Monday, June 26, 2017


Most people don't have a clue about purchasing a string instrument, and there are many mistakes that can be made.

Here's the most important fact:  It is ALWAYS best to purchase from a legitimate violin dealer's shop.  Here you will have the largest selection of instruments in a wide range of prices, and you have the advantage of dealing with a specialist who can educate you in the process.  Violin shops also provide the most careful setups (very important if one wants the instrument to work right.)

Full-line music stores (those which sell all kinds of instruments--guitars, trumpets, pianos, etc.) can be good places to rent an instrument for a beginner, but for purchase of a more advanced  instrument, they are not the best source.  Their prices are usually high in relation to the quality level, they usually do not have as wide a selection,  the setups can often be unreliable, and competent on-site repair and adjustment is rare.

Mail-order string specialty houses are usually more expensive than a local violin shop, but their more advanced instruments are usually set up well, and these people do aim to please.

NEVER buy any string instrument from on-line sources, since quality is unreliable and service is non-existent.  Likewise, never buy an instrument from a warehouse store (where you can also find clothing, washing machines and groceries), since no one in any of these stores knows anything about string instruments and most likely neither do you. But at least you can usually return your mistake.

Any violin dealer should allow you to take any instrument home on approval for at least a week without putting any money down.  Use this time to play the instrument at home, in an ensemble if possible (to see how it "fits") and get the opinion of your teacher or a competent player friend.

Understanding pricing is tricky. This is why you need to trust the dealer to give you reliable information. Remember, the dealer wants you to be happy.  Old instruments usually seem to cost more than new ones, but they often don't play as well, and they can be more delicate and "fussy" to take care of.  My advice is to invest in the best new instrument you can afford.

Once you decide on an instrument, choose a bow you can afford which allows the instrument to speak clearly and freely. The bow also needs to behave well in your hand. Try playing legato, staccato, spiccato, loud, soft, crescendo, decrescendo, etc.  The best bows (and the most expensive) are made of Pernambuco wood, a tropical hardwood from the state of Pernambuco in Brazil. Avoid "brazilwood" or any unnamed wood.  Bows made from carbon fiber can be an excellent substitute for Pernambuco at a much lower price.  Be sure the carbon fiber bow is not "carbon-composite", but true carbon fiber. These bows should carry brand names which you can look up on line.   Most people are shocked to learn what a bow costs.  As a guide, a violin or viola bow should cost about 1/3 to 1/2 as much as the instrument. A cello bow  should be about 1/4 the cost of the instrument.

Basses are a specialty item. Most violin shops don't even bother with them--they can't spare the space. You should seek out and go to a bass specialty shop and let them educate you.

After you find the right place to look for an instrument, you'll need to have a designed approach to trying several instruments in your price range--or perhaps a couple of price ranges.  In my next post, I'll lay out a suggested plan for testing and evaluating an instrument.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 23, 2013


Every time I shop for instruments I get a new case of "sticker shock." Prices always seem to be rising. Fortunately, it is still possible to find quality in most price ranges.

What matters more than country of origin is the quality of materials and workmanship, the setup, the tonal characteristics and playability of the instrument.  Country of origin can affect the price, often enhancing the value of a less-expensive instrument.  All of these qualities are of utmost importance to a dealer, which reinforces the case for purchasing an instrument from a specialty string shop skilled in evaluation and setup, and avoiding the internet like the plague!   With respect to commercial "step-up" instruments, Edlund's law almost always applies: you get what you pay for. As a corollary, a business-owner friend of mine offered this observation: "Price, quality, service--pick any two."

Any dealer can educate a teacher on what features to look for at each price point. Teachers should be sure to play the instruments and bows in each of the price ranges their students should be shopping for, since the proof is in the pudding.  Teachers have an obligation to stay abreast of the market. 

As with any business, one doesn't have to dig very deeply to find some distasteful practices. In the violin business, these can include outrageous markups, misleading representations, and sometimes out-and-out counterfeiting. So it's important for teachers to find dealers they trust, and build the relationships that enable them to work effectively on behalf of their students.  Students and their parents are more apt to trust their teacher than a dealer, so teachers have a responsibility to be familiar with the offerings of dealers in their area. I hasten to add that it is unethical for any teacher to accept a commission (i.e., a "kick-back")  from any seller under any circumstances.  Dealers who do this are able to do it because they are overcharging for their instruments. A good dealer builds his reputation on quality products, honest pricing and excellent service, not on bribery.  And teachers are NOT sales associates.

Shopping for an instrument should be an interesting learning experience with (hardly any) stress. A good relationship between teacher, parent, and dealer will help make this happen.  The dealer wants to continue to serve his clients in the future, and teachers and parents want a dealer who can provide quality service. Teachers should encourage parents to invest in the highest quality instruments they can afford, because using such an instrument helps the student make the most of his/her potential.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


We recently returned from Italy where we took in Mondomusica, an annual exhibition featuring handmade string instruments, wood and tools for makers, bows, cases and accessories from nearly four hundred exhibitors.  There were also many lecture and discussion sessions (mostly in Italian) and some very fine concert performances.  All of this takes place in Cremona, hometown of Stradivari and the "mecca" of violinmaking, with nearly two hundred makers working in and around the city.

