The expectation that advanced players "need" a $10k+ violin is fueling inequality in classical music
Why can't we agree that an already large sum (like $10k) for a violin is "good enough" for serious students and professionals? The current industry expectation of expensive violins is discouraging players from poor and middle-class backgrounds from pursuing a career as a violinist.
I would pay the same amount to watch a soloist play on a $10k instrument as I would if they played a $10m Strad.
Because it isn't nearly good enough, your lack of discrimination not withstanding?
What Michael said.
Price is not an absolute indicator of sound quality. Sure, your chances of getting a good-performing instrument go up as you spend more, but good ones can be found in the lower price range with more time and effort spent looking.
I fully agree that lack of access to quality instruments (as well as lack of access to quality teachers and even things like accompanists) is leading to extreme inequality in classical music. However, I disagree with your solution, because the wealthy families out there aren't going to stop buying nice instruments and getting extra lessons with expensive teachers.
Regarding Don's post: On the other hand I went to a concert last year where the soloist bills himself as using a Strad but I knew he often used a modern instrument by a respected maker, which he believes is good for the job, and we can probably assume that at least one other person has supported that viewpoint. He obviously was using the modern and the results were horribly sub-standard. I almost walked out and I could see that a lot of the orchestra was wishing they weren't there, too. I could name several other similar situations. So though two or three people could decide a Strad is worse, the audience may know better. :-)
By the way, there are quite a few players who are playing on instruments they couldn't afford that are lent to them because the lenders recognize their talent and need, so being personally unable to purchase a better instrument is not an inevitable limitation. Though lent Strads and such make the headlines, this happens at all levels, and there are several or many individuals and non-profits doing this. I think that the ordinary person is probably not aware of the great extent to which this happens.
What!?! You mean students whose parents have money (and/or education and social connections) to provide them with the best equipment, teaching, and opportunities do better than those whose parents don't!?! Total shocker! Never heard of this happening before!
I agree with the OP. I enjoy the regional and community orchestra concerts I attend (or used to attend before COVID-19), and play in. They fit my budget and my schedule. They bring accessible live music into my life and that of my family on a regular basis, thereby enriching all of us. Many of these groups (which include professional, semi, and amateur), on which people play on affordable instruments, are indeed more diverse in terms of both repertoire and players than more prestigious big-name orchestras.
As Susan points out, the cost of the instrument is just one of many for the young career-bound violinist. You could easily budget $4000 a year just for lessons (assuming 1-hour lessons starting at age 10), and that could well be a baseline budget. And there are so many other costs along the way -- travel to competitions, summer camp fees ... even music can add up pretty fast. If you can get your kid to the point where they're ready for conservatoire at age 17, you're going to be able to afford a $20,000 violin. And if you can't, well, then you borrow against your home or you raid your IRA.
Hey Felix, I'm a little confused about the point you are making. Are you saying that an advanced student or professional doesn't "need" a $10K violin to be successful, or are you saying they don't "need" a six or seven figures antique? Your title suggests the former, the post suggests the latter, and the distinction is important.
Wait until the Covid recession hits, then all violins will be half price.
Collectors and wealthy amateurs driving up prices are a major problem nobody has mentioned yet. Yes parents buying to help their kids be more competitive, but I've got a friend who just bought a $75,000 instrument because she could, when honestly, a $2k instrument would more than meet her needs and match her skill level. That instrument would have been half the price 15 years ago.
Although Gordon’s message may be half tongue in cheek, it is very much on point. It is more and difficult to earn a living playing acoustic music. There are fewer orchestras, fewer projects in Hollywood, fewer record labels that will front the money to make a big recording. That was all true before covid. Now it is an utter bloodbath.
So far this has not happened. The bulk of violin sales have always been to non-pros, believe it or not, because pros are a small portion of the market and usually buy one last time and they're done, where the market up to that point is always churning, and the real top end buyers these days aren't pro players and haven't been for quite some time. The people buying pricier instruments tend to be using easily disposable income that hasn't been affected, and for people in the most expensive violin bracket may never be affected. For them, it's just another form of diversification of assets.
Half tongue in cheek, but in fact I'm about to spend $4000 (refurbished German violin ca. 1830) and wondering whether to wait or not. Then I think to myself, if I wait, I may die.
Or possibly, wait and that $4000 (changed in response) may buy you a loaf of bread, instead, considering that a common way countries try to dig themselves out of depressions is by printing money.
(I changed the price because the dollar has sunk a bit during the last fortnight)
Thank you for the comments thus far. It has been very insightful to hear the many different views on this topic.
@Michael " a common way countries try to dig themselves out of depressions is by printing money."
Felix--Just pointing out that orchestras are competitive businesses, not charities. Their goals encompass, to some extent, being the best that they can be, and this is how they encourage donors and audiences to support them. Neither audiences nor donors want to hear an orchestra be or become worse, and I can't believe that players, either, would choose for worse orchestras rather than choosing to being enabled to get a good instrument. If there is a solution here it needs to deal with the supply issues, getting good tools into the hands of users who can use them to make better music, not the demand side by lowering the quality of orchestras.
"My point is that serious students and pros are expected to play really expensive instruments (a lot more than $10k) and that's bad for accessibility."
Other professional-grade instruments in the orchestra will also be in that 5-figure price range;--Oboe, French Horn, Bassoon, etc. The ultra-expensive million dollar Strads and Guarneris will not be owned by the musicians, but might be owned by the orchestra or on loan from a collector/investor. Is a $100 K fiddle ten times better than a $10 K fiddle?--certainly not, but it might be the difference between coming in first or second at the audition.
I don't think focusing on the instrument rather than the cost of training should be the first priority. The cost of training for a career as a professional string player is likely to run well over $50k, possibly over $100k. A first-rate modern violin at $20-30k is a fraction of that cost.
We don’t ask, but we can hear the difference between a good instrument and a mediocre instrument. It’s very obvious to anyone with ears.
I really don't understand how your assessment can make any economical sense. I think people are going to try to get the best sounding instrument in their price range. The more they search, the better they'll do. Players only really care about what sound they can get out of their violin.
