Where can a mediocre player go to try world-class violins?

October 5, 2022, 2:40 AM · I've always wanted to try some historical instruments, such as a strad (partially just to gain a better understanding of sound in general, and partially out of the desire to experience something special). Where could a mediocre player like myself be allowed to try instruments like this?

I see that the Chimei Museum in Taiwan has a pretty outstanding collection. Do you think they'd let me play their violins?

(bonus points if you can think of something closer to me than Taiwan...I'm in California).

Replies (37)

Edited: October 5, 2022, 3:31 AM · Just visit a top violin shop in California? Being from Europe I don't know what these are but they should have some top instruments, both modern and antique. Isn't it as simple as that?
Edited: October 5, 2022, 3:30 AM · Where indeed? I wouldn't have the chutzpah to blag my way into J&A Beare's in London. But you can appreciate their policy of barring entrance to bums, when there are so many of us who'd like to do exactly the same as you.

But London Tarisio have great auditioning facilities that I'm looking forward to sampling again.

October 5, 2022, 3:52 AM · Jean, are you under the impression that a typical top violin shop has strads just sitting around?
Edited: October 5, 2022, 4:24 AM · Erik, how many Strads in playable condition do you think are sitting around in museums waiting for someone to come in off the street and play them? There is one near here - the Messiah in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum - but I don't think the curators would be very receptive.
Edited: October 5, 2022, 4:54 AM · I play £30,000+ ones all the time at auctions (and I don't tend to be all that impressed).
October 5, 2022, 6:08 AM · Further to Steve’s point about the Ashmolean Museum, Spain’s Patrimonio Nacional holds four or five Strads. People do get a chance to play them...if they are members of top flight string quartets.
October 5, 2022, 7:05 AM · The Contemporary Violin and Bow Expo happening Nov 5-7 in NYC. Usually some of the better contemporary makers....
Not Strads of course...
But they are all out on tables to play...
October 5, 2022, 7:23 AM · Years ago I was email communicating with someone who had been given access to play the violins in the Library of Congress collection in Washington, DC. Try that!
Edited: October 5, 2022, 7:32 AM · Reuning and Son, Boston

Also, VSA is in CA this year, not sure if there is an opportunity to play violins in their competition, but the gold medalists would be fun to try....

October 5, 2022, 8:21 AM · They're not exactly Strads, but my daughter got to try a couple of million dollar violins because her instructor had access to them. I don't expect this to happen with any kind of frequency, though. If you know someone who might know someone, that's probably a good route to try.
October 5, 2022, 8:43 AM · Matthew, we went up to Boston a while back to try modern maker instruments and went to Reuning to check out to really nice cellos by Robin Aitchison and a Nathan Slobodkin. After playing those, the several hundred thousand dollar instruments started coming out unexpectedly. What a visit, and even though we were not in the market for something like that, they treated us as well as if we were. One of our best shopping experiences ever. Kudos to Carriage House as well for rolling out the red carpet and a really good experience.
October 5, 2022, 8:48 AM · Dealers seem to like that. I was in Bein & Fushi (post-Bein) trying a few modern instruments, and they brought out one that was probably a Guarneri Filius Andreae. I'm more of a Strad guy, but this was like sexual chocolate.
October 5, 2022, 9:46 AM · If you seem remotely legitimate and serious (and don’t talk about how you can only afford a $500 violin), most shops will let you try their best violins. It’s in their interest to plant that seed of lust for an expensive instrument. It can pay big returns for them later.
October 5, 2022, 11:28 AM · I can't imagine the charity of any person or organization rich enough to own a "world class" violin would extend to allowing all-and-sundry to have a go on it. Would a world class football club let in a bunch of lads to test the turf and the atmosphere of their ground with a kick-about? No, unless you have exalted acquaintances the best violins you're likely to get your hands on are those up for sale, and even those are unlikely to be of the very top tier.
October 5, 2022, 11:46 AM · Steve, it depends on if one of the lads' fathers is an oligarch.
October 5, 2022, 2:04 PM · Steve, I once got to try a Strad when a local shop had it in its possession for an afternoon. Word spread very quickly among the professional community here and there was a parade of people coming by to play on it.
Edited: October 5, 2022, 2:53 PM · What are your memories and impressions of the experience, Mary Ellen?
October 5, 2022, 2:54 PM · 30 Years ago I was at a professional meeting in the Hyatt Regency on Wacker in Downtown Chicago. I was just finishing my PhD. I went to the fine arts building and up to Bein and Fushi where I met a very nice man named Bruno Price. I told him why I was in town. Mr Price pulled out the most beautiful Amati and a 1693 Strad for me. Bruno told me not to worry and that guys like me come back after a decade or two and purchase nice instruments all the time: They were one of the cornerstones of the business. A few years later I went to a bowmaker in the same building to get a rehair. I played a Lamy bow that a member of the CSO was offering for sale. It was the finest bow I ever played (when I got home my wife told me I should have bought it). 10 years ago, I was at Seman violins... they handed me a Bergonzi and a Pecatte bow. Be polite and ask to be educated, its remarkable what that will do in a nice shop.
October 5, 2022, 3:18 PM · Well, my first post here after years of reading... I am located in Germany and could try a Strad by chance. I was simply there at the right place at the right time. A restorer's renowned client offered me to try her Strad after making some jokes and having a nice conversation. That instrument is a sports car and behaves like one...

