Friday, November 21, 2014

How The Customer Should Purchase A String Instrument, Part 1

This next section covers the five categories that are important for the buyer of an instrument. The first is:


As a buyer you will need to set a reasonable price limit when you buy a violin, understanding that they range in price and quality from a few hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars.
Before you select a range, it's a good idea to go a play some examples in the various ranges, so that you can get a feel for the differences. When you call to make an appointment (often a good idea instead of just showing up) to see instruments at your local shop ask that they reserve a 1/2 hour. Make sure to set enough time so they can explain how they price their instruments and selection process. When you are on the phone have them give you a price range, that way your shop can get several in that range ready for you to consider. If you don't want to spend more than a certain amount make sure they understand and respect that request. To either educate your ear or satisfy your curiosity, you may want to hear instruments in the next range up or down. Not every violin in one price range is made equally. Likewise, not every violin at one quality is priced equally. Determine what your purpose is in ownership. You should consider whether you want to make an investment in a more expensive violin that will last a lifetime, or whether you simply want to buy a cheaper model to get you through a few lessons. Your plans for an instrument will dictate what price range you should be investigating. When visiting the shop make sure to bring your bow, a shoulder rest for violins and violas and a few measures of music to play. You want to make sure that you play the same thing on each instrument and having your own bow takes out a foreign element in the right hand leaving only the left to worry about.

The following is a general guideline for the basic price groups. Add 10% to 20% more for violas and 50% more for cellos:

$200.00-$450.00- Usually beginner instruments. Lower -end factory or trade name instruments from China, Czech, Romania, and Bulgaria.

$500.00-$1800.00-Entry level step-ups. Better made factory from China, Romania, Bulgaria and Germany.

$1900.00-$5000.00- Includes above but with better wood and craftsmanship. Usually better attention to detail and sound.

$5000.00-$10,000.00- Handmade violins. Contemporary American makers and European makers.

$25,000.00-$50,000.00- Prize winning contemporary makers; well known 20th century English and French makers.

Any instrument that you are seriously considering should be able to be taken out on approval. This allows you to play the instrument in various settings, and receive critical feedback from friends, teachers and colleagues. Does your shop have a "trial policy"? Whatever factors are important to your decision making make sure it will fit into the trial period. For example: Will your teacher be in town to give you feedback? can you get into a hall if projection of sound is important?
Does your shop have any financing, or can they refer you to a bank that understands violin purchases? By the time you have made your decision, you need to be ready to tell the shop how you wish to pay for the instrument. If you wait until you fall in love with the instrument you may be left trying to beg, borrow or steal to make the purchase price, and considerable heartache will surely ensue if your plans do not materialize.
Trade-in Policy:
Does your shop have a trade-in policy? If in the future you or your child needs a better quality instrument or a larger size, what value will your present purchase carry forward? Also what is the selection your shop has in the next available range or size that might be the next step-up, if trade-in is important to you?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How The Dealer Prices A Stringed Instrument, Part 7, Overall Appearance

Overall Appearance

The fifth and last category for pricing a string instrument from the dealers perspective is:
Overall Appearance
Visually, a violin should be attractive and blend in with other instruments. Without even playing a selection of violins, most of us will likely have a preference based on appearance. This is why I put a picture of Eugene Fodor here.  I find him appealing.  

Often people zero in on instruments that are highly flamed, which has little to to do with the tone, but does give a prestigious look. A violin has a greater appeal too, if it has a one-piece back. When you go to a restaurant; having your meal arranged and presented with flair is much more appealing than in a buffet style mound. In the same way you want your meal presented,  you would like to choose a violin that you will be proud to carry and use-even though looks do not determine the sound quality of the violin.

There are many modern makers who take great pains to make a violin look like an old Italian masterpiece. They know that most customers do not like taking a brand new, bright and shiny instrument to their music group. They prefer something that looks elegant and well-aged.