My wife and I were contributing supporters of the NJSO during the time that the Orchestra Board was lured into purchasing the "Golden Age Collection" that the owner was trying to keep away from the federal prosecutors who were after him for a variety of fraud charges.
If I get lucky, I will buy a wonderful instrument of decent provenance, be it modern or vintage. But it has to be *much* better than mine, which I will keep anyway.
@Michael, the names of the programs vary, but they are in several big cities and most are sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. The one my son is in is called Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative. I think Atlanta's is called the Talent Development Program. Boston's is Boston Bridge to Equity and Achievement in Music. I'm not sure but I think there are a few others either in the works or already established as well.
Thanks. I didn't know about this!
George wrote, "Occasionally, we go to concerts played by the top professionals and they are great but often it is clear that their performance is just another highly paid gig."
I am too familiar with these expert critics (though Mr. Wells is not at all coming accross that way.) When I was young, I used to be more critical, but that did not last long. I quickly realized it's not worth attending concerts to figure out all that "went wrong". 100% perfect performances are an ideal, and super rarely achieved, even by the top performers. The things people complain about reminds of competitive, teenage violin students picking on each other behind their backs, but having no real substance to back up their critical "expertise."
Some interesting points. The season brochure for the CSO suggests who might have been better off using a Strad. Wikipedia says he rotates a nice one with a few moderns, including one brand known to be very expensive. I wonder which one he was using that night?
One could make a reasonable argument that for $20k (or perhaps $30k), you can purchase a contemporary violin that's plenty good enough for professional orchestral playing. There are superb contemporary violins that will do just fine for soloists, too, and may be more attractively stable than an antique. And, in fact, you will find that many pros do buy and perform on contemporary violins (especially younger pros -- older pros may have acquired fine antiques when they were less expensive).
What is the thing that's usually the most obvious aspect of sound that gives away a "cheap" instrument to the listener (in auditions for example)?
I think these are two statements everyone would agree on:
Urban, I suspect you could get many answers to your question. For me, it's that I have musical expectations that a bad violin fails to fulfill. It's like someone doing something a couple of tables away that begins to be noticed, then becomes irritating and finally I want to walk over and slap the person to make them stop, but in a musical sense. After two or three minutes I begin to realize that none of the things I want the music to do are happening.
@Paul, did you really see a headline for the "Maria Schneider Orchestra"? Did they do tango?
Michael Darnton wrote:
"most students can acquire a fairly nice instrument to study with for under $5k -- and worry about acquiring a good enough professional instrument if they actually reach the point where it is absolutely required....
David and I have disagreed on this topic over the years. The famous violin tests have violated some common sense test requirements and that discussion has been made many times, but the worst thing they have done is failed to qualify in advance if the people making the test responses can themselves tell Shinola from the other brown stuff and as I note above, musicians, even good ones, are not good by default at judging violins.
In the "Strad vs. modern" comparison I described earlier, I was at the subsequent concert where the soloist played the modern, and the concertmaster (in the orchestra) played the Strad... and he even had a few solo parts to play. So I could clearly hear the difference. In this particular case, the Strad had a clear, crystaline sound that was great on the E string, but powerless below that. The modern was vastly more powerful across all strings, which was necessary to be heard over the orchestra. So in THIS PARTICULAR CASE, with these two instruments, power was a requirement and beauty of tone secondary. For a studio recording, I think the choices would be reversed.
Michael, what part of the podcast? The part where Gilbert said that the sound of their new performance hall changed as the hall was "played in"? (which might be a little weird and more than slightly questionable)
Whoops---wrong episode--May 18 with the Australian violinists. Sorry... I've been listening to too many podcasts while working.....
About 45 years ago I won the all-state audition in Pennsylvania playing on a beater violin that had cost my parents $75. I really liked that violin; I didn't know any better.
I think it might be a different podcast.
"Today, a lot of parents spend $10,000 because they can, not because they need to. 98% of high school fiddlers will be served well with workshop instruments costing $800-1000 in my opinion.
I would love to see blind auditions similar to the ones in Indianapolis and Paris that basically debunked the mythology of Strads and Del Gesus.
I think there is a lot of wise advice here. I am a student and will never be more than an amateur who is doing this for love - my experience with my teachers adult student ensemble tells me that I would really like to play with a chamber group someday. For fun, however, I will never be a professional.
To the contrary, in the Paris test there was apparently one player who could tell the difference, and really, all that's needed to disprove a theory is one contrary example. If the testers have been intellectually honest in their intent, they would have gone farther with that one player, to find out what he heard, and try to understand it but that would not advance their own prejudices.
Mary Ellen, as a teacher you deal with this more than I do, so I have to defer to your expertise, but I wonder if your numbers are a little too high.
Michael, statistics really do matter. One person preferring the Strad doesn't prove that the Strad was better or that one person's ears were better than all the other ears.
I dislike arguments (I do not mind disagreements), but just wanted to add one must be more than lucky to find a good sounding instrument at $800.00-$1,000.00. I wish I was wrong. Even $5,000.00 requires luck. And I don't take for granted that all chinese $3000+ instruments are "better for the money", as they can sound decent, but I have not been awed (maybe I need to try more...) Perhaps I am too picky regarding these?
Though I get wrapped up in it, this type of discussion isn't really too important to me. I trust that there are maybe two people reading who will go out and try harder to hear the things I've mentioned and it's for them, not the ones who insist on staying the same.
Mr. Boyer and Mr. Darnton,
Michael Darton wrote:
My numbers are based on thirty years of helping students acquire move-up fiddles. And part of every decision involves a blind test where I play each of two or three "finalist" instruments under consideration, sometimes throwing in one of mine, and having the student and parent pick which one they like best without awareness of the price.
The noted soloist Elmar Oliviero has been promoting contemporary violin makers for many years. When he came to play the Brahms Concerto with the Waco Symphony a number of years ago, he played on a violin by the German maker, Greiner. That said, he was constantly "fiddling" with the sound post and asked me for my opinion. (I have known him for many years.)
I firmly believe that good old instruments can have tonal characteristics that differ from good modern ones (yikes! old vs new again!!). I have been seeing the measureable differences myself, and it is consistent with several articles published over the years. I even believe I can hear the differences to a large degree.
