What I Learned From Playing a 100 Year Old Violin Today

Edited: February 15, 2019, 4:33 PM · Hi everyone,

In searching for an upgrade for my $400 student violin, I found a music shop that has some old vintage violins. Between this and getting amped up on expensive antique violins from recently watching the movie, The Red Violin (it's on Netflix if you want to check it out), I thought to myself, 'hmm, I wonder what a $2500, 100 year old violin sounds like compared to my 2018 student model. I think I'll head down there and check one out just for fun.' So I did.

When I got to the shop, they had about two rows of vintage violins as old as 1900. The idea of having an exactly 100 year old violin next year (2020) sounded cool to me, so they let me try this light golden brown c. 1920 German Stradivarius copy. I played with my bow and shoulder rest (making sure the difference wasn't the bow), then when I played, I immediately noticed 4 things:

1. The violin fit me much better than my student violin. Once I put on my shoulder rest, it just felt "right". It had a guarneri style chin rest which I assumed I didn't like because I ended up replacing the one on my student model with a Wittner style. (I may have to revisit my original guarneri chinrest after this is over) But this one fit me perfectly.

2. My hand didn't seem to tense up when I was playing it like it does on my student model. I don't know why it felt better to my hands and fingers, but it did. I also felt like I didn't have to press down as hard on the strings, but that may just have to do with the strings themselves instead of the violin.

3. I didn't have to "fight" the violin to get a good sound. On my student model, I struggle with scratches and squeaks, and I feel like every note I play I have to fight to get it to sound decent. I didn't have that problem with this violin. Every note I played sounded smooth and crisp and felt like I had been playing for years.

4. The sound was fuller and richer. While my student violin doesn't sound bad, it does sound very bright and almost tinny at times compared to this German violin. It had a kind of chocolaty sound if that makes any sense at all. Thicc with two c's.

So there you have it. My experience from playing a 100 year old violin. I ended up playing a couple other ones that were from a similar time period, all German, and they had the same qualities that I mentioned above, the only difference I noticed were the varnish colors and some were heavier than others.

So from this I learned 3 things:

1. Maybe my technique is not as bad as it seems, my violin just hates me

2. You get what you pay for

3. Start saving $$$ now and maybe by this time next year I can afford one


Disclaimer: It may be just the difference between a student and a non-student [originally mistakenly said professional] violin that I was noticing, not necessarily having to do with the age. I'm sure there are excellent modern built violins as well.

Disclaimer 2: I have no wife or kids, and have disposable income (if I save it) so making such a grand purchase shouldn't make anybody mad

Thanks everybody!

Replies (66)

Edited: February 15, 2019, 1:06 AM · Well, the good news for you is that 1 and 2 can be fairly easily customized by a luthier who knows what he's doing. Chin rests can (and should!) be changed depending on comfort (although i don't know what it means to have a guarneri model). If you feel the strings on your current setup sit too high, a luthier can shave a little off the bridge for you to make it easier to press notes (and I believe doing this also messes with string tension, so you can customize sound that way as well by trying different string configurations).

Heck, talk to the right person, and there are things they can do to a violin to make number 4 within the realm of possibility too.

I'm currently on the hunt for a new instrument too and playing instruments at dealers is the most fun part. Haven't found anything yet that I really loved though.

February 15, 2019, 1:43 AM · If you found a violin you enjoy for $2500 then that’s a wonderful news!
February 15, 2019, 1:51 AM · Congrats!
February 15, 2019, 4:43 AM · I have old Czech made violin (I am from Czech republic also :)), it is a beautifully made instrument, great sounding. It was built in 1917 and it is awesome. Few tweaks from luthier and sound is really superb, it fits me much better than my wife's violin, made by a luthier in 2003. My violin is at 3000 USD category, my wife's at 5 or 6 thousand. Both of them are unique and I think on the same level, but mine is more comfortable for me. Enjoy :)

P.S. I also love history so I prefer older instrument for sentiment :)

February 15, 2019, 6:08 AM · Russel, 2,5k for a violin is a reasonable amount to spend, even for a beginner instrument. I can see no point in learning on an instrument that is holding you back from the very beginning. And I've never met a violin at a shop below 1,8k that met my expectations not only on a technical level, but also as a tool for making music. (Personal experience, but eventually retail prices may differ a bit between Europe and the USA. And new Chinese fiddles aren't widely sold here in my region, so I can't tell about them.) For 2,5k you should get all you, maybe for a lifetime. Congrats and have fun!
February 15, 2019, 7:51 AM · i would bet you that (2) is because your violin has a wider neck (maybe wider than standard, which might make it very uncomfortable IMHO), and the action is too high, with the strings farther above the fingerboard. Fixing the action isn't all that expensive -- new nut, maybe new bridge.

$2,500 is not a professional violin. It's a decent-quality student instrument, and vintage violins like this (along with new usually Chinese or Eastern European-made instruments) are extremely common. It may seem like a lot of money, but it's a perfectly reasonable and very ordinary amount to spend on a violin. It's not a grand indulgent purchase. It's the type of violin that's commonly bought for teenagers taking private lessons, which means that it's pretty common for adult amateurs to own a violin like this. Buy it if you like it.

February 15, 2019, 8:49 AM · For crying out loud. What is it with this board?! $2,500 is not pocket change to most people. It's a significant investment. If people have much more than that to invest in an instrument, that's wonderful for them, but please do not act as if thousands of dollars is nothing!

The OP came here to relate a positive experience trying out a violin that he found inspiring. Can't we just appreciate his excitement at this discovery, rather than immediately chiding him that it's not a "professional" instrument, and in fact, it's just something for children?

