How to buy a violin above current skill level?

January 20, 2020, 5:10 PM · Hello, I've been lurking for awhile, but this is my first post. I'm looking to buy a new violin and am excited and nervous about the process.

Background -- I am an adult beginner in my 50s who was gifted an inexpensive full size violin about a year ago. I have been taking lessons and am really enjoying learning to play. One of my challenges has been my very small hand size, and reaching the notes has always been difficult. Over the summer, I developed capsulitis in my index finger, most likely due to a overuse/misuse on the violin. I took 4 months off of playing anything other than open strings to let it heal.

I'm now resuming playing, but the injury has left my index stiffer than it was before, and my teacher has become convinced that the size of my instrument is a problem and I need to downsize to a 7/8. I agree, and had an opportunity to borrow a 7/8 violin for a awhile, which confirmed that the 7/8 feels much more comfortable and playable for me.

So, I'm ready now to buy a 7/8 violin. I would like to spend enough to buy something that I can grow with as a musician for the next few years and have tentatively set a budget o $3,000. I live in a very rural area, and the closest store that sells 7/8s is Ifshin's, which is about 3 hours away. I plan on heading there this week to try out some violins. It's too far for my violin teacher to accompany me, so I'll be there by myself. Questions:

--Am I right in thinking that 3K will get me a solid violin that will take me though to, at least, advanced beginner/intermediate stage? Conversely, is this too much to spend, as it will be a while before I will have the skill to appreciate a nicer instrument.

--How best to evaluate the violins, given how very basic my skill level and playing abilities are? Will I just know it when I hear it? I also am faced with the reality that choices for 7/8th violins are going to be limited.

--Ifshin's is associated with the Jay Haide line of violins. It seems like they have a pretty good reputation. Any thoughts on them?

--Any other tips so that I will feel even less like a complete idiot in there testing out nice violins by playing scales and one, dumbed down, line from Ode to Joy.

Many thanks in advance.

Replies (39)

January 20, 2020, 5:35 PM · I would recommend not to spend as much in this early stage, but purchase a high level student model, which has been set up by a luthier. Inexpensive violins usually come straight from the factory floor and are most always set up too high at the nut and bridge, this maybe the cause of the index finger problem as a result of the excessive pressure required to press the strings down.
January 20, 2020, 5:43 PM · Thank you Henry, for your response.

That's an interesting thought about the strings being set up too high. I've always felt I've had to press harder than it seems I needed to on the strings.

What would you consider a "high level student model"? Something like an Eastman? I might have to buy than on-line and then take it to a luthier to retro-fit. I will definitely try out less expensive violins at Ifshins, if they are to be had in the 7/8th as well.

Edited: January 20, 2020, 5:57 PM · Ifshin Violins store is 30 minutes from my home. It has been my go-to violin shop and luthier for almost 25 years. I have bought 2 cellos and a number of bows there and had work done there on all my instruments and bows. I have played great instruments in their back rooms including one 1698 Stradivarius and an Andrea Guarneri and at least touched bows by the greatest makers who ever lived. But they also carry beginner instruments and have a very knowledgeable staff.

You should be able to find a satisfactory 7/8 Jay-Haide a l'ancienne model in your price range, but contact them first to be sure they have some that you can try. Be sure to take your current instrument and bow with you so you can make comparisons in a common venue. I know people who play this brand of instrument (violin and viola) for money in San Francisco. One of my cellos is a a Jay-Haide a l'ancienne that I purchased from Ifshin 15 years ago when that high end of their brand first became available.

A better violin will always reward you. I received my first "better" violin when I was 10 years old and it was my only violin for the next 8 years and served me as high-school orchestra concermaster for 3 years. It was a "women's full-size," probably a "7/8" - probably too small for me, eventually.

Good Luck!

Edited: January 20, 2020, 5:54 PM · That's really helpful and reassuring, Andrew.