You see this double-blind stuff in hi-fi circles, wine, etc. To follow on Michael's point, the trick is to see where the randomness is located. You could have a bell curve of a bunch of people's success in telling the difference between violins, or bows, or amplifiers.
Bruce, Elmar Oliveira may have made some money from promoting contemporary instruments, but that's probably nothing close to the commissions which can be offered for selling even one Stad. Are there not lots of Stads on the market, seeking buyers? And when have there not been?
Unrelated to the core of this discussion, but worth raising again, is that sound under the ear and sound to an audience is not the same. I was shopping for an instrument in high school to replace a black-varnished, Czech Strad copy. One instrument, but Hill & Sons, seemed to me to be an obvious upgrade. More responsive, sweeter, etc. My teacher suggested we switch places-- I went to the back row of the auditorium, and he played the two violins onstage. No difference whatever. The two antique Italians, on the other hand, were notably and consistently different from the others on the table.
Stephen, there will always be legends and anecdotes, and anecdotes offered in support of the legends. That's just human nature. When has this not occurred, at any time in human history?
If you're an Ensemble player and know that's where you'll be for at least a few years, will you generally have the same quality instrument as a Soloist? This is obviously a rookie question as I'm primarily an electric Cellist. I'm asking because aren't Ensemble players generally part of the collective mix? Where what they're playing won't stand out individually? And how would the Violinist 3-4 chairs down hear you over the others?
I had to reglue a seam on a Cremonese instrument for a quartet from Germany playing locally, the three musicians played Cremonese instruments on loan and the first violin played a Greiner, at the concert the Greiner stood out like a sore thumb, no richness, much more plain tone
Music is a very competitive field. The conception is that there are only so many soloists that will be supported, etc. People vie for these roles. Anything that can provide an advantage is desirable. Thus, people want the better instruments.
David, And there will always be people who are willing to swallow any nonsense because, SCIENCE! Except that real science readily admits its shortcomings.
The important thing about the Paris double-blind test is that it put top-notch contemporaries against the Strads et.al. The typical professional isn't contemplating buying a Strad vs something else. They're contemplating buying a low six-figures antique (or a five-figures antique) versus a five-figures contemporary. A top-notch contemporary is definitely NOT cheap. A Zygmunotowicz will set you back around $80k. Top makers will run more than $40k. Even reasonably well-established makers are generally $20k+.
I think that notion of exploring what the top 10% can hear that the others can't is very interesting. Over the years, I've been educated by others on distinctions I can listen for / feel when I play, and once you start hearing those things, you can't unhear them. It's not just what people physically perceive, but what your brain hunts for.
Michael, your tin-foil-hat description of "science" has almost nothing to do with my concepts of science, or learning methodology.
From what I understand about the Paris study, they selected from a huge number of modern instruments samples that were louder than the Strads, and they only had a small sample of Strads to choose from, then using people with not necessarily highly developed ears, they majority chose the modern violins because they were louder, not because they sounded any better. so the survey was basically a volume test.
Lydia, my students might try up to 10 violins in the shop and then select two or three at a time to trial at home. There are only two credible violin shops in San Antonio and I have a definite preference for one over the other. Texas is not like the East Coast where driving an hour or two might put you in reach of innumerable good shops. The next closest city is Austin which is a solid hour and a half away if you get lucky with the traffic. It is a very rare student of mine who is looking for something not available in the local shop, but if they can wait until February when TMEA takes place (in a normal year, I mean), there are a plethora of dealers in the convention center including Robertson.
I was present for the second part of the "Paris" experiment.
Mary Ellen's story indicates why the "look for the perfect violin under $10k" just isn't practical for most students.
Are you calling him a fruit? ;-)
Even though I very much tend to favor the scientific blind-testing approach compared to "pros know", I would have to concede that a truly controlled study is quite a difficult undertaking when it comes to comparing violins, and I'm not convinced that any of the famous "studies" have truly conquered it.
Paul, how would you suggest that the soloists and listeners level of good taste in good violin sound be evaluated? Should they use bassoon players? (I mention this, because the best person I ever met at noticing super-subtle changes in sound happened to be a bassoon player.) :-)
If we aim at the audiophile / hi-fi community, then does that serve classical music in any way? Not to cast aspersions at those nutjobs, but if you look up lists of audiophile test-albums, you get some weird stuff that has more to do with production techniques than anything else, which has what exactly to do with music?
A story I like to tell is about an acquaintance of mine who was able on the first past through, NOT by comparison, to identify which of the 25 Strads and del Gesus in the Bein and Fushi were which. He missed only one, the Ruby Strad, which he identified as a del Gesu. He told me how he did it, which I'm not going to reveal, but it was both very simple and something which I could not do because I don't have his experience as a musician. My point in telling this is that this is a task that I've heard many people say was simply impossible, and if you took 100 players, I bet none of them could do it. But the 100 failures means exactly nothing.
Do you consider the nine soloists who participated in the study to be random people off the street?
But Michael, an analogous question is, if you are designing a shoe for runners, do you REALLY need to track down those sub-4-minute-milers to prove that the shoe works and is comfortable and can shave time of your run? I know this is a bit of a mixed metaphor, but if the classical audience have 4-minute-mile ears, then sure, it makes sense, but if the ears of only 1 in a 1000 in the audience can run that 4-minute mile, then is there really a point to insisting on them picking the fiddle? If you think so, and you have a way of really verifying their superior perception skills, then sure. It's just going to be a lot of work, a lot of subjectivity to get past, and you have to start with what you are actually gaining in the process.
Michael's perfect test: sort through prospective testers by seeing who consistently prefers the violins Michael says are good in a blind test... and then have them do a blind test to see what they prefer.
Michael knows this subject much better than you do, Don
So maybe that's the best conclusion: The results of the Paris study are valid for rank-and-file soloists who are using their violins twice weekly to perform for the public; but the results are not valid for the occasional savant. Michael might argue that it's the savant whose opinion matters, and I don't think that argument gets rejected out of hand.
Don, we only know someone in the tests could tell new from old. We don't know his preference. That you think he would prefer old says a lot, though. David himself has sometimes made the case in the past that some players who know have chosen new, for specific reasons (carrying power has been mentioned by both him and you at various times).