This was our fourth visit to Cremona. Every time there is something new, but many things stay the same, so visiting Cremona is a lot like visiting an old friend. In fact, we relish renewing the Cremonese friendships we have made over the years. Cremona is a small city and very walkable. It's not on the "tourist radar" at all, but there are many interesting shops and stores, wonderful restaurants and some very good museums, not all of which are related to violins. While I spend most of the daylight hours at the exhibition, Marj covers the town shopping and exploring.

I think every string player should visit Cremona at least once, and Mondomusica is a great excuse to go; to be able to look at, handle, and play on so many fine instruments in one place, as well as to meet and talk with the makers and dealers.  One can learn much and make many contacts with like-minded people from around the world.  Probably 90% of the exhibitors are European: mostly from Italy, France and Germany. There is an increasing presence of eastern European (Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian and Polish) makers who offer some very nice instruments at believable prices, as opposed to the unbelievable prices of many of the French and Italian makers.  The number of Asian exhibitors has decreased over the past few years, perhaps due to the growth of Asian shows like the one in Shanghai.  I saw no American makers, and the reason is probably economic--costs of exhibiting and transporting along with the sorry state of our dollar.  However, Mondomusica is mounting a show in New York City in January, and I'm betting most of the instruments there will be American.

Trips like this are renewing for me, much as attendance at music educator conferences has always "jacked me up." In many ways, my beliefs have been reaffirmed, but I always come away with new ideas, contacts and information to share.  In my next post, I'll share some instrument findings with you.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


First off, I'm not going to comment on the private instruction high school students are or are not getting, except to say this: It's rare for a high school orchestra to have more than 20% of its members studying priately on their instruments.  For the other 80%, the only technical advancement they'll get will come through the school orchestra. If your group has 100% private study going, good for you! You don't need to be reading this unless you want to ponder how the other 99% of us get along (not a bad idea, actually.)

There's a strong temptation to focus more exclusively on literature at the high school level, but this is a huge mistake. Concert literature simply cannot be used be used to build good technique, but focusing on direct technical instruction will give students what they need to handle performance literature. Skills will stick with them and carry over, eliminating that trip back to "square one" for every new piece of music.

My solution to this problem is "Scales, Arpeggios and Chorales", by Ian Edlund, published by String Instrument Specialists and available from your sheet music dealer. This material covers what I consider essential technique for high school orchestras and allows the teacher lots of room for creative applications. It presents unbroken two-octave scales (major and minor) through four sharps and four flats, with corresponding arpeggios, carefully fingered for each instrument. There is also a Bach-harmonized chorale in each key.  I suggest pairing this material with "A Rhythm a Week", by Anne Witt, which does a great job of building rhythmic reading and understanding through exercises very well-written (idiomatic) for strings. Work with this material should occupy 20-25% of class time; however, with performance demands at this level being what they are, that 25% figure may not happen every day, or even every week.  But over time it needs to average 25%.

That leaves 75% of the time for "real" music. The main focus at this level should be on masterwork-caliber pieces for both full and string orchestra, using works from all musical periods, cultures and styles. Bear in mind that we are educators,  not entertainers, and everything we do needs to reflect that. Beware of pop tunes and movie music--cheese is still cheese. The criteria of involvement for all the instruments, appropriateness to instructional goals, and inherent musical value should still apply.

It's always great to play original works, but don't downplay the value of a well-done arrangement which might better suit your needs. And, if a concert includes five works, only one or two should really tax the group (but remember: everything has to sound good.) Two should be less demanding, needing only a moderate amount of rehearsal/teaching time. One piece should be undemanding but still contain teachable moments and be of interest to listeners.  There's also a place for "rehearsal room music" which will never see the concert stage but still can provide valuable experiences for students. Teachers using these ideas as guidelines will give their students  a broad range of musical experiences over course of a year.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Over the past several years as I attend conferences around the country and visit the exhibit areas, I've noticed an interesting  trend developing. Displays of instruments and sheet music are becoming fewer and are being replaced by  tour operators, promoters of festivals at far-flung destination resorts, uniform suppliers, and hawkers of every conceivable fundraising idea. It feels like I've fallen down the rabbit hole into a  wonderland where music is a lower priority.

Why are these enterprises becoming so prominent?  Obviously, they are proliferating because there is a market, and that disturbs me a bit. A lot of money is being spent on these ancillary activities. Since funding for these pursuits is never from school district budgets, it becomes incumbent on students and/or parents to raise the money. A lot of effort and time will be expended, and all of the money will leave town. The resulting student motivation might be for  the wrong reasons. Community identification with and benefit from the musical activities could well be hard to discern. Simply put: is it necessary to raise and spend all this money to teach music effectively?

As music educators, we must instill in our students the importance of their performances being the very best no matter who or where the audience is.  I submit we owe more to the parents and school people who make music possible for our kids than we owe to any out-of-town audience.

