A symphony violinist/music teacher/ violin shop owner sheds light on the delicate issue of purchasing a violin or other stringed instrument
by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio
It seems the greatest challenge at the onset of my student’s violin studies isn’t producing a clear tone or learning Twinkle Twinkle. For most players, the hassle of finding a good instrument is most difficult. We’re not born with an “instrument-seeking gene.” Most people don’t even know what size to look for and there is so much money at stake that it's a costly proposition to .
My first 3/4-size violin was a plain but overpriced student outfit. Sadly, my mother and I didn’t know any better and the music store made suckers out of us. Now as a teacher and music shop owner I frequently encounter players who, like myself, were poorly advised on the purchase of an instrument. Thus I'm inspired to shed some light on the delicate issue of buying a violin with hopes to help buyers make good decisions and to gain trust as a seller.
Sometimes the best place to start on the purchase of any instrument is through a teacher or a reliable specialist in your instrument’s field [insert plug for award-winning Fiddleheads.ca, run by a symphony violinist/ teacher].
Even if you plan to teach yourself, it’s still wise to consult a reliable, trusted professional with a strong reputation and high customer reviews on what to look for and avoid in an instrument. Building a trusting relationship with such a person is invaluable as you progress in your playing and invest in higher-level instruments. Some luthiers and violin specialists love to talk shop and are happy to educate those who want to learn.
A teacher or specialist may be able to provide suggestions and tips before you start your search. For instance, prospective violinists should know that bowed string instruments are scaled in various sizes for children ages 2 and up.
It is my professional opinion as a professional musician, seasoned teacher and long-term violin shop owner that the best-qualified person to help choose the instrument should understand both the mechanics of playing and in creating violins [another plug for myself and Fiddleheads...]. Not all players can identify a well-made violin, and not all makers can play a violin to understand the feel.
Unlike the piano, flute, or trumpet, violins are made in a range of sizes depending on the age of the player. A six-year-old could range from playing a 1/8 to a 1/2 size, depending on his/her development. People over the age of twelve typically play a 4/4, or full, size, though I do have a couple if 10-year-olds managing just fine on full sized violins.
Because people come in all shapes and sizes, a teacher is the best judge of what instrument you need and can save you buying the wrong size. But without a teacher to help you, our free violin chart is just as accurate.
Take your instrument search a step further and ask a teacher or specialist to assess a prospective instrument you have located. You may discover, with a player's help, that the Stradivarius copy at the flea market is not worth an inflated Strad price tag. You may not be so interested in that “great deal” when your teacher tells you the needed repairs will cost more than the instrument is worth.
If you must replace the strings, bridge and bow hair or bow, about a $160 investment, you are not any further ahead on a $200 “outfit” (violin, bow, case and rosin as a package deal). Fiddleheads, for instance, discounts the price on the extra items when grouped with a violin as an outfit and also will throw in a book, rosin or other item to thank customers for the business.
That’s another thing: you need to know the lingo. Words like “purfling,” “ribs,” and, believe it or not, “frog,” will spring up in your violin hunt. A few hours researching on the Internet will certainly inform a new buyer. Start by learning the various parts and components of an instrument, and then educate yourself on what is most desirable in an instrument.
For instance, an ebony fingerboard is a better choice over rosewood and a horsehair bow beats out any synthetic hair. Some carbon fibre (fiber) bows play better than wood bows and they are far more resistant to warping and other damage.
No One Ever Regretted Buying Quality
Having a quality instrument is tremendously important and often overlooked by beginners. I see players develop more rapidly and enjoy playing far more when they play a superior instrument. Really, if you are to spend hundreds of dollars each year for music lessons (as well as secondary costs, like travel/gas, childcare, etc) it is worth working with the best tool for the job to get the most out of the education.
Unfortunately, as soon as you talk quality, the typical salesman talks price. There are ways to get what you want in an instrument without putting a second mortgage on your house. Maybe that $100 unstrung violin and hairless bow looks shabby, but an expert may see underlying potential and value beneath the dust. Sadly, most buyers are not experts and must rely on the advice of others.
Buy or Rent? New or Used?
If you are concerned you may not take to the instrument, consider renting before making a huge investment. Consider borrowing a violin from a relative until you have saved up for your own.
With low priced student outfits you may save by buying a used instrument instead of the latest new model. The used violin may have a few dings and isn’t “shiny new,” but someone else paid the depreciation and “broke it in.” However, be warned that a used student instrument may need work, new strings and a new bow, which can be like buying new cost-wise.
The “new versus used” issue varies depending on the instrument and price tag. I see benefits and drawbacks in both new and used and always carefully consider the priority, cost or quality, when selecting an instrument for a student.
Most important to buying used or damaged instruments is that you have a repair person you both trust and who does exceptional work for the right price. Too many people claim to be good luthiers but they can wreck a beautiful violin unintentionally. I have seen far more bad luthier work than good and it is getting harder to recommend good luthiers these days.
Commissions and Fishy Deals
Now for some words of caution in your purchase: Realize that many shops pay teachers a commission, typically ten to twenty per cent of the selling price, for sending their students in to buy an instrument. This practice is viewed as highly unethical by myself as well as most other teachers and shops, but unfortunately it continues to occur.
Make sure you're not buying the most expensive violin in the shop just so you can line your teacher's pockets. Feel free to ask if the teacher earns commissions and never let any shop bully you into a purchase. Walk away from a deal if it feels fishy.
Deal with a Player
As for shop owners, again I think it's best to buy from someone who actually plays the instrument at a respectable level (not just scratching the strings). Better yet is a player who understands the subtleties in tone and feel with each instrument in question at a professional level. Many salesmen will insist a violin sounds great, but they aren't even a skilled player, so how would they know?
Also work to locate a dealer who takes the time to understand your needs and help educate you on your options. Take your time until you find a person who invests time into your query and not just a form letter with links. For instance, I spend many hours each day answering emails from interested buyers. This personal attention to each inquiry allows my customers to learn what they seek and to be involved in the process, which results in much personal satisfaction from their experience.
Further, if you are suspicious of the violin's origin ask about where the dealer got it. You'd hate to buy a stolen fiddle, knowing someone was fiddle-less. Even worse, to pay far too much for a junky piece (or even a nice looking instrument) falsely re-labled as a rare antique! Again, I have heard many horror stories from customers and colleagues who were burned by such tactics [read my gruesome article on the subject] and work exceptionally hard to promote honesty in all my dealings.
I Hope this Helps
Heavy topics aside, enjoy the anticipation and thrill of this exciting first step towards making music. Consider this the first of many wonderful steps you will make in your life as a musician.
You are welcome to visit my beloved violin shop or email me and I'd be happy to assist you in purchasing an instrument or accessory or answer any questions you may have. I have earned hundreds of testimonials from elated customers, top reviews on Google and Facebook and am confident I would serve you exceptionally well.
- Ms. Rhiannon Nachbaur