By chance, I was also lucky to try some other violins by "less-renowned" high-profile makers, such as Bergonzi, Landolfi, and Vuillaume. But my subjective impression was mixed, as some were really nice and others were just a pain - at least for me (the Bergonzi). Ultimately, it's the player who creates the magic....

October 5, 2022, 3:24 PM · I have indeed tried nice violins at the closest major shop (a multitude of times), but the highest-tier instrument that was ever available was a Vuillaume (which I really loved, actually).

Andrew, I will try contacting the Library of Congress!

October 5, 2022, 4:12 PM · I had never played a cello but when I visited the shop that I had bought my French luthier violin and then traded up to a Canadian one (yes, very easy to do), I had the impulse to try a cello. They sat me down and passed one - on which I scraped out a couple of newbie notes (actually it was a bit better than that since the action of the bow is transferrable from violin to any bowed string instrument).

They then told me the cello was a $300,000+ Vuillaume. So yes, it IS possible for a regular person to play a top flight instrument - even a beginner!

October 5, 2022, 8:08 PM · Richard, my strongest impression was how amazing the sound was and how little effort was required on my part to produce it. I think the sports car analogy is good - there is immediate responsiveness but you must have the technique to adjust to it.
October 6, 2022, 1:29 AM · I did get to extract a few notes from a Strad once, on loan to the second violinist in the Chilingirian Quartet. Unfortunately he'd just replaced the A-string and I didn't dare twist the peg to get it in tune, so I haven't a clue how it really played.

Apparently they don't all give up their best easily, according to another quartet player who told me she really didn't get on with the one she was loaned.

October 6, 2022, 2:43 AM · That's a great analogy, Mary Ellen. Great violins have great reserves of power. Thanks for replying!
Edited: October 6, 2022, 5:06 AM · When I told my luthier my top budget would probably only ever be 5k and I might be interested in something German, he said he had an Italian violin for 20k (let's assume it was worth 200K in the USA). At the time I didn't realise he was about to retire due to ill health and I thought he was a bit crazy. Now I regret that I didn't play that Italian violin. He'd have let me. What the hell is a world-class violin? Anything you can't afford? Just go to a showroom and pretend you've got the money. Obligation to buy is hardly going to come into it.
Strads aren't necessarily world-class violins - they are investment freakshows. What if you played Nicola Benedetti's and couldn't handle its two wolf-notes and were disappointed? DuPre's first Strad cello was an early one made when all cellos did was oompah, oompah (I'm paraphrasing a book I read), so it had bass but didn't sing. Would we gain much from playing that one? A friend has a Markneukirchen cello in his loft. I'd be happy to play that.

There's probably a flip side to sour-grapes - morbid fascination with what we can't have. I wonder what it is called.

Yeah, I'm being churlish. The OP wants to know what it feels like to play the "best" violin. I don't blame him. Otoh, you have to be a good enough violinist to get something from the experience. I'd rather progress as far as possible on what I've got than stagnate on better hardware.

October 6, 2022, 9:17 AM · Good hardware can teach you to play better by showing you what happens when you get it right. Stagnation is not the default setting.
October 6, 2022, 8:59 PM · This summer, driving around, I saw signs where you could drive a tank or humvee for $100. I also saw a neighbor's kid rent a porsche for a day. Some enterprising entrepreneur should have a thing where you can play a strad for $100 for 15 minutes.
October 6, 2022, 10:54 PM · J Seitz, I have had that EXACT idea before. I don't know if there are enough musicians in a local area to make it worthwhile, though.

You'd want at least a 15% annual return, so a 10 million dollar strad should get you 1.5 million a year, which is about $4000 a day.

So 40 people would have to "rent" it per day. 40x15=600 minutes, so that's 10 hours straight a day of people renting it.

Insurance would probably add another 30k a year to expenses, as well.

