One of the questions we are asked a lot here at Fiddlershop is “why is this violin better than that one?” And while there are usually some succinct answers, I’d like to encourage you to think about this question from a different perspective.
There’s No Spec Sheet
Last week I was helping my wife shop for a new laptop, and the process was pretty simple. When shopping online we could filter out all the computers that had more than 4 GB of RAM, a solid state hard drive, an HDMI port, etc, then sort by price, and read a few reviews to confirm we were making a good choice, and that was it.
When I started thinking about this process compared to shopping for a violin, I realized just how much more nuanced musical instruments are. There isn't a spec sheet for instruments that indisputably says one is better than the other. So then, how do we know?
The first reason that makes one instrument better than the other is that the ingredients matter. Just like when cooking a fine, five course meal-the quality of the meats, the freshness of the vegetables and spices you start with dramatically impact the end result.
Likewise, the quality of wood - where it’s from, its age, how long it's been dried, its flawlessness, the wood grain width, the level of flaming (or appearance) are some of the variables the instrument makers consider.
It’d be so much easier to say “This violin has 4GB of power, and that violin has 8GB of power, so since 8 is better than 4, this one is better” but that's not how it works.
Even If you gave Rachel Ray and me the exact same ingredients and said “Go make a lasagna!” the result would worlds apart. Rachel has world class expertise, and I prefer to drive-thru Taco Bell. She has studied the great lasagna makers, has the recipes for the worlds best lasagnas, she can sense when a lasagna is going to be done, she has a “feel” for how much sauce is too much.
Likewise, instrument and bowmakers all vary in expertise and in their abilities to source the best materials and improve upon their previous work.
Speed of production
(the following is purely hypothetical)
If you wanted to eat a lasagna made by Rachel Ray, it would be expensive. She only makes a few lasagnas every year-you’d have to be invited to her house, or if you could hire her for your private party it would surely cost thousands of dollars.
Let’s suppose though that Rachel Ray decided to make her world famous lasagna more available.
The next best place where you could get her lasagna would be the restaurant connected to her TV studio. Here, professional chefs have been mentored by Rachel herself to replicate her award winning recipe. At the restaurant, two or three talented chefs carefully and faithfully prepare the delicious dish every night for a reasonably priced $72 per serving.
But even then, reservations are hard to get, there's a 6 month waiting list, and it’s not something you could afford to eat that often.
But you’re in luck, because the Rachel Ray signature lasagna is now available in the frozen aisle of your local grocery store for only $4.50 a box! This frozen meal, after being heated up looks like lasagna, smells like lasagna, and fills that lasagna shaped hole in your life. But after microwaving it for 10 minutes, it’s a little crusty on the edges, and the center is still cold.
This lasagna was made in a commercial kitchen by a larger team of food engineers. One person just makes sauce all day, one person just cooks the pasta all day, etc. If the noodle guy gets a little distracted and overcooks the noodles, the cheese lady can’t fix the noodles on the plate-her job is to put the cheese on the noodles, and then pass it off to the sauce guy.
This would be similar to how violins that cost under $300 are made. There’s still actual humans at every step along the way, even though they may use more modern, power tools that can “do the job” faster than the hand planes and knives that traditional makers use.
But before you think I’m a total snob, and that all instruments under $300 are garbage, where this analogy falls apart in regards to violin making is that as it turns out, when you do one or a few tasks all day, every day, you actually end up getting to be very good at it. You can start to see details and patterns that are only learned by seeing hundreds and hundreds of examples.
This is what has happened in many of the violin making factories in China for example. Along with incredibly low cost of labor, many of these “assembly line” style factories that make instruments have improved astronomically to the point where today, the quality of instrument for the price is unbeatable.
A Certain....”I don’t know what”
Lastly, as with most things musical, is that it’s not always so logical. I’m all for understanding how things work, so we can replicate it and form a system, but there also needs to be room for a little bit of magic, a little bit of spontaneity that doesn’t make sense, a little je ne sais pas.
Part of that magic is how an instrument responds in the hands of the player. Every human is different, approaches their instrument differently, and has differing expectations of what they want to hear.
While that doesn’t necessarily factor into the price of an instrument (because instruments are not fundamentally priced because of what they sound like), it does have a huge impact on the final decision to purchase an instrument or not.
Here at Fiddlershop, we are big believers in the importance of comparing instruments in your price range, which is why we make so many YouTube comparison videos to help our customers hear the differences.
And if you still need more time to decide for yourself, we’d love to set you up with an in-home trial so you can really feel confident about your decision.
If my lasagna metaphor didn't make any sense, or there's any questions we can help you with, don't hesitate to give us a call today.
Be well, and practice well!