To confuse things more, if you gave me a budget of $75K for a violin, I'd try like hell to find a great one for 25K and spend 50K on the bow...;)
Don's just another in a long list of violin makers that thinks he is better than Stradivarius.
Lyndon, how wonderful it is that you haven't given up on becoming a mind reader, despite your many failures. Keep trying, since persistence can have value, some times. Other times, it's better to switch horses. :-)
If I had to read minds I'd say that you are on that same list!!
There is no way I will ever equal the workmanship of Stradivarius. When it comes to sound... let's compare in 300 years. But as of how, I'm 1 and 0 against Strad ;-)
I had the rare privilege of playing the "ex Wieniawski" Guarneri del Gesu at Bein & Fushi back in 1997. I have also played a fine Christophe Landon copy of the "ex David" Guarneri del Gesu in 2017 priced at around $80k. I now own a beautiful Dereck Coons copy of the "ex Kreisler" 1730 Guarneri del Gesu. The sound of my violin, to my ears, is as good, or better, than any of the others I have played. No need to spend millions or even tens of thousands when you can buy a modern instrument from an American luthier for much, much less. For me, as a violinist, its all about the sound. But as they say, to each his (or her) own.
Alexander, in the four years B&F had the Wieniawski I showed it to many people. Only two made it sound good. It was a very difficult violin to play. So please don't judge all Cremonese ciolins by that one.
I'm curious: For the ones that did manage to make it sound good, did it sound like a top-notch violin, or merely pretty good?
Michael, I'd be interested in hearing what made the instrument particularly hard to play (for even what I assume were professional-level players).
It sounded great in the right hands.
There is such a thing as an instrument that is easy or hard to play, and it isn't necessarily related to the quality of the instrument. I've tried out a couple of Gaglianos and I felt like I was fighting with both of them. Great violins, but hard to play, or at least I found them so.
One of the discussions that might be had about del Gesus is how young whiz-bang players often get a Strad, then eventually years later will switch to a del Gesu. Historically that has happened quite a bit.
A different theory on Strads and del Gesus: two commodities with the same demand will have different prices when there is a shortage of one. Fewer Guarneris = higher prices, all else equal. That is one reason players might be slow to move.
This could be a huge lecture, but basically "normal" Strads and del Gesus from their respective best years (Strad, 1710-1720, maybe; del Gesu, ~1741-1744, just to name ranges) can be the opposite of each other in both graduations and arching, with the Strad having thin grads and an "easy" arch to move, and the equivalent del Gesu being as much as nearly twice as thick with a much harder-to-move arching. Wood and varnish aren't that different.
Thanks Michael, for a very informative insight! :-)
I'm really interested in the idea that the plates were very thick on the del Gesu. Four millimeters is thick. That surprises me. My childhood violin was declared "too heavy" by Dalton Potter. Regrading the top (at Kapeller in Richmond) accomplished rather little. Maybe I just needed a heavier bow and a better right arm? I thought nowadays violin-makers carve the tops as thin as they think they can get away with structurally. Is that not true? Please excuse the fact that I know less than nothing about violin-making. (Less than nothing because what I *do* know is probably mostly wrong.)
Fortunately, I have never had to be in the position of a "sales-geek". When I was employed in the Weisshaar shop, sales was considered to be the antitheses of real talent. Hans was enough of a consummate craftsman, that he didn't need to rely on a bunch of BS to make a go of it.
Paul, since the initial problem is to get the plates moving at all, there are different ways to get there. If the arching is too stiff or sub optimal, you can lighten the wood until the lack of weight compensates to a certain extent. On the other hand, if you have a shape than inherently is flexible, then the weight of wood serves a different function and you don't need mobility through lack of weight. Or, as you know, you can have an arching that's so ineffective that regraduation can't save it.
It makes sense intuitively that the shape(s)* of the arch should be of utmost importance. The analogy to structural engineering is crude but apt. Potter said that my violin didn't just have thick plates, but heavy corners, and so forth. It was "No. 24" (1972) from a gentleman who was a guitar-maker (and an amateur at that) and then decided in his retirement from his day-job that he would have a go at violins. That was Claude Watson of San Diego. The violin is wonderful as an
For the record, I got my first three full time jobs (Memphis, Richmond, and Colorado Symphonies) on a German no-name valued at 4k. But I know this is unusual. I will readily admit that when I was thirty and got a really nice instrument for the first time, I became a happier person and less frustrated player, who then also had more opportunities - I'm not sure how much of it was psychological, because of course yes I also sounded better. Regardless, I agree it's a barrier, but it's the least of all the barriers to worry about. The biggest barrier is access to early individualized training (aka expensive lessons), the second is the inequities in school opportunities (wealthy schools with great orchestras and booster clubs) and the third is the lack of big scholarships at state colleges that are not SAT driven. I say state colleges, because that is often where people who are not wealthy will go to school. Large scholarships at public institutions are heavily SAT weighted, which I believe is discriminatory and senseless. SATS have nothing to do with musical potential, or much other potential for that matter, and yet they continue to be used one of the primary benchmarks for scholarships for all majors. The greatest predictor for SAT's are a persons' zipcode (aka wealth) - more than the number of hours of TV they watch every day or any other factor. Scholarships matter because they equate directly to how many hours students will work while going to school (when they can't practice) and how much debt they will graduate with, and how many summer programs they can go to. Those 3 things are more likely influence the career trajectory than what violin they are playing on. Practice, debt, and extra opportunities/connections.
Susanna I agree with you entirely. However, the counterargument that you will hear (and that we have heard plenty of times here on v.com) is that if you're not getting a full ride (or at least a scholarship that brings your tuition down to public/in-state levels) to one of the top programs, then you're not likely to be competitive for salaried jobs as a violinist anyway. I hope that's not actually true, but I fear that there is some truth to it. Of course it depends what "making it" means to the individual, and there are more jobs and careers than being a salaried section player or a globetrotting soloist.
Even if you get a free ride, though, private lessons before that point still cost significantly more than most of the violins that are played in salaried orchestras, and that's not even counting time and family commitment.
