32)

March 18, 2016 at 08:44 PM · Just use and/or recommend another business. No need to talk to him. He'll figure out he's doing something wrong himself if he notices a drop in traffic.

March 18, 2016 at 08:55 PM · Tell him to stop, and that next time you hear of him doing this, you and your students will go elsewhere.

March 18, 2016 at 09:58 PM · I agree with David and would add that I would start such a conversation by listing all the things I *liked* about his business--and then move on to why I would not continue to send students to him if he did not cease and desist.

In the interim you should also warn your students of what to expect if you are continuing to recommend him. Forewarned is forearmed.

March 18, 2016 at 10:42 PM · You know, that's one thing I found different in two luthiers I've been to. One whom I've declared dishonest and decided to stop going to would always claim how his instrument is superior, and always talked about what is "wrong" with my instrument.

Since he's the only luthier I went to at the time, I didn't know better and didn't see others. I met my current luthier when I was hunting for a bow.

I started going to her because I really liked how she set up her instruments. Her work spoke for themselves. She instead says that I "outgrew" a certain violin, not that the violin was bad. I really like her quality of work. As far as I don't move, I'll probably continue going to her.

I personally never deal with someone I declare dishonest. I would simply stop going to that dealer.

March 19, 2016 at 01:09 AM · On the one hand, a good luthier might well be able to spot several small deficiencies in a student-model violin. On the other hand, here's how you fix this guy. Buy one of his student-level instruments, put a different label in it, and take it back to him so that he can tell you everything that's wrong with it.

March 19, 2016 at 01:35 AM · How do luthiers in your town view each other? It may be that other luthiers, if they know what he is up to, will feel that he is letting the side down (David, how do you feel about other luthiers?) and should be taught a lesson. If so, one of them will surely co-operate with you in carrying out Paul Deck's idea (if you can change the label in an instrument, you've got way more skill than me, or possibly even than my father, who jumped at the chance of employing a friend, who had made his own viola, as technician for the Haringey Shools Stringed Instruments Scheme), which is brilliant!

March 19, 2016 at 02:31 AM · "David, how do you feel about other luthiers?"

I'm embarrassed by some, and others are really solid and upstanding people.

March 19, 2016 at 02:38 AM · My proposal was based on those sting operations at muffler and transmission shops. I can't claim originality.

March 19, 2016 at 06:32 AM · The sting is a nice idea but I think it is far better to just let it go. Send your students elsewhere and move on ; there is no need to speak to him about anything.

Life is too short and we all have enough problems so why possibly create more for yourself ?

March 19, 2016 at 08:04 AM · I think you'd be best just telling your students to go elsewhere. You don't need the stress of confronting him and then being at daggers drawn in your small musical world. After all, if he was a nice person who took criticism well, he wouldn't be behaving like this. Just 'smile & wave'.

March 19, 2016 at 09:06 AM · Thank you David, it's as I thought and hoped: Sound luthiers ARE embarrassed by bad eggs.

Brian and Mollie have a point, but you may be missing the opportunity of doing fellow violinists and other luthiers a service. It might depend on whether there is another luthier in the town who feels strongly enough about it to engage in the sting at no profit to themselves, especially if the results of the sting are then to be publicised.

March 19, 2016 at 01:05 PM · Personally, I would just take my business elsewhere. I'm not one to spend energy confronting another person which may or may not cause some burning bridges. Its just too stressful.

One thing to think about - what is the personality of this luthier otherwise? Is he just a heavy handed salesman or is he an ego-maniac narcissist? Is he a vindictive person?

If you talk to him and he feels threatened, do you honestly trust him to handle your violin the next time for repairs? Or a student who says they take lessons from you?

March 19, 2016 at 01:24 PM · My knee-jerk thought was to talk with him and give him the opportunity to remedy his behavior, but after I thought about it more I would just stop sending students to him. My thoughts are that I wouldn't want to be associated with such business tactics. If he hasn't already, he'll get a bad reputation and if it's known you send your students to him and / or recommend him that will tarnish your reputation too. People might start thinking you two have some sort of agreements worked out.

Just my thoughts...

March 19, 2016 at 02:15 PM · I appreciate all of your responses.

I think the "sting" option is out for me although it was fun to consider the option.

A number of you wondered about what kind of a person he is and how he would take having this issue brought up to him. Honestly, I think he would explode and I'm sure he would hold a grudge. He comes across as somewhat arrogant and all-knowing; we have lightly butted heads before about various issues and I have a good idea how he might react.