I did call IfShin's a few days ago and they indicated they had 7/8th available at a $2400 price point, so I'm guessing that is the Jay-Haide a l'ancienne model. I will call again tomorrow, to double check before I make the long drive out there. It may be more violin than I need right now, but I have to admit I'm very excited to try it out.

That must have been an amazing experience to have played a 1698 Stradivarius. It gives me chills just thinking about it.

Edited: January 20, 2020, 6:12 PM · Linda, it didn't compare with the 17-teen one I played in 1964, more than 30 years earlier. That one had been owned and played by the great virtuoso, Olé Bull. Of course by then my ears were 30 years older, so I have no idea how much I could no longer hear!
January 20, 2020, 7:10 PM · Stores typically allow the borrowing of instruments on trial for a week or sometimes more. Stores are also quite used to instruments being bought by people who don't have great playing ability - notably for beginners and children. Be honest about your experience and abilities and you should feel no need to be overly self-conscious.

If you want, you should also be able to ask for a demonstration in the store and hear something of what the instrument can do when played by someone with greater skill, notably bowing skill, which might be inaccessible to yourself. Of course, there will be limitations due to the natural variations in performance, but you still might hear more of the instruments that way, from the perspective of a listener.

And if you can borrow one or two instruments on trial, you can also take them to a lesson and get an independent, experienced opinion from your teacher.

January 20, 2020, 8:40 PM · Ifshin's is a good shop and the Jay Haides in the $2k+ price range are pretty nice for the price. In that price range you'll also want to try Hiroshi Kono, other Chinese workshop violins (since you're in the Bay Area, it's worth taking a trip down to the South Bay and going to Scott Cao's), and random antique German/Czech/French trade instruments. Pay your teacher to come shopping with you, I'd suggest.

I don't think that's too much money for a beginner to spend. It'll be enough for most adult amateurs on a permanent basis, so take your time when shopping; you'll probably never upgrade again. It's all workshop instruments at that price point, so don't worry about anything other than the violin's playing qualities.

January 20, 2020, 8:50 PM · the OP needs a 7/8 violin, that severely limits options as they are not that common.
January 20, 2020, 9:15 PM · There are so many 3/4 violins out there that my guess is you've got a better chance of finding one of those that sounds really good than you do at 7/8. But I second (third?) the endorsement of Jay Haide. I know a girl who did fine with a Jay Haide 4/4 pretty much right up to the Bruch Level and possibly a little beyond that.
January 20, 2020, 9:31 PM · @Linda Blue, if you go to Ifshin, try to go on a weekday, if that is feasible. Weekends are usually really busy over there. Ask them to recommend a day for you to come so they can pay more attention to you. Usually Tuesdays or Wednesdays are not as busy as weekends.

I've been going to Ifshin since I was a teenager (in Berkeley), and now since my children also play the violin, I take them there once in a while.

The Jay Haide violins are descent. I still have mine that I used when I was in high school.

Also if you wish, you can ask for a "trial period". You can then take the violin home with you, show it to your teacher, and return it if it does not suit you.

Beware though, if you do go there on a weekday, traffic could be bad.. lol.

January 21, 2020, 6:29 AM · Thanks everyone for your responses. I have a lot to think about.

R.Jay -- Ifshin's does allow a week long trial period, which gives me some comfort that my teacher can examine my violin and I'll have sometime with it before I need to decide if it is the one.

Thanks Lydia, Lyndon and Paul. Seeking a 7/8 does really limit me. I looked into Scott Cao and Hiroshi Kono and could not find any 7/8th violin listed for sale anywhere by those makers, so i'm not sure if they make them. I will definitely try some 3/4ths when I go shopping to see what they feel like and sound like, but I don't want to go smaller than a 7/8th unless I really need to.

ben david -- very good suggestions. I had called Ifshin's last Thursday and they told me that coming on Saturday was a bad idea. My plan is to go on a Wednesday, and I will call the day before to double check what the situation is.

