By Caeli Smith | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
The day’s arrived: you’re ready to buy yourself a violin. You’ve always wanted an instrument of your own—maybe to play for pleasure at home, or to take lessons and perform with a community orchestra. Or maybe you played as a kid, but life got in the way and you had to stop. Finally, you have the time (and the money) to invest in an instrument that makes your heart sing.
So… how do you get started?
Entering a violin shop full of beautiful instruments is like walking into a candy store—exciting and overwhelming. When it comes to buying a violin, adult music lovers can be more sophisticated than your average student shopper. Still, the process may feel daunting. I asked two top instrument dealers how they would advise an adult amateur looking to buy.
As aspiring violin owners might be intimidated by the idea of shop etiquette, I ask Fred Oster of Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia what a prospective buyer should know before walking into a shop for the first time. “Don’t be put off if you’re asked to make an appointment,” says Oster. “Before a customer arrives, some thought and preparation are required to organize a selection of instruments that suit what the player has described, and to have them set out, tuned, and ready to try.”
“Be prepared to spend at least an hour at the shop,” says Julie Reed-Yeboah, owner of Reed Yeboah Fine Violins in New York City. “We choose a selection based on a customer’s budget and any other information they give us. They’ll start with four or five instruments on the table.” She also recommends that shoppers take notes on the instruments to learn what they like and what they don’t like. “It’s also useful to go to a shop where someone on staff can play the instrument for them, so they can hear it from another perspective.”
- Start with a budget in mind.
- Be ready to take some extra time to find an instrument you really love (which might mean visiting several different shops).
- Learn how to take care of your instrument the way it deserves.
Reed-Yeboah, whose shop offers full-service repairs, says that finding a shop with a workshop and repair staff is critical. “We teach players how to take care of their instruments. Good maintenance translates into good resale value—and it’s more enjoyable to play a well-maintained instrument.”
Savvy shoppers usually feel compelled to gather many experiences before committing to a serious purchase. I asked Oster whether it was worth visiting different sellers before making a decision.
You need to have a clear idea of what you want, and that might evolve through the process of trying different instruments.
“You’re looking for the instrument that best meets your needs and desires,” he says. “Of course, that means you need to have a clear idea of what you want, and that might evolve through the process of trying different instruments.
“If a customer already has an instrument, but is looking for something different, that’s a great starting point,” says Oster, who is a regular appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. “We want to help them find the instrument that has all the qualities of their current instrument, with characteristics they’ve been missing. One of our greatest rewards is when a musician sees us months or years after buying a violin and tells us how much the instrument has added to the way they play. You might find that very instrument in the first store you visit—but it might also take some time to fully realize what you need.”
When it comes to violin shopping, one of the biggest questions all customers will have is about the price. If you want a beautiful sound without breaking the bank, what should you expect to spend?
Oster says it’s hard to find much of quality under $900 or $1,000. “Think about it in raw terms alone,” he says. “The materials cost something, and the work to make it costs something. If you don’t use good materials or good work, you won’t have a good instrument.”
“There are quite a few really good makers in the $10,000–$20,000 price range,” says Reed-Yeboah. But keep an open mind, she adds: “There could also be something that costs half as much and sounds just as good.”
Many of my own adult amateur students have asked me to give it to them straight: “I can barely make a sound yet,” they say. “How much difference will it make to get a nice violin? Is it worth it?”
Oster confirms that the violin is only half of the partnership. “For a total beginner, practice, experience, and the improvement of technique and ability are probably worth more than any difference in violin prices,” he says. “When it comes to a violin for someone who’s just starting out, it’s most important that the instrument be well made, in good condition, and well set-up. You need something that will facilitate all the work you put in to improve, as well as an instrument that sounds good enough to give you some reward for all of that hard work.”
“Some of the higher-priced instruments have a lot more body and character to them,” says Reed-Yeboah. “Often, there is more color and depth to a finer instrument. When you set a budget, explore both the higher end and the lower end.”
Unless you’re into names, you may find something you love by a lesser-known maker. “With modern instruments, price is based on whatever the maker is asking for,” explains Reed-Yeboah. “If the maker is in their golden period, they might be asking for a much higher price because they’re established. It’s like buying a brand.”
Reed-Yeboah also warns that re-selling isn’t always easy. “Look for something that’s going to carry you for five to ten years. Don’t go for the least expensive instrument, assuming that you’re going to be able to sell it again in two years.” Most shops will re-sell what they’ve sold you, on a consignment basis, but owners may lose if it’s a quick turnaround.
Of course, the violin doesn’t make a lot of sound by itself. Is the bow just an afterthought? “We advise to first choose a violin, then to find the bow that works best with it,” says Oster. “If you have some experience with a particular bow, even if it’s not that great, use that bow to try new violins. If you try comparing violins and bows at the same time, there are just too many variables involved to make a good comparison to what you’ve been accustomed to.”
“Even great bows don’t work on every violin,” says Reed-Yeboah. “It’s a very personal thing, and a bow can make a huge difference.”
I asked both experts what can be expected when it comes to maintenance. “Think of it like a teeth cleaning,” says Reed-Yeboah. “Come in every six months.” This is important because it aligns with seasonal changes in humidity—usually in the spring and the late fall. Many shops offer free general maintenance for the first year after purchase. After that, you should plan to spend a couple hundred dollars on maintenance every year.
Oster adds, “The best maintenance begins with the care that a musician gives their instrument. If you don’t take care of the violin, expect to spend more on an annual basis for maintenance. Of course, even those who are meticulous about their instrument may still have a loose seam during dry weather.”
I asked Oster for advice on additional equipment like strings. “There are some good strings available today for beginners that are very reasonably priced,” he says. “We’ve been especially fond of the Thomastik-Infeld Alphayue strings for people who are just starting with the violin. Other strings that work well for students but are still affordable include Dominants and Visions.”
And then, there’s comfort. “A Kun rest is a good place to start if you like to play with a shoulder rest,” says Oster. “Ask the shop you are working with to help you select a combination of shoulder and chin rests that are comfortable for you.”
What about a case? Oster says, “We always recommend a sturdy case to protect the instrument. That doesn’t necessarily mean an especially heavy or an expensive case. Conversely, we recommend against cases that are made with styrofoam-only shells. They’re super light but crush easily and the fittings tend to pull out easily.”
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Cellos series gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.