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When to stop trading/upgrading your instrument?


LilHobbit

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I’m not a full time professional player. However I do appreciate the different tones that different instruments provide and I have found that my preference in tone of a violin changes over time. I currently own a violin that likely is higher in price than what I “need” for what I use it for. While I did love the sound of this violin a couple of years ago when I purchased it, I’m finding it’s not necessarily what I’m wanting out of a violin now. 

The question is, when do you stop trading in or upgrading your violin? Obviously - if you have a violin that you absolutely love the sound of, you wouldn’t upgrade it. On the other hand, if the violin you own isn’t a violin you love the sound of any longer, do you continue to trade/upgrade until you do find that sound even if it goes above the price of what’s needed for your level of playing/use? Or do you stay with that violin and go on a search for different strings hoping to find a sound you’ll love? 

On the other hand, are you a person who appreciates the quality of instruments as the price goes higher and are interested in upgrading slowly as a manner of owning/playing some different, yet amazing, instruments over the course of your life? 

I’d be very interested in knowing how others feel about this topic and what your “strategy” has been in life as a violin player and owner! 

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If you no longer feel inspired by your instrument, and you've already seriously tried changes to the set-up to no avail, and you have the time to really search for one that's significantly better, then of course you should upgrade. That may or may not mean a higher price. I know a principal player in a major symphony who was told that they needed to get a better instrument when they were hired, but most of us don't "need" to upgrade (at least, within reason). Instead, we do it because we want our instruments to inspire us to be better players, or to get past particular limitations, or simply because we enjoy the search and experience of playing on different instruments.

My journey:

  • 1978-1985: various student instruments of acceptable quality, 1/8th size to full size!
  • 1985: upgraded to a good quality 1970's German student workshop instrument
  • 1996: upgraded to a modern Italian. I thought it was amazing but later realized that while it projected well the tone was too one-dimensional
  • 2012: commissioned a couple years earlier from an hors-concours-level luthier in the US, sold the Italian one for 50% more than I paid 15 years earlier through a dealer. Also sold my student instrument for what my family paid for it ~25 years earlier (much less with inflation!). The new instrument was a huge upgrade in every way over the modern Italian at only 20% of the price.
  • 2015-2022: got my first real exposure to instruments far outside my price range. This included four Strads: three were merely good, but the Golden Period one was amazing in every way and became my new tonal benchmark for what I wanted to find in an instrument that I could someday afford.
  • 2022: purchased a top-caliber antique instrument that was the closest I had experienced to the Golden Period Strad. Condition, tone, provenance were all outstanding and I had always wanted an instrument from this particular maker, and could afford it, so that was that!

So for my adult life so far, I've basically gone a decade per instrument. At this point, there's really nothing that would be an "upgrade" per se, but maybe I run into something even more magical someday? I won't rule it out, but right now I'm seriously inspired by my latest violin and I don't think I'll get tired of it any time soon. Maybe it's also worth mentioning I've only had two bows during adulthood -- a fine French bow from the 1860's that I've just upgraded to a 2023 bow from a top living bow maker for about 10% of the value of the previous one. I'm blown away by the caliber of the living makers out there and their instruments and bows represent such a great value relative to antique ones, even if that's not where I landed for my latest violin.

Do people think a decade per instrument is pretty typical? Or are there a lot of people who change instruments every couple of years like some people do with cars?

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That's an interesting question! I am a full-time professional player and teacher, a part-time amateur violin-maker, and an all-around "violin nerd" who is fascinated by all aspects of the instrument and is often consulted by colleagues on the subject of instruments. I have known players, professional and amateur, who have found THE instrument for them, and have lived a long and happy "marriage" with said instrument. I also know scores of players who are never 100% satisfied and are constantly on the lookout for something better, even when they already have a very valuable instrument.

My personal position has evolved enormously through the years, and has run the gamut from "stick with one fiddle and learn to get the most from it" to try everything out there and see what different violins can offer.

I had the uniquely lucky opportunity to grow up in a house with some 300+ violins (though mostly junk) and I remember that at every change up in size, I would play on a few dozen violins we had in stock and would usually pick one I would stick with until the next size change. Once I got to a full sized violin, I picked out one I liked and didn't change that often, and when I look back with hind-sight, and a much better understanding of what I was playing on, I realize I had passed up a number of more valuable and more highly regarded makers on the basis of sound and playability. 

