How To Choose A ViolinOne of the most common beliefs in choosing a violin is that the more you pay the better thetone. This is unfortunately not true. There are some people who get a fine sounding violin for a small amount of money and there are some who spend a lot of money for a poor sounding violin.
There are many criteria in evaluating a violin. Unfortunately tone is not typically near the top. For the most part here is the list of characteristics of a violin that determine price, in declining order of importance:
The Maker; Country of Origin; Condition; Age; Physical Beauty; Tone; Investment Potential; Size & Arching. Others not necessarily in order are: responsiveness, evenness, arching (flat as opposed to high), wolf tones or lack of them, clarity of tone, correct measurements — particularly for the 4/4 size.
Stradivari made some fine sounding violins, some mediocre sounding violins and some poor sounding violins. A violin is made of wood. Each piece of wood vibrates differently. The spruce top is the sounding board. Spruce is generally considered to the be best material for the sounding board of a string instrument. It is the sounding board for the piano, harpsichord, guitar, lute, etc. Each piece of spruce vibrates differently. In addition to the spruce top, the back, sides, blocks, even the fingerboard vibrate. It is impossible to duplicate this combination of vibrating parts from one instrument to another. Therefore don’t let the name intimidate you when trying a violin. If it doesn’t sound well don’t feel guilty if you don’t hear the magical quality that is supposed to be in there. Over and over I hear the complaint that “I have this Vuillaume, Gagliano or Scarampella, etc. The only problem I have with it is it doesn’t sound well”. I have seen any number of fine violinists trade-in a fine sounding violin for a big name instrument that doesn’t sound. They think there is some sort of magical quality in the expensive violin that just needs some coaxing out, or a new bridge, soundpost, bass bar, etc.
Country of Origin
Most people think the Italian instruments are the best. The Italians have a few advantages here. The violin was invented in Italy and the earliest music for the violin comes from Italy. Also the Italians have rarely gone in for commercialism in violin making like France and Germany, for instance. Chances are if the violin is Italian it was made by one person or if the person had some reputation, by apprentices, assistants or students in a small enterprise supervised by the person whose name is on the violin. “Handmade” is the catchword here as opposed to machines or many hands making the same violin.
With an older violin condition becomes very important. A violin with a lot of cracks and repairs may sound well when it is purchased, but changes in the weather, bumps, lack of humidity or too much humidity can cause structural or tonal probems. Cracks can open, form, the neck can drop, buzzes can occur and endless problems can result from many repairs. I never send a violin to Puerto Rico or Alaska that has any structural repairs because of the extremes in their climates.
There is no question that all things being equal, an old violin will sound better than a new one. With age the wood hardens and becomes more resonant. If the violin has a soft varnish age will make the varnish harden also. However, a new violin is much more preferable to an old violin with many repairs. A good new violin will improve with age. (On the other hand a new violin with plates that are too thin may deteriorate with age). All in all, the condition of an old violin must be weighed with the advantages of the structurally perfect condition of a new violin.
If I line up 5 or 6 violins for a customer to try, the first one he or she usually goes for is the best looking one. Quite often people will zero in on a violin if it is highly flamed or if it has a one piece back. The flaming has little to do with the tone. Even if I ask the person before he or she tries the instruments “does the appearance matter?” and they say “all I want is a beautiful tone” they will gravitate to the best looking instrument. It is difficult to enjoy a meal which may taste great but looks horrible.
There are many modern makers who take great pains to make violins look like an old Italian masterpiece. If there is a connection with the physical beauty and the tone, it has to do with how much time and money the maker has put into the instrument. However, the antiquing doesn’t make the violin sound better. The choice of wood for its beauty as opposed to its acoustical properties will be detrimental to the sound.
There are hundreds of adjectives that describe the tone of a violin: “warm, lyrical, rich, clear, deep, smooth, brilliant, and on and on. The most important one though, is power. A good violin will be loud. Power is measurable in concrete terms. Over and over I ask these hypothetical questions: Why do you think an orchestra has 35 violins and 3 flutes? The answer is the flute produces the power of 10 violins. Have you ever seen a violin drown out a piano? Have you ever seen in a violin concerto, the soloist drowning out the orchestra? Other tonal characteristics are of lesser importance such as evenness, responsiveness and physical comfort, etc.
A violin can never be too loud. It is the only instrument in the orchestra (other than the viola) where the tone comes out of a hole three inches from the left ear and aimed directly at the ear. It sounds much louder to the player than to the audience. A flute blows the tone out away from the players ear, as does the clarinet, trumpet etc. If you have been playing on a violin with a sweet and warm quality under the ear, a violin with a strong tone will make you jump when you first try it. However within one hour you can get used to it and going back to a violin with a soft tone will leave you frustrated.
A good Italian and or French violin with papers from a reputable authenticator can be a good investment. In the past 50 years or so the prices on these instruments have increased dramatically. However, if you are a player trying to make a career a violin that has the type of tone that you want should outweigh the investment potential. For a collector or an amateur this might not be the case. I tell customers that after you play a recital and nobody can hear you you can’t turn to the audience and say “but the violin has great investment potential”!!!
Size and Arching
Correct measurements are very important. Sticking to standard measurements will help greatly, particularly for intonation if you play on more than one violin. (For instance you have one violin for solo work and another for teaching, playing outdoors, etc.) Most people don’t like high arching as a violin with high arching will tend to have a nasal quality and not produce the power of a good violin with relatively flat arching.