So much for my rant. I will admit views like mine probably come with "maturity." There was a time when I wanted to show colleagues with big names what a successful teacher I was, and travel seemed like a good opportunity. But I found that although I was a pretty good music teacher--I loved music and kids--I wasn't comfortable (and consequently wasn't successful) with raising money. So I decided to do all I could to help my students become successful players who loved music and each other, hoping that love of music would always be with them.  I decided those were noble goals, and I resolved not to lose sight of them.

In the end, each of us has to work within our own comfort zone to create meaningful and memorable experiences for our students. It wouldn't hurt to remember that we owe the most to our communities, and our students should be anxious to serve the cause of music at home first and foremost. Efforts devoted to the cause of music will pay back much more than effort expended on fundraising, glitzy uniforms, competitions and travel.  And that's as it should be, since it reflects what we are: music teachers.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


The method books discussed in the previous post usually include two or three volumes. Volume One is almost always clear, direct and usable despite differences in approach or appearance. The problems arise in the later volumes as the instrument techniques become more divergent. It's generally advisable to dump Volume Two about halfway through (if you use it at all) and use structured specific technical material as multiple parts and performance pieces are added to the mix. The technical material may be in book form, but beware of excess padding. Do we really need two pages of bowing and rhythmic variations written out for each major scale? Take time to carefully examine how shifting and playing in higher positions are introduced.

I'm a firm believer in the value of scales to reach most technical goals, so for me a scale-based book is best. And (ahem...) I just happen to have assembled two which work well and allow for teacher creativity.  "Patterns and Positions for Strings" by Ian Edlund is published by String Instrument Specialists and is available from any sheet music dealer.  This book matches what I consider the main technical expectations of middle school players. It presents the concept of finger patterns, two-octave unbroken scales in C, G, D, F and B-flat major, studies in thirds, shifting, and chromatics, all carefully fingered. There's also a simple four-part chorale in each key, with melody and harmony lines for each instrument which increases their versatility. For good development, students should spend half their class time daily on pure technical instruction.

"Concert" music at this level needs to be very carefully chosen because  a lot of it isn't very good, and it may be "dumbed down" so much that only first violinists get any challenge at all. Besides finding the appropriate technical level, look for movement and interest in all of the parts. Two- and three-part writing and arrangements which contain a lot of unison work can be very valuable at this level, to develop tone quality, blend and accurate pitch.  It's important to select pieces in a variety of styles and musical periods, always with concern for musical value.  Pop, rock and movie themes are almost always cheesy hack arrangements which are seldom idiomatic for string instruments and are usually out-dated before we get them. Kids may be initially excited by the titles, but the tunes will wear thin very quickly.  And they have no lasting value, thus no "shelf life" in your library.  Watered down Beethoven is far preferable.

It's a teacher's job to use great music to inspire students. When that watered-down Beethoven or easy Handel and Mozart come alive for kids, that connection will stick, lives may be changed, and kids will hold onto the effect of that teaching for a long time. There are great arrangements (and not-so-great ones) of the classics out there.  There are also many excellent original compositions published every year for students at these ability levels.  So search carefully, compare notes with your colleagues, and attend a good reading workshop.

In addition to all the above, it's important to keep in mind that no matter what, the orchestra has to look and sound good!  It all comes back to constant attention to fundamentals of technique.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


I believe the most important task facing string educators is the selection of materials. Informed, careful choices go a long way toward insuring success. Unlike many in education, most music teachers enjoy the luxury of nearly complete freedom in choosing instructional materials.

The basis of instruction at any grade level is appropriate technical training material. This may be a method book or supplemental material to teach more specific technical skills. I generally refer to these materials as "the book."  Working systematically in "the book" is the only way to insure technical advancement. Working with "the book" should continue from the beginning level through high school.

Coupled with rote activities, "the book" should be virtually the only music that  first-year students see. To insure good setup as well as ear, pitch and tonal development, all of the first year's work should be in unison. Years of trial an error have convinced me of the truth of this belief.

There are many choices of basic method books, and all of them have strengths and weaknesses. They may use a gestalt approach or a mind-numbing one-finger-and-one-note-value-at-a-time presentation. The choice is yours.  Some methods are very trendy and may be overloaded with graphics, technology and assorted "bling." Look past this. The most important factors are the logic of the way the notes and skills are presented and the progression of activity.  Some methods also bombard you with tons of supplementary materials options, most of which may be unnecessary. Simple is good. Direct is even better.

Remember that the book is a tool for you to use as you deem appropriate to teach your desired skills. You are the teacher--the book isn't.  Remember also that the perfect method book hasn't been written yet and probably never will be.  So look them over carefully, discuss them with your colleagues, and choose the one that looks best to you. Then improvise as needed.  Virtually 100% of the first year's work should be from the the basic method book.

My next posts will deal with materials issues and ideas for advancing students (2nd to 4th year) and for high school students.  It's timely to throw these ideas around now since they can serve as a springboard into this summer's W-ASTA Birch Bay String Teachers' Workshop, which always has a heavy emphasis on materials and literature.