Russell, I think it's great that you found a violin that speaks to you. I hope you can get it or something you like just as much, and that it brings you many years of musical happiness.

February 15, 2019, 9:02 AM · $2500 is not something to sneeze at, but in the broad view of violins, it is far below the level that most true professional violinists would spend, and about 1/5 (or less) the price that a professional violinmaker would charge.

That does not mean, however, that you can't find a great-sounding, easy-to-play instrument for $2500.

The good news is that your shop appears to know what they're doing in setting up instruments. You might ask them to have a quick look at your student fiddle, and see what could be causing playing difficulty.

Generally, low-priced "student" instruments are built to take the punishment that a grade-school student would give it... i.e. they are most often built like bricks, and sound like it. I have, however seen some that have been too thin. Not much attention can be given to setup (bridge shape/height, fingerboard shape, etc.) that will often make playing difficult.

February 15, 2019, 9:11 AM · Russell, Your post sounds like you had a wonderful experience! A couple of things to keep in mind:

- Whether or not a violin is "professional quality" or not has little to do with its price. People who judge violins as being "professional quality" or not based solely on the price are misinformed.

- You don't necessarily get what you pay for, particularly if you don't know what you are paying for. Violins are priced based on maker, origin, condition, appearance, and provenance. Tone does not enter pricing considerations because it is subjective, which is why you should try many violins in your price range.

- Age has little to do with the quality of a violin. There are many old violins that are awful, and many new violins that are good.

- Try a lot of violins before you settle on one. It is fun, and you will learn a lot.

- Make sure that you can have a trial period before you make a final buying decision. Violins sound different in different spaces. Also, listen to somebody else play it.

Have fun and good luck.

February 15, 2019, 9:25 AM · It's awesome that the OP heard how much more is possible with an upgrade. I don't see how cautioning that $2500 does not get him a professional instrument takes wind out of his sails. Best to have one's eyes wide open when making such a large purchase which--indeed--is "nothing to sneeze at." Even so, if you buy from a reputable shop, you are not throwing money away. A violin at this range is not an investment, but it ought to hold its value.
Edited: February 15, 2019, 10:10 AM · Given that the OP seems to be defensive about spending what he appears to believe other people might think is an excessive amount of money, it does not seem inappropriate to assure him that he has no reason to feel defensive about his desire for this instrument, or to point out that it's completely commonplace for people to purchase violins like this.

Also, given that the OP asserted it was a professional instrument, this sounded like the kind of thing a shop might imply to someone they know isn't informed about such things. Thus, it also seems appropriate to note that this is not, in fact, what you would expect to be a professional instrument. No chiding is implied.

Of course, you can find gems in lower price ranges that might be usable professionally, but that takes extensive looking around and an incredible amount of luck. From the OP's descriptions, there were multiple violins at the shop that sounded similar, suggesting that they are all typical decent specimens in this price range -- which indeed produces a big improvement over a typical $400 entry-level violin.

Once the OP has saved up some money, he'd be well served to do some more extensive shopping to find what he wants.

February 15, 2019, 12:11 PM · These discussions always drive me crazy. For someone just getting into playing it seems like an endless maze.

>Violins are not priced according to how they sound. Violins are priced by make, origin and date.(according to statements made above)
>Professionals commonly buy violins that cost $$$ amount.

Look at the first point again. Then look at the second point.If point A is true then point B means little if the violin sounds and plays well and is irrelevant to a player who isn't a professional.

I'm not sure how they do it, but most players I'm in contact with manage to find wonderful instruments at the hobbyist level.Some are passed down, some purchases are the result of a tip from another player or maybe a player is selling one of their instruments. That kind of thing.

I would caution that anything might sound better than low end and/or a poorly set up instrument, so I consider first impressions to be the honeymoon stage and should not be taken as the last feelings about an instrument. Going deeper into the rabbit hole, the statement that takes everyone but you off the hook is, " The sound is subjective". The problem with that is a beginner doesn't even know how to be subjective well.You first need to learn how to be properly subjective to make a call that you will live with for possibly years to come.

Edited: February 15, 2019, 12:20 PM · @Emily

I don't think anyone here is trying to be discouraging or talking down. At the end of the day, we're all here to learn and teach.

However, it would be dishonest if the OP walked out of here believing he had something he didn't, or worse, got talked into buying something by a less-than-honest salesperson.
$2500 is a perfectly reasonable amount to spend on a violin. In my amateur eyes (and ears), this very roughly equates to an intermediate-level amateur instrument. If you're playing seriously, this is a perfectly expected, and much-needed jump from the $400 cardboard box, and the OP should not feel bad about the spend on something they love. However, it's many steps away from a true professional instrument and it would behoove Russell to understand that distinction. Perhaps the shopkeeper was referring to professionally made, rather than factory made? This is more inline, IMO.

If OP is still reading, and keeps up the instrument, they should absolutely expect another 2 upgrades throughout their playing career. A jump to the $5000+ range when they become an advanced amateur, and then another jump to $20k when they play Tchaikovsky.

@Timothy
You are absolutely correct that it's a maze. Forget about playing violin, the acoustics of an instrument are a lifetime of learning!
However, there are a few facts that are true as you move up the price range. Individual makers who are good at their craft command a premium over the factory made instruments. This is not to say you can't find a good instrument in those ranges, just that it will be harder, because the luthiers making them have different goals in mind.
This is why it's important to try instruments if you are making a big purchase. This is how you find something that suits YOU personally. Trying many instruments allows you to zero in on that perfect profile.

