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Violin "Levels"


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this was indirectly brought up in a posting in the "ebay" thread:

what is a conservatory violin? or, for that matter, what is a student violin compared to an advanced student violin?

it seems that there are different levels used by makers to rank their violins and i was just wondering what the differences are. similarly, are these different levels determined before or after manufacturing? it seems like somone once was talking about gilgas and how some come out as gamma fours and others are gamma twos(or something like that:) and that a violin became one or another type after it was made and played and a determination of it's sound quality was arrived at.

thanks for any input

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As you'll know if you've been following this board for a while, this is an emotionally charged question. I'll start by defining what I consider a professional, and the various other levels. To me a professional is someone who makes a full-time living being paid to play the violin--that's it, pure and simple. Being a professional carries a lot of implied things, including the abilty to audition and win a job, or to sustain a career successfully over a period of time.

An advanced student is someone who shows the ability to become a professional, and is involved in preparation, usually on a university level, or is perhaps the very best student in a high school program, who intends to or thinks about majoring in violin in college, and continuing on to attempt a professional career.

A beginning student is someone who's still learning the basics of playing, and a just-plain-student is a beginning student who's got the basics and could, for instance, hold a seat at a high school orchestra level, but hasn't shown either the aptitude or interest to become a pro, and isn't really comfortable all over the fingerboard and with a wide variety of music, to pick two things of many.

In the circles in which I travel, the pros most often find it intolerable playing on a violin of a type that would sell for less than $8,000-10,000 or so, and would consider the factory things sold in catalogues as "professional" to be a bad joke, and the serious students are being encouraged by their teachers to go find something in that range if they want to continue. I see many students about to graduate from college music programs who are looking for an instrument in the $30,000 and up price range to use in beginning their careers.

There are of course, exceptions, and just as a number of people will pop up and say that they know I'm wrong because they once met a professional who plays a $500 violin, I could counter and say that I've met people in the distinct beginner class who own $80,000 violins--but what purpose does the posting of extremes serve, except to prove that no rule is solid 100% of the time?

Let me caution you that this isn't something I'm making up--it's something I see--the actual situation as it exists among the musicians I deal with. This discussion has been on this board before, and I always get attacked for providing information which reflects the actual circumstances of the musicians I see on a day-to-day basis, rather than just saying what people want to hear, but which is not the reality: that cheap instruments are just fine. Graze some of the ebay threads, and you'll see what I mean.

I would rate the Gliga line as a good solid line for the mid-level or semi-serious student, but decidedly not of professional quality.

I've written about what I see of the buying end of it, but more than what I have to say, it would be very interesting to hear what the full-time professional teachers have to say about this--what their students play, and what they would prefer them to play. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that we have any or many teachers here, and the one or two college level ones that have stopped by have been driven off.

[This message has been edited by Michael Darnton (edited 03-17-2001).]

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Michael Darnton, my question goes a bit away from the subject, but have you seen during the past 10 to 15 years a tendency of pros going more and more to new violins? I think the prices of good old ones have gone beyond the average orchestra players budget. When I look at the various orchestras I see a lot of new wood there, and hear!

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I would agree with you Eric. My impression is that violists and cellists have been making greater use of contemporary or new instruments for the past 10-15 years, partly due to the scarcity of older ones and also the ease with which good makers can get an "old" sound from those forms. Until the last few years most contemporary violins I have tried have been umistakably "new" in their sound but I have run across quite a few now that tonally seem to stack up or even surpass finer older instruments at a fraction of the cost.

MacCeol, in regard to the levels of violins I would suggest that Michael is on the mark. I have the opportunity to play in two orchestras, one part-time and one- full-time and the level of instruments in the fulltime orchestra (at least in price) is on the average much higher with a few major exceptions. Most of the 1st violins, at least, in the fulltime orchestra have fiddles that average about $25-35K, some much higher.

However, as dealers are quick to point out, "sound does not affect price, only the length of time it takes to sell". And,in my opinon, snob appeal may be part of the reason players want a more expensive instrument - I can say this because it applies to me! I spent most of last summer looking for an upgrade, trying Italian and French instruments at great length and in great quantity. In exhaustion I chose a $60K instrument that sounded good from a top dealer, deciding I could always upgrade later from the firm since it has an enormous inventory. It was a good sounding violin but for 60K I wanted something to love. Since then I have found two fiddles, one I like very much, and one that thrills me. But not from the big shop! One is defintiely German, 1900's, the other, which is really special, a "Wurlitzer Special", probably German, maybe French. Both run rings around my expensive fiddle and several other high priced offerings - in projection (in big halls, small halls, orchestra pits, recital rooms) response, and even in quality (sweetness) of sound, not only in my opinion but in the opinion of 90% of my fellow professionals. I wouldn't even look at a German fiddle during my search (I came across these only as I looked for a friend as they were way below the price range for a "professional" instrument and a small part of me (which is getting smaller everytime I play) still wishes I could pretend they were fine Italian

or French. My luthier (a Salt Lake school grad and terrific adjuster) exclaimed that it was one of the finest violins he had heard - and he is not known for Pollyanna sentiments.

