Expensive violins worth the money
What makes the violin cost so much?
I have seen violins made by the same maker but they have different models with different pricing.. do the expensive ones just sound better or is the wood more rare or something?
I’m thinking of getting an intermediate violin around $2000.. but don’t know if it’s worth it getting something more pricy.
Why are violins so expensive?
You are probably not seeing violins by the same maker at different price points. Rather, you are seeing
Can you define expensive? Is $4000 expensive, or are you referring to $25000+ ? In the lower ranges, price is dictated by materials, fittings and workmanship. For e.g. you can have a set of pegs for $2.99 or $70. Quality wood alone can be several hundreds of dollars in a good intruments. Professional fitting (sound post, bridge etc.) can take several hours of labour. Some luthiers have said spending a week's worth of effort fitting a single bridge for competition instrument. That equates to cost, and adding a few hundreds of dollars to the cost of an instrument for professional fitting is nothing unusual when quality strings alone can be over $100. There is a price range where cost increases equate signficant return on your investment in terms of playability and sound, arguably in the $5000 to $15000 range (in the north american market). After that you increasingly pay for the reputation of the maker, rarity and pedigree of the instrument rather than sound and playability. "Made in Italy" can easily add a few thousand dollars to the cost of an instrument vs "Made in China". Generally instruments quality levels are divided as follows: sub-$1500, $1500-$4500, $5000-$10000, $15000-$25000, over-$25000 more or less.
Sound is not all that easy to evaluate, we have to develop a "sound culture". We know this cake is good and that one is bad because we are eating cakes since we were boys. The same with sound, we have to play and listen to many many different instruments in order to develop a sound reference table to judge violin sound.
Lydia, Great post! You post so much valuable stuff, that I hesitate to disagree with you on one minor matter:
I think value is the most important concept here. When you look at a few instruments in the same price range, you'll be able to tell that some are better value for their price than others. And yes, that's going to depend on how the instrument sounds. More expensive instruments tend to have greater clarity and a larger range of colors, and hearing that for yourself is the best way to decide whether a certain violin is worth the investment.
Perhaps it needs spelling out a bit. For the 'accomplished (that is non-beginner) violin sales, there are actually two quite different (but also interrelated) markets: one is the violinists who are looking for a good instrument (tone, reliability, consistency etc) to play. The other market is the 'investment' market: people who pay a premium for a violin that is going to accumulate in value. The two markets are directly interrelated because fiddles by makers that are prized by players (generally soloists) become hard to get and, hence, more valuable. Once the maker dies the instruments get something that I will call 'antique value' since there are only so many out there and there can no longer be any more (unlike workshop violins which can continue to be made as long as there is a factory; however, particularly well made fiddles from some consistent workshops can also accumulate 'antique' value).
great reply's in this thread. a lot of ground covered here in only 5 reply's, and very concisely.
"I don't know of any fiddles below or slightly above the 5K range that are actually made by an individual maker, regardless of what their purveyors claim."
As Luis said, " Sound is not all that easy to evaluate ". Indeed, how true. I think a violin's sound is a compromise between clarity, complexity, color, projection, dynamic range and response. You can't have it all as they are to some degree mutually exclusive. That is what makes some intruments more suited for soloists than orchestral perfomance for instance. That said the vast majority of buyers somehow will seek out the qualities of a soloist instruments although only a very small minority will ever play as a soloist. Perhaps whishful thinking on one's part as if a soloist instrument will shed some magic dust somehow and make one sound better. Certain instruments sounds have come to be associated with a given style of playing; jazz vs classical vs baroque vs folk for e.g. hence the complexity of evaluation, not to gorget that no two instruments sound the same.