I just thought of an example that would explain his personality: A few years ago, I had an adult viola student who started lessons with me. She worked hard playing for almost 2 years with very little success and finally I sat down and had a talk with her about what might be holding her back. She finally told me that when she went to his shop to get her instrument - before she contacted me for lessons - she had wanted to get a cello. That was the instrument she wanted to play. This shop owner had convinced her that a cello was to big and bulky and that she wouldn't like it. So she got a viola instead. I immediately suggested she suspend viola lessons, got her in touch with a great cello teacher and she has been happily playing and progressing on the cello ever since. This all-knowing approach by this owner is what I think is driving his behavior. And to be perfectly honest, I suspect his shop is struggling to make ends meet and he is resorting to these tactics.

To answer some other queries, I haven't had him do work for me anymore for a number of years and am happily using another shop. The issue for my students is his shop is not in Seattle proper but located closer to where they live. Convincing parents to drive into Seattle i.e. parking issues, traffic, and time-consuming, to have their instrument worked on is almost impossible. There are a number of excellent shops in the Seattle area that I could highly recommend but for my students it's location, location, location. :-(

But what really sucks, is his rental program is awesome and I know my students will come back to me with the right sized instrument, and accessories they need. I think perhaps, I will recommend students who are still renting to use his shop as they've never had issues. But once a student is ready to buy their instrument, or once they own it, I will omit his shop in the list of shops I give to students. Maybe, I don't know...

March 19, 2016 at 08:06 PM · Seems like a good solution to the issue.

I don't like confrontation either (and will avoid it as best I can)...but perhaps if I were David...Sawzall notwithstanding...I might feel I could change things a bit for the better...

But just as a customer? To go in and 'criticise' the way someone runs his/her own business? I don't think that bodes well.

Criticising a small issue ("I think you charge a bit too much for your Dominants") is also different than "you are intimidating and bullying people into buying what they don't want and need!" That becomes personal.

If the individual is of an 'angry' nature...just think of all the fun they could have with potential slander lawsuit threats and whatnot.

Again, if he notices a drop in business...he'll re-evaluate how he does things without anyone telling him off.

March 20, 2016 at 03:18 AM · By sending your students to another shop, aren't you effectively burning that bridge anyway? Why not try to talk to him and let him know your concerns? It doesn't have to be a confrontation. Just explain that some students are not looking to upgrade their instruments and it is really great having a nearby shop that can handle adjustments and repairs. Also explain the angst that he is causing with your students. Maybe you can make a deal with him that if he believes one of your students needs a new instrument, he will agree to bring you into the conversation before recommending a new instrument.

I am an advocate of honesty and authenticity with people. As long as your intentions are good, no one can fault you for expressing your point of view. People are certainly free to disagree, but that is their choice. And if they disagree, then it is perfectly reasonable to take your business elsewhere.

March 20, 2016 at 03:22 AM · Would a sawzall fit in a violin case? Cool gag gift idea...

March 20, 2016 at 06:17 AM · If the luthier in question reads this thread, there is no need to talk or perform a sting operation.

March 20, 2016 at 11:51 AM · You can also prepare your students before sending them to the luthier in question. Let them know that the luthier is very interested in selling instruments and they should be clear with him that they are not interested in purchasing an instrument.

March 20, 2016 at 06:25 PM · The luthier is question is a case example of misuse of "expertise" and mystification of violin repair process for monetary gain.

Although not ethical, it is unfortunately a common practice within and outside the violin realm. Some dentists also use this approach to convince their clients to undertake certain steps in tooth restoration or orthodontics. Car repair shops, real-estate agents, you name it.... the lack of business ethics is widespread.

I wonder why do you perceive part of your duties and responsibilities as a teacher to recommend a violin shop?

March 20, 2016 at 07:03 PM · I have no actual experience when it comes to something like this, however, if I can put in my two cents. I believe you should cut this Luthier off entirely. You don't have to tell him but if you feel that it is the right thing to do then by all means do so, but. Make sure that your students no longer go to him as a source of repair or for new rentals. The way I see it he is a disgrace to his trade and should suffer for it in the only way he'd feel it. No one should make a student feel ashamed of their first violin or viola.

March 20, 2016 at 07:45 PM · Thanks everyone for different viewpoints on this problem.

Rocky, to answer your question on why I recommend violin shops. Because, if at all possible, I don't want my students renting from local music stores. Music stores generally have low quality, terrible sounding VSO's that I'd rather not have any of my students have to use. I recommend local violin shops that I know will provide a much better, sounding and handling rental. In addition, most of my students aren't sure where to go when they're first starting out and as their new teacher I'm happy to help them get started.

March 20, 2016 at 08:21 PM · It's very common for violin teachers to recommend shops to students, especially new students; I do the same. In my city, there are two competent violin shops and a host of music stores that are band instrument-oriented but which do have VSOs available, unfortunately. I steer my students to the shop I prefer so that I can be confident they will show up at their first lesson with a working instrument.

