Shopping For Two New Student Violins

I have the privilege of teaching approximately 35 violin (2 cello) students in my Guelph home studio in all music styles from classical (Royal Conservatory) to Celtic fiddle, Jazz to electric violin Rock. I love violin instruction/coaching and am blessed to work with a wonderful group of students and parents. On Monday this week I took two of my students and a parent shopping for two new full 4/4 size violins. They had both outgrown their 3/4 size instruments. For a small consulting fee, I regularly set up appointments in private and large violin shops to get the “best instrument” within a particular price range. On this day we chose three violin shops: Terry Maurice – a private dealer and restorer in Guelph, Phil Davis – a private dealer and restorer in Toronto, and Geo. Heinl & Co. Ltd. – Canada’s foremost and oldest violin shop in Toronto currently presided over by Ric Heinl. Our price range was $1500 to $2000 for the one student and $3000-$4000 for the other. I am constantly amazed by the instruments that win the “sound tests”on these violin shopping trips. Here is the process we took on Monday …

After packing our lunches and downing a much needed coffee, we started at Terry Maurice’s shop (a large main floor show room and the basement of his beautiful heritage cottage in Guelph) at 8 a.m. He had aprox. 8 instruments in our price range which we quickly boiled down to two that stood out from the rest with a beautiful full sound. These we packed into a double violin case, and before long we were on the 401 headed for Toronto for our next stop, Phil Davis.

Students with Terry Maurice

Terry Maurice and two of my students with their “trial” violins

Terry’s violins stayed in the car as we entered Phil Davis’s home studio at 10:45 a.m. (a basement walkout addition on his beautiful old Danforth home). He also had 8 or 9 instruments from which we selected the 3 best options to take with us along with 2 German bows to our next stop: Heinls.

Phil Davis and Students

Phil Davis and students with another “trial” violin

After cutting along the Danforth and weaving our way to the down town Toronto core (with a bit of crazy Toronto driving I must add!) we pulled into a back alley behind Heinls by 12 noon and found an open parking spot. Whenever I go to Heinls I always use this little known “secret” back entrance for Heinls for the “regulars”… feels like spy operation stuff: you ring a little doorbell just off the alley … and one of the workers inside asks for the secret password (Stradivarius) and let’s you in … just kidding! … but anyway … I think in the 25 years I have visited Heinls, I have only entered the main front entrance twice! This is where the real violin “trials” began. With our 5 trial instruments in hand from the Maurice and Davis shops, sales manager, Andreas, ushered us upstairs past a “who’s who” gallery of famous string players, past the famous violin workshop to a beautiful large room with comfortable leather chairs dedicated to auditioning instruments. It was here in Canada’s hallowed and oldest violin store that we started the “violin trials”. Within 15 minutes, Andreas had brought up another 20-30 instruments in our price range … we quickly went through the whole group and boiled it down to the top ten … from these violins we started using the “blindfold test” …

Heinls Audition Room

Two students and a parent in Heinl’s large “audition room”

Student Blindfold Violin Test

A student using a blindfold to test a violin in Heinl’s large “audition room”

The “blindfold test” is a final selection process where the student wears a blindfold so they only focus on the sound and feel of the instrument, not the look and name … With their blind fold on, I give them violin A, B and C to play and they tell me which one they like the best. The parent and I also listen to the tone of each as well. We continue this process of elimination until only one instrument is left. Here are a few quick tips to follow while you select a violin:

1/ Shop around at a variety of specialty violin stores. Don’t shop at general music stores that sell other instruments. Private violin shops often have some real gems so make sure you include a smaller private shop in your list of places to visit. Take the best instrument with you to the next store.

2/ Sound is everything! Don’t get caught up in the name, price, age or look of the instrument (thus the blind fold test!) Don’t worry about the look of chin rests, pegs etc

3/ You want to find a violin that sounds nice to both the player and the listener. It is possible to play an instrument that sounds very small and pinched to the players ear but sounds beautiful and full to the listener and visa versa … it is important, though, as a player to be inspired by the sound of your violin and also have the knowledge that what you are hearing is what the audience is hearing.

4/ When you are trying out the violin, play it in it’s full range from the g to the e string in a variety of positions. Scales are a good place to start (2 and 3 octave) … then play a song (the same song on each instrument) that you know well …

5/ If possible, take your teacher or another professional player who can really give the instrument a workout for you to hear as a parent or student. This can be a valuable resource.

A good online article on this topic to read is “How to choose a violin” by Peter Zaret

Student’s Winning Violin

And the winner is … a 2004 handmade violin by Christina Yankovich

To make a long story short … Monday morning’s violin shopping trip ended up with two clear winners … 1) a French turn of the century factory made violin that had been “reworked” (ribs, back and top reshaped internally to correct proportions) by Terry Maurice to produce a superior sound and 2) a handmade 2004 Stradivarius modeled violin by Christina Yankovich from the shop of Philip Davis. I guess the two small violin shops won out this time! Overall a very productive day with two very happy and newly inspired students!

You can contact: Terry Maurice in Guelph at: 519-763-8481, Phil Davis in Toronto at: 416-466-9619 and Heinl’s at: 1-800-387-7858

Until next time … TD