Why are new violins under 5k (or even 10k) so awful?
I understand that student-level instruments don't have everything one could want, but in comparing a modern chinese $4000 student violin to a $4000 Roth from 50 years ago, I feel the Roth is leaps ahead. I assume the Roth was considered a student instrument in its time, and yet it at least has all the characteristics which would enable it to operate as a proper violin. Compare this to a modern student level violin, which has a dull, unresponsive tone with no projection.
And I've noticed this time and time again: every time I play a NEW instrument under 10k (and especially under 5k), it's just awful. I haven't found any exceptions.
Are there any NEW, brand-name violins under 5k, or even 10k that aren't complete garbage?
And, if others feel the same as I do, why is this the case? Why are new student violins so bad?
I have some hypotheses, such as this one: perhaps the influx of self-taught beginners (or ones with bad teachers) with money to burn has leaned the entire sub-$5000 in the direction of "warm (dull), easy-to-play" violins. These always seem to make beginners very happy to play initially, but when put in competent hands they are missing many important things, such as clean response close to the bridge with son file. The entire sounding point range seems to have been moved far away from the bridge, which once again makes beginners pleased because it allows their over-the-fingerboard bows to sound decent.
So, am I right? Has the student-violin industry shifted its aim to comply with the desires of lower-level players? Or has the entire standard of quality just sunk down due to ample demand?
Are there any decent brands in that price range which offer new violins with proper response across all sounding points? Or should I just keep looking in the antique violin category forever?
Because a good violin needs individual hand-crafting. There are some living makers in the UK whose violins can be had for less than £10K (e.g. Christopher and Elspeth Rowe, Philippe Briand) but not many and not by much. In the US I'd commend the William Harris Lee workshop, at least for their violas. That's the sum total of my experience.
Steve, that still doesn't explain why student violins from 50+ years ago were so much better. Roths, for example, were still made in a factory setting.
Regarding the perceived quality of old instruments, it's a survival bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivorship_bias). Old violins in shops are not good because they are old; they get to be old because they are good. Bad violins don't survive more than one or two generations before ending with the ragpicker.
Erik, maybe Roth is exceptional? Not many seem to have been sold over here (I've never seen one I could try out in a dealership or at auction) and in my youth it was always understood that for my first "proper" violin I'd have to go for an antique. After bothering a lot of dealers I came away with a 1920's violin by a superior amateur English maker. Today that would cost in the order of £4-5K and make someone a pretty satisfactory intermediate instrument.
Erik, where are you seeing them? $4000 is kind of a weird price point--much higher than the typical beginner violin but not yet over the hump into a higher quality.
I have had several students find good violins in the $3000 - $5000 range and excellent violins in the $5000 - $10,000 range. I can’t answer your question because it has not been my experience at all.
I was shopping in the sub-$5K price range earlier this year -- and recently resumed doing so -- and that hasn't been my experience either. I'm currently trying to acquire a decent instrument for fiddling -- something that I'm willing to risk outdoors in good weather, but has the projection, color, contrast and response of a decent violin. (I'm playing outdoor competitions, solo, so sound quality matters. Bonus if it pairs well with my JonPaul Avanti bow.)
I have a brand new 3k instrument that sounds wonderful. It deserved a much better bow. And with Obligato strings it's even better.
I have a violin I bought new two years ago for £3500. I really like it, my teacher likes it, and my luthier likes it. I recently spent a very happy afternoon trying violins out at the luthier's up to about £10,000 and didn't find anything better.
This is interesting to hear, because I would have said the exact opposite. The vast majority of good-sounding violins my daughter tried this year (in the $4000-$10,000 range) were actually new(er) instruments. While we found a few good no-name older ones, in general we were finding you got a way better instrument for the dollar if you went with a new maker. I guess the caveat to this is that the primary shop we use has a close association with a school of violin making, and all employers are violin makers. So we likely were seeing instruments from some of the better new, younger makers.
If you haven't already, try looking at the "shop" violins from William Harris Lee (as others have mentioned) and Robertson & Sons in Albuquerque. There are definitely violins under 10K that are quite nice.
My immediate reaction when I read the OP’s comment is that I wonder where he’s looking. Perhaps the shop(s) he’s visiting just don’t have much to offer in that range or don’t do setup and adjustment.
My violin is a German-made, student level violin from the 1950s. Its sound is warm but a bit dull. Almost every modern workshop-range instrument I've played or heard sounds brighter and seems to project more.
