Intermediate viola purchase advice

April 8, 2021, 12:19 PM · My daughter is going into high school next year and has played viola for about 3 years now. She’s enjoying it and wants to keep pursuing it, maybe on into college. She plays a student rental right now and I’m considering a purchase of a nicer intermediate instrument for her.

The recommendation at the local shop was a viola that runs about $3k. It’s a beautiful instrument and sounds great, but I just don’t know if that’s too much for a 13 year old. I keep thinking surely there are more reasonably priced decent violas for about half that. Her teacher, and of course the shop, are pushing this instrument hard. Does a high school student really need a $3,000 viola to continue advancing and meeting her potential? If she sticks with it and wants to keep studying in college, I’m on board with getting something nicer but I’m having a hard time with this decision now.

Replies (19)

April 8, 2021, 12:35 PM · $2500-3000 is about starting price what a good viola for a fairly serious high school kid is going to run for high quality Chinese workshop instruments like Jay Haide. I remember a nice step up in sound quality at around $5000. Good, reasonably priced violas seemed more difficult to come by than good, reasonably priced violins.

If you like the $3000 one a lot, can you rent it for a year or two with the rental price applied towards the purchase?

April 8, 2021, 12:39 PM · I was also 13 when my parents bought me my first 'nice' violin, also for around $3000. I already had a pretty good idea that I wanted to become a musician though, so my parents were convinced enough to buy it for me. I played the same instrument for the next 6 years including my first year at college, so it was more than good enough for me as a 13 year old. I think $3000 is the absolute maximum you should spend if she is still in the deciding phase. 2k will probably do to be honest...
April 8, 2021, 12:54 PM · As always, there is an imperfect r-squared between price and quality. It is generally true that options increase with retail price, and that $2-3k is the entry point for halfway decent professional/student instruments. Jay Haide is something of an unofficial benchmark there. Even with that maker, though, some are a lot better than others. And there is always the prospect of getting lucky with a private sale of something else for $1,500.

One interesting comment was on the teacher's encouragement-- there was a big thread last week on commissions paid to teachers by dealers. Not that this will move the needle too much on your cost, or necessarily stick you with something less than ideal. Just thought I'd mention it.

April 8, 2021, 3:12 PM · When I was 10 my father gave me the violin he had used as a teenager and up until he was earning his own living during the Great Depression and bought a fine Italian violin and 2 great bows for himself. The violin I was given at 10 (I was told) was an ancient Tyrolean instrument that I played on until my 18th birthday (in college) when I was gifted one of the violins I still own. I played that ancient instrument through high school, through Mozart concertos 3 & 5, The Mendelssohn and The Beethoven.

It can makes a difference to the rest of your life to play an instrument that rewards you every time it goes under your chin. Take time to pick the right one.

April 8, 2021, 3:25 PM · A very good starting point for a nice instrument for the stage your daughter is at.

If the shop and teacher are pushing this particular instrument, as Stephen said, it is worth checking out the other thread.

Do you have a chance to visit another violin shop and try other instruments in that price range? Not a decision to be rushed, nor should you be pressured into it.

Edited: April 8, 2021, 3:31 PM · Yes. $3000 is a reasonable price at that stage. That's not chump change, but one way to look at it is to convert it to weeks of lessons.

But ... "Her teacher, and of course the shop, are pushing this instrument hard." Everyone's jumping on that comment because of the other thread:

Also does the shop offer trade-up?

I have a Ming-Jiang Zhu (MJZ) "AA" viola that I got for about $3500. It has a huge rich tone but is not particularly responsive. Responsiveness is as important as tone for a youngster who is developing real skill (whereas I am just lurking in community orchestras where "big sound" is important because the number of violas is either one or two).

I suggest also avoiding the temptation to get a smaller sized instrument. If your daughter is a "normal" 13-year-old girl then she might be pretty close to her adult height and arm length.

April 8, 2021, 3:40 PM · When you get her a nice viola, she will need a nice bow too. A decent silver Brazilian pernambuco bow from one of the good workshops like Arcos Brasil, Marco Raposo, or l'Archet Brasil will run something like $800-1200.
Edited: April 8, 2021, 6:22 PM · At this point in her life, a good bow may go further to help out. Certainly, better return on investment. Whether that means staying closer to $2k for the instrument and getting the best possible stick with the balance may depend on what is in the shop at the time.
Edited: April 8, 2021, 4:56 PM · At a budget shop like mine I have cheaper options, my best right now is an EH Roth post war for $2000, that should be better than the Jay Haide at $3500 etc. and as good as the brand new EH Roth that sell for about $5000. Not trying to advertise just giving you an idea of what some smaller shops might offer.
April 8, 2021, 5:48 PM · Correction, its a Joseph Bitterer, Mittenwald, I sold the EH Roth already, but they are of similar quality, build and tone.
Edited: April 8, 2021, 7:18 PM · Consider the Scott Cao instruments. He has them in the OP's price range.
20 years ago I helped family members select a violin for their violist son as a high-school graduation gift. There requirement was that the violin, bow and case should cost no more than $1,400 (remember this was 20 years ago).