When I hit my late teens and things started getting more serious, I started getting loans of some very good old italian fiddles, a Balestrieri, a Grancino, a couple of Gaglianos, and I got to play on some Strads and Guads, and I became convinced that there were violins out there that would allow me to do things with more freedom and pleasure than the violins I had at home. I started hunting for a violin in that category, but when I was in my early 20's, I got a huge surprise.

I had been holding on to a couple of new fiddles made by a maker who had become a friend, Richard Oppelt, that had been brought to town for a trial that hadn't been conclusive. The maker was going to be away for a few months so he asked me to hold on to them and play on them. I started using one for gigs, and gradually realized it was better than the Scarampella I had been playing. I started using it all of the time, and when I or my brother would take out old italians or even an ex-Kreisler Vuillaume on trial, we would compare the new Oppelt in concert halls and living rooms, and every time the new fiddle would simply blow away the expensive old fiddles. I bought it and used it for everything, concertos, orchestra auditions, orchestra playing etc. for the next 20 plus years. I dropped completely out of the "fiddle market" because that violin did everything I wanted, and it got great reactions from colleagues and audiences wherever I went.

Then something happened. I wanted something else in the sound. That violin that had been so loud, so deep, so easy to play, just "didn't do it" for me any more. Maybe a new longer sound post and tighter set-up might have done the trick, but I was smitten by the idea that I needed something else, and I started "hunting" again. I became a"regular" at several violin shops and all the auction houses, and went through lots of trials and several different violins. I also set-up a little workshop and dug out my father's old tools and started making violins in order to test out some of those ground recipes that had been revealed in the 1980's by people like Roger Hargrave.

Today I have one old italian violin I like that is my "reference" fiddle, but I'm constantly playing on the new ones I make and learning how they respond and sound differently from each other. I also change the bow I'm using regularly. At my age (60) it's fun to be constantly challenged to find new colours and timbres and new ways to make them. I think I'd get bored if I felt I knew everything my violin and bow will do in every situation and could just "dial up" the sound I want whenever I want it.

From your post, I'd say you are ripe for a change. You don't necessarily have to "trade-up", depending on what you have. If you're already in the 8-10k zone, you can find a decently large variety of tone and response in anything from 18thc german to early 20thc french to lesser known contemporary makers. If you're in a lower price category, you might have less choice, but there are gems to be found for playing qualities, and if you're not in the professional "rat-race," you can sacrifice a bit of carrying power for tone quality and easy response. 

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 I must be sentimental but I have never traded up an instrument, I have always kept each instrument I bought (at least those I intended to play with). My children are now learning to play on my old fractional sizes, and will each have a decent full size. I am a amateur though and my better ones meet my needs. Any limitations I found were solely the causes by the ability of the player. I haven't played a strad but have played a guadagnini (and wouldn't swap even if it were cost neutral).

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When to stop trading/upgrading your instrument?

Similar to a life partner. When you fall in love, you stop looking. When you start looking again, something is missing in your current relationship and you can try to fix it or look elsewhere.

Younger, older, richer or poorer doesn't mean you'll have a better relationship than what you currently have so think twice before investing a lot of your time.

Some people fall in love quickly and die with the same partner, others have multiple divorces and lose a lot of money in the hassle.

Cannot think of a better analogy to be perfectly honest. Might be different for other instruments but it's certainly like this for violins, especially after a certain price tag.

Main difference between life partners and violins is that you can keep your violins when you get a new one while is probably a tad harder to do that with your husband or wife.

Good luck!

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6 minutes ago, matesic said:

I've come across good players, members of professional UK orchestras, for whom "upgrading" is probably an unaffordable luxury. Also perhaps a false goal that won't improve their playing or further their career.

Upgrading is not always about spending more money.
There are cases where a musician can upgrade in terms of tone and playability, finding an instrument which works better for them, as a tool, yet costs less than their old one.

 

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As I wanted to respond to a particularly manipulative advertisement for a luthier, "Practice is cheaper than a new instrument."  My violin and my viola each cost less than three meals out for the family, but I don't feel like I've exhausted the possibilities of either one just yet.  You can, for example, play just as in tune and in time on a poor instrument as on a great one, and nobody is ever as in tune or in tempo as they wish they were.