I realize I have gotten lucky - most people are not obsessed with trying every violin available - and on the whole if you only try 20 violins and ten cost $5,000 and ten cost $30,000 most, maybe all, of the best sounding will come from the $30,000 group. And compared to the 30K group a selection of modern violins in the $10-20K range will probably offer even more in pure sound - I am a big fan of contemporary instruments. I beg forgiveness for the longwinded nature of this post (rant?) Ray

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thanks for the replies! your answers have been great and claire_uk's question is one that i hadn't been considering at the time but that i do find to be interesting also.

the overview has been great, and i like the personal touch ray smile.gif. i think i understand the definitions you have set out micheal, and they sure sound reasonable to me. now, if possible, could you try and elaborate on the differences between the instruments themselves? i would reckon on the lowest of the low end, things like a hardwood fingerboard, nut, and pegs might be price differentials, but what about between that 3,000 and 10,000 dollar fiddle? the price difference between ebony and pine can't account for that one! smile.gif are there manufacturing differences between the two(other than "hand made" vs. "workshop" vs. "factory made" etc.).

i can see why some strads are amazingly expensive(i.e. because they look like works of art and not just instruments) but most of the expensive instruments i've seen look not all that different from "regular" instruments. i would reckon that most differences are intagable ones(relating to sound), so if you care, i'd like to hear about those too! smile.gif

thanks for all the help/info guys! i'll look through the old threads and see what i can find in the meantime.

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I think it's been hinted at on this board previously, and I think correctly, that the general run of factory instruments are less than perfect, from the standpoint of materials, graduation and important things like arching. Some of this is due to the intent of the makers to stratify their instruments in various price ranges (and not threaten their highest price offerings), and some of it is in the nature of turning out a product that's "good enough" but not particularly enlightened, from a business that's interested in money but not particularly fond of the violin in the way needed to really excel at making them. Though in the lowest levels you see definite clues, such as stained maple fingerboards, in the range between good factory instruments and the stuff above them there are many apparent visual similarities, as you mention. I don't know a way to give an online class on how to tell the difference--it's hard enough to do it in person. :-)

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Hello MacCeol,

I'm certainly no expert but have asked questions similar to your own in the past. I was pointed to Shar Products as a resource and thought the general descriptions were helpful. The site describes those aspects of the player level then aligns a few models of instruments to each player level. Their descriptions are interesting and some of the instruments come well recommended. As for differentiating the instruments themselves, it appears that it is often a combination of two things. First is the ascertained quality upon completion. I'm not sure a luthier ever truly knows what that final product is going to sound like until it is complete and played for the first time. He/she certainly has certain expectations based on previous experience, but slight differences in wood and finish can elicit surprises. This implies the decision to "rank" an instrument occurs after it is complete, but one must also remember that the quality is often a reflection of the hours invested in the creation. The time invested will certainly set a minimal expectation in price which is then adjusted (hopefully up) when the tonal quality result justifies the time and work investment. I do know that makers will pre-define quality levels by setting "investment limits" on product development. In other words, the decision is made that only so many hours and so much effort is going to be expended in the creation. The results still vary slightly, but the limiting constraints will define the level and subsequent value of the instrument. You can reach Shar by navigating to http://www.sharmusic.net/home.htm

[This message has been edited by ShadowHawk (edited 03-18-2001).]

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I didn't want to refer you to our company page unless it was brought up by another... Thanks Shadowhawk.

It was not clear to me if Shadowhawk is referring to the catalog descriptions on our (the Shar) site, or to the resource guide for instruments published there.

For the resource guide, go to the main page, click on the Fine Instruments area and look on the side bar for "Resource Guides". One exists for bows and for instruments there. They contain definitions for the levels (from our point of view) and other (hopefully) useful information.

If you'd like to link directly to the index, try:


Hope this helps!


[This message has been edited by Jeffrey Holmes (edited 03-20-2001).]

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Thank you Jeffrey. Your clearification is correct. I did indeed intend the resource guides as the source of comparitive information. The link I provided was a cut&paste of the URL rather than the specific cgi script which defined the frame. And that last sentence contains more computer tech jargon than any violin enthusiast wants to read! <grin>

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I found Michael's response to be an interesting perspective on your question.

An earlier thread dealt with the levels of violins from the playing characteristics that one should expect from varing levels. For some reason I am unable to get it to copy and paste. If you type my name into the search function, and then look for the thread, Qualities of an Intermediate Violin, you should find it easily. About mid way through, it has some of the better players on the board describing what they consider the playing characteristic they look for at varing levels.


[This message has been edited by Marsden (edited 03-18-2001).]

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