Violin Information

The Truth About:

 

Providing the truth about things that have frequently been misrepresented or downright fraudulently put forth.

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Myths

String and Other Accessory Pricing

Ethics in Violin Sales

How Instruments are Priced

Myths

 

 

 

Myth: The horse hair has scales that "pluck" the string. The scales wear out and the bow must be re-haired. This may be the most prevalent bit of misinformation I see. There is the additional bit of misinformation that when the bow is re haired, the hair ends must be alternated to account for the up and down stroke.

Truth: Horse hair is "smooth and shiny." It is the rosin on the hair sticking to rosin on the string that makes the string vibrate, not scales on the hair.  The attraction of the collagen in the hair and particles of rosin are impossible to replicate artificially. It does not matter which direction the hairs face to make a sound. If scales actually "plucked" the string, there would be no need for rosin.

 

Myth: Rosin needs to be scratched before it will work.

Truth: Although this creates a powder to help start the rosining process, if you use a good quality fresh rosin it isn't necessary to do. This myth probably was started by music store dealers who provided cheap quality aged rosins to their customers.

 

Myth: The instrument sounds better without a shoulder rest.

Truth: I have found the opposite to be true. While the instrument may seem to sound better under the ear, the ear is often more tilted toward the instrument without a shoulder rest and secondly the violin has contact with the shoulder and bones in the shoulder which transmits the sound into the body making it appear to sound louder.   I have demonstrated this phenomenon many times to customers who thought their instrument sounded better without a shoulder rest and were uncomfortable. A simple playing test with the musician listening to someone else play their instrument both with and without a should rest can demonstrate the fallacy. 

 

Myth: The great Stradivari sound comes from the varnish. 

Truth: So many people have tried to prove this and none have, even with modern technology. This was probably started by untalented violin makers to say that the art was lost. Stradivari had no secret varnish and most likely all the makers in his community used the same varnish supplied by the local apothecary that also sold the same varnish to furniture makers and artists.  Another fact is that many Stradivari instruments don't live up to the professional sound quality. The great sound of most of his instruments more likely comes from his attention to detail, use of quality air dried woods, not trying to hurry his craft, a true understanding of geometry and acoustics, many of his instruments ending up in the hands of professionals and being properly cared for, and of course 250 years of age.

 

Myth: Violin Strings are made from Catgut

Truth: Violin strings are made from a variety of materials, such as various types of steel, nylon, silk, perlon and real animal gut wrapped in aluminum or silver or even gold. The gut strings are often referred to as "cat gut" but are in fact made from the intestines of sheep or goats. A string made from real cat guts would be much too short and weak for use on bowed instruments.

So, why the term "cat gut"? The Encyclopedia Britannica states that an Italian term for violin was "kit" and hence a gut string would be called a "kit gut." This in time developed into "cat gut." Or it could have come from “Cattle Gut” as sheep were also referred to as cattle. Another explanation is that when gut strings were first manufactured in Europe, the best strings came from Catagniny, Germany. They were so superior to other strings that players demanded Catagniny gut or "Cat gut."

 

Myth: The violin varnish used blood in the "Red Violin"

Fact: Blood would not stay "Red" in a violin. Almost as soon as blood escapes the body and hits oxygen, it starts to turn brown. Even if you could capture it in a vacuum and mix it with varnishes, you could not apply it to the surface without oxygen turning it brown.

 

Myth:  Old violins are better than new violins or New violins are better than old violins

Fact:  The truth is that a statement like either of these is useless because you can't compare the two since their are all levels of new and old. The only possible thing that could be done is to electronically record and new violin and then electronically record the same violin using all the identical equipment and the same room and the same player 100 years later. Then a person could scientifically compare the two. It may be true that given two instruments, one old and one new, one of them will be better to that specific player on that day, but that is not proof and switching either instrument for another of the same age could just as easily reverse the results.  In the end, one must look at violins for their sound and not their age, pedigree or physical appearance, what matters is the sound.  It has been evaluated over and over again through blind tests, a fine new violin can be better than even the best old violin. - http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/08/science/a-strad-violinists-cant-tell.html?_r=0

 

MythOnly the cheapest violins have painted on or fake purfling

Fact: Sorry, but some of the old masters scratched the double lines into the back of the violin and then inked in the lines, these included Testore, Rogeri and some English Makers.
 
