Buying a violin at a convention? (and many other questions)

Edited: February 11, 2018, 12:48 AM · I'm a high schooler that is in the market for a new violin and bow as I am currently renting from the school. It's going to be my second year in the TMEA All State Orchestra so I thought that it would be a good idea to go to the convention and check out some of the shops that aren't around my area (Robertson's). I have a couple of questions though that I decided to list below.

My current price range is around $5000 for both the violin and bow, but I'm not too sure if that's a good price point. Do most students at this level have instruments around that price?

If I happen to find a violin that I like, would it be a good idea to try and buy it during the final hours of the convention to try to bring down the price, or should I take it home and trial it for a little longer?

Where/what shops would be the best place to look to get the biggest bang for the buck?

At the $5000 price point, would it be better to focus more on new Chinese workshop violins or ones made by a luthier?


Replies (15)

Edited: February 11, 2018, 7:30 AM · At your price point you are probably talking about a CF bow, so if you can narrow that down then you can focus more on the violin, which you should be doing anyway. $4000 will net you a nice violin. You're not going to get a recently-handmade American or European instrument at that price, but there are some really nice ca. 120-year-old European instruments (often German) to be had at that price range. I know because I bought one for my daughter for $3500. And yes there are great Chinese instruments. I know because I bought a really nice Chinese viola a few years back for $3500.

You really want to try to bring a few violins home to test for a week or so ... mainly so that you can show them to your teacher. You don't want to be making this decision on your own.

If you are buying from a dealer, just remember one thing: Dealers exist to make profits. So, some of the price you pay will be the dealer's profit. There is no escape from that, it's a fact of life. What you can do is resist the hard sell. There are plenty of nice violins out there at your price point. You don't necessarily need to try dozens upon dozens of instruments to find one that you like, but you do want to be sure that you're not buying a total dog that you can never resell. That's where the advice of your teacher or other trusted pro violinist can be critical.

February 11, 2018, 8:58 AM · First of all, waiting until the end of the convention will not give you the opportunity of buying at a reduced price. You will not see signs going up saying "all Strads are 30% off today, or "clearance sale everything must go."

Trying out instruments at tmea can be difficult because it is hard to hear what they sound like because of the noise factor. So if you find a good prospect, definitely take it out to try at home. You, of course will have to get it back to the dealer.

Robertsons is a good shop to look, but also David Brewer Fine Violins. Both shops are in Albuquerque. The best thing to do is to go to the actual shop.

February 11, 2018, 10:33 AM · I do ‘t think that I could buy an instrument with only a few minutes of playing it in a noisy environment. I’d want to take the instrument on trial for a week at least. First impression isn’t always the best impression.
February 11, 2018, 10:50 AM · Also you need to hear how it sounds when someone else is playing it. Someone who can play circles around you, preferably.
Edited: February 11, 2018, 12:05 PM · At a $5k combined budget, you're probably looking at about $1,000 - $2,000 for the bow, and around $2,000 - $4,000 for the violin.

That's the range of good-quality workshop instruments (from China, Japan, Eastern Europe, and the like, mostly), high-quality carbon-fiber bows, good workshop-made contemporary bows (likely Brazilian workshops), and some decent older wooden bows.

You'll find many high school students playing violins and bows in this price range, especially if they don't intend to go on to music careers or play a lot of solo competitions. This is a common price range for adult amateurs, as well. (Students who hope to go onto music careers, and/or who have wealthier parents, may be playing stuff well beyond this price range -- $15k+ for contemporary violins, $4k+ for contemporary bows, and there will be a few kids playing antiques worth six figures.)

There's an incredible amount of inventory in this price range, available both in shops and online. There's going to be plenty for you to choose from, wherever you live. I'd take your time and choose carefully, including involving your teacher in the hunt.

My suggestion is that you play as many things as you can at the convention, just to get a sense of your taste in violins and bows, especially if you've never really tried stuff out in the past. Play things well above your price range also, to get a sense for whether or not you can tell the difference, and what you might be looking for that you weren't previously aware of. Convention environments are non-ideal for trying instruments due to the noise. I would not buy anything on the spot, no matter how much you think you like it.

Normally, instruments can be taken for a trial of one or two weeks. This can sometimes be extended under certain circumstances. Definitely do the at-home trial, and compare multiple instruments at home, and take those instruments to your teacher, and have them help you choose. Choose a violin before choosing a bow to match it.

Because there's so much inventory in this price range, I suggest taking your time to find something you really like, and that you're sure is better than the many other things you've tried.

Edited: February 12, 2018, 8:35 AM · Even if the OP does not purchase an instrument at the "convention" it is a good way to start relationships with some responsible dealers that might lead to the optimal purchase later.

I have found it a good feeling to be comfortable in my dealer-luthier's shop (Ifshin Violins) for the past 20 years; it has gotten my hands on Stradivari and Guarneri violins and even a tortoise-shell frogged Kittel bow once owned by Pinchus Zukerman. And the older guys there still know my name when i walk in!