Roger, you nailed it. Yet I believe that a certain amount of "soloistic" qualities do make learning much easier, when developing intonation, expressiveness, and overall technique (because they're usually not very forgiving to technical flaws). So I think it definitely makes sense to look for a clear, highly responsive and somehow "projecting" instrument to learn on, while for sitting in the orchestra pit one might be better off with a warmer sounding instrument easier to blend. But these are just some random thoughts by an adult learner without highly developed skills in this field, so please feel free to jump in if this is nonsense.
David, I agree with Andrew. In the $5k-$10k range, there's a hodgepodge of stuff. Anonymous older instruments that don't seem workshop-made. Violins by obscure makers of the past. Violins made by amateurs, apprentices, and luthiers that build the occasional instrument. On occasion, a more expensive violin whose value has been halved by a soundpost crack, or a foolish regraduation, or something along those lines.
It makes sense to buy a "soloist" instrument if you prefer to have just one instrument for all purposes. It is not that uncommon for someone to be a soloist one day and a section player the next. And if you are a principal string player in an orchestra, you need to be able to both project over the orchestra and blend with the ensemble in the very same concert. It is easier to blend with a soloistic instrument than to project with an instrument that is warmer but not as loud.
Andrew, and as a principal your skills usually will be developed enough to tame your racehorse down into the flock...
Andrew is right. One of the things that I love about my violin is that I can go easily and instantly from blending with the section to punching out above the fray in a solo for the concertmaster.
..anyways, sure wish I could have a play on Hillary Hahn's Vuillame copy of II Cannone Guarnerius. That's one nice sounding fiddle. It can't be ALL Hillary's virtuosity, can it?
My experience is similar to Lydia's. My viola can be a real cannon when I choose to play out. I play in two orchestras: I'm a section violist in a semipro orchestra that normally has a section of 8, and principal violist in a mid-level community orchestra that typically has a section of 3-5. Blending in a large section of excellent players in a purpose-built concert hall is easy. Blending requires much more attention when the section has a fuzzier sound and/or the venue is less than ideal. Almost exactly like Lydia, the experience that most comes to mind for me is overplaying while performing with the mid-level community orchestra in a mall food court with no opportunity to rehearse there in advance.
Carl Flesch wrote somewhere that all the leading soloists of his time made their reputations on lesser equipment before they bought their Strad or Guarnerius. But back then a Gaudadninni or Villaume was considered affordable. I forget who, a leading Luthier said that the "golden age" of violin making is now, with the good new violins costing about the same as a better than average new car. Is a million dollar Strad or del Gesu violin 10 times better than the best contemporary instrument? Probably not, but then I have never touched one.
I think David's point is simply that you really can't earn a living first-world wage only by making violins at $5k apiece. It takes too long to make them if you do it entirely yourself, and there's a great deal of overhead. Sure, if you're also pulling in half a million as an investment banker, then hell, you can give them away. One does wonder really how many playable violins are made by investment bankers on their weekends.
Master instruments have the clear advantage of having been set up and fine tuned by master luthiers over several centuries I suppose. If they weren't as good as a violin can possibly be, then there is no hope.
I just listened to a radio broadcast of a public interview with the New Yorker Magazine staff writer Malcolm Gladwell. One idea that he proposed regarding the problem of the cost of higher education was to institute a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, whereby prospective employers could not ask you where you earned your degrees, and job applicants couldn't tell where they earned them. He argued that employers are not well served by the premium placed on Ivy League degrees, and students pay not for the best possible education, but rather for what is perceived as the most high status degree.
David: Great post! You post so much valuable stuff, that I hesitate to disagree with you on one minor matter:
Michael, yes, there are very likely some places in Europe where the overhead costs are lower than they are in Cremona or Ann Arbor. But it seems unlikely these people who are selling violins in the $5k range are hoping to do that forever. They're more likely hoping to sell the first 100 or so as loss leaders so they can establish reputations for fine work and then raise their prices. A young man I know who makes beautiful violins and violas started around the $7k range too but he knows that's not sustainable. He has to do a fair amount of repair work to keep the lights on in his shop. My deceased friend Dan Foster was asking $18k for his violins and his lifestyle was quite humble by American standards. He was also a lot happier than most people...