 
MythIf the scroll is grafted the violin is old
 
Fact: Grafting of scrolls has been done for hundreds of years and most commonly since 1820.  As the pitch of the orchestra changed, the pressure from the strings was too great and a longer and different angled neck was needed, so any instruments that were going to be played with the new tension needed to have a corrected neck. This could have been done by a graft (keeping the old scroll and attaching a new neck) or simply replacing the entire thing. So many old violins have necks that are not grafted as they were replaced with modern set up necks. Today this is considered very wrong, since the original scroll is very important to retain with the violin for value purposes. Some makers also have grafted on a neck to a new instrument for aesthetic reasons. I did just that on one of my instruments that I made with slab cut maple and I wanted the scroll to match.  
 
 
Myth: Violins appreciate in value as they age
 
Fact: Yes and No.  Most violins that are sold as new for under $5000 will only appreciate in value at the rate of inflation and even then will lose value as soon as they are sold. This holds true especially the lower you go. A $100 violin is basically worthless when used, A $500 violin might be worth $300 as a used instrument. As you go above $2000, this loss is less partially because the markup by the seller is less.  With old violins, the value may still not rise faster than inflation because the maker is not known and appreciated.  You have to get to instruments that are rare or are considered exceptional before the value can appreciate faster than inflation.  Even then it is the whims in the market place, similar to the stock market, that creates the rate of appreciation in value. It is only in retrospect that you can say "I wish I had bought one of those".
 
As an example, In 1972 my father purchased two circa 1920 violins valued then at $1800 each.  Today, one is worth around $40,000 and the other only around $8000. If that same $1800 was put into a 6.5% interest bearing account with no additional deposits, that $1800 would be worth $24,000 today. So one violin was worth the investment and the other not. If the entire $3600 was invested in a savings account, today the total would be $48,000, the same as the combined value of both violins today. 
 
 
Myth: Buying a violin is cheaper than renting
 
Fact: Yes and No.  It depends on your specific needs. Keep in mind that if the player is young and thus small, they will need a number of different sizes before they are ready for the adult sized instrument. It also depends on the quality of the violin purchased and the rental program that is available to you.
 
Let's say you buy off the internet a $150 1/2 size violin, then a $150 3/4 violin and finally a $150 4/4 violin. You have spend $450 and have three violins with little to no value.  They are not worth anything in trade and probably will be difficult to sell for anything close to what was paid, maybe $100 for all three and you didn't have good instruments to use.  You also probably had to spend an additional $75-100 to make that instrument playable or to replace the parts that went bad in the first few months.
 
If you spent that same $450 on a quality violin from a violin shop, you probably would only have to pay an additional $75 for each larger violin. So your total investment is $600, but you have 1 violin now and it is still probably worth at least $350.
 
Now lets's say you rent that same quality violin. The rental exchanges from size to size are usually free, but the rental fee's over 2-3 years will be $600.  So you have spent the same exact amount, $600, now you own the instrument but if the child had stopped playing anytime during the rental, you could have returned the violin with no obligation to buy. Also maintenance may have been included or cost a small fee with the rental and so many maintenance expenses would have been covered. 
 
So it depends on your situation, only you can determine what is best, but I strongly recommend you stay away from those $150 Amazon specials.
 

Additional Myths

Tiger Flame Maple is important to the sound of a violin

Only cheap violins have 4 fine tuners

If a violin has no corner blocks it is a cheap factory violin

All factory violins are made by machine

Only Italian violins can be worth a lot of money

All Chinese violins are junk

American violins aren't worth much

You can buy old Italian masterpieces on Ebay cheap

Nobody would install a label from an unknown maker in a violin

If a labels date is written in ink, it means that it is real

Only expensive violins are really good

All good violins are expensive

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String and other Accessories Pricing

 