February 15, 2019, 12:19 PM · It seems like the OP found a violin that was appealing. The fact that is was easier and more comfortable is due, as mentioned, to setup and not age.

This is a hot topic here, but there are many wonderful instruments being produced today. The old german stuff was not looked upon favorably in the old days, yet here we are chasing them down and extolling on their tone.

From your other posts, I think you are fairly new to the instrument (I may be wrong). Take your time, stick with your current instrument and get it set up for better playability and comfort. Also, measure the violins. Yours may be larger or smaller than the other. A few mm makes a difference.

The idea that a violin must cost X to be good is ludicrous. No disrespect to makers on the forum, who do turn out custom, award-winning instruments. Those I am sure are worth the time, effort, and R&D that goes into hem. But for workshop instruments made 100 years ago vs new, I can't personally justify the difference in cost.

If you like the violin, OP, and you have the money and don't mind parting with it, then play 10-30 violins in that price range and purchase your favorite after taking your top 2-3 on a week long test drive with your teacher.

February 15, 2019, 12:25 PM · Lydia nailed it, as usual.
Edited: February 15, 2019, 3:21 PM · There is definitely a fair number of advanced amateurs playing violins that cost under $2,500. It's almost certainly not a professional violin, but I don't think it's typical for teenagers taking private lessons either and I wouldn't characterize it as merely a "decent student instrument." It may be the most common price range you'd see in high-level youth orchestras, or among the top 10-15% of high school orchestra violinists (though the students considering studying music to degree level are likely playing more expensive instruments). It's also probably the most common price range in mid-level community orchestras. Basically, I'd call it an advanced student instrument or a workhorse amateur instrument.

True professional quality instruments typically cost $10k and up, though people sometimes manage to get that quality of instrument for lower prices, occasionally (rarely) as little as $4-5k.

The biggest leap in quality is going to be the one between factory violins and workshop violins. That line is somewhere around $1,000 these days, with so many of the workshops being in China. Anything over $1,000 is likely to be a huge upgrade over a $400 beginner instrument. Above $1,000, there aren't any more big leaps; more expensive tends to be higher quality, but this is just an overall trend rather than a rule, and the lines between tiers of instruments are blurry.

February 15, 2019, 2:40 PM · Some of you need to get out more. Prices vary VASTLY around the world in terms of what a 'professional' violin can cost. Lydia has decidedly not nailed it. Yes we know she has played old Italian instruments and owns something she is no doubt proud of, but so what.

Really as some have said, these discussions get tedious.

IMO Timothy nails it.

I had as my first violin an inherited 'German mass produced' violin of well over 100 years old. The kind that so many put down here and elsewhere. Its worth was little financially but it played fairly well. But truth be told I have a couple of better ones now I have played violins worth a few hundred thousand euros that I would never buy and I've played ones exactly 2500 dollars that I would. Money has very little to do with it in terms of quality of sound.

Remember in one of the Strad versus the modern world violin tests, a strad came out on top, but the instrument preferred almost as much by the audience was exactly this, an under 3 grand violin. The test was actually not very well done from a scientific point of view, but participants seemed to like it because it 'vindicated' Stradivarius violins. But the cheap violin came in a whisker of winning over others with better pedigrees.

February 15, 2019, 4:20 PM · OP here, maybe I should have used a different word than professional. I didnt literally mean a professional violin, I meant non-student. But you're absolutely right. It's probably an intermediate violin that just happens to be very old. Also I think one of the main issues with my current violin is that it has steel strings. When I get paid I'm going to put some synthetic strings on and see if that makes a difference.
February 15, 2019, 4:30 PM · A lot of different things are being conflated here. Though broadly, I agree with Dmitri and Andrew.

It should be noted that the quality of the higher-end workshop-made instruments these days is very high. In the $2,000 to $4,500 range -- what most brands and violin shops will advertise as their "advanced student" violins, which would encompass the Hiroshi Konos, Jay Haide L'ancienne, higher-end MZH, etc. -- you can get violins that serious students may use through their teen years and maybe even into their conservatory years.

There are older German workshop violins (and French and Czech and...) that are of similar quality and are sold at a similar price point -- the kind of vintage violin that the OP played. The ones that have survived in good condition tend to be sold in many stores alongside today's trade instruments. (Trade instrument = Workshop instrument, just interchangeable terms.)

This is a perfectly good price range for adult amateurs, so people tend to hang onto their student violins into adulthood, or if they have instruments of lesser quality, they'll go buy something in this price range. If you go into an adult community orchestra, you will find most of the violinists typically have a violin like that.

I disagree with James that if Russell buys an instrument like that, he'll need another upgrade. It's highly likely that a $2,500 violin would be sufficient for his needs for the remainder of his life. So it's not a bad expenditure at all, to get possibly decades of enjoyment out of it.

Michael wrote: "Remember in one of the Strad versus the modern world violin tests, a strad came out on top, but the instrument preferred almost as much by the audience was exactly this, an under 3 grand violin." That's not even vaguely true. The Strad shoot-out vs moderns featured some of the very best violins produced by today's very best contemporary makers. There is one video that features a student violin, and it is blatantly obvious it is inferior; nobody in the audience favored it.

Are there places in the world where much cheaper instruments are common? Yes, possibly, if there are local luthiers who are turning out reasonable-quality instruments that can be bought in local currency without what might be ruinous US dollar exchange rates. Such places tend to either be more isolated from the international music community and/or places without a tradition of Western classical music, though.