I'm very encouraged by everything I have read here and elsewhere about the Jay Haides and am hoping I like them. Trying to find just the right 7/8th in an older European instrument in daunting. I called a few shops, who either didn't sell 7/8th at all, or had just one. However, if I don't find what I'm looking for at Ifshin's I will keep casting a wider net. My teacher says if I become frustrated she knows a man who makes violins that she really trusts, but that carries with it a lot of unknowns.

January 21, 2020, 6:31 AM · Oh, and yes, I'm familiar with how awful Bay Area traffic can be! I used to live there. I will need to get into zen mode before I get behind the wheel.
Edited: January 21, 2020, 7:32 AM · Ifshin's opens at 10:30 in the morning, so traffic will have abated somewhat by then (also depends on what direction you are coming).

Best of all, Ifshin's has its own private parking lot.

Edited: January 21, 2020, 8:06 AM · Getting realistic, and in agreement with Henry's first post, you're a beginner with a finger injury who needs a 7/8.

But I see that availability may be an issue. You could email them for advice.

January 21, 2020, 8:37 AM · As long as you can comfortably afford it, I don't think there is anything wrong with spending $3000 on a violin. The only reason not to spend that is if you aren't sure you will stick with it. Otherwise a $3k violin should be enough to get you an instrument you can play and learn on for years, possibly forever. In string instrument terms $3000 isn't that much, but should get you an instrument that won't limit you until you are at a pretty advanced level.
January 21, 2020, 10:47 AM · Jay Haide instruments (I assert based on having played exactly one of them, so not much of a sample size) sound quite nice, and are definitely worth looking at.

If you can get to a workshop with Scott Caos, you might also consider some of their smaller full-size Guarneri models. Their David model (which I own in the 750 line, a good bit under your price range), for instance, is light, balanced, and a bit smaller than standard 14" size, so might well be comfortable for you. Full-size violins have some variance in size, balance, weight, and comfort. Setup matters too.

Definitely make sure your teacher can play it while you have a chance to return it - you're not that far into learning yet (at least based on time) and choosing an instrument is surprisingly subtle. You could do that with a trial period, or by bringing the teacher, or with a reasonable return policy. And definitely bring your current violin - ideally the 7/8th if you still have it, and make sure what you buy is as comfortable as it is. For sound testing, room matters hugely - so you need a known instrument to compare to in the same room in order to evaluate sound. DOn't be surprised if your existing instrument magically sounds a lot better in a violin shop room. :-)

January 21, 2020, 11:15 AM · There is a good reason why your violin will sound better in the violin-trying room. Because of the resonance with all the other 30 violins that are hanging in there.
Edited: January 21, 2020, 1:31 PM · I agree with those who say not to spend so much at this point. I might even suggest renting a 7/8 for 6 months - 1 year. Looks like Ifshin has some Model 101 rentals in 7/8:

The reason I suggest this is that you're at a point in your development as a violinist when your ability to discern differences in violin tone/playability is probably changing rapidly. In just a few months you might appreciate something about an instrument that you might not appreciate now. While your teacher's input is certainly valuable, ultimately you'll be the one who is playing that violin every day. As you develop as a player, you'll develop your own preferences that might be different from your teacher's.

Edited: January 21, 2020, 2:08 PM · Linda, try calling Scott Cao's shop in Campbell, CA (near San Jose). They can tell you what they have available at the shop.

Fiddlerman, if you're willing to buy online, carries 7/8ths.

However, the suggestion of renting is very good, and I'd pursue that.

January 21, 2020, 3:25 PM · Ifshin allows "trade-ups." I say I bought 2 cellos from Ifshin, but really I bought one and about 5 years later I traded up for a higher level model. My entire initial purchase price was credited to the 2nd purchase - except for some minor touchups.
January 21, 2020, 3:47 PM · If you go to one of the shops with higher inventory like an Ifshin you may also get access to wider choice by asking to try a small 4/4 size violin.

Despite the name, there actually is no standard measurements for a 4/4 size violin, and you can occasionally find some that are really on the small side, or at the very least have a notably shorter length between bridge and scroll. I played on a violin over the weekend where the distance between bridge and nut was probably like 1 cm shorter than a typical Strad measurements.