Since I went off to college at a state university, the tuition there has gone up 5X the inflation rate. Out of state tuition is now equal to slightly less than the median US family income. I think this is a problem not only for musicians but for everyone, and that ultimately this country will need to adjust its priorities back towards improved public education or we will all suffer in a way from which recovery will be impossible, if it isn't already.
A key difference: Low-interest loans are readily available for trucks. Not so with instruments (there are some programs through the AFM union, I believe, but they're limited and not low-interest, AFAIK).
Michael, unfortunately it's even worse that you say. Not only are public universities not considered "public goods" that are worthy of support from everyone (including those not presently sending their own children there), but in some corners they are viewed as evil hotbeds of indoctrination -- part of the government "beast" that needs to be "starved". I teach university chemistry. I must confess that I do teach a "pro-science viewpoint." Until the early 2000s it did not occur to me that this viewpoint would be considered a political one.
There's science, and there's "SCIENCE!" Some can't tell the difference.
If we used science, and engineering, to build, improve, and purchase instruments, we might have instruments that perform better and cost less over time. But who wants that? And if it produced instruments better than Stradivarius, what would we use as a metaphor for quality and object of worship?
Some makers already do so, particularly for acoustic analysis.
There is so much great content here from multiple contributors! I'm late to the plate, and I spent quite a long time reading it all! Its hard to know where to start.
Michael Darnton wrote:
I can tell you it is not going to faculty!
"Why has college tuition increased so much?"
College costs that have risen sharply higher than the rate of inflation combined with a minimum wage that hasn't even begun to keep pace with inflation have made it impossible to work one's way through college.
Paul Deck wrote:
David, private institutions are indeed funded differently, but of the five reasons I listed for escalating costs, only Item No. 1 does not apply directly to privates. Still your point is a very good one. Decreased state funding may still apply indirectly to the privates, because as they set their prices, I'll bet they still watch very closely how expensive they are relative to public schools. But I really don't know. Princeton might not be representative. Institutions with gigantic endowments glean so much investment income that they can subsidize student tuition from that source. Harvard has been criticized for charging tuition when they probably don't need to do so at all. There are a few isolated colleges (usually very small, like Berea College), that charge no tuition because they have very surprisingly large endowments for their size. The University of Michigan, also, is notoriously expensive among the public schools -- but maybe its better to stay focused on the trends rather than the absolute costs. I took a quick look at one of those cheesy aftermarket sites for "cost of attending" and within Michigan, Hope (where I went) has gone up about 31% in ten years, Albion has gone up almost 50% in the same period, and K College by 42%, whereas MSU has gone up 36%, WSU by 34%, U of M by 38%.) Those are all Michigan schools. Note that Michigan is one of the lowest in terms of its state support at about $5100 per full-time equivalent (FTE) student. So it looks at first glance as though the privates have gone up more. But public schools can't just set their tuition willy-nilly. It has to be approved by other state agencies and the legislature. Then come the "cost-cutting" measures such as increased class sizes for general education courses, or increased use of adjunct faculty or graduate TAs (the latter especially for large-enrollment lab courses), electronic instruction, etc. And as was previously noted, increasing the day-spa experience to attract more out-of-state tuition dollars. Hope College is never going to teach General Chemistry to 300 students at a time. I don't think they have a single classroom that large. But five years ago Virginia Tech built a new 320-seat classroom specifically for that purpose. (That raises another question -- whether capital expenses such as building construction are counted in FTE state-support figures. If not, then obviously that gives the state schools another huge advantage.)
Paul, just want to say I find your posts very interesting and informative. If I could go back to college, I think I would major in Chemistry (it was my favorite science course in high school). I majored in History, which was fine, but I was always curious about what was happening in the polymer science building (at UMass Amherst).
The rumor I heard is that the beautiful PSE building at UMass (where I once gave an invited seminar) was a tidbit of "cultural exchange" (i.e., pork-swap) between Ted Kennedy and Trent Lott. Curiously the University of Southern Mississippi got a lovely new polymer science building at about the same time.
An anecdotal point of reference...
Paul makes good points.
A maker in the USA needs to charge at least $10,000 for a personally-made violin just to put food on the table.
I agree Andy; folks just don't build that many instruments per year. As another data point, the guy that made my daughter's cello is well known and recommended here fairly frequently, hors concours in the VSA competitions with multiple Triennale awards, and charges just under $20K for a violin commission I think, which is pretty reasonable given his experience and credentials.
Frieda I've been arguing for years that public-university tuition is just way too low. It's just too good of a wealth-redistribution scheme to pass up. As you say, the privates figured that out long ago, but Princeton is going to be on the extreme side of that, just because they can. There are plenty of families whose kids have always wanted to go to VT since they were very little and who would have absolutely no probably writing a check for twice what they are currently paying. I mean they wouldn't even blink. And a fair number of them are coming from overseas. Just look at the cars in the student parking lots and you'll immediately understand what I mean.
The cost of university administration has gone through the roof. Faculty costs have stayed flat or declined, but huge teams of highly-paid administrators are now the norm.
The modern instruments are worth it, and should be relatively expensive, because its an art and they are difficult and time-consuming to make well. We should not pay them less-save up, or buy the best sounding/playing instrument you can for less than $10,000, regardless provenance.
To address Felix's original point, instrument cost is a significant barrier to accessing classical performance as a career. Others have pointed out that there are other costs...lessons, camps etc.
To keep things in perspective, that $10,000 + price of a good violin is probably about the same as the cost of an independent car mechanic, plumber, carpenter, etc.... setting up a a business, with a full set of tools and specialized truck or van.
So true.I just had the front brakes done on our minivan.My mechanic just spent $30000.00 on two new hydraulic lifts.He said his largest expenditure is diagnostic equipment.
Rob Grune makes a good point. I could spend $20,000 on a violin, or I could spend $10000 on travel to find the same quality as the $20,000 violin for half the price. And if you think it's hard getting a loan for a violin, try getting a loan for ten airline tickets.
With apologies to James T., who mentioned interest rates earlier in this thread in a form that I haven't yet understood and perhaps others.
Rob Grune wrote: "The investment value of Stradivarius, Guarneri, etc is beyond dispute."
Eventually, instruments of Stradivari's era will surely become too fragile with age to be played in what we know today as a concert environment. What will then happen to their value?
