Whatever your needs, whatever your budget, there's an instrument out there for you. Laurinel Owen suggests some ways to find it


I can think of one good reason why a string player might plan to rob a bank: it is time for a new instrument. The size of your cello or viola may be uncomfortable and you yearn for something easier to handle, thus allowing you at least a crack at playing in tune and nailing the shifts. Maybe your violin is letting you down in the concert hall or at auditions because the tone lacks projection. Colleagues in your quartet are complaining that the sound quality does not blend with the group. Maybe you play outdoor gigs and worry that the sun, rain, salt-water spray or spill champagne is going to ruin your one and only valuable investment instrument. Or maybe you played your stand partner's new violin and have decided that it is finally time for something better.

Before signing up for that safe-cracking course, analyse the deficiencies of your present instrument and decide exactly what improvements you hope to find. Otherwise you may end up with another violin like yours, only louder. It is essential to step away from your instrument and get a new perspective. Peter Moes, who collaborates with his wife Wendy in making cellos that are played by artists including Yo-Yo Ma, explains: 'You could be so used to your instrument that it may take some time to understand a different one and you may not immediately be able to pull the sound out. Play as many instruments as you can get your hands on, especially those belonging to friends and colleagues. Ask what qualities they like. Some instruments have a huge range of colours that are easy to bring out; others have few colours and make you work hard.' Keep an open mind. Get exper¡ence by trying lots of instruments and do not dismiss one simply because 'it does not feel or play or sound like mine'.

Unfortunately we all have to stick to a budget. Claire Givens, of Claire Givens Violins in Minneapolis, outlines the basic price groups: plan to Pay 10-20 per cent more for violas and double for cellos.

'Entry level violins begin at approximately $1,000 to $2,500. These include better-made Chinese workshop instruments. This means that all the work is done by hand and is overseen by a master maker. For this price you could also get a German or former Eastern Block factory-made violin.

'The next range is $2,500 to $5,000. This group includes instruments as above but made with better wood, fittings, craftsmanship, and more attention from the master. Details such as these can also make an instrument sound considerably better.

'$5,000 to $10,000 brings you to the range of individually handmade violins. This includes contemporary American and many European makers.

'If you spend as much as $25,000 you can find the best contemporary makers, those who have won prizes and are well established and who generally have long waiting lists. With this amount there is also the possibility of finding an old Bohemian, English, French, German and maybe Italian violin, or an instrument by a known maker that is in poor condition or is a composite.

'With $25,000 to $50,000 you might find violins by fine English makers such as Kennedy, Forster and Dodd, early 2oth-century Italian and many French makers.

'With more than $50,000, you could get a violin by a maker that has traditionally been sought after by soloists and has historical significance.'

The merits of old versus new are a frequent point of discussion among players, restorers and makers. ln fact at get-togethers of these groups, play-offs and tests are often conducted to prove or disprove the superiority of one category over the other. Peter Beare of J.& A. Beare Ltd in London comments: 'ln general a fine new instrument can be an attractive proposition in terms of price and condition, and they frequently sound very well. However, many musicians find that the sound does not mature as well as they had hoped and indeed it can deteriorate in less good instruments through factors such as bad varnish or thin plates. On the other hand, the quality of sound in the best old instruments is what makes them so treasured by the top soloists. Unlike many of the new instruments, the old ones have an established international market, which frequently means that they hold and even increase their value. However, because old instruments tend to be expensive, it is essential that buyers exercise caution with respect to authenticity and condition.'

Authenticity can be a thorny issue and papers become important when the price depends on the attribution. Because of the temptation to make more money if an instrument is ltalian rather than English, for example, 'experts' have been known to certify a violin or cello inaccurately, not to mention downright falsely. Everyone has a story to tell. Years ago I took an inherited violin around to five major violin dealers throughout Europe. The instrument was proclaimed English, French, Czech and even Spanish. Finally I was advised to find a dealer who would verify that it was Italian.

Condition will greatly affect the price of an old instrument. Some shops sell instruments 'as is' while others will put the instrument in the best possible condition and tell the prospective buyer what repairs were made. If you are considering purchase from a source other than a dealer equipped with an excellent repair or restoration department, it is advisable to take the instrument to an independent repairer and pay to have it checked out. Some points to look out for are: cracked, thin ribs; cracks on the front where the neck and the saddle meet the body; cracks over the soundpost and bass-bar and under the feet of the bridge; open joints on the centre of the back and front: worm damage (holes and tunnels); loose neck. Look straight down the fingerboard to make sure the bridge is centred; check that the pegs turn easily; cello endpin fits nicely; fingerboard is smooth and of correct thickness; straight bridge and soundpost; bridge of correct height and shape, so that when the instrument is played the bow does not hit the C-bouts; arching is round under bridge and on the back. Many items on this list are expensive to repair and should be factored into a purchase price - if you decide you still want the instrument.

