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Pay the Piper
Upgrading your instrument
We've given a rough guide to the cost
of various instruments on our Instruments pages. These are the costs
for a good student instrument, which will be entirely adequate for
several years. Sooner or later, though, you or your teacher will start
thinking about something of better quality - by the time you reach
about Grade 5 or 6 you will begin to feel the need for an instrument
that produces a finer tone, and this can be very expensive indeed.
Among the orchestral string instruments - violin, viola, cello and
double-bass - it is very common to go for a second-hand instrument.
Frequently these provide much better tone than new ones (although a
new one from a really good violin-maker can be excellent - at a
price), and also offer better value for money. Good quality hand-made
string instruments (so not the basic factory-made student instruments,
adequate though these are for their purpose) will actually increase in
value as they get older, and it is possible to spend anything from £500
to well over £1m - if you've got that kind of money!
They can be a good investment, therefore. Professional violinists,
for instance, think nothing of paying five-figure sums, and even their
bows will usually be in four figures. Instruments up to 200 years old
can be lovely, and not ridiculously expensive. The silly money usually
applies to those instruments over 300 years old, especially those made
by the famous makers such as Stradivarius, Amati, Guarnarius and so
on. But this is the real world - forget them. Incidentally, some older
instruments have a label inside with the name "Stradivarius".
This either means they are supposed to be a copy of a famous
instrument, or the maker was trying it on! This is very common and
doesn't matter at all - even if the instrument is a sort of fake it
can still be perfectly good and worth buying if you like playing on
There is little or no danger in buying an old instrument. String
instruments are based on primitive technology and have changed very
little for several hundred years. String repairers are incredibly
skilled and not too expensive, so almost any damage or deterioration
can be made good. Don't buy one with obvious signs of woodworm,
though! Just what makes old string instruments so good is a mystery -
some say it's the secret ingredients in the varnish used in the past,
others think the wood is actually changed in some way with age and
frequent use, and most players agree that a string instrument does
improve as you use it. Almost all agree that a really fine old string
instrument can be a delight to play and hear, and a valuable
possession to love and treasure. We know a young violinist who talks
Finding one is the problem. Very few local music shops carry stocks
of older string instruments, so you need to find a specialist dealer
which might mean traveling a long way. Your teacher may be able to
point you in the right direction, or search on the Internet (try
asking your search engine for "uk+violin+dealers"), or in
the British Music Yearbook (published by Rhinegold). All violin
dealers also sell violas; many sell 'cellos; some sell double-basses.
There are not very many specialist cello or double-bass dealers,
although they do exist.
Decide how much you wish or can afford to pay, and ask to be shown
several alternative instruments. It is normal to be allowed to
take one or more instruments away for a couple of weeks so you can try
it out and ask your teacher's advice - if the dealer won't let you do
this, find another dealer!
In making your choice the most important factor by far is - do you
like playing the instrument? It's going to be a big part of your life
for years, so any other consideration is minor by comparison. If you
don't like playing the instrument more or less straight away, forget
it however good other people say it is. Even if it's in poor
condition, string repairs are not very expensive. Strings, pegs,
bridge, tailpiece etc. are easily replaced, and so is the case. Bows
are another matter, though - it's possible to pay just as much for a
really good bow as for a violin! You are more likely to buy a
brand-new bow than a brand-new violin at this level, and once again
the only important criterion is - do you like using it?
Buying a second-hand string instrument from a private seller is also
a possibility - perhaps through personal contact, or through your
teacher and his or her contacts, or from an advertisement - but in
this case you will need to take advice. You don't need advice about
whether to buy it, as this depends on whether you like it or not. But
you certainly should find a dealer or repairer who can look at the
instrument and advise you how much you should be paying for it.
Woodwind and brass instruments
In woodwind and brass the situation is rather different. Most people
do not buy second-hand when upgrading their instrument, but go to a
reputable maker and simply buy a more expensive and better quality
instrument. And the silly prices that can apply to the very best
violins certainly don't apply here. If you have reached about Grade 5
or 6, think in terms of less than £1,000 for your next flute,
clarinet, saxophone, trumpet or trombone, a little more for an oboe or
a horn, and perhaps twice or three times as much for a good tuba or
Go to a good dealer, take their advice, try the instruments out in
the shop and see what you like playing most. The dealer may sometimes
allow you to take one away for a trial, but this is less common than
it is with string instruments. As with the cheaper instruments, once
you have made a choice you can buy with confidence as there is little
or no rubbish on the market.
If you are thinking of buying second-hand, make sure that the
instrument is by a reputable maker and don't buy one that is more than
fifteen or twenty years old. Even so, it may require an overhaul so
get a repairer to check it out for you. Also, make sure you get the
instrument checked by a more experienced player - you don't want to
buy one that has an unusual key- or valve-system, or that is in an odd
key like a C clarinet or the highly specialised "Bach"
trumpet, by mistake.