As with any businesses, from the local grocery, video rental, or hardware store the violin store has to make a profit to be able to stay in business. If you want them to be there to repair your instrument and bow as well as to have a quick place to get your strings changed or pick up that piece of music, you need to be willing to shop there. You might save a few dollars by buying from an online store but the local violin shops will usually stock the type of items that it's customers want and are of good quality. The large internet stores often carry items in all price points even though the quality might be sub standard.  We would never sell a violin outfit that retails for $150.00, the quality is below our standards and below what our customers demand from a quality violin shop.
    Retail stores, unless they also have a wholesale division, cannot compete dollar for dollar to the wholesale type internet sales warehouses.  These online "stores" create a false sense of what retail prices are by eliminating all those extra services that you should come to expect when purchasing products for yourself.  Retail stores just can't buy the products themselves as inexpensively as the internet stores do because of purchasing restrictions by the importer and licensing restrictions by local jurisdictions. The retail stores also have higher overhead and offer an abundance of additional services. 

   What is the list price and what does it mean? The list price is the dollar amount set by the manufacturer as the "retail" selling price for their product. Sometimes the manufacturer/importer will set low limits on an "advertised price" The discount off of list is related to what you actually pay, but the costs and thus the profits to the store vary from the manufacturer, depending on the end sellers business license.
 
 There are basically 3 ways to purchase strings.

1) Local everything retail music stores - drums, winds, guitars and some violins, usually the large national or regional chain stores. You might pay the most this way, sometimes even the full list price but you will not get knowledgeable bowed instrument staff and will have a limited choice in products. Many will not install strings and even if so may not know the proper way, and yes violin strings are installed differently than guitar strings.  What you will get is the local convenience; this type of store is usually just around the corner. They have especially high overhead, with large inventories of mostly what you don't need.  You will typically pay anywhere from 0-30% of list price. 

2) Violin Specialty retail store. You will get major discounts off of the list price usually from 40-50%. There may only be one or two stores to chose from in your area and you may have to drive a little distance. You will get specialists in the field with a large selection including instruments and bows to try out without having to sift through catalogs. The  bowed instrument store will also provide many services such as: 

      * free string installation with purchase

      * free string recommendation based on your and your instruments specific needs

      * free checkup of your instrument and bow plus emergency repairs.

      * free local teacher recommendations

       * often shops will allow you to try out a string first 

      * No shipping charges added to your string or accessory purchase

      * 1000's of in stock items you can have in your hand the same day not to mention the ability to compare items side by side, not through an internet site with poor picture quality

      * many stores will have violin makers on staff - this is your best choice in stores

3) Internet Wholesale store - The cheapest way to buy strings with discounts up to 60%, however they cannot offer the added advantages and services of the local store. They have no way of matching your instrument with the proper setup. They also cannot install the strings nor check your instrument for possible problems that can cause string breakage or other issues that might be just about to cause other problems. They are also usually located in lower priced areas, certainly not near the large urban artistic community. These "stores" purchase their goods from the same importers that sell to those that the violin shop buys from, going around the retail pricing and licensing rules. This forces the rest of us to lower prices on items like strings, but must make it up in other ways, ways that the internet store doesn't have to do or can even offer. In the end they make more profit per dollar than the specialty store does and you get less in return. 
   

The choice is of course up to you and what your specific needs are. If all you require is to purchase a set of strings of a brand that you already know and that you can install yourself properly for the cheapest price, and you don't need them for a week, then buy them online if you must. If you value the education, care, knowledge, training and dedication that your local violin shop has to offer, patronize them so that they can remain accessible to you and other local string musicians. There is only so much the big box stores can offer, certainly not personalized service, proper repair work, or educated consultation. Remember the phone or email order you make to the internet sales store may just be answered by a teen aged non bowed string specialist in a cubical in a warehouse in Indiana. The kid behind the counter at the local everything music store may just sell you an "A" string for a mandolin instead of a violin - they are tuned the same, but are definitely not the same.

Why buy strings at your local violin shop

 When you purchase and have strings installed at your local violin shop the professionally trained repair technicians will perform an inspection and make necessary adjustments as needed. This is a service they are happy to provide just for choosing them!

 ● Check bridge placement

 ● Inspect bridge condition

 ● Check sound post placement

 ● Inspect, clean and lubricate pegs - may incur small fee

 ● Inspect, lubricate and tighten  fine tuners

 ● Inform you of any repairs that might be needed on your instrument
 
 

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Violin Shop Ethics - Teacher Commissions 

Ethics about Purchasing an Instrument

This may be a little long for some, but I believe well worth the read.   
  