March 20, 2016 at 08:57 PM · Mary, that's virtually the violin shop situation where I live, in Bristol, England. One of the violin shops also makes violins, mostly Baroque, and other Early Music instruments. It is located a very short walking distance from Bristol's Colston Hall, the city's principal venue for classical concerts, so that violin shop naturally caters for all violinists from beginner up to international soloist level. Bristol also has two or three independent luthiers working on their own.

March 21, 2016 at 02:26 AM · This thread keeps getting weirder and weirder. Sting recommendations followed by confront-the-guy recommendations. And somebody asking why a teacher even needs to recommend shops in the first place. What's next, suggestion for a lynch mob? Wow. Just wow.

March 21, 2016 at 01:06 PM · This condition seems not uncommon with luthiers. The luthier where I got my instrument is also totally like that. He is completely dominated by the idea that his Chinese workshop violins, built to his specifications and from his own stock of old European tonewood, are much better than any other violin brought before him. In a pinch he will grant that, say, the Messiah is better, but not much beyond that :-)

March 21, 2016 at 01:41 PM · I say get the whole village together and storm his shop with torches and pitchforks! Oh wait, that was Frankenstein. Still, wouldn't that be pretty cool?

OK, seriously, there are basically two related issues here:

1. Whether to continue any business with this guy and

2. Whether to confront him

As to #1 I certainly would not send even one student to buy even one E string ever again.

As to #2 We're all human and can make an occasional mistake, whether with our strategic thinking or our moral compass. But there is no excuse for the consistent pattern described here. Just from a strategic point of view, what is this guy thinking? He can't sell a violin to a any student of yours behind your back. Of course the student will bring it to you and ask you what you think.

Everybody is different when it comes to confrontations. Some people just can't bear it even if they think they're 100% right and son't expect much backlash beyond the initial discomfort. I'm NOT such a one. I would have called this guy a long time ago and told him to cut it out. Perhaps you might feel less uncomfortable writing a letter. At any rate, at the very least, see #1 above. Good luck!

March 21, 2016 at 02:35 PM · Bev said that her clients don't want to drive downtown for routine work. I understand. My closest repair shop is in downtown Roanoke, a 45-60 minute drive depending on traffic. Anything that requires the violin or bow to be left at the shop requires two trips, and everyone is busy.

There is also the issue that students told to avoid the local violin shop may rent inferior instruments from the local music store, again instead of driving downtown, but in this case I think parents should be told that it's so important that they have to make the trip, i.e., that it is possible they'll get a violin from the music store that will make learning the violin terribly frustrating for both student and teacher, and that you reserve the right to turn away students who are not adequately equipped.

On balance, Smiley's suggestion seems best. Warn your clients that the local shop is governed by someone with whom you would rather not do business, and that the music store does not have the right gear or the needed expertise to outfit a student properly.

I wonder if a larger downtown shop could have occasional clinics with the bigger suburban violin studios. So, just for example, suppose a violin teacher has his group class on Saturday morning. one day the luthier might come and help students who need small adjustments, or fitted for the next size instrument or other accessories, bringing along what's needed by surveying the teacher in advance. The shop could generate both profit and goodwill.

March 21, 2016 at 06:55 PM · The question I'd ask myself first is whether the "faults" that he points out are real. If he's giving a accurate feedback on the state of a given instrument, at least you may not want to accuse him of lying. I am pretty sure that any experienced Luthier will find something wrong with just about any instrument. Then one should advise the client on the worthiness of addressing these faults, and the benefit of throwing good money to fix what will remain a mediocre instrument. So I'd consider if this is a case of an over zealous Luthier or rather plain fraudulent salesmanship. I think I'd just advise my students not to jump to conclusion rather than attacking (directly or not) this Luthier's reputation without establishing the facts, and perhaps discussing the concerns with him as he ought to be given at least the benefit of the doubt. He may not even realize that he makes your students feel uncomfortable by providing perhaps what is "too much information". For all you know he may try to be helpful in is own way, but comes across as being pushy.

March 21, 2016 at 06:57 PM · I agree with Paul and Smiley. Just tell your students that it is most convenient to use that luthier's services, but simply warn them about his behaviour, and advise them to politely wave off any of his suggestions to get a new violin from him. In the end I understand he _will_ competently do the required repairs on the "worthless" violin, so all is well in the end if everybody is warned in advance.

March 21, 2016 at 10:57 PM · Doesn't it occur to these dealers that their customers also conduct business and can recognize sharp practice when they see it? These guys aren't nearly as clever as they think they are, and yet such sales techniques are almost customary in the violin trades . . .; there are shops who have made a reputation as straight-up traders. I hear Claire Givens in Minneapolis is such a one. Hope you don't have to travel that far. Is there an Angie's List for violin shops? There ought to be . . .

March 22, 2016 at 12:46 AM · Roger, your response is spot-on. Bravo.

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