Looking “old” though is one thing.  However, the presence of numerous scratches and gouges is only going to devalue an instrument. I have seen many names scratched into instruments, as well as dates of perceived importance. Many times an inexperienced repairman has tried to remove these and has instead further damaged the instrument.


How The Dealer Prices A Stringed Instrument, Part 6, Condition


Did you know the condition of an instrument is crucial when purchasing? The overall condition of an old violin must be weighed against the advantages of the structurally perfect condition of a new violin, as we have just discussed. For new violins, this step will not be so important. However, with an older violin, condition becomes a critical factor. When purchasing consider these points on condition.

What is the general health: We need to consider, first, how the violin has been handled, transported, and stored. 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 excessive moisture can cause structural or tonal problems. Cracks can open or form, the neck angle can drop, buzzes can occur, and endless problems can result from the presence of many repairs. Violins are made of wood, and wood is affected by humidity or lack of it. Because of this, it is important to examine the body of any new or used violin, you want to make sure that there are no cracks in the top or back. Well-repaired cracks in the top of an older instrument may not be a problem, but did you know soundpost cracks on top of an instrument can depreciate its value as much as 50 percent!
Next examine the ribs (sides) of the violin to make sure that they are not bulging out beyond the edges of the top or back. This happens because wood that is not well seasoned will shrink when it dries out. It is not uncommon to find this problem in used instruments over 50 years old regardless of quality. But if we see it in a newer instrument buyer take note....MOST Instruments of reasonable quality do not have this problem, because close attention is given to curing the wood properly. Any violin that is over 100 years old has probably taken a visit to the repair shop at least once. Make sure all repairs are done by a qualified luthier. Repair shops are not all created equal, and therefore a nice violin that has been badly repaired by a less than fully competent luthier will lose value if permanently damaged. Keep in mind that any serious repair devalues a violin. For instance, a back soundpost crack will likely decrease the value by 75%, even if well-repaired. To make matters worse, amateur luthiers can perform horrors on nice violins, which reduce their value to a fraction of their potential.

Most violins over 150 years old have probably been modernized from a baroque set-up with a neck graft. This is a challenging job, and many old violins were lost because it was not done properly. That's one of the main reasons older violins are in limited supply. This scarcity causes the price to go up.

Proper functioning of parts: Any instrument hanging on the wall waiting for the customer to try must be correctly adjusted and ready to play. Nobody wants to test drive a car that has to be jump started. "Set-up" on a violin is very important. Expect some minimum set-up standards even on an inexpensive instrument. As a general rule, pegs should be made of ebony or rosewood because most other woods are not dense enough to retain the smooth roundness that is necessary for easy tuning. The pegs need to turn smoothly, stay in place and work with the fine tuners. The strings should be neither too high nor too low. There should be plenty of bow clearance from string to string, without hitting the edges of the instrument when bowing the outer strings. If the bridge feet do not fit, the bridge can be prone to falling over. The fingerboard must be accurately planed so that every note can be played clearly, and the nut (where the strings cross into the peg box) must be properly shaped, both for comfort and so the strings do not break. The strings should be good quality. Consider upgrading them if the teacher recommends it; strings make a big difference in sound. The soundpost should be set for proper tone adjustment. Some music stores do not set up their own instruments, but well-known brands generally are shipped in good adjustment. Many violin shops do their own "set-ups," and work to meet the desires and specifications of local teachers and professional players.

Maintenance and care: Like most musical instruments, the violin requires occasional maintenance. You should expect a few broken strings from time to time, but if the same string breaks often, have the violin examined to make sure something is not out of adjustment. Upgrading to synthetic core strings can give a much more pleasing tone, and is often worth the investment. Violin bows need to be rehaired every year or two, depending on the amount of playing. Because the instrument is made of wood and is held together with glue, it is very susceptible to heat and humidity changes. Leaving the violin in a car in the heat will often cause it to come apart or crack. Extreme cold can also crack an instrument. When transporting your violin, keep it in the passenger compartment of the car, not in the trunk, where it can get very hot or very cold and cause serious damage. Rosin is used on the bow to make it grip the strings. Dust from the rosin will collect on the fingerboard and on top of the violin. This rosin dust should be wiped off with a soft cloth regularly, or it can build into a hard unsightly layer which will have to be professionally removed.

