Upgrading a Violin

November 9, 2018, 3:50 PM · Hi All!

I have a question about violin upgrades...

A little background: I'm currently playing a no-name mid-late 1800s German violin, and am swimming in the Bruch/Lalo territory as an adult returner. My violin is on the larger size (I'm short and have small hands too - so my fourth finger REALLY gets its stretches in for proper intonation). I had the opportunity to play on a much nicer Italian violin over the summer for a couple of weeks, and wow. I didn't have to stretch my hand so much, and the sound was so much cleaner, resonant and clearer (much less "rumbly"). (I've had my luthier do plenty of adjustments, strings are sorted, etc.)

I've never been told by my teacher, or another teacher I've been working with recently, that there's anything "wrong" with my violin. I asked my teacher about upgrading my violin, after having that nicer instrument for a bit, and they insist that my violin and I have a good relationship and there's no need to make a change at this time.

Curiosity has gotten the best of me though, and I'm wondering...

It's been mentioned that the violin seems to hold the player back - what is meant by this? Even if we don't know it as players, what are some signs that this is occurring?

I guess we would not know that a violin is holding us back until we try a different one and see what comes with less work, and more ease?

At what price point would one expect to have to jump to from a mid/late-1800s "good" and "nice" label-less German violin to a next couple of steps up violin? Does this question even matter?

Thanks for your help, and responses.

Replies (22)

Edited: November 9, 2018, 4:42 PM · I don't think it is a "price point" thing. But, YES, a different instrument that is easier to play can make a world of difference when you are learning. They can make it possible to do a decent job of playing things that you might otherwise find impossible to do decently.

For me, testing an instrument involves:
Being able to play a decent 2 octave scale up each string.
Being able to get a clean spiccato and sautille on every string. Checking the "resonance spectrum" by vibrato with some music I know well.
When I have gone out to try and maybe buy and instrument (or bow) I have always had a specific short repertoire that i play on each instrument.
Do all this with your own bow and having your own instrument with you at the time for comparison.

Some violins are "stiff" in certain pitch regimes, others are not. I have experienced brand new instruments were smooth and easy to play and stayed that way and instruments that were not so easy and stayed that way. I have some doubts about instruments getting "played in." Perhaps it is the players who adapt.
Some instruments have incredible power if you have the skill to bring it out, but might be difficult to play - but do you have or can you develop that skill? (I had a friend decades ago who commissioned a new violin for power and POWER she got - and she could play it; I could not!)
Some will just sing out with little extra effort.

From what you say it seems you have experienced a violin which seems better for you.
Measure the distance from the nut to the bridge and compare it with your own - it sounds like that is one of your difficulties.
Try lots of different violins to see what you can do with them. Give the process lots of time. Try some 7/8 size violins ("ladies full-size"). You really should not punish yourself at this stage by playing an instrument that is too large for you or too difficult to play.

There are lots of violins out there in the <$3,000 range that are quite good - but you cannot judge by price or brand alone.

November 9, 2018, 4:57 PM · Seems to me your teacher is wrong: If you had such a good relationship with your instrument you would not feel the desire to change.

Also: Your playing level is not terribly important to that decision, at least once you are past the beginner stage. It is definitely true at any rate that a good instrument that is a good match for you will make things easier for you.

November 9, 2018, 6:47 PM · Your post resonates with my background-- similar level, returning as an adult, I continued with the violin that I had when I was 18.
I recently upgraded my violin from a solid early 1900 German violin model by a reputable luthier (probably worth 6k). It was a long process but I learned what type of violin one can get near 10k, and what one can get near 20k. (Also 50k for that matter) Price does not equate to excellence of sound or playability but particularly with some of the modern instruments you can find some gems.
My advice-- the world is your oyster if you have the bankroll to upgrade and the energy to try. If you do your research you will learn what an upgraded instrument will enable you to do, and what may be your own technical limitation. Take your time and you'll learn a lot.
As for teachers-- I'm sure they have wisdom as well, but as with all humans I have learned that everyone has biases.
Edited: November 9, 2018, 11:50 PM · Frankly, your discomfort alone is a good reason to upgrade -- or at least to trade laterally if you don't want to spend more money.

I think that when you can feel the difference between what you have and a better instrument, and you have the money and the desire, you should upgrade. It will up-level your playing, and it will probably increase your enjoyment. And since this is a hobby, why shouldn't you enjoy it as much as possible?

I believe my teacher thinks that the single thing that made the most difference for my improvement as a player, in the last five years since I returned to the violin, was upgrading both my violin and my bow. (And note that I was already using equipment suitable for a pro.) Having an extremely sensitive violin forced me to really refine my technique.

Note, though, that a player with less control might well find themselves extremely frustrated by my violin, so there is such a thing as over-upgrading. You have to know whether or not you're able and willing to bring your technique up to that level. You want to grow into the instrument -- indeed, I sounded worse on it for weeks, on its acquisition, while I learned to control my sound properly -- but not so slowly it frustrates you over a long period of time.