Rob Grune wrote that the musical world has always had inequity. He mentions Mozart. Although this is a good example from the standpoint of modern perception of musical genius, it is a poor example from an economic perspective. Mozart was poor. If he were better supported economically we would likely have more masterpieces by him.
The Strads will probably still have significant value to collectors and museums. Many of their present owners don't play them either, or do anything other than vault them.
And many of them are worn out poor players now, so I’m told, but they retain significant value.
Good question Trevor. What is the residual collectable value of a master instrument that isn't playable? A violin reportedly played while the Titanic was sinking sold for $1.7M. Presumably a Strad with famous pedigree could still be worth a few pennies, playable or not. The sound may account for $150K if not less, the rest is the rarity and demand for the instrument. One unspoken reason, I think, master instruments are loaned, beside wanting it to be played is to add to its pedigree, which adds collectible value. An instrument played by Heifetz is worth more than the same one played by me, but I disgress from the OP. I think the sweet spot for the better entry pro-level instrument is thought as being around $15-20K, which is a lot. There seems to be very little available between $6.5-15K. $6.5K is thought as an intermediate level instrument, then it's a big jump to the next level. Violin playing ain't cheap indeed. Count $500 per year in maintenance alone and perhaps $2500+ for lessons, and amortization on the instrument and bow of $1500 over 10 years and you got an annual cost of $4500/yr at the minimum.
I played on my uncle's Vuillaume years ago, and who knows, since I couldn't get much of a sound out of any quality violin, but it was something else, like a rainbow coming out of the violin. A few years later, I came back to visit and he had two moderns instead, by, I believe, a Polish maker (could've been two different makers, I only played one), and it wasn't seemingly in the same galaxy.
some very good comments, re investment.
Rob, the suggestion that the millennial generation is reducing demand is a stereotype that could not be farther from the truth.
Christian remembers the sound of his uncle's Vuillaume with great fondness. But I have to wonder: Did he know the instrument was a priceless antique before he judged its sound?
Good thoughts, Paul. If I had been born to wealthy parents, I probably wouldn't have tried so hard. The notion of necessity being "the mother of invention" still has value, I think.
I can't remember if I had much of an idea about that name at the time, although I asked my mom yesterday, and she thought it may have been a Vuillaume copy, as she thought it may have been out of my uncle's price range (although the Vuillaume workshop was incredibly prolific, and the price spread is big), so while I don't remember my uncle saying anything about a copy, it's possible that it wasn't a Vuillaume at all.
@paul: If Mozart only wrote 10 works a year, but lived a full life we would likely have just as many works as we have now, roughly 600. However, producing only 10 works per year, I would expect that they would have been of an ever higher quality.
For some people, being under pressure results in better work. That's generally true for me, for instance.
Hypothesis: No great composer has ever been or become wealthy; more to the point no wealthy person has ever become a great composer in spite of having more potential leisure time than the rest of us. Counter-examples invited!
Charles Ives was quite a successful insurance executive.
Rachmaninoff did pretty well for himself when he got to America. Poulenc was born into a very wealthy family. Szymanowski was born into a wealthy family of nobility. Wagner made a lot of money in his life, despite squandering it all. I can't imagine that either Phillip Glass or John Adams are hurting for money. Handel was pretty loaded. Telemann was rich and famous. Paganini made a ton of money, and gambled it all away. Vivaldi was born into a wealthy family. Edward Elgar got pretty wealthy. Milhaud was born into a wealthy family, and seemed to do pretty well for himself during his career. I could go on and on.
Steve, Mendelssohn came from a very wealthy family. I think we can all agree he was a great composer!
Well thank you everyone, plenty of exceptions there to prove the rule. We can agree to differ on which of these composers was "great" (several of the above I'd say are pretty middle-ranking) and how much money counts as "wealthy" (Elgar for one I certainly wouldn't include). But yes, some of these did indeed manage to write great music in spite of their advantages.
Oh good grief.
Please Mary Ellen, you don't need to take my provocative ideas so seriously! Yes, I do believe that wealth can be an obstacle to creativity but it would be absurd for me to make or think such a gross generalization as "wealthy people achieve little"
In general, historically, people did not become composers unless they came from sufficient wealth that they had access to a musical education. They were, at the very least, "middle class" -- which in those times was a much narrower slice of society, still near the top of the incomes for the time period. (They were "middle" in the sense that they sat between the nobility and the working class. They were either modest landholders or prosperous professionals that generally still qualified as "gentlemen" and "ladies" even if untitled.)
I was really only musing about Mozart having a posh salary instead of scraping by. Nobody will ever know what might have happened. I wasn't trying to start a war. But it's the internet, right?
Frieda, that's interesting to learn. I was just going on what someone else said, that he was "poor." Gambling continues to be a serious problem for many people.
Not just gambling. Parties, clothes, other kinds of high living. His actual income was pretty good, but you could earn $150k today and still be facing problems if you spend $160k.
Mary Ellen, I agree.
As from ~ former Loanee, Guarnerius del Gesu But! #179
**A Memo of Recognition ** #180
The OP mentions the audience but forgets the player. It is the player who pays, and he pays for a quick response, clarity, a wide and generous dynamic range, an instrument that is easy to play, and in tune, good tone and yeah, good tone even under the ear.
Intriguing Observation by Luis Claudio Manfio ~ #182
Hi OP here.
Thank you, Scott Cole!! August 25, 2020
Thanks Elisabeth! I remember of a good written article published here by Laurie Niles, I will transcribe it here:
Other wealthy "greats": Delius, Gesualdo, Henry VIII (of his time - Tallis and Taverner were greater). Rodrigo had a title - whether he had wealth to go with it I don't know. I think Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were also quite well off.
Elizabeth is writing a book? Is there enough paper for that?
Elizabeth, in the Heifetz films he is playing a Berger violin, as in Karl August Berger? For some reason I always thought that was his Tononi! By the way, I'm a huge fan, thank you for contributing here. Looking forward to someday reading more about your life and inspirational father :)
Just a slight note in reference to Ms. Matesky’s first post. Heifetz inexpensive
Oops misread, still Berger at auction 15K.
Scott nice to see you back!