By the way, I too have played plenty of extremely expensive violins that don't play well. Maker output is inconsistent, and older instruments can be played (or restored) into oblivion. Those are the violins that sit forever on consignment, though -- their theoretical worth and what they can actually sell for are different. This does not mean that there are not meaningful differences in quality between price bands.

February 15, 2019, 4:44 PM · Micheal wrote:
"Remember in one of the Strad versus the modern world violin tests, a strad came out on top, but the instrument preferred almost as much by the audience was exactly this, an under 3 grand violin."
_______________________________

Which test was that?

February 15, 2019, 5:25 PM · The closest thing I could think of was this: VIDEO

There's a Mirecourt violin in the mix, but nobody likes it. There's an Ihle that comes in second. But Ihle is a living maker whose commissions aren't cheap -- $20k+?

February 15, 2019, 5:33 PM · @Lydia
I should have used different phrasing. An instrument in the OPs price range will last basically forever and be perfectly fine. My meaning of "absolutely expect" was meant to mean more that once he gets to that level, he is going to get the itch to see what else is out there.

I know that when I personally start putting the R rated concertos together, I'm gonna want to play on something cool!

February 16, 2019, 1:30 AM · Congratulations on finding a violin that you like for "only" $2500. 1920 is not old by violin standards. Old would be the golden age of Italian instruments, before 1780. Some the of 1920's German Roth violins are quite good, sell for much more than that.
February 16, 2019, 2:03 AM · $2500 for a 1920s German Stradivarius label is a bit dear. At my shop it would go for about $1000. $2500 gets you into some nicer and older instruments.
Edited: February 16, 2019, 6:39 AM · I find the idea that a professional instrument would need to cost higher than $$$ patronizing and discouraging. Not everyone who plays is to become professional, and not every professional can or has the chance to play at Tchai concerto levels. It really depends on what you perceives as 'professional'.

If by professional you only teach, or play at weddings, then I can't understand why $2500 range can't be sufficient as your 'professional' instrument (though you may of course invest in a more pricey violin). If you plays at a professional orchestra, there is also little reason to stand out with a stellar instrument, though dependency of your livelihood on the instrument may justify much higher investment in it.

I have tried antique German violins and modern Chinese violins, both $2500 price range. My assessment is that antique German violins win by a mile, despite all the recent hypes given to Chinese instruments.

If I was given a task of describing how good are the German violins, I would come up with nearly identical assessment as Russel's four points. I agree with him on point 1 that the violin would seem to fit you better than a student instrument. This could be explained partly by their lighter weight and probably slightly different weight distribution.

February 16, 2019, 2:47 AM · With the "average Strad copy" violin not bearing a makers label but only a "fake" Strad label, there will be a price range depending on workmanship and overall quality of the instrument. This will start with firewood and end somewhere around 5k. 2,5k should get you a really good and nice instrument, but basically I agree with Lyndon - as an average price 2,5k would seem a bit high. But who am I... Would need to see it live.
Edited: February 16, 2019, 6:20 AM · One thing that's not gotten a lot of attention in this thread is why the OP's current $400 violin isn't serving his needs. These days, that shouldn't be the case. I really believe that with the current quality of Chinese instruments on the market, you don't have to pay that much before your sound is much more about you than the instrument.

When SHAR had one of their "Dutch Auctions" recently, I impulse-bought one of their Carlo Lamberti Sonata violins. I paid $350 for it. I had no expectations for it, but I've been pleasantly surprised by how well it plays. Of course a serious player would want to move up to something with more depth, but it's not at all unpleasant sounding. I honestly don't think that it would hold someone back. It plays all the necessary notes, presumably even the ones in the Tchaikovsky concerto.

February 16, 2019, 6:45 AM · Full time job in a serious professional orchestra is considered very prestigious among even professionals, but I wonder if any such violinist has ever gotten fired, or annoyed his colleagues for playing a sub-optimal instrument in 1-2k range.

Of course one’s instrument would need to be as good as possible to win auditions and competitions etc.

Edited: February 16, 2019, 7:13 AM · There's a good thread on what professional orchestra violinists need, from a fairly recent thread: LINK -- orchestras do ask players to acquire better-quality instruments.

Of course, some people who make a living from the violin are not performers, and they may decide that they don't need more than a workshop violin. Does saying "workshop violin" feel less offensive than saying "student violin"? The terms are essentially interchangeable.

Workshop instruments are made by different people working on individual parts of the violin (one person carves tops, one person carves backs, etc. working off a template), rather than a single luthier making a violin. While workshop violins can turn out well, there's a range of quality. The cheaper end of workshop production typically uses lesser-quality wood as well.

If you play in a professional orchestra, you will not "stand out" with a "stellar instrument". One, most pros are playing something decent quality, and to blend, you need a certain level of quality. Two, if you're even the least bit thoughtful when you buy the violin, you'll pick something that you can modulate to blend. People who spend a lot of time sitting in orchestras tend to pick easy-responding violins that don't require much effort to play,

I don't see why the notion that professional-quality things typically cost a certain amount of money to be patronizing or discouraging. Do you find it patronizing or discouraging that high-performance sports cars cost a certain amount of money, and that a Kia Rio might get you from point A to point B but won't do what a Ferrari can do?

As noted, not everyone wants to become professional -- so why is it somehow wrong that not everyone is going to end up owning a professional-level violin?