   Unbeknownst to buyers, some music teachers get commissions for helping students find instruments.  While most teachers are above board on this policy. some are not.

 Your teacher may be taking a kickback from an instrument dealer for helping you buy that violin, viola, or cello. The trouble is, the typical student is unaware that ten to 30 percent of the price of that violin is going to his or her teacher. In some states, this kind of nondisclosure constitutes consumer fraud. Everyone but the buyer knows what’s going on, and few will talk about it. After all, the instrument dealer or maker and the teacher both profit nicely from inflated prices—whether the instrument is a $1,000 student violin or a treasured Stradivari.

Professional violin teacher and violin maker organizations do not have a code of ethics.

Though the topic makes most business owners queasy, a small community of instrument shop owners are becoming vocal about the ethics of paying and receiving teacher commissions.

This problem puts violin makers in an uncomfortable position, especially when teachers call them and ask, ‘What commission do you pay?’ If the violin shop owner says, ‘We don’t pay teacher commissions,. If you want to tell your student that you’re going to get a percentage and we’re going to put that on top of the price, I’d be happy to give that to you as long as it’s all out in the open.’ The teacher may then say,  "Then I’m not going to do business with you."  

Its a Delicate Matter.

Because the issue is so sensitive, it can be difficult for a maker or dealer to broach the subject.

Teachers may say that they are providing the student with years of expertise to assist in what can be a very difficult selection process. They are, but that is what they are already being paid for, for their time at the lesson, so use a lesson to look at the instruments.  If the teacher goes out and finds instruments, they should be compensated, by the student, not the violin shop.

Teachers are not entitled to deceive their students, if a teacher is sending a student to a particular shop, the student should ask that teacher point-blank whether he or she gets a commission from the sale of instruments.

In defense of teachers, there are quite a number that I know of who consistently refuse a commission and insist that the dealer lower the price by eliminating their commissions.

For the teacher that thinks that they are working for the shop. This teacher's idea of the purchase process is misconstrued-- it is the student that they are lending their expertise to, not the dealer. While this teacher may know more than their student, they lack greatly in expertise when compared to the decades of training a violin shop has in violin setup, rehairing, pricing, or instrument authenticity.

The bottom line is that teacher commissions, kickbacks, bribes, payola (or whatever you want to call them) may be illegal, unethical, and immoral. It hurts all of the parties involved in one way or another.

* The student or purchaser is hurt the most by teacher kick-backs, in that the student may pay too much for the instrument, get less for a trade in, and is limited in the number of the instrument choices available to them. The student is also hurt because they have placed their trust in their teacher to offer them an unbiased opinion and instead receive a tainted recommendation that may lead to purchase of an instrument of higher cost than is necessary. 

* The dealer that commits this act in concert with the teacher will eventually get caught in this or some other illegal activity, as many a dealer has, and will be brought to justice.

* The honest dealer that does not partake in this activity is hurt because their shop is shunned by those teachers that demand a kickback and will, therefore, not recommend that store. 

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How Instruments are Priced

When talking about string instruments, most beginners, more advanced players and even teachers don't really understand how they are priced. Of course anyone that is proficient in playing can tell the difference in a $100 violin and a $1000 one by simply playing it, and many of them could easily tell the difference by looking at them. But a beginner can't know how to do this and it would take volumes of writing to even try to explain it.

But what happens when you put a $5000 and a $10,000 violin in front of a good player. There is probably only a 50/50 chance that they will get it right when asked which one is more expensive. This is because violin A may not sound better than violin B, as each player has their own reasoning for what kind of sound they like best.  So why does violin A cost less, it is because of who made it. The violin is considered a collectible like paintings, and like art, the price is governed by Who made it, Where it was made, When it was made, the Quality of Materials, the Quality of Workmanship, the Condition and the Sound. So a bad sounding Stradivari violin will still sell for millions whereas a great sounding Strad copy by an unknown maker may only sell for a few thousand. Again this is because sound is subjective depending on the player and the condition can change.