February 11, 2018, 2:07 PM · Man. I would really love to try a Kittel. :-)
February 11, 2018, 3:01 PM · What were the strad and guarneri like, Andrew? I've always wanted to try them but the most reasonable chance of that happening is if Ifshins gets more.

They're a great shop with a truly classical-feeling environment.

February 11, 2018, 3:13 PM · Bruce already said everything I was going to say. It's fun to try out instruments at TMEA but it is super noisy. I wouldn't buy anything without taking it home and living with it for a week or so, and getting your teacher's input. You will definitely not get any kind of price break no matter how late you wait.

Which orchestra are you in? Two of my students are in Philharmonic, and I'm looking forward to the concert.

Edited: February 11, 2018, 5:16 PM · Lydia I have tried one but it was wasted on me. It was a little more playable than my CF but probably I'm just not able to do the finely tuned bow strokes where the differences would be realized. It's okay. It's far better off in the hands of the man who owns it.
February 11, 2018, 7:22 PM · Try a variety of affordable violins and bows, pick your favourites, take them home for trial, show them to your teacher, and go from there.
February 11, 2018, 8:07 PM · "Man. I would really love to try a Kittel. :-)"

I would just love to live within an hour or two of a great violin shop like Ifshin, lol.

February 11, 2018, 10:31 PM · I actually just bought a violin at TMEA last year.

First of all, you won't have much time to look at violins if you are in an orchestra. (I didn't attend as an orchestra member, so I was able to spend all day in that AWESOME convention) TMEA schedules rehearsals all day and I have heard from a lot of people that they don't have much time to enjoy the convention.

But do explore the different shops, some will have more violins in your price point than others. I want to say it was at the David Brewer shop (I could be wrong, I forget the name), and they told me to look through a whole row of violins. Since they were from a dryer climate, all the violins had been adjusted to less humidity, so they sounded different and I literally ended up tuning about 20 violins with sticky pegs.

Start with a G scale to hear the instrument, and once you have narrowed down your search between some violins, start playing your piece. This is advice that the Robertson people always tell you. (Barbara Barber is at Robertsons and she is great to work with)
Robertsons will let you take the violin at the end of a convention day and then you can hear it in you hotel room and return it the next day. They also usually suggest that you go across the aisle to use the demo practice room in the Wenger booth (You can hear the violin without the convention noise, plus, those practice booths are amazing).

Try out some other shops too. I love Amati and William Harris Lee. The people are always so helpful and nice.

Some places will show you more expensive instruments than your price range. This is actually how I got my violin from Robertsons. (The violin was about x2 my budget, but they had me try it out because it was on consignment and the owner was willing to take a massive price cut in order to sell it quickly)

Also take home instruments after the convention. I took home probably 8, but that is probably a bit much for some people. The shops at the convention will have processes set up for you to return the instruments (usually shipping them very carefully on airlines). Then you can try them out and have them adjust to you and your climate. Plus you can have your teacher help you choose which instrument is right for you.

Have fun at the convention!!! (I highly recommend playing around with the instruments in the percussion section) TMEA is one of the best times of the year.

Edited: February 12, 2018, 8:33 AM · Erik, this was in earlier times when the Ifshin shop was still in Berkeley (not El Cerrito). I was not overly impressed by either instrument (which is why I went home with my own violins without Jealousy). On a later visit Richard Ward told me the Strad had turned out really well before SFSO bought it for $2M. So they were still working on it when I was allowed to try it. It does go to show you how much work they will put in on instruments with supposed potential - labor cost exceeding the price of some very good new violins, probably!

I believe I had met that same Andrea Guarneri a few years earlier at Stevens shop in San Jose (Willow Grove, I think). I think consignment instruments in the Bay Area make the rounds of different shops if they are not sold after a reasonable time. Corollary: if they are not sold in a reasonable time they must not be what buyers are looking for at that price point (they were asking $300,000 for the A. Guarnerius).

The Ole Bull Strad I had played back in 1963 was something else entirely with a very powerful, rich tone over it's entire range. Its spectrum in the "harmonic range" must have been fantastic because I remember how the A string responded to vibrato, the more I gave it, the more the sound just grew - a title more, I felt, and it would just soar off to heaven. I only had a very few minutes on it - maybe less.

The Strad at Ifshin's was made in 1698. I believe the Ole Bull Strad was 17-teens or later - it looked a lot like my copy.

I remember not being impressed but the sound of André Rieu's 1767 Strad. And when I heard the Cypress String Quartet live from the front row of the San Francisco Conservatory hall the 1781 Strad (1st violin) did not have an impressive tone (to my ears) - but the 2nd violin (listed on line as a Carlo Bergonzi (1733) did impress me). But I really love the way the sound of that quartet (with it's Amati cello) came together (they existed as a quartet from 1996 - 2016). So Strads do come in a wide range of "colors," no doubt about it!

February 13, 2018, 5:27 PM · Thank you all for the advice!

Ms. Goree, I'm in the string orchestra. (I tend to use an alias for online forums so you won't find my name in the list)

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