February 16, 2019, 7:22 AM · I guess this was not supposed to be a discussion, but a BLOG. Russell had an experience and shared his impressions with us. There was no question in his post, but he made some statements, which in turn triggered some strong responses.
February 16, 2019, 8:17 AM · Most of this thread is nonsense, and the OP's original post reads to me like marketing copy - a consumer "review" used as marketing copy. All that is to be expected, given that we're no different from typical consumers of products, given to flights of fancy about our purchases or would be / to be purchases, prices, country of origin, etc., which is again exactly what is capitalized upon by the marketing / selling side, as that's their business.

To be more specific: The OP and others imply that he's learned that 100 year old violins fit and feel better than others. So age and price are the determining factors about fit and feel. Instead of taking the opportunity to discover the actual physical factors which affect fit and feel here, it's positioned as something one needs to spend a bunch of money for, ideally in an old instrument from a certain country.

And of course some people will object to my post as if it's saying something biased, and that the correlation wasn't really implied, or wanted.

February 16, 2019, 8:42 AM · chinese troll??
February 16, 2019, 9:02 AM · "chinese troll??"

I didn't expect to be proven right so quickly about the objection assuming bias. Thank you Lyndon for doing that, for what it's worth, but sorry, you're not right.

February 16, 2019, 10:46 AM · russian bot????
February 16, 2019, 11:01 AM · "To be more specific: The OP and others imply that he's learned that 100 year old violins fit and feel better than others. So age and price are the determining factors about fit and feel."

Well, no, that's not what OP said at all. All he has claimed is that a 2500 German factory violin is superior to the $400 cardboard box he's playing on.

He's almost certainly right. It will be a pretty drastic improvement.

Edited: February 16, 2019, 11:35 AM · Like M.D., I'm a little concerned that a $400 instrument is evidently so difficult to play. We're not talking about a sketchy $50 instrument off eBay. I've generally told friends looking to start playing violin and/or start their kids on violin that $300+ is a safe price level for a starter instrument that isn't a VSO. But I don't immediately conclude that OP's violin is a VSO. It could easily be a setup problem. Points 2 and 3 can both stem from an overly high action, a possibility Lydia has pointed out.
February 16, 2019, 11:48 AM · I have a hundred-year-old violin from my grandfather's attic (maybe it is a Montgomery Ward catalog item?); I love it! It is a fake Stainer. I find it easy to play--could be because it has a very narrow neck compared to every modern violin. The tone is smooth, not screechy like a new violin. I say, was I ever lucky, or what?!
February 16, 2019, 12:42 PM · A $400 violin from a decent violin shop is probably $200 worth of near-VSO, given $200 of set-up to make it playable. The bar there is "able to be basically functional", which a baseline VSO is not.

It's not surprising that a $400 violin feels only barely playable. Most violin shops' rentals use violins that are worth double or triple that price point, as their baseline rentals. That's why it's often advisable to rent rather than buy, if you're a beginner. The difference in quality can be significant.

February 16, 2019, 1:06 PM · Did violin necks generally get wider over time? I'm genuinely curious. My violin is an early 1950s German trade violin that I inherited from a great-uncle. It has one of the widest violin necks I've seen. It doesn't bother me because I mainly play viola, but I find it interesting.
Edited: February 16, 2019, 2:51 PM · I love my 1895 Benzinger violin and 1926 Ernst Heinrixh Roth viola. That said, there are plenty of great modern instruments, but often they are at premium prices. My instruments were less expensive because of thier condition from the hard knocks of a long life and maybe one or two world wars. I think of them almost like rescue pets that need a good home and better care.
Like pets, there is a lot of love and comfort in the relationships.
February 16, 2019, 2:04 PM · It sounds like a good upgrade, Russell, and that it fits you in many ways, physically, and the sound. A decent price as well, I’d say go for it. Your violin is one of your teachers and I think you are ready for a new (or in this case “old”!) one!
Edited: February 16, 2019, 5:12 PM · I hate to contradict our esteemed Laurie Niles, but I would advise Russell against relying on just his own judgement on a particular violin, especially one which stresses his budget or expectations, as beginners would not have the skill and experience required to distinguish the good from the not so good; to obtain them on trial to play them more, at home, and in comparison with others, and to show them to the teacher or anyone else who might be able to play the instrument and judge better. Teachers wouldn't typically be expected to be experts on the violin market, but they would be expected to be advanced players and to be able to determine how satisfactory a violin would be from their own perspective and potentially for the student.

I'd add that action differences are very common, and often severe so that one violin might be much more difficult to play than another, and that this does not correlate with price. The more difficult to play instrument might be the more expensive one, and intended for the tastes and capabilities of the more advanced players, and the easier one for students. And a good luthier could change the action without compromising the instrument.

February 16, 2019, 5:34 PM · "russian bot????"

No any Russian bot here.

February 16, 2019, 5:41 PM · I think the biggest "danger" is an old violin with a beautiful tone but that is not too louud. But a few may prefer that, even if I wouldn't get it myself.

There are some "hidden jewels" french and german workshop violins made for different "levels", and some may suit professionals within the rational limits. Though some chinese can be good, I really would advise to anyone that they try these old violins first, rather than just go for the modern chinese factory models in that price range ($2,500.00).

February 16, 2019, 6:03 PM · Lydia wrote, "orchestras do ask players to acquire better-quality instruments". I read the link and it doesn't at all sound to me it is a common and explicit requirement. The indirect answer I get, is that no orchestral violinist has been known to get fired for playing a suboptimal instrument. Of course, the reason for this may not have anything to do with the fact that they can get away with playing such.

Lydia wrote, "Do you find it patronizing or discouraging that high-performance sports cars cost a certain amount of money, and that a Kia Rio might get you from point A to point B but won't do what a Ferrari can do?"

