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AUGUST 19, 2022    

Getting Equipped
By James N. McKean

Copyright held by author; all rights reserved.


Sooner or later, if you have embarked on the course of learning to play a musical instrument, you will start wanting one of your own. The chances are pretty good that it will be sooner rather than later; there is something about the process of making music that is so personal that using someone else's equipment begins to feel like living permanently out of a hotel room. Many musicians, of course, play on instruments that have been loaned to them, antiques that only the top handful of classical musicians could ever even dream of owning; but these musicians will always have their own instrument and bow-or more likely, selection of bows- close at hand, ready to use if necessary. Finding the right violin or cello is like getting married; once you have made your choice, you will be spending as much time with your instrument as you most likely will with your family (probably a lot more; one study has found that the average amount of time spent in actual family social interchange is somewhere around fifteen minutes a day). In some ways, if you are entertaining the prospect of a professional career in music, the choice can be even more important; while your social arrangements determine how you live your life, your choice of an instrument can have a decided impact on your ability to make a living. Considering the importance of the decision, it is odd how little time most people devote to it.

There is a bewilderingly large selection of instruments and bows to choose from. As products of human endeavor, they are most unique; even with the heaviest use, they can last for centuries. Imagine getting a car today that will still be tooling along four hundred years from now-original upholstery still intact. While instruments and bows are vulnerable to misuse, and many have disappeared in the vicissitudes of time, there are still a lot of them around. Since the first classical violins that we know of made their appearance in Northern Italy, one estimate has it that more than forty thousand craftsmen have devoted their energies to adding to the ranks. The backlog has created a trade in antiques that far outshadows that in newly made instruments, and with the long and distinguished history of the craft has grown an equally powerful mythology. In making the choice of your instrument and bow, how well you understand this mythology, and put it to use, will be a key factor in how successful you are.

The most important step, and it might be surprising to know usually the one most people overlook, is to sit down and think out precisely what it is you need the instrument to do for you. As small as the world of classical music might seem to be, it still encompasses a wide range of participants-covering the gamut from aspiring pre-college students to amateurs just beginning their study in later years. Financial resources are just as broad; the parents of one student at Juilliard might buy him a Stradivari cello to begin his career, while another turns up at the same auditions with the instrument that she had in high school. However, for those whose parents didn't have the foresight to be fabulously wealthy, there is hope: when looking for a violin, more money doesn't necessarily get you better sound. Just as common as hearing "what a fabulous fiddle!" is the somewhat lame "yes, but it's a Strad"-the latter said with a knowing lift of the eyebrows, as if what's on the label can remedy the deficiencies that reach the ear. The overriding fact to be kept in mind about the violin market is that it is, essentially, an antique market; and in an antique market, consideration-value-is established by authenticity, quality, and condition. While the factors that go into the pricing structure of the violin business do include musical ones, you will find that there are just as often other ones that have just as much-sometimes even more- of an effect on the price. They are important, and well worth paying for-but the key thing to remember is that you might not have to pay for them. Set your priorities; as in buying a car, or a house (many musicians spend as much or even more on their instrument than they ever will on a house), establish what you need first, and then what would be nice to have.

Authenticity, quality, condition-but what about sound? If it's a factor, why isn't it the most important? After all, we are talking about musical instruments; it's only natural to expect that how well they work musically-the quality of the sound, the response, the projection-would be at the top of the list. Likewise for a bow; the primary consideration would seem to be its playability. But right away we run into a problem-which is why the sound of an instrument, or the playability of the bow, is not as much a factor in the pricing scheme as you might think. The fact is that while sound itself can be quantified-the overtones can be identified and measured, the decibels at every pitch accurately gauged- what is called a great sound cannot. Musicians, in judging an instrument, also consider such intangibles as playability and projection-the ability of the instrument to sing. Instruments are very much like people; while we each have an independent character, we show a different side in different settings. The character of a violin that a musician finds and brings out is for the most part only that aspect of it that suits their style. Most dealers, in assessing the value of an instrument, don't bother listening to it, much less playing it themselves (if they can even play, which many can't). One of the leading dealers of rare violins once remarked that the sound of an instrument will have no effect on its price; it will only affect how long it takes to sell it (of course, part of that is experience; after hearing several thousand instruments you can get a very good idea of how something will sound by looking at it). The upshot is that it is very difficult to assign a price to something based on an attribute that can't be objectively defined, and so it tends to diminish as a factor in the pricing.

In order to make your choice of an instrument or bow an informed one, it will be necessary to know not just what it is you need, but how the market is structured. In the coming months, we will take a closer look at each of the factors that contribute to the pricing of instruments. Prior to that, though, it is important to review briefly the history of violinmaking-to take a quick look at what, exactly, is out there to be played on. What we don't need is yet another review of the great names of the past; rather, we should look at what the makers were producing, and more importantly, whom they were making their instruments for. We need to know something of the world in which these instruments were to be played to understand what the makers had in mind. While there is ample room for altering the sound of just about any instrument, there are limits. Every instrument has a character; and while it is possible to adjust the balance-to highlight different aspects of the sound-the essential dimension cannot be altered. Every decision made by the maker-whether conscious or otherwise-sets a parameter. It begins with the choice of wood and the selection of the model, and continues with the way the arching is carried out and the soundholes are placed, and is then set with the application of the ground and the varnish. These basic factors will create the character of the instrument; and since each has a discernible effect on the result, we can decide whether an instrument from a particular school or maker will suit your needs, regardless of how it fits in the larger market.

     James N. McKean has been making, restoring, and dealing in fine violins in New York City since 1977, when he graduated from The Violinmaking School of America. His articles regularly appear in Strings Magazine, for which he is a Corresponding Editor. He has served in a number of positions on the Board of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, including President.

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