current issue 1/2008

Looking For Your Next Instrument
By Wendela Moes

"As long as you have done your preparation and know what you like, you can follow your own taste and instincts and automatically end up with what's best for you."

Almost everyone who has looked for a new instrument will tell you that it is a nerve racking, exasperating, exhausting, time consuming task. But, with a little preparation, you can have the confidence and knowledge to make the job interesting, pleasurable, and ultimately rewarding.

Before you waste time and money going around looking for instruments, play every instrument you can get your hands on from friends, teachers, and stand partners. Play every instrument at length for-hours, not minutes.
Instruments come in all different materials and builds, and they will make subtle, or even drastic, demands on your technique before you get the best sound. Chances are great that the technique you use on your present instrument won't be an instant success on others. This does not make them bad instruments. Try changing the bow speed, pressure, and sounding points. Be able to play on different kinds of strings. After doing this for a while, you will get used to changing instruments and finding out how each responds. Discuss the pros and cons of each with their owners and anyone else who cares to take part. This is very good for opening your eyes and ears, and will help you develop a definite opinion of what good sound is and what suits you best. Unless you know this, you don't really need to change instruments. Then, with new ears and playing ability, you can start looking for an instrument. It is sad to see how many people looking for a better instrument merely end up with a louder version of what they already have.

But first, check your financial situation. You need to know your available funds. Promises need to be nailed down, otherwise you may get all excited about an instrument only to find out that a promised loan is not forthcoming. Don't count on trade­ins. With the high price of instruments, more and more instruments are sold on a consignment basis. The previous owner usually does not want an instrument; he or she wants to be paid. Dealers are not able to buy back all these instruments at near­retail prices.

Try all instruments up to your dollar ceiling. There is no use in going beyond that; it only makes you discontented with what you can afford. Make sure you bring your own bow (BYOB), so that you are not dealing with a second big variable. This is very important. If you are considering an instrument and bow, look for an instrument first. It is easier to find a bow to match your instrument than an instrument to match your bow.
Once you have found an instrument you like, here are a few things not to do:

  • Don't bring it to another dealer and ask his or her opinion. If this is hard to understand, imagine this scenario: You are a free­lance musician in New York City with lots of bills but rather irregular work. Jobs are few and far between. An agent calls you up and asks you to recommend a rival for a job you could be doing and badly need. How do you feel ? What are you going to say? A lot of people would have trouble with that, and this is analogous to what you would be asking the dealer to do.
  • Don't ask other people to play it for you. Everybody has a different sound. You won't be learning what your instrument sounds like when you play it. This is a problem solvable by asking people to listen only.
  • Don't take other people's opinions more seriously than you take your own. No one is more interested in your well-being than you. There is only one person who is going to play this instrument- you. By this time you should know what you like. If you can't tell the difference between two instruments, then for you there is no difference; neither one is better. Another person will have different tastes and may prefer one or the other. These other opinions will only be confusing and can spoil your fun. People come to us all the time, saying: "I like this violin, but dealer X said such and such and dealer Y said something else. My teacher doesn't like it. I just don't know who to trust." Our answer to this is to say that the only person you need to trust is yourself. As long as you have done your preparation and know what you like, you can follow your own taste and instincts and will automatically end up with what is best for you.

Although I am writing about how, not where, to look for an instrument, it pays to know your options:

  1. Dealers with repair workshops.
  2. Dealers without repair workshops. (Sometimes called "wheeler dealers.")
  3. Player/teacher dealers. (Yes, they are dealers, too.)
  4. Auction houses.
  5. Private individuals making a one-time sale.

Some myths are worth mentioning here. The dealers with workshops are not necessarily the most expensive. They also generally give their owners priority repair service, and maintain high standards of repair quality. They have a lot at stake if you as a customer are unhappy.

Dealers without shops, including player/teachers, are often thought to be "bargain" sources because of low overhead. This "ain't necessarily so." Their prices are usually comparable. People who sell things for a living have a way of knowing the market and if they stray a whole lot, there is a reason. They also know less about repairs and can be overly optimistic about condition and, therefore, price.

The auction houses have invested heavily in the last ten years in encouraging private people to buy at auction along with the dealers who have been their traditional customers. But their viewing procedures-which were geared to dealers, not players-haven't essentially changed.

This means it's next to impossible at an auction to put into practice much of the advice I offered earlier. Hoping for bargains, people are willing to put up with poor viewing times and lighting. Some instruments aren't playable at all, and none can be taken out and played in halls, shown to friends, or played in a trial concert. Repairs and wrong parts aren't generally mentioned in catalogues. One has no control over the time of sale or price, which often has more to do with politics and the mood of the other bidders than actual values of the instruments. Prices can just as easily be too high as too low. Again, if the price is low, there is often a reason. Bidding goes on in a very charged and competitive atmosphere conducive to over­bidding. Nobody would tolerate this treatment from a dealer.

Private owners with a one­time sale usually have little knowledge or authenticity. Sometimes their instruments are genuine and in good condition, sometimes not. The prices are often set by the last insurance appraisal, or the owners have consulted someone. Occasionally there are good buys to be had. But would you sleep well, having paid a little old lady half, or less, the market value for her late husband's Guadagnini?

I have left for last the two thorny questions of authenticity and investment value. It is true that the identity of the actual maker of an instrument is sometimes a matter of opinion. Since it won't help to show instruments to other dealers, the only solution we know is to buy from someone whose opinion you respect, or to buy an instrument with a genuine and respected certificate. Buying from an established dealer is another safeguard. In this case, you have legal recourse if the instrument is not what it is supposed to be.

Although an instrument can be seen as an investment by the professional musician, it is really a tool. It should be in sufficiently good condition to be reliable and give you the best sound and playability you can find within the limits of your finances. If these requirements are met, the instrument should not be difficult to resell at its market value. To buy a big­name instrument is not a guaranteed good investment. You pay a premium for the name, while the work of a less well known maker may give you more instrument for the money. It is important, also, not to spend more than you comfortably can. Possessing even the finest instrument won't compensate for a life of financial struggle.

STRINGS, (www.stringsmagazine.com ) the quarterly magazine in which this article originally appeared, "one can't imagine a better written, more authoritative magazine than this for the stringed instrument enthusiast," in the words of Library Journal.

Copyright by "Strings Magazine"


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