Not sure how the analogy is constructed, but I repeat my main point that a 'oh-yeah-keep-dreaming' response to someone who thinks they could get a high grade instrument for $2500 can be interpreted (at least by some) as condescension disguised as helpful prudent-purchase advice.

Of course the response or advice could be well-intentioned, as I think it has been in this thread. But I'm not the only person who got that vibe, in and out of this particular discussion. In another recent thread, a commenter quipped '(on violinist.com) you ask the best car for $5,000 and someone will tell you their Lamborghini is great'.

February 16, 2019, 10:17 PM · It's not common for players to audition and win on subpar instruments. Players who are told, "Please acquire something better" when they win an audition generally are responsible enough to go actually do so. Much like an employee of a bank, told, "Please acquire a better-quality suit", generally just goes and does that, rather than having to be disciplined over it. Similarly, orchestral players who have recently won a job would not normally allow things to get to the point where they would be fired (or not get tenured) over their failure to acquire an instrument of sufficient quality -- much like they don't get fired over dress code violations.

The statement that a $2,500 violin is typically a decent-quality workshop violin suitable for an advanced student or an amateur is a pure statement of fact. You can find that fact uncomfortable, sure, but it doesn't make it any less true. Plenty of people take joy in these instruments, despite the fact that they're not professional-quality instruments, just like many people love their Toyotas despite the fact that they're not Ferraris.


Edited: February 16, 2019, 11:07 PM · If you want to continue to expand the analogy, Ferraris are not generally better at moving from point A to point B than Toyotas that cost 1/10 or less the price. Many of the violins, such as the old Italian ones, at the bleeding edge price ranges, much like Ferraris or Lambos, are value more for being works of art and rarity than outright general performance, at least as far as an ephemeral "dollar per acoustic performance" scale is concerned.

And to continue even further, the car enthusiast may be really good at handling his Toyota. May even make some minor, affordable modifications to squeeze some performance out of it. At some point, they're going to want to take a Lambo for a test drive, just to see how it feels. And if they are a better [XXX] than they are an enthusiast, maybe they spend a little extra cash to get a Lambo because, hey, why not, it's fun. Doesn't mean the Toyota won't do 99.9% of the work. Doesn't mean you won't keep the Toyota for the rest of your life.

As far as professional orchestras go, at least here in Chicago, if you win a CSO position on a subpar instrument that maybe perhaps doesn't have the best tone for the section, I have it on good authority that they have resources that will get you the professional grade instrument you need to succeed at the job.

Edited: February 17, 2019, 12:28 AM · Lydia wrote, "The statement that a $2,500 violin is typically a decent-quality workshop violin suitable for an advanced student or an amateur is a pure statement of fact."

It is a statement of fact for sure, and will be perfectly fine standing on its own. However, that it has to immediately follow someone's joy from discovering a presumably great sounding violin when his playing level, appraisal ability, and the quality of the tested instrument could only be based on guesswork gives out an air of patronization, IMHO. No offense meant to anyone, I think we are all well-intentioned.

Given that most antique violins without provenance only sell in the $3K range and there is an abundance of them in the market, a budget constrained player with plenty of time can continually search for hidden gems, and I doubt such chance is as 'extremely' rare as it has been implied.

Edited: February 17, 2019, 12:39 AM · Matt, I'm sure you're well intentioned, but I'm guessing you have literally zero experience shopping for violins that have professional playing qualities. I'm guessing that you don't even know what professional playing qualities *are*, much less how to identify whether or not a violin has them.

If we could all buy a hidden gem at $3k, that's what most players would own. The fact that most orchestra players, many of whom don't really make a great deal of money, sink a lot of hard-earned money into an adequate professional instrument (often times in lieu of buying a house or the like, early in their career, or taking on significant debt), should tell you something.

A Ferrari can go 0 to 60 in less than 3 seconds. A Toyota Camry takes about 8 seconds to do that. That's a material difference. It won't matter to you if what you're doing is driving to the grocery store, but it would certainly matter on a racetrack.

Edited: February 17, 2019, 2:22 AM · I know clearly each and every statement made by myself in this thread, and I unapologetically advocate for looking around as much as you can before buying an instrument of choice, allowing for the chance to discover unknown gems of outstanding value for the money along the way. Does that not sound good from a prudent customer perspective?

No one would argue about the material difference between a Ferrari and a Camry. One point made in my previous comment, is more about getting the lowest possible price when buying something, whether it's a Ferrari or a Camry.

February 17, 2019, 3:05 AM · The reason hidden gems aren't that common is: historic value only starts to become relevant at a much higher price point. If you're shopping anywhere below the price range of instruments by leading modern makers, historic value is almost a non-factor. If dealers tend to quote higher prices for older instruments, it is more likely because of personal bias (often subconscious bias) than about historic value.
February 17, 2019, 3:07 AM · I have heard various stories of people borrowing a better instrument (than the one they own) for an audition.
Edited: February 17, 2019, 3:40 AM · Interestingly... in a conversation I had with non-string-playing friends who are interested in having their young son learn a string instrument when he reaches age 4-5, I briefly outlined the likely progression of price ranges both for a lifelong serious amateur and for a pro. They immediately understood and thought of it as 1/10 the price of an equivalent car.