Given a specific makers work, the price is set at a certain range, lets say $10,000 - $20,000. If it was made in that makers best working period then it might be $15,000-20,000. If it is in great condition bump it up a little more, and if it sounds great (to the dealer) it puts it into the highest end of the range. The dealer is being subjective in this case, but it is from experience and because they have a good handle on what most players like in a given price range, so that is why they can set the "sound" value. Obviously for the same reason, if it doesn't sound good, they may have a difficulty selling it even in the low end of the total range even if everything else is perfect. 

So who sets the price range to begin with? Well that happens over time. It is governed by auction results for a specific makers work and also by other instruments of the same time period and location. That means that most violins that were made in Cremona Italy in the late 1600's to early 1700's are going to be valuable. Of course, an unknown makers work will not bring what a known makers work will and certainly nothing like a great makers work. This is where is gets a little fuzzy, a dealer selling an unknown violin makers work that was made in Cremona Italy in 1700 will have to base more of the price on sound and condition than on provenance. Confused yet? But this is where it can get interesting. That dealer trying to sell that unknown makers work may have a great difficulty doing so because he has no comparable auction prices to back up his price. So, what does that mean for you, the purchaser? You could get yourself a deal. If you can't find any information on the maker, ask the dealer to show you some. If he can't, you may be able to negotiate a better price. The dealer may already have kept the price very low because of this, but it doesn't hurt to ask.  

Let's look at another price range - a lower one. What is the difference between a $175 violin and a $450 violin, regardless of who is selling them. Let's first assume that everything is kosher and no one is selling something for more than its worth. The two instrument descriptions may be exactly the same; ebony fingerboard and pegs, handmade, hand varnished in a beautiful... , comes with brazilwood horsehair bow, blah, blah, blah. You get the idea. The $175 violin will be made from lesser quality woods, which is soft and won't hold up over time. It will have poorer quality fittings that also will wear quicker costing you extra money to repair or replace. The sound will be less focused and harsher because of the soft wood and poor fit. The thicknesses of the cheaper instrument will be less carefully determined also diminishing the quality of the sound. The varnish will be of a cheaper cruder quality which will keep the instrument from vibrating properly and make the sound thinner and harsher. Because of all of these things, the instrument will lose most if not all of its value and as such you will have nothing when you want to get a better instrument. So you may save money on the initial purchase, but it will cost you more over time.

So what about pricing for the lower tiered instruments, lets say new ones below $5000. All of these will be made commercially in some way and often not by a single maker. They will have "list" prices and discounts off that list price. The maker will possibly prevent the dealer from advertising a price below a certain level. This is called MAP pricing - Minimum Advertised Price, and the dealer may be willing to give a bigger discount once you are in the store looking to purchase. Many dealers will say to "call for price" on their web site, this is the reason.  Most instruments in this level are sold to the dealer for 40 -50% off list price. So a $1000 violin will cost the dealer $500. However, that is not the dealers only cost. They have to stock many instruments even though you are only buying one, you are not going to purchase the only violin in the shop. They will have set up costs, the instrument will come to them with a basic set up or none at all, and the dealer will have to do a professional setup. This can cost anywhere from 0-$200. There is other overhead like, rent, utilities, employee  salaries, all those accessories that are in stock, insurance and so on. So don't expect to get that $1000 violin for $550. It will be more likely $750-850.

I hope I haven't confused you even more, but as you can see, it is not a simple matter to price an instrument for sale, the list price doesn't mean much and if you are looking at an older instrument, it is very difficult for the novice to get a sense of what an instrument should be selling for since just being by the same maker as another one that you see having sold recently is only part of the equation.  In the end the best way is always to purchase an instrument (given a specific price range) for the sound you like the best. You should never buy an instrument based on if it might be worth more later. Buying a violin is like buying into the stock market or real estate, we all know how that goes sometimes. Buy the violin as a tool to do what you need it to do for you as a player. Violin shops will always take back what they sold in trade and usually for a good return. 

Also if you were wondering, it is always cheapest to buy your bow and case when you buy the instrument if you need all three. The case is usually supplied by the dealer at cost or less as part of the outfit price.  The bow is included at a big discount, like 40% - 50% off list as apposed to the more typical 20% - 25% discount for a bow only purchase.

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