Since we asked “what if” about Mozart, and getting back to the OP’s question, which is about the difference in violins at a lower end rather than a Strad vs. top modern/contemporary:
Scott says that every aspiring conservatory piano student needs a grand piano.
Matthew Metz: Oh, heck no. You'll find Carl G Becker (father) selling for more than $100k, and Carl F Becker (son) selling for the $75k range, at least on the east coast, if in excellent condition.
I think the biggest impediment to becoming an artist or really a self employed
"The only industrialized western nation without."
Getting back to the OP, while $10K might indeed be an "already large sum" in many contexts, it is not a large sum when it comes to quality violins. Perhaps that's the original disconnect.
My guess is that:
"For example, I think while everyone would agree that $50K is an "already large sum" in many cases, it isn't if you're talking about buying a house. In that context, $50K is very little, and a $50K house is likely to be a shack."
J Seitz, the OP is specifically talking about "serious students and professionals" and "pursuing a career as a violinist."
To ~ Freida Francis ~ #201
As aforementioned, I do think that a *really* good sounding instrument for $20,000 is a great buy for professionals. But there is an impossible to reconcile disconnect as well-many people in the US will never own a house, and may only own one of these instruments at great personal sacrifice.
Once again Elisabeth, you cleanse us with your words like a bottle of Dr. Bronner's soap!
I'm not sure whether I feel cleansed or exorcised.
@Andrew Hsieh, I think there's still some segmentation among advanced students and budding professionals. This thread is helpful because it also shows: folk upgrading much later than they wished to, performance students relying on school instruments or loans until they could afford their own, folk bargain shopping if high priced instruments are out of their range, and people winning orchestra auditions on loaner violins.
Nearly all child prodigies (and regular children) start by learning on fractional instruments which are "horrible" compared to professional-level, full-size instruments.
If they never upgrade from their fractionals, then this happens:
I think my daughter has benefitted from having decent antique (Age not important) German fractionals and then her current well worn 1908 French full size. All “factory” or shop made, but all chosen by blind testing. Not telling the listeners (teachers) what the violin was or cost, just numbering and having them ranked (in different environments home, concert hall). I think their is a feedback loop, between the sound quality and playability, that does help her progress. And that her sound quality has recieved attention that has created opportunities. And the sound has furthered her love for playing. Likely we could have made a second job of looking for the needle in the haystack
@Frieda Francis ~ #209
There's no need to get huffy. Someone with the penetrating talent of Heifetz or Milstein (there are no other great violinists in the history of the instrument, after all, or Elizabeth would surely have studied with them) may be able to coax compelling music from an inferior instrument. And yet, we have continually heard in this forum that ordinary mortals in the form of teenagers on the cusp of performing careers can have their progress retarded for lack of better tools. Cannot these two positions be reconciled at all? If so, can it be accomplished in fewer than 1000 words?
I know you're playing devil's advocate, Paul, but I don't buy it. That argument wants to discount all the arts support under various communist regimes that (having mixed results in terms of freedom of expression) resulted in musicians, dancers and other performing artists being trained at incredibly high levels.
There are many countries who offer their residents basics , in particular universal health care while having thriving arts and a healthy private sector.
Either Auer was loaded or his students' instruments were cheap, if the 2014 biography of Heifetz by Galina Kopytova is to be trusted. Apparently, when Auer got angry with a student, he knocked the instrument out of the student's hands. Then later on, he felt bad that he had destroyed some poor student's instrument and bought him a new one at the shop. No way the cranky teachers of today could have similar bad habits without lawsuits and debt!
I get the distinct impression that people are talking past each other because they're talking about access to the $10k violin at different times.
Paul sorry but please back off on Ms Matesky? Elisabeth is the only direct link to Heifetz and Milstein we have here on this forum (perhaps even at all), and we should be very grateful for her presence and participation.
I shall be brief ;)
French ones that cost twice as much might sound 25% better if that's what you mean
I think Felix, the OP, was well-meaning, but lumping together students and professionals did muddy the water in preparation for the cross-purposes that AndrewH observes.
The pandemic has essentially split every economy into two, from the perspective of workers: People who have jobs working in industries/companies that are not hugely impacted and are probably desk workers whose jobs can easily be done remotely (or where they are in skilled in-person jobs where demand hasn't lessened, i.e. residential plumbers and pharmacists), and everyone else.
In 3, Lydia. People who can just keep doing their jobs; people who cannot do their jobs and are laid off; and essential workers, who are bodies to be fed to the maw for the benefit of the former 2 categories.
I have been thinking (with no great conclusions) about the fallout from the current pandemic. First, while 1929 was a financial crash, it was followed soon enough by an actual economic depression. You don't have to be too firmly attached to Smith or Marx to know that at the extreme, wealth stems from labor-- and people were working less in the 1930s. Followed by that, there was the destruction of WWII. If you were a post-war American, you could do very well picking up art, antiques, and jewelry from belt-tightening Brits and Europeans.
Jean, I'm sorry that you feel I may have offended Elizabeth, but I thought it was unacceptably rude for her to have written, about another member here, "Do you play the Violin??? Me thinks maybe not or just a bit!!" Is it maybe possible that we can get the "direct link to Heifetz and Milstein" without quite so much condescension?
Just because someone has studied with x, or been in the same room as y, doesn't mean they have some meaningful to say, or that they serve as the spokesperson for x or y. I'm as interested as the next guy in hearing the thoughts of great players and teachers, but could you tell me what those thoughts have been based on your reading?
Please note, I'm not trying to pick a fight here -- just my .02 cents.
Thank you Ben David for that basic financial common sense!
There are thousands of violin makers in the world who are virtually unknown.
Following up on Ben's wise advice, most Americans would do well to spend much less on their homes in the first place and then they'd have more to spend on just about everything else. Too many people are totally shackled by their mortgages. You don't need a new car every three years either. I have a friend who was complaining to me just a few days ago about their financial situation and this person is driving a $75000 car. The problem with this statement is that if you save money assiduously like your parents taught you, you'll have nothing on your FAFSA to protect you from paying full freight for your kids' college tuition.
You can usually find a much better sounding antique for less money than these so called amateur makers, they don't call them amateurs for no reason.
