Learn to cultivate good violin-shop relations
As a string musician, you understand the importance of your instrument and bow. They are objects with which you form a close personal relationship and like all good relationships, it has to be cared for. Once you've invested the time, money, and effort in finding the best instrument and bow, you will need help nourishing and maintaining that relationship. Stringed instruments are finicky, even temperamental, especially as they get older. They are fragile and can be damaged if not cared for properly. They also need regular care and maintenance. This kind of care isn't something you can provide yourself; it requires the efforts of someone who is a specialist in the art and craft of violin restoration and parts.
If you value and depend on your instrument and bow, you should put thought and care into choosing a professional to care for them, just as you would choose a doctor to care for your body. And any doctor will tell you if you take care of your body, it will take care of you.
This is where your violin shop comes in. Having a shop you can count on can provide a great sense of security. The shop staff will get to know both you and your instrument. Your violin specialist will get to know your likes and dislikes and should have a record of what strings you have used in the past.
CHOOSE A SPECIALIST
The shop you choose should meet certain standards. The luthiers who do the work on your instrument and bow should be well trained. They can receive this training in several ways. They can attend one of the violin-making schools; there are a number of these here in the United States and around the world. These courses are usually followed with an extensive training period under the guidance of a master craftsman.
Some luthiers choose to bypass the school and work directly with a master maker before setting up their own shop. The master or head of the shop should oversee everything that is done. In my opinion, you can't call your business a violin shop if the work is sent out to someone else.
If you value your instrument, don't let someone work on it who repairs all kinds of other instruments (guitars, clarinets, saxophones, and drums, for example).
The staff at the front may not be the repair personnel themselves, but they should be knowledgeable. In most cases, they are string musicians and the front counter is the best place to learn the profession. They should be able to advise you about repairs, strings, and accessories, and be of great help in choosing an instrument or bow. I've worked behind the counter at Ifshin Violins in Berkeley, California, for 21 years and have seen every kind of instrument and all the damage that can befall them. I have tried every string and accessory and have played thousands of instruments. You should expect a good violin shop to have experienced personnel.
A good violin shop should have a respectable selection of instruments and bows available in a range of qualities and prices. If a shop has a rental program (and most seem to these days), the instruments should be well maintained and set up.
It's hard enough to learn to play without the handicap of a poorly set up and maintained violin. A good violin shop will take pride in both the work and the instruments that leave its business because it will stand behind what it does. Its new student instruments should be set up by the shop craftspeople, not by the factory in China or Romania or Germany where they were made, nor by the wholesaler in some other part of the country.
There are good violin shops all over the world from which to choose. If you live in a large metropolitan area - like the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, where there are several shops in just one building, or Paris, where there are about 20 shops on one street alone - choosing a shop shouldn't be too difficult. Just do some research.
In other areas, it will take a bit more work. The first step in finding a shop is to ask fellow musicians for recommendations. You would do this if you were looking for a doctor, plumber, or auto mechanic; why not for a violin shop? Ask as many people as possible. If someone doesn't ask a certain shop, ask why. After a while, a pattern will emerge. If you have just moved to a new area, ask your old shop for a referral.
Next, go to the shop for a visit. Talk to staff members and see if you will be able to work easily with them. If you are a teacher, look at their rentals and student instruments available for sale. Check their selection of strings and accessories and the professionalism of the staff. Sadly, there are people in the violin business who shouldn't be there. One thing these people seem to have in common is an ability to promote themselves. They usually have an abundance of charm, but lack real skill and training and are often dishonest. If you ask enough musicians, you will find out who they are.
Once you have chosen a violin shop you feel you can work with, what should you expect? Most importantly, professionalism and communication. If you need to leave your instrument for work, you should get an explanation of what work will be done, an estimate of the cost, and a completion time. If the time required for completion seems long, remember that some work takes a great deal of time and can't be rushed, especially anything to do with varnish and retouching.
