A Guide to Shopping for a Stringed Instrument
In my humble opinion, shopping for instruments, accessories, and bows is second only to getting a new puppy. I think it has much to do with the fact that, as artists, our instruments are more than “things”— they become an extension of ourself. And, as a (generally) handmade item from organic material (wood), no two are exactly the same. Each instrument has its own personality and identity.
With hundreds of options now available online, it can get overwhelming very quickly. How do we find our perfect musical match?
Below are some steps to help guide you:
1A. Find a reputable seller. This bears repeating time and again: STAY AWAY from Amazon and eBay. While these forums are great for everyday consumer goods and an occasional unique item, the biggest problem with purchasing instruments from these sources is that there is no quality control: instruments sold on Amazon and eBay come from individual sellers. Who could be ANYONE. On Amazon, you will frequently see cheap “packages” for $50-100. You get what you pay for. Frequently, these products are imported from China with no quality check. They are poorly made. For example: I once had a student using an Amazon violin (one of those packages), and the violin literally would not produce sound. The top plate would not vibrate at all. Similarly, instruments from eBay can come in any condition. Many instruments are sold by individuals who have no knowledge of the product they are selling and have not maintained the instrument. The instrument may be missing parts, or have significant internal damage that is invisible to the untrained eye, meaning that you would be lucky to have it produce any sound without costly repairs. A reputable seller can guide you in the right direction for your budget and skill level, and you can rest easy knowing that your instrument is quality.
1B. Know your budget. Instrument shopping can be much like wedding dress shopping for car or house shopping). You know when you are in love. You wouldn’t go into a wedding dress store and try on the designer gown, only to fall in love with it it, if it was out of your budget. You would be heartbroken. The same is true for instrument shopping: you do not look at an old Italian golden era violin unless you are planning to spend millions. It is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point. You are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Additionally, know what you will need- is your budget for the instrument alone, or will you need a bow? What about other accessories: a music stand, rosin, a case, a shoulder rest of endpin stop?
1C. Know your skill level (or the level of your student). This can be closely related to your budget. “Student” instruments, or instruments for beginners, are much less expensive than instruments for intermediate/advanced. If you are a student, you are looking for an instrument that can meet you where you are and leave you room for growth. For a more advanced student or professional, the wrong instrument can hold you back. In short, not all instruments are created equal. Because the mechanics of stringed instruments are based in vibrations, a higher quality, thinner, aged wood is going to give you the best sound. A thicker wood is going sound more muffled. This will get the job of learning done for a young beginner, who is just learning how the instrument operates, and is not yet interested in the nuances of sound and playability that a professional wants and needs. For you beginners, it is also worth pointing out that beginner instruments can withstand childhood bumps and bruises, while teaching proper instrument maintenance.
2. PLAY the prospective instruments. This is a crucial step, and one that can often be overwhelming. Once you have found a reputable shop and know the above factors, the shop assistant can point you in the right direction. They will typically select 3 or 4 instruments for you to play first. A basic 2 octave G major scale will do, because all strings are incorporated. Playing the instruments one at a time in succession will allow you to hear and feel the differences in each. Choose your top 2 and ask for a new group. See if any in the new group stand out. Then play the favorites and continue narrowing. It is often helpful in this process to bring a trusted teacher, friend, or family member along to also listen. Additionally, you can ask either a member of your party or the shop assistant to play the instrument for you so that you can hear what the instrument sounds like to the audience. You’d be surprised at the difference in perspective! For comparison purposes, it is important to use the same bow throughout.
If you are a parent purchasing an instrument for a beginner or intermediate student, and you are not able to have the student try out the instrument ahead of time, that’s ok! Speak with the shop assistant. Describe your student’s lessons, including method book and last piece played so that the assistant can get an idea of where your student’s instrument needs fall, and where their progress is going. Many shops have packages that can be tailored to your student’s needs.
But there’s no instrument store in my area!! Not to worry! Many reputable shops shop across the country and will offer you a trial of 2 or 3 violins at a time in your home. Most shops will send a shipping return label, and allow you to try the instrument for a week. This usually provides time for the student to use the instrument in their weekly lesson and have an evaluation with the teacher. Use the same process of elimination, and if you can’t find a good fit, return the instruments and ask for another batch. You only pay for what you keep.
Once you have found your musical match, GO PRACTICE!
...Or how to practice when you are sad. Or angry. Or just generally not feeling it.
For me at least, it's hard to look at, let alone pick up and play, my violin when I am anything other than ecstatic, focused, and ready to work. The problem is, if that goes on long enough, you end up really really... rusty. Your bow feels heavy in your arm, your violin isn't setting on your shoulder the right way, the strings feel tight, and your left hand doesn't seem to remember what to do. Trust me, I have been there. And recently- with a major life change, including moving to a new house, and the recent events in my city, it's been hard to feel ready to make music.
But as musicians, it's our responsibility. Leonard Bernstein put it best: "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."
So how do you do it?
As much as I love classical music now, as and adult and after playing the violin for over 20 years, I have to admit that as a young player, I was...less than enthusiastic. While I was practicing Mozart and Bach over and over, I was envious of my guitar and piano playing friends. It seemed like there was more variety to the music that they were presented, and, more recognizable music. Popular music, even. While the school band played “The Peanuts” suite for an excited audience, the orchestra concerts were always labeled “boring.”
What I didn’t know then was that the violin was much more versatile than I realized. Modeled after the human voice, and meant to fill the part of the soprano, the violin can pretty much do anything that the voice can do. More than that, really, because the violin doesn’t have to breathe. Knowing this opens up a world of additional musical choices. Significantly, playing the violin in a genre other than classical will still require mastery of the same techniques.
Like broadway music but can’t find a solo violin transcription? Use the vocal part. Most vocal/piano books are printed with the vocal line in the treble clef- perfect for the violinist. Further, the vocal line tends to be the melody. These arrangements also work really well for a small recital with a friend at the piano (you won’t need to search the accompaniment part!).
In the age of the internet, pop music isn’t out of reach either. Arrangements are readily available online to watch on YouTube by artists like Lindsey Stirling, Taylor Davis, and Daniel D. They also have arrangements of video game soundtracks. Many of these artists make their versions available to the public with downloadable sheet music on their websites.
Other places to get a variety of music: Hal Leonard publishers puts together books of popular music (pop hits, Disney, artist-specific) with a downloadable background track; websites like Music Notes also provide violin versions of such songs through their app (a note about this- not all songs are available in violin version; I recommend piano/vocal versions or lead sheets in this situation).
The world of music for the violin is vast and diverse. While classical music is certainly enjoyable, it’s nice to branch out every now and again. It’s also a lot of fun to play familiar songs.
As players of stringed instruments, we are always made aware of our origins- of Cremona and the Golden Age, of Bach. Much of the first music we learn is Bach, with our lessons culminating in the great achievement of playing his solo works. In taking the initial steps of preparation for learning Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, and having always been a fan of his violin concertos, I began to wonder, much like others before me, what the music sounded like “as Bach would have heard it.”
Lisa C. Brunner
Violinist, strings teacher, and product-junkie! This is the place for Lisa's thoughts about music, performance, teaching, helpful study tips, and favorite accessories!