Cox Violins Blog

Shopping Advice

The Scream

Edvard Munch – The Scream

Posted by Laurie, Doug’s Business Manager.

We frequently hear from prospective clients who express their frustrations, and sometimes unhappiness, with the process of shopping for an instrument. As a reluctant fan of the TLC reality TV series “Say Yes to the Dress,” I think it is useful to apply some of the rules of wedding dress shopping to the search for a new violin or viola. This may be an outstandingly silly approach, but I think there are things to be learned.

Some of the similarities are:

  • It’s a big investment
  • It’s something you don’t want to do very often
  • There are too many choices
  • Who can you trust?
  • You can find yourself in a financial pickle if you aren’t careful
  • There may be a lot of pressure from others to make a certain choice, or to make any choice and get it over with
  • There is a tendency to keep looking even after you’ve found what you want

Fortunately there are also some dissimilarities:

  • No one says you can only do this once
  • It’s OK to have more than one instrument
  • Your investment will appreciate rather than depreciate
  • Your shoes don’t matter

Here are a few things to consider before you start shopping, some inspired by TLC, others by experiences with actual instrument shoppers.

Before Getting Serious
The first step is to figure out what you’re looking for in an instrument. The best way to do this is simply to play as many instruments as possible. Borrow them from friends, stand partners, and anyone else willing to let you try out their instrument. If you’re moving up significantly in quality, it helps to spend some time playing other instruments of that level before you start looking for your own instrument more seriously.

The most important things to think about at this stage are the sound quality, comfort, and play-ability. How much power does the instrument have? Do you like the tone? Does it play easily, or do you really have to work to produce sound? A well-made instrument’s sound will improve with age, but even a new instrument should sound good. You get to choose your voice, so make sure you pick one that sounds true to yourself.

Getting Serious
As you get closer to your ideal, spend more time with the instruments that speak to you most strongly. If possible, take them for trial simultaneously to compare them, and play them in the places that you will most likely be playing and with the people you play with.

Call Ahead
Let the shop know that you are coming, and what you are looking for: do you have size restrictions? What is your budget? What sound quality do you think would suit you best? Tell them what you’ve tried, what you’ve liked, loved, or hated; what you are playing on now and what you like or dislike about it. Why are you looking? If you’re going to a maker, and you’ve tried instruments by that same maker, let them know which ones, and what you liked and why. The more information you can supply, the better prepared they will be to show you instruments that will work for you.

Know Your Budget – and Respect It
Be honest with yourself about what you can reasonably spend, and do some research to learn what you can expect to find within that budget. Know if there is some wiggle room in your price range. Don’t try instruments that you know you can’t afford.

Listen to Others – Listen to Yourself
When you first start looking, ask friends, colleagues, fellow students, and your teacher if you have one for references. You may find that your teacher is adamant about a particular instrument, or a certain maker, or having you shop at a certain store. There can be several reasons for this, but you (or your family) are making this purchase. The instrument you end up with has to make YOU happy.

Be Organized
Be methodical about trying instruments. Take notes, take recordings, take your time, and don’t try too many at any one time. Bring someone with you whose ears you trust, to listen while you try.

Know the Shop Policies
If you know where you want to shop, make sure you understand their policies on trial instruments (how long? how many?), shipping (who pays for it? how is it done?), terms of sale (do they take credit cards? what currency can you use? can you pay over time?). If you have certain requirements – such as having instruments shipped to you – find a shop or dealer who will work with your needs.

Be Willing to Wait
If nothing feels right to you, don’t purchase just to have it over with. Go home, make another appointment, or go to another store another time.

Stop Shopping When You Find It
You don’t keep dating after you’re engaged. Don’t keep shopping once you’ve found the instrument that works for you. Unlike a wedding dress, you can go back and shop again when your needs or budget changes. When you find what you love, stop shopping! 

After the Wedding
After you’ve made the big decision, the final step is to learn from the instrument you’ve chosen. Each has its own personality, so it takes time to figure out how to play each individual one. If you’ve chosen an instrument that you enjoy playing, this is the best part.

By Laurie, 3/14/14 (Pi Day)