That being said, there are times I really wish for more flexibility in my viola's sound — but as seldom as I perform solo or in a chamber setting, will my audience care?  I know what's me and what's the instrument, and I still can do more than I am doing without upgrading my instrument.  The work will pay off someday if I ever do upgrade.

Practice is cheaper than a new instrument.

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39 minutes ago, Altgeiger said:

You can, for example, play just as in tune and in time on a poor instrument as on a great one,

Well, setting aside the skill and perception of the player for a moment, playing in tune has a large reliance on how goodly or badly the instrument is set up. So I will take major issue with what you have asserted.

 

39 minutes ago, Altgeiger said:

Practice is cheaper than a new instrument.

Quite likely, but that kinda depends on what sort of hourly rate one is being paid for their practice time, and how expensive an instrument one purchases is, doesn't it?

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I also think it's important to distinguish between needs and wants.

You need to upgrade if you've outgrown your instrument (be it size or playability).

If you want to upgrade, and the upgrade makes you want to practice more, and you can afford it...then why not?

I'll never outgrow my good violin, but it took me several student grade instruments before I realized the instruments were holding me back.

Now with my decent-quality student cello? Well, my friend, the excellent cellist, played on a low-end student cello (while living here from overseas for a few years), and made it sound fantastic. So I know how much a good player can get out of an instrument. 

I don't expect to outgrow my cello...but if I ever do, we'll cross that bridge if I get there.

But - I did get a better bow right off the bat, and that made a huge difference! Bows are important! 

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4 minutes ago, Rue said:

Now with my decent-quality student cello? Well, my friend, the excellent cellist, played on a low-end student cello (while living here from overseas for a few years), and made it sound fantastic. So I know how much a good player can get out of an instrument. 

Yup. David Soyer, the cellist in the Guarneri quartet, toured for a while using a Suzuki cello, because he had grown tired of people asking him, "Your cello sounds great, what is it"? That enabled him to honestly answer, "It's a cheap factory instrument, a Suzuki".

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1 hour ago, David Burgess said:

…playing in tune has a large reliance on how goodly or badly the instrument is set up. So I will take major issue with what you have asserted.

I agree that setup is extremely important, no matter the quality of your instrument; I've put more than half as much money into setup on my viola as it cost, and it's worth it.  No matter how good or poor the instrument is, it's difficult to play it well if it's not set up right.  That doesn't mean you need a new instrument, though, which is what I'm talking about.

Another advantage of a cheap instrument is that it lets you know, like Soyer, that any compliments you receive are due to your skill, not the instrument.

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59 minutes ago, Rue said:

But - I did get a better bow right off the bat, and that made a huge difference! Bows are important! 

This is an excellent point, too: it's nearly impossible to develop or display a good bow technique without a good bow, and it's hard to judge a bow either a) for someone else, or b) before you have the technique to exploit it fully.

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1 hour ago, David Burgess said:

Yup. David Soyer, the cellist in the Guarneri quartet, toured for a while using a Suzuki cello, because he had grown tired of people asking him, "Your cello sounds great, what is it"? That enabled him to honestly answer, "It's a cheap factory instrument, a Suzuki".

But maybe the cheap Suzuki factory instrument was pretty good.

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Well, I remember very well playing a duo programme with a colleague who has a cello with an absolutely lovely sound, particularly on the a string.  This sound is there for any somewhat capable player to have. It is there when I play it also. When the audience noticed this difference, and started attributing this to her skills instead of the instrument, that is when I knew I had to upgrade mine.

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Upgrading can be a fraught experience. When I try out an instrument I'm easily seduced by the sounds I can get out of it. Then when I get it home I often find that those sounds aren't so impressive in a less flattering acoustic environment. "Playability" is a multifactorial thing, just as important as sound, which can't be fully evaluated without trying the instrument in a wide range of music and musical circumstances such as an orchestra or string quartet. Then comes the buyer's remorse; ultimately the thing still sounds like me and I'm not sure the improvement is worth the outlay.

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I get customers trying out instruments that are years ahead of them, that will allow them to grow, and reward their improvement for years. But they just can't hear it because they have neither the arm nor the ear yet. Adult students with more money than sense are worst here.. That's one thing I think a trusted teacher or honest dealer is for.

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