I outgrew the capabilities of my first full-size violin -- a nice contemporary -- by the time I was playing major concertos. My parents could not afford the upgrade. I upgraded not long after starting to play again in my 20s -- I had already begun to look by the time my teacher really stressed the need for me to play something better. That was made clear by the fact that I could do things effortlessly on her Guadagnini that I couldn't manage at all on my own violin.

Unsurprisingly I'm all for amateurs buying the best equipment they can afford. You don't need to somehow "deserve" to upgrade.

November 10, 2018, 7:17 AM · There is no harm in going out and trying a bunch of instruments in different price ranges. See for yourself what you notice at each price point. I wrote a decent 2 part article on my site: https://adbowsllc.com/2017/02/19/shopping-for-an-instrument-part-1-of-2/
It covers a lot of information including what to test for and determining your price range.
November 12, 2018, 12:47 PM · Thanks all.

Andrew - I wish I had written the measurements of that loaner violin down at the time, but I recall it was a sizeable difference!!! Especially so because I was far too sharp with my fourth finger on the loaner vs being slightly flat with my current violin, and the location of third position shifts between the two violins was massive. When I asked my luthier the price of the loaner, he quoted me an insanely high price which I could not and will not be able to afford. (Even my luthier pointed out that my violin is too big for me!)

Guess I have to start saving up for a new violin, or come to terms with trading in my beloved first real (non VSO) violin that my parents bought for me when I was 17. I have a nice bow, so will have to decide re: a bow upgrade or switching to a $750 carbon fiber with a new violin.

Lydia - I agree! I am doing this for the love of it, and should love my instrument. I mean, I do - it has a lot of sentimental value attached to it, and I generally love the sound - the playing is challenging for a lot of things that I feel should not be at this stage. Thank you for reassuring me!

I’m not discrediting unlabelled German violins! I will probably look at more of them, or try for something made in the early 1900’s or a modern instrument. We will see... depends on what I can scrape together in the coming year. For what it is worth, my violin is valued at more than $3k... a lateral trade would be ideal.

November 12, 2018, 2:48 PM · Pamela, you should try a bunch of violins in the $2k - $5k range, and see if there's anything in that range that you like better. A trade is preferable to a sale with your current violin, since if the sound isn't great for the price range, it's less likely to sell in a reasonable amount of time (and you'd lose probably 20% of its value in consignment fees).

If you don't find anything in that price range that seems like the violin you want to have in the long term -- something that you think is fully satisfying -- you may need to go up much more significantly in price, to the $10k+ range, to have better odds of finding something. You might still find something less expensive that's good enough, but it might require a lot of hunting.

You should involve your teacher in the hunt, assuming that they're a reasonable judge of playing qualities. (Not all teachers are.)

November 12, 2018, 3:54 PM · Lydia, good advice.

I will discuss with another teacher that I am working with to see what they say tomorrow, they seem to be quite knowledgeable with equipment.

Like I said, this is something that would not happen until about this time next year, but I'm trying to get a gauge as to what I should expect re: in process, what to save, etc. And to come to terms with the fact that the violin I thought I would use for the rest of my life is not in fact going to be the violin for the rest of my life...

November 12, 2018, 6:19 PM · Lydia said: "You should involve your teacher in the hunt, assuming that they're a reasonable judge of playing qualities. (Not all teachers are.)"

I think this is an important statement. There are some who are capable at teaching youngsters or intermediates (even advancing players) that don't have the skills needed to really test instruments in a variety of scenarios. Not a knock on those teachers, they can be good at what they do, but it's an important distinction when you are selecting an instrument.

November 12, 2018, 10:07 PM · Pamela, I think it's worth starting a hunt now even if you won't have the funds until next year. You'll need time to explore to find out what you want, and what's out there, and the experience gained will really inform your eventual decision-making.
Edited: November 13, 2018, 10:37 AM · Good point Lydia. This is all new for me, and I appreciate the advice.

So far I'm looking at getting in touch with Reed Yeboah, David Segal, and Gregory Singer. Are there others you would recommend in NYC? I am afraid that Rare Violins would be out of my anticipated price range, and would not be willing to work a suitable trade.

November 13, 2018, 11:56 AM · I've only ever personally been to Reed Yeboah in NYC. (My teacher often brings violins down from various NYC dealers for his students who are hunting.) Julie Reed does fantastic adjustments.

I would suggest going to all the shops that you can, though, just to get a sampling of more violins.

November 13, 2018, 4:16 PM · Lydia - great. Will make the effort to do so then! I am already scheduled to meet with a dealer at the end of this week :)

If I knew anything about violins, I'd take a stab at the Tarisio auctions - but I don't have money to waste so will have to go the dealer route.