I did a one-day tour of the San Francisco Bay Area. Checking out the Jay-Haide violins in that price category first, in Berkeley at that time (that was MY fiddle shop). Finding nothing there I went on to Joan Balter's shop (also in Berkeley) and I think I picked up an older French violin in that price range on approval to carry with me. On to Scott Cao's shop (and workshop) just north of San Jose - I played a number of violins and selected and bought (on approval) a Scott Cao (750 or 850 - I can't remember which) "del Jesu Guarnerius" model with case and bow as better than the Balter fiddle. (I also played a cheap ($1,000) Scott Cao cello - first with the cheap bow he handed me and then with a gold-trimmed bow - both "Scott Cao" bows (Oh boy! what a difference between the two bows - the cello was "crap" with the cheap bow but acceptable with the decent bow).

Then further south into San Jose where I tried violins at Stevens VIolin shop (nothing acceptable there) and then to Kamimoto, where I found a 1926 Prague "Czech" violin (siggned "Blazik") that was about equal to the Scott Cao "Guarnerius."
What to do?
I reasoned that the Scott Cao instrument had a better chance to mature so I skipped the the "Blazik" and finally delivered the Scott Cao violin to the purchasers and returned Joan Balter's violin to her shop.

I subsequently played a violin that Scott Cao had hand made during the intermission of an orchestra rehearsal (really good fiddle!). They were selling for about $10,000 back then.

Final surprise. A few years later a former student and very good friend of mine (adult male only a few years younger than I) had stopped by the Kamimoto shop - I must have mentioned that violin to him - and bought the Czech violin and sent it to me as a gift. So I got to play it again - and I also got to play the family member's Scott Cao violin again about 7 years ago - sweet sound - unfortunately the bow I got him was not really up to the task.

A couple of years ago I gave the Czech fiddle to my adult son as a better instrument than the one he he had - but not before my friend had died.

April 8, 2021, 7:14 PM · For a long term investment, even at only 13 y.o., do not get a Viola that is smaller than 15 1/2 inch body length.
Edited: April 8, 2021, 8:00 PM · Lyndon, I agree, if there are nice sounding old German or French violas to be had, that would be great. Couldn't find anything like that when I was looking though, good inexpensive violas seemed few and far between.

I agree with Stephen, I don't think violas are the strength of the Jay Haide lineup; we rented one a while until finding a nice and well-priced Kiernoziak. In the past, folks here have recommended Hiroshi Kono and Sean Peak in this general price range.

April 8, 2021, 8:16 PM · I have good cheap violas under $2000, but they're almost all smaller models, 15 1/2 etc, my Bitterer is 16" though
Edited: April 9, 2021, 11:35 AM · Thanks to everyone for your advice. I sincerely appreciate you all giving me the benefit of your wisdom — I am utterly ignorant on the subject.

I can afford the $3k viola, but it does pinch a little. I want her to enjoy her art and I would love it if she continues to play into college and beyond. The shop offered a 5% discount making it a little under 3k. Plus we have a credit from a prior rental which helps cushion the blow that I would forfeit if I buy somewhere else.

I feel pretty comfortable that this is a quality instrument and I know that she is head over heels in love with it. I want her to be happy. I don’t know if the teacher could be getting commission but I think it’s probably a fair price. I asked them to present some other alternatives to evaluate but I will probably stick with this one. Is it acceptable to haggle the price further or is that usually not done with instruments?


April 9, 2021, 10:55 AM · And review the bow while you're at it. Even a bow of comparable value of what you have now could be better with that instrument. And if improvements cost more, it may be worth discovering how much better you can do in any case.
Edited: April 9, 2021, 11:12 AM · @Lyndon, my teacher has a 15" John Betts, c.1780. If you have one of those for under $2000, I'll buy it.
April 9, 2021, 2:09 PM · I haggled a bit last year when I bought my new viola, bow and case.
April 9, 2021, 3:04 PM · KB - Negotiating price is part of the game.

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