Investment is another possibility, one often discussed. I am neither a violin expert nor a financial adviser, but it has been my general experience that if one buys a violin with solid papers and in good condition, by a maker now dead, and one keeps it for some years, the value can be expected to increase, since the supply of those instruments is limited and more musicians are chasing fewer instruments. The price of a violin by a living maker, on the other hand, depends on whether the reputation of that maker grows and he or she is able, over time, to charge more.

A violin shop is the obvious place to look for a violin, but not the only one. Other options include teachers and players; auction houses such as Sotheby's, Christie's, Skinner and Vichy France; private individuals; makers; string congresses; modern maker exhibitions and the internet (www.eviolin.com, wwwtarisio.com, www.amati.com and www.celloshop.com). Each has advantages and possible disadvantages. You might assume a price advantage from a private sale - though this is not necessarily so - and there could be concern over condition. Buying from an auction house might offer savings, but you will probably bid against professionals, have limited access to the instruments and condition cannot be assured. Going directly to a maker can be a good choice, except that many of those with established reputations will have nothing to show you. Congresses, festivals and exhibitions can offer excellent opportunities for comparing instruments.

Commissioning is a choice if you're looking for a new instrument. This is particularly attractive if you are a violist or cellist and want something specific in regards to size or model, or want a copy. The problem is that the best makers often have waiting lists of between one and four years, and after such a long wait, will you like the results? It is bad business for a luthier to force a customer to buy an instrument that is not wanted, but if you have ordered something way out of the ordinary that is impossible to resell, you will be stuck. I have commissioned two cellos and four bows that worked out very well. I wanted a new, healthy cello set up like my old one. The results were worth the two-year wait. Before making a final decision as to who you go to, play as many examples of the maker's work as possible.

Have a method for auditioning instruments. Before charging off to a shop, call ahead for an appointment so the dealer can arrange for all the instruments in your price range to be available. Take along your own bow, so one variable is eliminated - although your present bow may not be the ideal partner for your future instrument. Prepare pieces or excerpts that will exploit the instrument's full pitch range. Listen for balance and for even tonal colour between strings and registers. Test for projection and power. Is the sound big, full and gutsy with potential to give more or does it become gritty, raspy and forced? In a legato melody, is the sound warm, creamy and focused or tubby, nasal or glassy? Does the violin respond quickly and cleanly in fast passages and have a large dynamic range? Compare one instrument to another by playing a passage then repeating it on the next instrument noting the strengths and weakness - and your preferences. Use your instrument for comparison and if possible bring someone else along to play so you can listen and vice versa. Try to adapt to each instrument and experiment with different approaches to pull the best sound out of each one. Keep an open mind concerning sound and feel.

I like to sell out the instruments with complete anonymity. This can curtail any subconscious prejudice, at least with regard to price or country of origin. Who knows, perhaps the cheaper viola will be the one you like more. Claire Givens relates a salutary tale: 'We had a Georges Chanot violin in our shop that sounded fabulous. A woman came in, loved it, but wouldn't buy it because it is French. Every month or so she brought in another violin for comparison against the Chanot; it was no contest. Nine months later she is still looking.'

If there is something you don't like about an instrument, ask if it can be fixed. Soundposts, bridges, strings and chin rests are relatively easy to change if you buy from a shop. Wolfs can sometimes be subdued, buzzes eradicated and pegs doped. Take care of any such problems before you buy.

An instrument that is a serious consideration can usually be taken out 'on approval' for seven to ten days. You will probably have to sign an agreement with the date of return for insurance purposes. This is your chance to really get acquainted. Play the instrument in familiar acoustic surroundings and in a hall if at all possible. Play it with your quartet, your pianist, in the orchestra, at your lesson. Players have been known to use this opportunity to take the instrument around to other dealers. This may not be productive and certainly puts the other shop in an awkward position. Beare comments, 'Buyers will want to feel confident about authenticity and condition and may wish for another opinion. Ideally they should purchase from a firm with a good international reputation. We would not expect to comment on other dealers' prices.'

Negotiating the price always depends on how desperate the seller is. You can always offer a lower price: the worst that can happen is that it will be refused. Whether you pay by cash, cheque or credit card depends on from whom you are buying. Some dealers may allow up to six months for payment of very large sums, though most sellers are not in the lending business. If that bank raid falls through, perhaps counterfeiting is a solution...

This article was first published in The Strad's February 2001 issue