"How do I buy a violin, (or fiddle)?"
That question has risen to the top of the fiddle FAQ list, even above "What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle?"
This is an account of how Richard Blackwell, my student, actually purchased a violin.
He had been using a good quality student violin on loan from his sister. He was ready to upgrade to a better quality violin when his sister asked for her violin to be returned.
A violin was already on its way to him from a shop in Philadelphia, when he scheduled an appointment with a violin dealer in Plant City, Florida. Royce Burt, the part-time dealer had a good inventory of instruments ranging in price from about $500 to $8000.
He has a regular job as an accountant and does this other business part-time from his home. Aubrey Haney, a prominent Nashville session fiddler, buys violins from him when he is in Tampa visiting his folks.
Richard brought me along to hear the violins with him and also to play them. Many players recommend having an other violinist (or fiddler) with you when trying out instruments. Violins often sound quite different right under the ear, as compared to a few feet away.
He also had his current instrument with him to keep the base line of comparison.
This turned out to be a very good move.
When we got there we went right into the violin room. Royce began to hand Richard violins, making just a few comments about them. I kept Richard moving from violin to violin, not getting hung up on any one instrument. Then he would circle back and retry ones he had played earlier.
In between I played them and made comments about their sound and appearance. There was one that I found really intriguing, with a certain mystery quality to its sound. I wanted to keep playing it until I solved the mystery.
At one point Richard seemed to hit an indecisive stall in the process. It was at this point that he pulled out the fiddle he's been playing. The comparison made Royce's violins stand out. He could hear the superior quality of tone immediately.
That gave him fresh encouragement as to his inclination. And he was drawn to one violin in particular. It was a truly fine instrument suitable for a professional player.
By this time it had come down to choice of two fiddles. Going back and forth settled the matter. Even though the one he chose was much more expensive, he made his decision. He knows he has a violin that won't let him down as his ability improves.
There is one thing about Florida that you should know. Land may be pricey, but moveable goods are not. Almost everything costs less here than it does up north or out west. Royce's prices are on the low end of the spectrum.
When Richard was clearly gravitating towards the one he chose, Royce reminded him of his complete satisfaction guarantee. I don't believe I would buy a violin without such a guarantee.
Richard left with a violin he really liked. He also knew that he would be receiving on trial one more instrument to compare to it. That trial violin did not displace his choice.
This is not the only way to find a better violin to play. You might know a fiddler who has more than one violin and would be ready to let one go.
In some cases you might even be able to take the violin home for a week or so.
You could find a sleeper in an estate sale. Or, even a yard sale.
When it comes to trying out violins, there are three factors from Richard's experience that are key in making a wise choice.
1. Take someone with you who can also play, as well as listen. If you can find someone knowledgeable, that's ideal.
2. Take your current instrument with you. At some point, take it out and compare it to the violin or violins you have been playing.
3. Make your evaluation in a stress free, no pressure setting.
If the dealer brings out a violin exclaiming, "I have just the violin for you!" and he proceeds to rip off a few cadenzas, then hands it to you, make a quick exit. I was with one of my students when a "respected" dealer pulled this stunt.
Noticing how echoey the room was, I asked him if he practiced in this room. He said he didn't.
You should also play the candidate violins in a room with normal acoustics. That's another aspect of stress free environment.
One last point may be: know what your budget is. Don't sell the cow to get a violin. There are more violins down the road.
Elan Chalford, MM.
Learn How to Play Fiddle without Reading Music