Carlos: I do think survival bias is a possibility.
"What you get" is a challenge with violins. I bought a used violin primarily for the Musafia case it came with ($500) but the violin itself is a nice Karl Becker (a Chinese model sold in Chicago and in Asia). I think the person I bought it from paid $1200 for the violin but I've seen the same model listed for 3000 euros. Presumably this is the same instrument with the same setup. Considering how hard it is to tell a good violin from a bad one, I honestly don't know how shops can price violins fairly. I think violins come out of China graded but then what happens to them after that is kind of a mystery. Certainly setup is important, but does change the price $2-3000?
I'm playing viola in a string trio with a teenage violinist. His violin is a relatively new Ming-Jiang Zhu violin that probably cost around $5000 (his parents can afford much more, but they're inclined to be sensible). Likewise I paid $3500 for my MJZ viola several years ago, so in today's dollars that would probably be around $5000, too. I love the sound of the young man's violin and I've received many compliments on the sound of my viola, from professional players. I conclude that MJZ makes a good advanced-student type of instrument.
Oh, yes. I know several major-concerto-level string players who play MJZ workshop instruments priced in the $3k-$6k range. MJZ and Jay Haide L'ancienne instruments seem to be mainstays in high-level amateur circles, and they sound fine playing major concertos.
It's funny that MJZ is mentioned, as that is one of the crappy violins I have in mind. A student bought it while I was on hiatus; his teacher at that time had him order some instruments from Shar and that's what they chose.
I recently bought a new handmade violin for $7500 that I would have easily paid much more for. It definitely deserves a better bow though and I'm planning on starting the search soon. I found it when I returned a trial instrument and he had just finished it. I played a few notes on it and was instantly hooked. It gave me the exact sound I was looking for, but at an affordable price.
A Cao selling for $20k+ will be one of Scott's own handmade instruments that he's done himself, just like any other contemporary single-luthier-made violin.
Thing is, my experience has been the exact opposite: it's the older German violins that sound warm but lack clarity and projection, while the newer violins are brighter and project more.
Interesting that you say that, AndrewH, as my French violin is warm and lacks projection, and I had been assuming that one day I'd find a German violin that would offer a contrast. However, the strings do matter. Recently I've found that Visions sound a lot better on my Breton than Dominants, so I'll be trying Vision Solos next.
About 10 years ago I arrived at a conference having left my violin at home as I'd beeen told it would not be needed, only to find that a violin would be needed. So I went into the Aberystwyth Music Shop and bought a Piacenda for some £200 (perhaps $250). It wasn't as good as my regular violin, but I would not describe it as "so awful". Long term it may need planetary pegs fitted, but that's about it.
Christian Harvey's response above mirrors almost exactly what happened to me 3 years ago today! I walked into the Violin Shop Tampa with no intentions to buy an instrument - only to look. I played on several high-end instruments that ranged in price from $15k to $35k. Then I played on one with no label that just blew me away! Turns out it had been finished a week before by the owner of the shop, Dereck Coons. He kindly accepted my violin as a trade-in and I paid the difference, which was a lot less than what I would have had to pay (or could afford to pay) for a violin of that caliber. I've been a happy violinist ever since!
My experience has also varied from the question stated. I own a Scott Cao 750 David copy which I bought for around $1200 seven years ago. I play it quite regularly, alternating with a modern American instrument from about 20 years ago that is several brackets up.
While not even a qualified amateur player, I have atypical interest in violin for my level of play, tone, appearance, workmanship, age, provenance..., you name it.
Cao is an interesting example. I mentioned them as an aside but they now have a factory line, a Chinese workshop line, and then a US line overseen by Cao himself (but apparently not necessary made by him). It probably works from a marketing and business sense. I guess other lines do this too (Yamaha). I was kind of complaining about this approach, but I guess in some ways it makes sense in helping to steer people towards a set of instruments that match their needs.
I will briefly come out of retirement for this one and maybe a couple of other subjects and then probably disappear again.
As Erik requested, I'm reporting back on what I ended up purchasing.
You can pay $2000 for your Wang, or buy a quality antique from me for much less than retail!!
A variant of survivor bias: probably many of the brand-new instruments that arrive in a shop haven't been set up optimally. And the staffer in charge of getting it ready to sell or rent might not be the best adjuster in town. Give them a few years of small tweaks, string changes, etc., and they stand a chance of being more reliable.