I think the only way to make it work like that would be a traveling show. You'd fly to an area, and each day people would flock to you to try your strad. Maybe rich people would bring their kids (but not TOO rich, otherwise they'd already have their own).

Meanwhile, the strad is still increasing in value every year.

Edited: October 7, 2022, 1:09 AM · ...until a protester decides it's a symbol of elitism, imperialism, racism, cultural supremacism or whatever and sees a great opportunity to buy some publicity. Add a zero and more to the insurance.
October 7, 2022, 2:54 AM · There's also the aspect - no Strad is as original.
All there is is more or less recently fettled strads.
So a world class violin involves some old wood and some modern fettling.
With which will you be most concerned, and what would be the best source of that experience?
October 7, 2022, 3:37 AM · I'm happy to play either, honestly.
October 7, 2022, 3:43 AM · A strad might be too hard to pull off, but probably it would be feasible for a 500,000 or million dollar violin. What famous-ish violin, relatively sturdy, could they get in the half million and above range. That would still be pretty fun.
October 7, 2022, 1:17 PM · "Good hardware can teach you to play better by showing you what happens when you get it right."

And when you get it wrong. When my daughter played the expensive violins, the good sounded AMAZING. The not as good sounded terrible. There was an incredible amount of feedback that the violin gave her, which her VSO is incapable of doing. It certainly incentivized her to become considerably more picky than she had been.

October 7, 2022, 2:40 PM · J Seitz, Stradivarius is the only name that pretty much everyone knows, regardless of whether or not they're a musician. Not even Guarneri can claim that. I think that even regular people might pay a little bit to handle a "real stradivarius", but I can't say the same for something like a Guadagnini.

Sue, my favorite violins are the ones that punish me for not doing things right. In many ways, my current violin is like this, and I'd say it's made me a much better player in the few years I've had it.

Edited: November 1, 2022, 1:18 PM ·
I have a humorous (to me) story about playing a fine instrument.

I had it in mind to join a university chamber orchestra, when I was a statistics graduate student. I was on my way to the car from class, when I saw the orchestra's leader and approached him.

He suggested that I come up right then and audition. When I mentioned that I didn't have my violin with me, he responded that I could play his.

So, off we went to his office, which was nearby. I got the violin and bow from his case and played a bit of the Spring Sonata, and in a couple of minutes, he was satisfied with my playing and let me join.

But while I was playing, I could tell that he had a nice violin. Especially the E string. The G, D, and A string sounded kind of so-so, but that E string was quite nice.

Naturally I asked, this is a nice violin; what is it? He responded that it was a Gernari, pronouncing the G like one might pronounce the letter J. I'd never heard of that maker, so I off-handedly returned the instrument and bow to him and left.

I made my way to the parking lot, and I happened to see a friend there who had graduated from the vocal department. I mentioned that I had just auditioned with the leader (by name). "Oh," he said. "Did you know that he owns a Guarnari?" I just about fell over.

In fact, I had just played a del Gesu and didn't realize it. I later heard the leader play one of the Mendelsohn Trios in a large lounge area, and it was an amazing performance. (I had a front row seat.) What an incredibly beautiful sounding instrument.

What's interesting, is the fact that I was unaware of what I was playing. I can still hear that violin under my chin. All be it briefly, I feel that I have a particularly undistorted perception of what it's like to play such a fine instrument.

Edited: November 1, 2022, 3:21 PM · What I call a Carlos Kleiber moment.

One sundown, I was passing through Boston with the radio on. The Fledermaus Overture came on, and I was curious who was performing. Decades ago, there was a show at around that time called Evening at Pops, with an hour of mostly Fiedler motoring through his list of revenue-generators. Of course, there were moments early on when he was in better shape, or else let Koussevitzky's orchestra just do its thing and results were better than expected.

That seemed to be the case here, in spades. The rubato was surprisingly subtle, well-considered, and everywhere. And the string tone wasn't the BSO's usual French silkiness, but warmer and sweeter. Really a remarkable performance. And miles beyond anything I would have expected Fiedler and the Pops to have cranked out. Did I need to revisit my opinion of that ensemble?

Of course, it was Kleiber/VPO/1989. I already knew that was one of the great recordings of anything. But I did get an unbiased second listen to it.

Now, if you'd tried the del Gesu thinking it was a Japanese copy factory instrument, that would have been interesting!

November 1, 2022, 5:09 PM · If anyone is in London in December, there's a concert with Janine Jansen where all the instruments are Strads, part of the inaugural Beare's International Chamber Music Festival.

I won't get to play any of them, but I believe it will be a rare privilege to hear them at this concert.

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