It is very important to deal with a violin shop as opposed to a store that sells other musical items such as flutes, guitars, keyboards, etc. Bowed string instruments need people with specialized training and focus who can do proper set-ups, select the best strings for the individual instrument, and generally maximize a stringed instrument’s potential. An expensive instrument can sound and behave as badly as a student instrument if it is not properly set-up. Since a violin shop is so specialized most string players in a particular city will usually know about and recommend the best shops.
Frequently Asked Questions
Should a violin teacher help students pick a violin?
A teacher’s input can be very helpful in selecting a violin, particularly if the teacher is a good player. Sound can be very subjective and the student should have the benefit of a good ear for sound from the teacher.
It is important, however, to make sure the teacher can be objective in the selection. There are occasions where the teacher is getting a commission from the dealer or shop. Since the teacher is spending a lot of time in the decision process he or she should be compensated. However, if there is a choice for instance between a couple of violins, one from a shop where the teacher gets a commission and another from a shop that doesn’t give commissions, it is important that the best violin is recommended. This can be a very awkward situation.
What is the price range for an intermediate or advanced instrument?
For a reasonably serious student to professional the range is likely to be between approximately $1000 – $4000. Depending on your situation it may be better to start from the other side of the equation: how much can you spend? Then, look for the best sounding instrument in good condition in that range. Violin making is a very inexact science. There are many fine expensive violins that don’t sound well and there are many inexpensive violins that do sound well. You need to pick up as many as you can and play them.
When should I rent instead of buy or vise versa?
It is a good idea to rent if the person playing is a beginner. This gives you the flexibility of getting rid of the violin if there isn’t progress. However, most rental instruments are of the most basic quality, which means they don’t have a great sound and may not be as “playable” as a higher quality instrument. There is always a dilemma here. Ideally you should rent a violin long enough to evaluate whether there is a true interest in learning and playing the instrument. When an adequate level of seriousness is evidenced, invest in the best instrument you can afford at the next level. (The “next level” is a very broad place.) A playable, good sounding instrument makes practicing much more pleasurable and will increase progress. Common sense is important here – the most gifted child might not yet be responsible enough to be trusted with a very expensive instrument. But a discerning student at any age will appreciate the differences between a cheap starter instrument and a better one. If the student is committed, the time to upgrade is at the point the when the musician can tell the difference. Many shops give you credit for a certain amount of money in the rental and will apply it to the purchase of either that instrument or a better one.
Making stringed instruments is both an art and a science. Selecting one is similar. Some of your considerations should be logical: is the instrument in good repair? Will it hold or increase its value? Is it “playable” for me? But you also have to use your emotions and artistic judgement: does this instrument delight me? Can I make it sing? Does it give me chills? You’re going to spend a lot of time with this instrument, whatever you pay for it, so evaluate it on as many levels as you can.
Good luck – by Peter Zarat
(1) HANDMADE vs FACTORY-MADE - Handmade violin generally has proper set-up and produces better sound than a factory-made one. Consequently, it encourages the student to play and practice. We recommend handmade instrument as long as it is within budget constraint. The logic being if you want your child to learn a skill, give him or her a better quality tool. Handmade traditionally refers to the violin being handcrafted by one single luthier from the beginning till the end. Some dealers have referred to violins make on mass production as handmade. Although technically correct to refer them as handmade because they are made by hand, the violin is actually the work of several persons instead of one,
(2)CONDITION OF VIOLIN – Usually, the first thing the parents do is to look at the prices of the violin. Then they (and the child) look for new, shiny instruments free of scratches. The cheaper factory-made instruments are usually of inferior construction with no “set-up”.
(3)“SET-UP” – “Set-up” refers to the preparation, proper shaping and setting of the followings: Tuning Pegs; Top Nut; Fingerboard; Bridge; Tailpiece; Saddle; End Pin; Chinrest.
(4)VIOLIN WOOD &VARNISH – Contrary to popular belief, the beautiful tiger stripe wood of the back of a violin contributes little to the sound of a violin. The quality of the wood of the top plate, which was usually made of spruce, is more important to the violin tone. The finest toned Italian violins have very straight medium grained spruce free of defects. Most violin wood is aged several years to avoid warping in fit of top plate to ribs. There are two types of varnish – spirit and oil varnish. Some believes that a soft oil varnish is best. However, this is debatable.
(5)CORNER BLOCKS & PURFLING – Four corner blocks in the violin indicate an upper grade of workmanship and the bass bar is a separate piece specially-made and glued to the underside of the top instead of being just a thickener part of the top wood. The purfling made of three strips made of wood, well inlaid and perfectly mitered into the corner is a good indicator of a fine violin. Some very cheap violins have fake purfling lines “painted” on. If you can see the wood grain continue through the purfling, it is not inlaid but, rather, painted on. When buying a violin online, if there are no clear photos on the listing showing such details, try to get them. It pays to ask questions when purchasing a violin from an eBay seller.
(6)FINGERBOARD, PEGS & TAILPIECE - These should be made of Ebony, Rosewood or other hardwood. Cheap instruments generally have a ebonised (just painted black) fingerboard and pegs because of inferior wood.