Edited: January 21, 2020, 7:03 PM · Thanks, again, everyone for all the great input. I really appreciate the time and thoughtful responses I have gotten.

I did check on Fiddleman -- online at least -- and they didn't show any 7/8 inventory. I'm also not super excited about the thought of buying through the internet, but am not taking that off the table. I've also noted I can get an Eastman 305 and something called a "DZ Strad" through Amazon in the $1 to $1.5K range. Again, not loving those options, but filing them away as options.

The thought of renting is also interesting and I will keep an open mind to that, particularly if I really can't tell the difference at all in what I am playing. I did call Ifshin's today and was told they had 7 instruments (7/8 size) in my price range to try. Given that calls to other shops yielded "none" to "one" that was a pleasant surprise. I will also ask about smaller/more narrow necked 4/4s. I'm also keeping Scott Cao's in mind in that regard as well.

I had my lesson today and we spent a lot of time talking about sizing and what to look for. She said she is excited to see me with something with a nicer voice then the inexpensive Bunnell 4/4 I've been grappling wiht. Her best judgment is that I'm always going to struggle with a 4/4 (in addition to having XS women's hands, I been blessed with a small pinkie that is 5mm short of the second knuckle of my ring finger), but that a 3/4 is too small. The 7/8 I've been borrowing, seems like a good fit (although the violin itself is an awful little thing, that would needs some work, if I wanted to continue playing it as a stopgap).

As I told my teacher today, I'm going in with the idea that if something feels right to me, I won't be afraid to buy. But nor do I feel any particular expectation that I must buy. I'm trying to walk the line between making an over-eager impulsive purchase, and overthinking this.

I head over to IfShin's first thing tomorrow morning. I will report back on my experience.

January 21, 2020, 7:14 PM · I also have small hands and purchased a Jay Haide a l'ancienne Guarneri model in the 7/8 size. It's a LOT easier for me to play than my old 4/4, although I still have problems with 4th finger extensions. I also tested a Balestrieri model that I really liked. I am probably an intermediate player (currently working on the Handel E Major sonata, just finished the first movement of the Dvorak Sonatina) and do not anticipate outgrowing this violin any time soon. I agree that, if possible, you should get someone else to play all the instruments that you are considering so that you can hear what they sound like *not* under the ear. Also, if possible, try to test more than one of each model. Sample to sample variation is a real thing! Happy hunting.
January 21, 2020, 8:15 PM · I have a Jay Haide and am happy with it. I was thinking that you might want to try renting one? You can rent for several months and then buy that very instrument if you like it, and most of the time they will put the amount you've paid for renting towards the purchase price. :)
Edited: January 22, 2020, 6:44 AM · "in addition to having XS women's hands, I been blessed with a small pinkie that is 5mm short of the second knuckle of my ring finger"

Have you thought about learning the piccolo? ;-)

January 22, 2020, 8:47 AM · "Have you thought about learning the piccolo? ;-)"

The thought has crossed my mind . . . But, what is life without challenges, right?

January 22, 2020, 8:04 PM · Well, I'm back from Ifshin's with a 7/8 l'ancienne for a two week trial. I'm a bit tired right now from the long drive and several hours spent testing violins, but all and all, I had a very good experience there.

The store really is impressive and the staff could not have been any more friendly and helpful. They put me at ease and gave some advice, but were not pushy or intrusive. I had a private room for as long as I wanted it to test multiple violins and bows. It took me a long time to sort through the violins, first trying to understand what was different about each one, and than to figure out which of those differences I liked. No prices were marked, so I just concentrated on the sound and playability.

I eventually had my top two picks, which two different people played for me. Of course, it turns out that I had picked to the two most expensive violins they set out for me. Still they were within budget (if just). After hearing them, and playing them again with better bows, I ended up having a pretty clear view as to which to those I liked better. Enough clarity to be confident bringing them home with the safety net of the two week trial period. I hope I still like it tomorrow morning, after I'm rested and refreshed, but I think I will. I hope my teacher likes it too.