How The Dealer Prices A Stringed Instrument, Part 5, Labels


Our second most important area of pricing comes to the identification of the maker or brand. All knowledge of violin makers of the past and present depends, and has always depended on the labels glued inside them and occasionally the brand. Without these clues we would have no idea of who made what, or where, or when.

We have to remember though that wherever there is great wealth there is great fraud. Unfortunately there are label collectors as well as label changers. We know that from the vast number of faux labels that a widespread practice of removing them developed in the 19th century. Faux labels were often placed on machine-made instruments to make them look more expensive. These label changers knew that in the violin world an unknown maker would generally be worth less then a known even if the sound were fantastic.

Where was it made:
Identification of violins as to the maker, the school or county is quite complicated. I do not know of many that could take a violin without a label and tell who made it. The best most of us can do is give a school or country of origin. Knowing which country the instrument was made can help us identify a price point. To start with, in the mid 1600’s, the center of violin making was Cremona, Italy. This is where many of our more famous violin makers came from, like Stradivarius and Amati. Older and modern Italian instruments both command high prices. Starting in the late 1700’s came the introduction of the factories.There was a desire to have violins produced with the same standards and measurements. Each part was produced separately and then assembled later, which is still being done this way today. The birth of the these factories started in France with many of the violins being made in Mirecourt and some in Lyon. In the late 1800’s and well into the 20th century, Germany was the center of violin making. There were two well-known factories in Germany; one located in Markneukirchen and the other in Mittenwald. Markneukirchen producing the better made instruments. Remember, It was during this time much of the label changing was taking place! To date we still have factories in Romania and these have a great value but China is our latest center of violin making and has an abundance of factories. These can reflect the low student level to the top notch step-ups. Chinese labor is relatively inexpensive which will reflect in the price.

How The Dealer Prices A Stringed Instrument, Part 4, Age

We have been discussing the basic factors that go into pricing of instruments. As we stated in our previous articles, there are five basic priorities and requirements that are important to the buyer and five different ones for the seller. This post we will continue our discussion of the third most important factor that goes into pricing from the sellers view.


Used violin are not like used cars. Used violin are like vintage wine,
they get better with age. However, these have their limits of time. Let's look at the pros and cons.

New: With new instruments, one question that often arises is whether the sound will change. Although the sound of a new violin may not be mature, a new violin in time will usually become a more responsive, resonant version of itself. This critical break in time can take anywhere from several months to a few years. Just do not presume it will become a great instrument in the future. If you like it now and it is new, the likelihood of it's sound opening up with playing is good. Another pro is that new instruments are normally in better condition. A new violin is also more preferable to an older violin that's had many repairs. All in all a good new violin will improve with age.

Old: Violin wood is primarily priced and sold on two basis. One is figure and the other is age. Age guarantees a certain state of dryness. When wood is old it is thought to become more dimensionally stable (less warpage). This is true in that it takes about five years for the volatile hydrocarbons in the wood to evaporate out. With age the wood hardens and becomes more resonant; it also vibrates differently from a flexible one, resulting in a higher and more complete overtone series. This means a well-made instrument will improve with age as it stiffens, but it should sound good to begin with. As said before a bad-sounding instrument will not necessarily get better and could get worse. Look for clarity,projection, response, and dynamic range. Clearly all things being equal, an older instrument in mint condition will sound better than a new one and is hard to beat.

