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The Art of Purchasing a Violin

Buying a new violin can often be a confusing and terrifying experience, almost as if one is entering into a new relationship. A violin shop may thrust all sorts of violins upon you and in the process you may feel as if you do not even know what you want or need in a new violin. Whether this is your first time buying a violin or you are looking for an upgrade, doing your research before you enter the shop will aide you in creating a more productive shopping session.

It is useful to have an elementary knowledge of the composition of the violin before you look for a new violin. The violin is a combination of around seventy different parts. It is composed of two arched plates of wood that are connected by “ribs.” The top of a violin and the sound post is usually composed of spruce wood. The back, neck, bridge and the ribs of the violin are made of maple wood. The fingerboard is usually made of ebony wood, since it needs to be durable to withstand the constant wear of the fingers. The pegs are made of usually ebony, boxwood or rosewood.

It is also important to use the right size of violin. Violins come in nine sizes, but the most common are full size (23 inches) three quarters (22 inches) and half size (20 inches). If in doubt, a seller at a shop can assist you to find the correct instrument for you.

If you are a new violinist, there are a variety of fairly good student violins that are currently available in the market. Student violins usually cost around $100-$800. Many times violins will be made partly by hand and partly by machine. If this is your first violin, it may be a good option for you.

As you look for a new violin, make sure that you are getting an instrument with actual wood. This will make a tremendous difference in sound. Many online stores offer “cheap” violins online, which are often made from plastic. The sound will consequently have a very thin, “tin” quality and will quickly become frustrating to play. Unless the violin shop is a credited shop, purchasing a violin online can be a dangerous venture. It is highly recommended to go to a violin shop or a luthier shop. A luthier is someone who makes or repairs string instruments. In addition to checking the quality of the violin, check to make sure that the tailpiece and chin rest are wood not plastic.

If you are looking for a new violin to replace your current one, there are new issues you must work through. Like any past relationships, you will undoubtedly compare the new violin to your old violin. Be careful not to fall into the trap of comparing what is comfortable for you to what is actually better. Also beware of the feeling that because something that is new that it is better than what you have. It is important to be objective when you try out the instruments.

Before you go...

... consider the following options for your purchase:

(1) It is good to have in mind the price range you are willing to pay before you go to a luthier shop. In trying out instruments, it is most beneficial to only try the violins in your price range, or you may become discouraged or fall in love with a violin that is unavailable to you.

(2) What kind of sound are you looking for in a violin? Are you looking for a sound that is bright or something that is dark and mellow? Will you be using this violin mostly for solo work or orchestral work? These are important questions that you should consider before you enter the luthier shop.

(3) If you have someone who has a musical ear, it may be beneficial to have them come along to help keep notes on which instruments you particularly like.

(4) Most importantly, BRING YOUR OWN BOW. A bow changes the quality of sound in a violin so much that you need to make sure you are actually testing out the violin and not the bow. You should also bring your own bow so you have a level of comfort when you try a new violin.

Price Variations

Antonio Stradivarius

Violins have many different aspects on why they are priced a certain way, but the two main reasons are the condition of the violin and most importantly, the maker. Make sure that you get a violin in good condition! Sometimes people can fall into the trap of buying an old violin that needs work done, only to find that the actual repairs cost more than the violin itself.

There are many different schools of violin making and each luthier has their unique quality, but there are some generalizations about instruments depending on their country of origin that are good guidelines. Undoubtedly, the most famous luthier of all time, Antonio Stradivarius (1644-1737), put Italy, especially Cremona, Italy on the world map in terms of violin making. Today, Italian violins are usually the most expensive violins. The violins are able to project well. The second most expensive violins are the French violins. Violinist love to play French violins! The French did not make beginner violins, so the majority of the old French violins are of a high quality. The sound is sweet and has a bright quality to it. Germany has an extended tradition of making violins. Ranking in at the third most expensive violin, they often have a dark and bold sound. There are a large quantity of German student and intermediate violins on the market.

Since the 1970’s, the United States has been having a real peak in quality violin making. There are not large factories producing instruments, so most American violins are handmade and are much more individualistic than other countries. American luthiers are using technology to understand and create violins in the tradition of the old Italian masters.

Lately, good Chinese student violins have become available on the market. Many Chinese violins use wood from Europe and are described as having a brighter sound. However, many people complain that they lack a variety of dimension to the sound. It is important to remember that these are all generalizations, and individual violins can differ wildly from the stereotypes.

At the String Shop

You should plan on a couple of hours to visit a violin shop. Though many people in the shop can be helpful, remember that ultimately they are there to sell a violin. Keep that in mind as you are offered many different violins. Just because a violin is priced higher does not necessarily mean it is a better violin!

Start by examining the violin. Visibly, there should be no cracks on the violin. The pegs should turn easily. Check to see if you can see the sound post.

Do not start with your flashy concerto or caprice! You are not there to impress the luthier or violin seller but to find your next partner. Listen to the open strings. What is the response time? Is there an even tone across the violin? You are not there to see if you can play a piece on the violin, but to see what the violin can do. Next play pieces or scales that involve the entire register of the violin. What is the blend like for the violin?

Once you have narrowed it down to three or four instruments, it can be very helpful to start doing blind tests of the instrument. You can really narrow down the instrument by sound then, and not be swayed by the physical beauty of the instrument. Try the violin in different rooms, for example one with hardwood floors and one with carpet. How much does the violin sound quality change? Shop keepers often give you a room to play in that is very acoustically “boomy.” Make sure you know the real projection capacity of your violin, not the show room you are given to try out your violin.

Many shops have policies that let you check out a violin for a certain period of time. Buying a violin is not something that someone does in one day, but it takes a period of time to decide. It is good to test a violin over a period of time before you make a financial investment. Do not be frustrated if it takes you a long time to find a string instrument! Sometimes it can take people years to find the right instrument. But the time spent carefully looking is always worth it when one finds their musical partner.


About the Author:

Sophie Genevieve is an American violinist, earning her master’s degree in Baroque violin at the Royal Academy of Music, London and a master's degree in modern violin from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London. In addition to her UK studies, Ms. Genevieve studied at the Starling-Delay Symposium at the Juilliard School of Music in NYC and l’Académie du Domaine Forget in Québec, Canada. She has appeared in various concerts, including a performance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelle (Brussels, Belgium), a four-violin concerto solo with Laurence Cummings at the Duke’s Hall (London), and a concerto on a Landolfi violin on loan from the National Music Museum (USA), Royal Festival Hall (London), Wigmore Hall (London), St. Martin-in-the-Fields (London), Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles (Brussels, Belgium), Holland Performing Arts Center (Omaha), le Salle Françoys-Bernier (Québec), and the Kennedy Center (Washington D.C.). In London, she was part of the celebrated Kohn Foundation Bach Cantata Series, which is highly reviewed by the London Times. She appeared live on the radio internationally, including on the BBC (UK) and on KVNO (Omaha). Sophie was a founding member of the Keats String Quartet in London, which performed extensively across the UK and frequently at Cambridge University, accompanying various Cambridge college choirs. She was a member of the early music group, Risonanti, which was the only ensemble in the United Kingdom to perform early Italian music solely at high pitch (A=465). Due to the technical demands and historical integrity of the music, Risonanti’s repertoire included many manuscripts that have not been performed for hundreds of years. Ms. Genevieve also enjoys playing the viola and trumpet.

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