It's funny, two of the things I worried about most, were one, not being able to tell the difference in what I was hearing from one violin to next; and two, not having my teacher there to help me. I was actually surprised that I could hear enough of a difference to form a fairly clear opinion for what I liked. I think I able to do that because it was just me in there alone. Had my teacher or friend been in there, my attention would have been divided between what I was hearing, and what they were telling me they were hearing, and it would have been muddled up. In the end, I was glad I was in there by myself and had the space to discover what I liked.

Anyway, I may have some more thoughts after I've had some more time to spend with this violin. Thanks again, to everyone for their advice and encouragement.

January 23, 2020, 3:04 AM · Slight curve ball: what you detect under the ear is often unrelated to what reaches the audience. So a teacher’s feedback can be useful when you are making comparisons. Still, being easy and pleasant to play is something only you can measure, and it sounds as if you’ve made a meaningful improvement. Hope it continues to go well.
Edited: January 23, 2020, 3:44 AM · DZ Strad has been mentioned. That's a strange one. I remember looking them up a year or more ago because someone else asked about them. There are two companies who trade under that name, one probably very good, the other, who knows - it looks like a front, lol! I eventually found the latter (or was it the former?) on GoogleEarth Streetview, and their premises were about 12 blocks from the supposed business address on their website. I think I'd be careful not to attempt to buy any violin called a DZ Strad, least of all from Amazon.
That's all from memory.
Does anyone know anything more specific?
January 23, 2020, 9:33 AM · @Linda Blue, Congratulations! I'm glad you had a good experience picking your violin at Ifshin's. Enjoy learning to make music with your new violin!
January 28, 2020, 8:57 PM · I wanted to give a final update, having had the violin for almost a week and having had my teacher examine it. I have been enjoying it although a part of me was holding back a bit in thinking of it as mine until I could have my teacher weigh in on it.

My lesson was today and we spent almost all of it testing the violin and talking through why I had selected this one. She really gave it a good going over and, in the end, gave it a thumbs up and thought I should keep it. She agreed that it was a BIG step up in tone from what I had been playing and should serve me well going forward into the foreseeable future.

Thanks again, everyone.

February 1, 2020, 3:10 PM · There is, of course, no such thing as a violin above current skill level - There are only violins BELOW current skill level. No violin is going to make you play worse because it's too good for you.
February 1, 2020, 3:36 PM · I agree completely. A better violin will always be a help and never a hindrance. Same with bows.
February 2, 2020, 6:09 PM · Is the new violin a 4/4 or a 7/8 then?
February 3, 2020, 9:00 AM · Paul - Linda said it is a 7/8.
February 3, 2020, 5:23 PM · Yes, it is a 7/8th violin. So far, I'm really enjoying it.
February 3, 2020, 5:28 PM · While I 99% agree with John Rokos and Raymond Concannon and have a rather strong opinion about good instruments being good teachers, there's one thing I observed. It depends on the character of the student, his approach towards measuring success and his problem solving strategies, and maybe also to which grade he is in command of advanced fine motor skills, but there are not few students at beginner / early intermediate level getting frustrated by a very responsive instrument, even if an instrument like this is the best ticket to intonation, dynamics and overall bow control - if one is able to enjoy the trip...
February 3, 2020, 5:30 PM · Linda, congratulations and good luck! What were the characteristics you preferred in this instrument?
February 3, 2020, 8:15 PM · I liked the tone of it the best, it sounded smoother and less "brassy" for lack of a better term, then the others. It was very close between my top two picks, and I went back and forth a bit, but, in the end, I liked the e-string on my first choice better -- it sounded more in balance with the other 3 strings. I'm not sure I have enough experience yet, to assess responsiveness to any great degree, other then noting that t was more responsive than my old 4/4, and I didn't have to press the strings as hard to get good sound.

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