I was going to post a link and forgot:
Nice playing, Lydia!
Lydia, you and the Juzek sound great!
I'd actually extend the price of poor instruments much higher. I won't say how high...
I do not think new instruments are worse than old ones at any price range. There’s just more pouring into the market (old ones are fixed in numbers) and the percentage of acceptable boxes is the same.
Neil and Scott, I've said this before, and I'll say it again.
What something is worth is…what someone will pay for it. If some idiot buys a $30,000 watch, you can’t say it’s really worth $100. If gas was $2.50 last week and $4.50 this week, gas isn’t suddenly “too much.” It’s the price it is.
I've only tried a new instrument once, a violin made by the Snow String Instruments that cost less than 1K. I thought it was pretty good. It was set-up well from what I remember and had a good-sized sound; I didn't have any problems playing closer to the bridge and pulling a larger sound.
50 years from now, new violins won't sound like they do now. I'd bet antique violins sounded like new violins when they were new. Age matters, but many other things matter, too.
For Violins at any price level you still need to shop around. Some low end factory violins come through the assembly line playing a lot better than their price tag, by dumb luck. I have test driven a number of pricey violins with pedigree that I thought sounded ordinary, worn-out. And the Violin needs to match your playing style, the ideal sound that you mentally strive for, which has a lot to do with how you use the bow.
Also, is a $5k violin a status symbol at all? We're talking about workhorse instruments typically used by advanced students, serious amateurs, and some freelancers, not antiques from famous makers. If you're an amateur, I guess you could say it signals the ability to drop $5k on a hobby, but the cost isn't immediately apparent to other people, it's probably being played among other musicians who have instruments of similar quality, and instrument prices tend to only enter conversation when someone in the conversation is either shopping for an instrument or trying to sell one. And almost everyone who is looking to buy a $5k violin is probably well aware of what professional violins cost.
Violinist is your status, currently a high one for reasons that escape me. Any equipment is symbolic of it.
If someone buys your $1k violin for $10k, it’s now worth…
Then count me among the insane. I own a Jeep, and have had three prior. They've all been great.
That's a really cogent and insightful post, Maxham!
Rich, was that teacher ever prosecuted? I feel their name should be publicly known.
Under 5k may be a bit hard but I think there are good very violins under 10k; for example, I have a Holstein Premium copy of the Lord Wilton; made by a single luthier. It's priced at just under 6k with taxes, etc. I also have a new Italian made Sarmiento violin that is worth about the same. Both violins sound better than any new instrument I've ever played under 15k. I did try a large number of violins before settling on the Holstein though.
Absolute monetary value is impossible to determine, but can be estimated by an experienced appraiser. The fair market value of any goods and services is defined as the price negotiated by a knowledgeable buyer and knowledgeable seller in a free market environment, without government distortion. Most young violin students and their parents are naive; they are vulnerable to paying too much.
It might be hard to prove in a court of law that the teacher intentionally deceived their student into buying a 2k instrument for 20k, but that doesn't mean that they should have no social consequences (thus, my request that their name be released).
But what if the instrument was worth $20,000 and its the student that has it wrong??
OK, I think I've found the best way to express it: -
Based on how I'm interpreting Rich's story, it seems that Rich's shop is the one that determined the approximate value of the violin vs the price the student had paid.
Applying the principle of the Internet Razor, the most outrageous and disgusting of the various options is the correct one.
Why can't violin teachers get their kicks by just stealing batteries from 7-11 like the rest of us?
In America, the accused should have a presumption of innocence. As Erik postulated there are several possible truths to this outrageous story.
The customer’s parents bought the violin from the teacher in their home country before coming to the US, so I don’t know the name. When the violin came into the shop, the family had already started to wonder about it a little. My understanding was that they’d been to another shop previously that had simply told them they wouldn’t touch the violin but didn’t offer an explanation. It came unlabeled with no appraisal or certificate and had been sold to them directly by the teacher. The way they described it, the teacher was well known in their city and would often sell instruments to his students. They said that they never dared to question anything, partly because they trusted the teacher, partly because they were worried that it would bring dishonor on them to question the teacher.
@ Rich thanks for providing clarity. It seems quite despicable indeed. As always, Caveat Emptor.
Greed kills. Hate when teachers take advantage of their students and parents that have been supporting him/her all that time.
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