Choosing an Instrument

Whenever possible, one should take time and care to choose an instrument. As we move up to higher levels there are more things to take into account and more time will be needed to choose an instrument – which we will deal with in the second posting on choosing an instrument. For now, we will discuss the basic ideas that deal with all levels.

BEFORE PICKING AN INSTRUMENT

1. Know what to look for in sound

Some things are common goals for all instruments: good tone, and good tone projection. There’s a slight misconception that lower-priced instruments are all about the same, and there’s no need to try them out – I would argue that there are still differences in instruments at all ranges.

Other things are really up to the musician: whether you prefer a bright or dark tone in an instrument, or (especially for violists) if you prefer a larger instrument, or perhaps a thinner neck.

2. The importance of comparisons

Once you settle on these matters, you have a basic starting point for choosing an instrument. If this is not your first instrument, it would be good to bring your own instrument and bow to have a point of comparison.

3. Acoustics of the room

More often than not, the room for trying out a new instrument has been chosen for good acoustics. This is another reason for bringing your own instrument for comparison. For more expensive instruments it may be advisable to see if there is an option to try the instrument outside of the shop for a week – things like projection are terribly difficult to judge in a small room.

CHECKING OUT THE BASICS

The first thing to do is to make sure that all the instruments you have before you are in good working order. Check for cracks, especially those going down the grain of the wood which may be hidden somewhat. You might want to see if the bridge and the pegs are all alright – not the final determination of choosing an instrument, but good to know if these should be fixed or replaced if you should choose to get the instrument.

It can also be helpful to have a general impression of the grain on the front plate: the little lines on the wood that show how the tree has grown. Each line – or more accurately each space – shows how far the tree grew in that year. Good instruments are generally said to have small spaces (slow growing, due to colder temperatures) which can expand somewhat from the center to the sides of the instrument.

TESTING AN INSTRUMENT

1. Have someone with you

Where possible, have someone else to also try out the instrument, and stand further away to hear the sound. It tends to be different than the sound you hear when playing – the question about whether it sounds better, and how much difference will be things to think about.

2. Check across, and up and down

Try runs or scales that go from the bottom string to the top string and see how the sound blends from one string to another. For most violas, good and bad ones alike, the A string will stick out, so that’s not going to be too surprising. Also take into account the strings on the instrument – and for higher-range instruments see if there is a chance to adjust the soundpost if you would buy the instrument except for a small imbalance in the sound.

Also go up and down each string, as far up and in upper positions. See where the sound “breaks” or becomes less clear. Generally the sound should still be clear in the first five to six positions, somewhat less in the lower strings.

3. Range and pressure

Use varying amounts of pressure from the bow to see how it would react to strong accented notes (sfz). For violins, I like to think about the first few solo notes of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole.

Also see if the instrument reacts well to changes of bow pressure and bow speed – whether it provides contrasts of sounds, or put another way, whether it helps you to provide contrasts of sounds.

GENERAL TIPS

1. Try out a few instruments in the price range you are aiming for, but don’t look at each individual price tag. We tend to get too influenced by the price of an instrument, when it can be surprising that a lower-priced instrument sounds better.

2. The quality of the sound is often how many layers of sound you hear – also known as overtones. Try out a very basic 1/2 sized instrument and then listen to a really good instrument and try to pick out the overtones. This will help make a better judgment in terms of the quality of sound to look for.

3. How an instrument feels is also an important point. Some instruments are just easier to play than others, which is of course specific to the player.

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