November 13, 2018, 6:28 PM · Hello Pamela,
congratulations on returning to the violin, and on being proficient enough to 'swim around' in Bruch and Lalo for no other reason than the love of the instrument and the repertoire.
You obviously love your music and I see no reason why you shouldn't love your violin just as much. I believe that a violin shoud be an inspiration, something that gives you a little bit of a kick every time you open the case. It should certainly help you be a better musician. But perhaps it holds more potential in that it makes you want to be a better musician?
An instrument capable of of drama and flourish might encourage and challenge you more than you realise.
Buy the best instrument that you can afford. You're in it for the love of it, and you probably won't find much joy in restricting yourself to a violin you don't like simply because it satisfies someone else's notions of what you should or shouldn't have.
Onwards and upwards.
December 6, 2018, 10:43 AM · Updating this thread:

I have sampled 10 violins in my current price range and am not sold on the sound available. Seems I am only going to make a lateral move to a violin that's more suited to my physiology with a lot of sound-trade offs like I currently have. (The very good part of this exploration is seeing all the ways where my violin is indeed holding me back, and that it is not my imagination!)

Went to Reed Yeboah - they only had two violins that met my requests. And another shop had one - and the E string peg kept slipping. Hahaha.

RY had many more that met my requests if I increased my budget, so I think I will be forced to do so if I don't want to make too many compromises. Another dealer had a ton of violins in the next tier up. Aside from the sheer increase in options, I believe that the sound that I am looking for can only be found in the $10-12k+ group.

(I have to prepare for a recital, so that's kind of the priority over violin shopping... violin shopping is fantastic recital preparation procrastination though!)

I got to try a lovely early 1800s English violin which I liked - nice warm G, good balance across the strings, easy to play, all that lovely stuff. Not convinced it's "the one" so early in the game though. I do keep thinking about it, which means I'll probably ask to bring it home for a bit. The dealer said it was not in my price range - of course.

Am currently at-home trialing a very pretty French violin that's had a lot of repair work but is just over the top of my current price range. It felt good when I played it, and I wanted to explore it more. It's quite close to the sound that I am looking for.


What's the general advice re: private sales?

What about violins with a lot of repair work (due to an accident)?

>>> Going to read Smiley's thread on this again to dig for more gems.

December 6, 2018, 1:09 PM · Don't pass up the violin with the peg issue if you otherwise like it. That's an extremely easily fixable problem. (Indeed it might be as simple as rewinding the string to be a little closer to the pegbox, or applying some peg dope.)

For "private sales", do you mean a violin sold by an individual? You would want to get such an instrument inspected by a luthier. You might ask the seller to produce a certificate (for a more expensive instrument). You might ask the seller to also show you a current insurance appraisal, keeping in mind that appraisals generally reflect a generous replacement value for the instrument, and not its actual worth at sale (i.e. you want to pay less than the appraised value). Depending on circumstances (old, repaired, etc.), you may also want to get the seller to pay to have a luthier do a formal condition report.

Repair work devalues a violin, and the price has to take that into account. You care about what the repairs are, how well they were done, and how stable they are. The critical piece is whether or not any of the repairs are likely to be sound-affecting, especially if a crack re-opens or the like.

December 6, 2018, 1:11 PM · If the repairs are properly done, it can still be a rather healthy instrument so basically, why not if it gives you the opportunity to buy something you couldn't afford otherwise. There are stories about expensive instruments with heaviest damage imaginable (except burning) which were set together again and are on stage with top notch classical music world stars again. Just remember the "Mara" chello, the most prominent example.
December 6, 2018, 1:14 PM · ... or the "Red Diamond" violin...
December 6, 2018, 1:24 PM · Yes Lydia - an individual; not a dealer or auction house, or a maker. They brought it to a luthier to have it checked over before lending it to me, but I've yet to see a current appraisal. This is a bit cart-before-the-horse as I literally just picked it up yesterday and have not been able to play on it for more than a few minutes.

The violin with the peg issue sounded like a cigar box to me - much like all of the other violins in the $4-6K price category.

December 7, 2018, 8:49 PM · If I’m understanding correctly, you’re in the NYC area? You may want to check out the T2 auctions (they are held online but there are two days you can try everything in NYC). The fact of the matter is that at this price point, there are lovely violins, but you need to put in quite a bit of sweat equity to find it. You’re essentially looking for a good sounding instrument that also doesn’t have many qualities that investors are interested in.

I’ve heard that there are a few Bulgarian luthiers who are producing nice instruments in this price range that sound lovely (Petko Stoinov, Ivan Stankov). I think there are YouTube videos of these instruments being played. (Don’t expect what you hear to be anything but a general sense to convince yourself these aren’t cigar boxes). I’ve also heard of Czech makers turning out nice instruments.

Another strategy is to look for smaller than standard violins since that tends to make them less attractive as an investment. Same for larger violins (but that’s one of the issues you’re trying to fix).

It’s good that you’re looking now - I think it’s going to take time to find what you’re looking for. I believe it’s out there though!

December 8, 2018, 12:18 PM · Hi Wallace - yes, I am going to make a trip to Tarisio to check out what they have for their January T2 auction, then bring one of my teachers with me if I take a shine to a violin.

Lucky that I am in NYC - there is no shortage of violins to go around!

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