Hmmm, I guess I've really “stuck my foot in it” this time! I'll tell one true story, and then leave it at that.
A little off-topic, but employers tend to target certain schools for entry-level recruitment because of the perceived quality of the students that come from that institution. Later on in life, nobody tends to care anywhere near as much where you graduated from (though they may care about the reputation of your previous employers).
Malcolm Gladwell says a lot of stuff...
I think the current job-seeking process actually serves employers quite well; it's the jobseekers who may not have the most impressive credentials despite their abilities that are underserved. It takes far more work to put together a college application that Yale/Princeton/Harvard would be willing to accept than it does for reputable state schools, like Rutgers or University of Michigan (we're talking academics, not music here). Therefore, Ivy league graduates are more likely to be surrounded by job opportunities than the average college graduate because employers feel they can accord them with the automatic assumption of competence. Is that always fair? Of course not. Plenty of qualified college graduates slip through the cracks because employers aren't as willing to take a chance on them. But this process is no different than asking for recommendations: we evaluate someone's merit because of their relation to someone or something else. Why? The applicant pool is simply too large to evaluate each and every candidate on the basis of pure merit.
Paul, one of my daughter's friends in her teacher's studio just bought a cello made by your friend Dan Foster, a beautiful and powerful instrument that was reasonably priced for what it is.
Buy a better instrument, you will enjoy more in playing, and practice more. It worth the investment. And it’s true that some expensive ones aren’t always better.
I think the sooner you start playing a good instrument the better. That means quick response, good dynamic range, easy to play, good tone.
I 100% agree with Luis. Besides the 1 hour a week you spend with your teacher, the rest of the improvements you make are dependent on the feedback your fiddle gives. One thing that makes higher quality fiddles harder to play is that they are less tolerant of technical imperfections, as their potential is so much greater than lower quality instruments. The other day, I was playing on a student fiddle and realized how lax I could afford to be in my technique. I didn't have to work to mold my tone because there wasn't much of a point. It would sound fine but not special no matter what I did. This particular student violin did not allow for an airy E string sound - it was either piercing and present or nonexistent (i.e. breaking up). Many colors available to me on my professional quality instrument just weren't there. When you acquire a sensitive instrument that will respond to your intentions (these are often expensive), it also will reveal fallacies in your technique that produce sounds or noise you don't intend to make. That is the value of an expensive instrument in a nutshell. When people say expensive instruments are easier to play, they probably mean for professionals who've mostly worked out their technical kinks and would only be held back by a lesser fiddle. However, for a developing violinist, a more expensive instrument would give you the push and challenge you need to take your playing to the next 100 levels and beyond.
Roger wrote "If anything, a "master" Chinese scroll carver will be immensely better (and faster) at it than the purist maker who carves only a handful of scrolls in a year."
Interesting observation Luis. One would think that if you carved a thousand scrolls you'd be better at it than who has carved only a handful of them. Then perhaps it is more a case of makers buying cheap scrolls than taking advantage of what a master carver can do if given the time and money to do it properly. I don't recall where I read about Stradivarius buying scrolls and other parts from various outside sources, it was a few years back, but if I do I will follow up with the source. I didn't make that up, but nothing to say that my source was acurate either and I claim no authority on the subject.
I think if you're going to buy mass-produced scrolls, the manufacturer might as well make them using CNC. I say if it helps a maker focus his or her energies and time on the rest of the violin and enables a promising student to have a good-sounding and responsive violin at a lower price then why not. Lots of things have been brought within reach of the middle class through automation. CNC manufacture is just like traditional violin-making in one sense: If people worked on it seriously they could probably get better at it. Some say the vibrations power tools (for example a CNC router or mill) will damage the tonal properties of the wood. Okay, if so, then make a different kind of robotic tool that actually carves and scrapes.
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