The expected cost of a decent starter car for a newly licensed driver might be $3k, a workhorse car purchased new might cost $20k, a luxury car or sports car for street driving might cost $50k+, an entry-level race car might cost $100k+, and high-performance race cars run well into 7 figures. Divide by 10 and you get $300 for a beginner student violin, $2k for a good workshop violin for advanced student or typical amateur use, $5k+ for a serious amateur's or conservatory student's violin, $10k+ for an entry-level pro violin, and six figures and up for a Stradivari or Guarneri. Of course you can find bargains in the used car market, just like you can with violins.

Most people are fine with driving a workhorse car, even people who can afford something more expensive. It's not something to look down on. I like my 2010 Chevy Malibu, which is easy to drive and fairly reliable. It's a giant improvement from the beat-up 1987 Toyota Camry I drove when I was an undergrad. What I'm not going to do is call it a race car and try to use it for professional auto racing; it wouldn't be competitive even in regional stock car racing circuits.

February 17, 2019, 5:40 AM · OP here again. Thanks for all the interesting comments. Just to clear some things up, I mistakenly used the word professional when I should have said non-student or whatever the equivalent word would be.

And if you read in the disclaimer, I'm not advocating that older instruments are better, I just happen to think that antique instruments are cool, and coolness should count for something, don't you think?

Also it should be known that I am a disabled Navy vet who lives on a fixed income and I don't have a down payment on a house's amount of money to spend on a violin, so $2500 is a lot of money for me. I may have been misleading you when I mentioned that I have disposable income. I meant that more as a point that I'm not going into debt or angering a wife for buying an expensive (for me) violin. I will have to save for quite a long time to be able to make such a purchase.

Also, I am a beginner violinist, perhaps a little further along than most beginners from having a history of playing other instruments, but I'm still just a beginner, so yes, maybe my judgement is not great for what is considered a good or bad violin, but I don't have a handful of professionals I can call up and go violin shopping with. Even my teacher says I'm perfectly fine with what I have. I just have to go with my gut and try to trust the salesperson even if they might be trying to push the sale on me.

Also, I don't plan on playing at a professional level ever. I'm not trying to make a career from music, I gave up on that dream long ago. I'm just trying to enjoy the learning process and eventually be able to play whatever solo piece I feel like playing that day. So a $2500 workshop violin may be all I will ever need.

One more thing: I come from the world of buying guitars where a $1000 guitar set up properly is all you will ever need, so $2500 seems like a lot for an I instrument to me. I will never be able to afford a $10,000 professional violin, so $1k-$3k is about where I draw the line. I can't justify myself buying anything more expensive than that when I can barely play Suzuki Minuets.

Ok last thing for real:

I have no ulterior motive as some have claimed, I just had a fun violin experience and thought it would be neat to post it on here and see what everyone else thought (for the most part I got good responses). Maybe Reddit is a better vehicle for this kind of post, I don't know, but at least it sparked some debate which I think is a good thing for the site. That's what this place is meant for. So forgive me if I'm naive. I totally am. I've been playing less than a month, but I'm already obsessed with playing and learning and reaching out to my fellow violinists is the best way I know to learn other than from my teacher of course. So thanks for everyone's responses. I plan on continuing to annoy you with noob questions and not-so-impressive brag posts.

Edited: February 17, 2019, 7:24 AM · Good luck in your journey Russel. I think assumptions are made at both ends of the spectrum sometimes. A 400.00 violin is assumed to be cardboard and a high dollar violin is seen as a much better instrument. The truth is usually somewhere in between.

My guess is 90% of players who play for fun are not concerned with anything except build quality, playability/setup usually, and tone.

I had my teacher play my violin a few days ago to make sure there wasn't an issue with my lower strings. There wasn't. It was me. The only difference between my violin and hers was tone.Neither tone sounded bad just different.Also keep in mind a violin will sound different under your ear than it will to others.

And sometimes it's a balance of priorities. If I had 50K to burn I wouldn't buy a 50K car. Not sure why violins are so often compared to car types. It's a decent analogy on one hand and a terrible one on the other.
Yamaha just came out with a student violin Laurie tested at 2019 NAMM. That violin is a copy of a much more expensive violin using computer technology. Results were generally very favorable. I have a Martin acoustic guitar which is a lower model. In order to get the price down they made the neck out of a wood composite. Everything else is the same compared to higher end Martins. You can't tell the difference in a recording.

February 17, 2019, 7:48 AM · There is so much more to it than what the market thinks the instrument is worth:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3cc0HlO7so

Today Jack Benny's Strad is worth millions! Even back then it was probably worth $25,000.

Edited: February 17, 2019, 11:17 AM · It’s a good idea to get an opinion from a teacher or pro about an instrument, especially when you are considering such a major purchase. But if you feel assured that your investment is sound (so to speak) then it is also okay to go with the instrument YOU love. It sounds like this experience has opened Russell to wanting an upgrade and understanding more what that would mean. Whether it winds up being this fiddle or another, and that is a really notable step!
February 17, 2019, 2:50 PM · If you're budget conscious: as I mentioned earlier, the price level where there's a big jump in quality is somewhere around $1,000, which is the jump from factory to workshop violins. That's the bottom of the same broad price band the $2,500 violin is in.
February 17, 2019, 3:18 PM · Hi Russel - loved your post rather more than the ensuing discussion (well, not all of it, some is great as usual). I'd like to add that 'when the student is ready, the violin will appear'. [Its a paraphrase of an old saying.]