I don't disagree with your "usually" at all, Lyndon. But I have found the delight in finding exceptions worth the search.
I recall a formal study done some time ago which attempted to identify specific aspects of the sound quality of violins that are judged to "sound good", which found that a large number, though not proportion, of violins made by amateur makers were also in that category.
No need to shout!
To Violin Contributor's
I regret that I sent my above message to Paul publicly. That was a mistake. I certainly don't like the way this has gone.
Ms Matesky, I fear that Paul is merely reacting to the impression that comes over in your posts, which may be far from your true nature..
Yes indeed. Your passionate writing augurs so well for your violinistic artistry.
None of this is good.
To Scott Roberts: one of my teachers said that he (or a friend of his-- I forget) was once trying out for an orchestra and had used what he thought was a very decent Gemunder. Apparently, they liked him but wanted to hear better, so lent him something like a Gagliano for the final round. Totally different fingerboard, so it was a stressful weekend of practicing.
I think Pierre Amoyal (a long term student of Heifetz) was one of the last to actually buy his own Strad. Now they have to be borrowed.
"I think Pierre Amoyal...was one of the last to actually buy his own Strad."
To the original post, and ensuing conversation- just a couple non-conflictual thoughts.
Perlman also bought Menuhin's Guarnerius some years later. But he is one of the few who earned enough in royalties to make that work.
One of the nice things about posts that are difficult to read and follow, and this applies to all such posts and not just to one person, is that they are also thereby easy to ignore and skip. Which is exactly why, when we do wish to be heard, one strives to be clear and bri.
I dithered about paying 4K (in the context of a uke club where $200 was enough) until it was pointed out to me that plenty of people spend that on their vacation every year.
Joshua Bell bought the Huberman strad, and Anne Akiko-Myers bought the Molitor strad, as have a few others this century. It's becoming less and less common, though.
Just so you all know, my personal attorney, one Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is being sent copies of this entire thread by carrier pigeon as we speak, so as to avoid Thuggish Ruggish forces from intercepting them through the mail system. I'm also being haunted by the ghost of Antonin Scalia, who feeds me advanced legal advice in real time.
I will just note that it's probably time to leave off. It feels like kicking an elderly cat.
Folks, I think many of you unfortunately believe that price goes hand in hand with quality when it comes to instruments. I’ve tried $45,000 violins that are absolute trash that sound worse than something selling for $5,000.
@Lydia Leong ~ #253
To All ~ #254
Elizabeth, thank you. I'd looked at both Carl G and Carl F violins in the last few years. I'd purchased a violin from Carl F many years ago. But these days I play a JB Vullaume.
"I personally witnessed Erick Friedman play his $200 teaching violin (which he called ‘Big Red’) and fiberglass bow from Sam Ash, which he kept in a file cabinet, in his Yale University classroom. He produced a better sound on that instrument and bow than students in that class who owned expensive 6-7 figure violins. "
Re: the Fiddlerman video, there's a big difference between a $100 violin in today's dollars and a $200 violin decades ago.
Nate's point was what he was comparing it with:- 6-7 figure violins in then money.
I know what Nate means about a great violinist getting a good sound from an inferior violin. (You will note that earlier in this thread I also indicated that I thought it would be possible for great talents like Heifetz and Milstein to do so). I remember when my daughter was getting ready for her first solo recital; she was maybe 8 years old. She was playing a 1/2 size violin. Her teacher took the violin to tune it for her and played a little excerpt on it (just a few seconds), I guess just to make sure the violin was awake or something. The sound exploded from the violin. Even my dad, who was there in the audience, asked me afterward, "What was that? How did he do that?" And since he's a scientist too I explained it the best I could in terms he would grasp immediately: That making tone on the violin is kind of a resonance phenomenon where if you get it just right, the bow really engages very strongly with the string and it's what we call a "deep minimum" where if it's not
Just as a point of reference (according to an online calculator)
When I was looking roughly 35 years ago, Carl F Becker (who was still very much alive) was already selling in a range equivalent to respected "second tier" antique makers, and respected as a superb contemporary maker.
Becker's and Poggi's violins increased in value when those makers died.
Joining this very late - so I could not read all the replies (sorry if its a repeat). Just this comment on soloists and expensive violins: they are expected to OWN one not necessarily to play on it; that way the bio can say "Higginbottom plays on the 1692 'Little Piddle' Stradivarius, from his gold plated period". All the panache required. Of course, actually Higginbottom performs on his $45K, 2015 Strad-pattern Muggins - which can actually fill the concert hall and he won't cry if its stolen.
The conjectures I was trying to nudge towards in my mention of the scholarly biography of Heifetz that described Auer as not very careful with his students' violins was that perhaps this was evidence that:
There were apparently many very nice German fiddles sold from the 1890s to 1920s through catalogues of Sears and Montgomery Wards. (Amazons of the era) At very cheap prices, so you can imagine if you were closer to the source at that time.....
No, I haven't read all the previous posts, but,
Elise nailed it.
Jocelyn has it right. I would guess that most of the students did NOT have good violins by the standards of the time. Auer's later-famous pupils by and large came from relatively poor families (or middle-class at best).
Lydia wrote: "To Elise's point, that's both true and untrue, I think. I think soloists with copies tend to switch between the antique and the contemporary depending on circumstances. If the antique comes from a patron, they probably have some patron-induced obligations to play the antique under some circumstances."
One last Reply ~ #1000!!! True V.com #272!!
Elizabeth, what you're seeing here is very typical of how internet forums work. Welcome to the online world of 2020.
Re ~ One Last P. S. #1002 !!!!!!! ~ True V.com #274 ~
I doubt Ms. Matesky agrees with police brutality. It is hinted above she believes many of these rioters are paid for/supported by someone else with ulterior motives. BLM=/=rioters: hard to process for millions, sadly.
We are getting off-topic. I will note that to anyone who would like to back their beliefs in broader access to instruments for the disadvantaged, Rachel Barton Pine's foundation takes donations. And there are tons of foundations dedicated to this purpose. Your local public schools might very well take donations, as well (and if you have some basic luthier skills, appreciate help with setup and repair).
RBP's foundation is awesome. I'm keeping it local.
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