If you were undergoing major surgery, you wouldn't want the surgeon to rush so he could get to the next patient. You would want him to work slowly and carefully. So it should be with your violin. Keep in mind that as the work progresses, other problems may become evident. You should be notified if this is the case and asked before extra work is done.
Expect to pay a fair price for the work. These days, plumbers and electricians charge $100 an hour and up and most of them don't require the extensive training violin makers and craftsmen do. Recently I left my car at a local repair shop. I picked it up a day later, leaving $1,500.00 for the work. I doubt that the person who did the work had anything like the training our repair staff does. Your violin shop should stand behind its work, so if you have any questions about what was done, don't be afraid to ask. You should never feel intimidated.
There was a time, many years ago, when violin dealers had a tendency toward abruptness and grumpiness. I know of one dealer who, when told that a violin had lost its sound, snapped, "Go home and practice." Most of these folks are gone now.
If you have a real emergency and need a repair done quickly, a shop should make every effort to fit you in. Do try to be understanding. The workshop may have five other emergencies waiting in line. If you are a loyal customer of the shop, they may give it extra effort.
What if you are on the road, away from your home base and have an emergency? Call the shop. If the problem is something simple, the repair specialist may be able to talk you through it. If not, he or she may be able to refer you to someone trustworthy.
Shops often have a network of dealers they know. They may be able to call a shop where you are and make sure it can accommodate you. If there is no one to help, you may need to ship the instrument back for repair. You can get instructions on how to pack it securely.
If you are looking for an instrument or bow for yourself, I suggest that you go to your favorite shop first and try what it has. The staff should be forthcoming about specifically what each instrument is, the price, and other information. If the shop doesn't have what you are looking for, its staff may be able to find something for you for any number of sources.
If you go to other dealers and take an instrument out, don't bring it to your dealer for an appraisal. This puts your shop in a very awkward position.
Whatever is said about the instrument will have a way of getting back to the dealer, especially if it's negative, causing bad feelings at best and threats of litigation at worst. If you don't trust the dealer you've taken the instrument from, you shouldn't do business there.
Communication is the key. With repairs, let the shop know what you need and discuss it openly. Explain what you would like the results to be, but don't expect miracles and don't expect involved repairs at the snap of a finger!
1: When taking instruments or bows out on trial for possible purchase (any good shop should allow you to do this) bring them back by the agreed return date. Habitually keeping them out too long ties up a shop's inventory and keeps them from being shown to other customers.
2: Every teacher I know hates the cheap ($50 to $100) "Internet Special" violins. The possible set-up cost may exceed the value of the instrument. Many shops won't touch them. Consider renting instead.
3: If your shop spends time helping you choose strings, chinrests, shoulder rests, or other accessories, support your local shop. Resist the temptation to buy them where they might be a bit cheaper.
4: Shops are becoming reluctant to do appraisals. If you bring an instrument to your dealer, be honest about where it came from and why you want the appraisal.
5: If you do buy an instrument from another dealer or directly from a maker, it is better to take the instrument back to the source for follow-up work and adjustment. This is especially true with makers, who tend to be very propietary about their work. This situation can be awkward for a shop.
DON'T FEEL INTIMIDATED
As a teacher, you should expect your shop to treat your students respectfully. Berkeley teacher Annmarie Suderman told me that students and parents can feel intimidated when they come to a shop looking for an instrument or bow mostly because of their lack of knowledge.
The shop should first make them feel welcome and comfortable, and explain everything, giving some suggestions about the process of choosing an instrument. The customer should be given prices and an explanation of trial and trade-in policies. They should be made comfortable with every step in the process.
As with any relationship, you, the client, have responsibilities as well.
A good violin shop can be your best resource. As the old advertising cliché goes: "You have a friend in the business." The violin shop is one of the few small family retail businesses that hasn't been destroyed by the big-box retailers.
Shops do have to operate on the same principles as any other business: either make enough to pay the overhead and purchase inventory, or close their doors. Support your local violin shop and it will support you!
A version of this article originally appeared in the June/July 2006 issue of Strings magazine.