By the way, since the sound of an older instrument is more in its prime they tend to be more expensive.There is a wide range of quality in new instruments, just as with old ones, and there is much overlap between new and old instruments. All in all, the condition of an old violin must be weighed with the advantages of the structurally perfect condition of a new violin.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How We Set-up an Instrument

Have you ever wondered how we, the instrument dealer, get instruments, and what it takes to get it ready to sell to you? Well here's your chance to look into our secret world!

When I place an order for instruments from a supplier, I always order instruments "unadjusted". This means the instrument comes as a body only, without an endpin, strings, pegs, bridge, tailpiece or any other accessories.

Instruments should be set up in the region that the instrument will be played in, to be able to take into account the weather and humidity conditions of that particular area.

The first thing I do when I get a delivery of instruments to Cassandra Strings  is inspect them. Most come unharmed, but sometimes shipping can be rough on these fragile instruments. Some have even arrived in pieces! If an instrument passes the first inspection, it goes to the workshop to be "set-up".

Once in the workshop, the real fun begins. Me, along with the shop staff decide what kind of treatment the instrument will get. Is it a high end instrument that deserves nothing but the best fittings and accessories, or is it a basic student that will be fine with the standard fittings and accessories? Everything comes in different quality levels, from bridges to tailpieces and even pegs. Each is selected carefully to match the instrument level. Once all of the fittings are chosen, the work begins. The fingerboard is planed, then scraped, then sanded and polished to have the correct amount of "scoop" in it to allow the strings to vibrate freely without buzzing. The nut is filed down to make playing more comfortable in the lower positions. The string spacing is then set at the nut as well, wide enough to allow "tunneling", but still close enough together to bar and play multiple string at once.

Peg hole reamer and peg shaper
The peg holes are reamed out to have the correct diameter and taper, and the pegs, always shipped extra thick, are shaved down in a special peg shaver, again, to the correct thickness and taper.
It is very important that the taper of the hole and the taper of the peg match to keep the pegs from slipping or not holding the pitch correctly.
A small hole is drilled through the shaft of the peg to allow the string to be inserted into it and wound. As a final step to get the pegs working smoothly, a special compound is applied to the peg where it comes in contact with the peg box, and worked in to make sure the pegs work smoothly.

Soundpost Setter
The soundpost, a small spruce dowel, is wedged between the top and back of the instrument on the inside. It is set through the f-hole on the treble side of the instrument. The sound post is never glued in, but is held in by the tension of the strings pushing against top of the instrument, squeezing it into place. The precise position of the soundpost is only set in by eye, and takes many years of practice to set correctly. Moving a post in any direction can greatly change the sound of the instrument, making the top strings louder, or more mellow, etc.

The biggest undertaking when setting up an instrument is carving a bridge. Bridges, like pegs are shipped over sized and are fitted to the exact specifications of the instrument. The feet are carefully carved down, by hand, to approximately one millimeter thick, and are shaped to the exact curvature of the instrument top. This helps transfer the most vibrations from the strings to the body of the instrument. Once the feet are fit to the top of the instrument, the top of the bridge is cut down to the correct height. The term we use to measure this height is the string height. It is measured on both the highest and lowest strings at the very end of the fingerboard, violins usually 4 & 6 mm, violas 5 & 7 mm, and cellos 6 & 9 mm. Once we have determined the correct height the bridge needs to be cut to, we trace a template to get the correct arching across the strings. This template makes sure that the bridge is flat enough that you can still play double and event triple stops, but curved enough to only do it when you want to.

After the bridge is cut, the last thing to do is string up the instrument and try it out. Set up of instruments is a trial-by-error, and if the first playing isn't good, adjustments are made, soundpost is moved, bridge is re-arched, etc., until we deem that the instrument is in top playing condition.

On average it takes a repair technician 2-3 hours of work to get an instrument into final playing condition.

After all of the work is done, a few of us sit down in a room and do a final visual inspection, as well as a final play test. Only then, if an instrument passes is it put up on the wall for sale.

Any questions, please comment below!