The violin you found felt great probably because you have outgrown the capabilities of your beginner model. Note that this german violin will feel great now but that in a few years you will try another violin - for the sake of argument, a $5,000 model that will then feel great. I know because I've gone through several iterations of the same thing over the last 10 years (when I returned). At this price level, there is a good chance that you could find the next violin up at the same dealership (they obviously have some stock) and, hence, it would be worth it to ask for a 100% trade-in agreement on a better violin. Many dealers will do this and you save a lot of money on not having to sell the present violin before you buy the next one [the dealer benefits by a likely resale.]. Unfortunately, this does not work at higher price ranges because of diminishing odds that you will find a suitable replacement in the same shop.

Loved your account and the positive spirit of your post - please don't get disillusioned by some of the discussion above, which is there for its own sake and certainly was not intended to undermine your enthusiasm.

Edited: February 17, 2019, 3:33 PM · There's a useful solution here as well that would get Russell to the point where he's playing something that feels like less effort, and that's a trade-in.

Most violin shops allow trade-ins on student violins, often at purchase price or close to it. So you trade in that $400 violin outfit for, say, a $700 violin outfit, which would probably represent enough of a price delta to make a difference. Or better yet a $1,000 outfit, which would almost certainly represent a significant difference. That $700 outfit could probably be traded in later towards the $2,500 outfit.

(Note: Trade-ins are often not allowed on professional-quality violins, or they are not economically sensible for the player. It's one of the ways you can tell what's considered a student/workshop/trade violin and what's an individually-made violin likely intended for advanced students and professionals. Although there are apprentice-made violins that fall in between.)

Edited: February 17, 2019, 3:28 PM · Russell, it's good to hear that you're not discouraged. In your place, I'd look for a good luthier (one who specializes in the maintenance and repair of violins), to see if the playability of your violin could be improved (at a reasonable cost). I'd also have the tailpiece replaced with a Wittner or similar, with built-in fine tuners instead of 4 add-on fine tuners, which add weight at an undesired place and affect the after-length. However that's a minor consideration which might help the tone a bit, but shouldn't really affect playability.

Edit: I'm not making any implied comments about trade-ins by suggesting work on the current violin. That's certainly another way to approach it.

March 9, 2019, 4:13 PM · I remember when the parent of a student, someone with an enormous mansion in the countryside complete with horses, was embarrassed to tell me she was considering buying a $900 violin for her daughter because she assumed it was extravagant beyond my wildest dreams. Lol. She can certainly be forgiven for thinking that, as most people have absolutely no idea what the violin world is like, but it was still funny.

Anyway, I agree with Lydia that a $2500 instrument is about what an advanced student would have; however, that does not mean it's an insignificant amount of money. Violin is in fact a very expensive hobby (or profession, for that matter) and one that many simply can't afford. She's also correct that many professionals own instruments instead of houses. That's not an exaggeration.

Edited: March 10, 2019, 11:20 AM · "Did violin necks generally get wider over time?"

Probably. Many modern makers seem to prefer a wider/thicker neck for one reason: You can take material away, but you can't put it back. So if the neck is too wide, you have it taken down and customized.

The question here is not whether a $2500 violin is that good, but how it relates to a $400 violin. In that case, it should be a lot better. Do you really "get what you pay for" with violins? Generally. Sometimes. Maybe. There's a correlation between price and quality, but it's not perfect.

Price tracks quality with commodity items. At the low end, violin prices behave like commodities, but as the higher levels, they act more like one-off collectibles, which are more volatile, and demand, taste, perception and other undefinables come into play. So do other circumstances: recently, both a violin dealer and a piano dealer have advertised 1/2 off their instruments. So are the pianos and violins suddenly "worth 1/2 as much?" Were they overpriced to begin with? Who knows? It's all relative, isn't it?

I think that the difference between low and high quality violins can be seen in one basic area: quality of sound at high volumes. Many inexpensive violins can sound good at very low volumes--just like inexpensive stereo speakers. But demand more from the instrument, and the quality starts to degrade quickly, just like those cheap speakers that start to distort. Most amateurs and orchestral players don't play at those margins of projection, so they don't need violins like that.

This subject of marginal extra performance leads to a very interesting question, as my 7-year old has repeatedly pointed out:

Why does the speed dial on my Subaru go to 140 mph?

March 10, 2019, 11:31 AM · Just one more comment on the original title "what I learned from playing a 100-year-old violin."

The fact that you liked the violin better may--or may NOT--have anything to do with it. It could easily have been a 20 or 40 year old violin. I've played Peresson violins which, at 20 years old, blew away most other violins, even those 200 years old.

Age alone may not be the ultimate factor in violin should. In fact, it may have nothing to do with it. I've played plenty of 19th century violins that sounded quite poorly, and never benefitted from the extra years.

Violins are like wine: age may help them, make no difference, or ruin them. It depends on the violin, and the wine. Unfortunately, the general public has been led to believe that older is better. It's even less true with pianos: I get called by many customers that say "I found a great old piano for a great deal!" What they don't realize is that pianos are much worse than violins--they always get WORSE, not better. But I think the general perception of "older is better" that the public has with violins caries over to other instruments. Unfortunately.

March 10, 2019, 12:27 PM · I have an Australian friend who often repeats the saying "in Europe a hundred miles is a long way, in Australia a hundred years is a long time" -it's all a matter of perspective.

A hundred years is not particularly old by violin standards! I have an 1890s-vintage violin which I got when I was a teenager, sitting around because I can't find anyone to sell it to. My main instrument was made in 2012, though I didn't particularly expect to buy new when I was buying it...

March 10, 2019, 4:12 PM · Scott asked:

"Why does the speed dial on my Subaru go to 140 mph?"
It's for when you're going down a mountain and the brakes fail.

For a person of intellect curiosity is the last function to go...

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

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