When's the Right Time to Upgrade Your Violin?

Rarely is a musician set for life after buying their first instrument. A musician’s journey usually consists of periods of different instruments and musical gear. On the course of this odyssey, it’s sometimes hard to know what to buy, what to keep, what to sell and when to do it. Trade in too soon and you won’t be ready for something new or may incur unnecessary costs. Wait too long to trade in and you may be slowed down by unmet musical needs.

However, there are some tell-tale signs that the time is right to change up your instrument and other gear.

1. When You’ve Literally Outgrown Your Violin

This primarily applies to kids who are still growing, but can also pertain to other circumstances. With the violin, figuring out current sizing is done by doing the “arm test.” Have the student put their violin on their shoulder and extend the left arm out horizontally. If the scroll is just about at the wrist, it’s the right size. If the arm reaches far past that, the violinist is ready for the next size up. While it’s not good to play on an instrument that’s too big, it is a good idea to trade in to a full size violin right when the student is ready. This gives the student the earliest chance to develop the muscle memory and technique necessary for their playing.

There are other band and orchestra instruments that commonly have students start on a smaller instruments and trade in when their stature no longer inhibits their playing. The euphonium is a common starter instrument for the larger tuba, for example. I’ve also heard it argued that smaller kids should either wait to play concert bass until they are older or start on the cello with the plan to move to bass when they’re bigger. There are different opinions when it comes to these methods, so if you’re a student, consult with your teacher.

2. When You’ve Figuratively Outgrown Your Violin

What if you saw a chef use an Easy-Bake Oven to cook at a five-star restaurant? While it could be done, it would be much more difficult to prepare a meal using this little toy compared to a real oven. The same is true in music, as the quality of our instruments is imperative to the quality of our sound.

A good example of this is a string player’s bow. Some fiberglass bows are great for beginners because they’re durable and cheap, but they can quickly lose their bowed shape. This makes more complex strokes, such as an off-the-string spiccato stroke very difficult. If you are at the point of doing techniques that require more skill and involvement, it’s time to trade in.

3. Circumstances Require an Upgrade

Would you bring a supply of wide-ruled paper to college? Me neither. The same goes for your instrument. If you are entering college as a music major or intend to play play seriously in higher-level ensembles, it’s time to upgrade to college-ruled. The same goes for any major leap, from your first purchase all the way up to professional. Make sure the quality of your instrument matches the quality and level of your playing by upgrading when those leaps happen.

This is especially true if you change genres. A violinist will use an acoustic violin for classical music, but may want to trade in to an electric instrument for bluegrass or jazz. In any case, new types of gigs create new needs. Always remember you will need to adapt, which will sometimes involve trading in for something else or upgrading your gear.

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4. Your Set-up Becomes Uncomfortable

I’ve seen guys with back issues play super heavy guitars, which may not be the best choice if there are other alternatives. As musicians, we are susceptible to injury. One small episode of tendonitis can become more serious if the signs are ignored and more repetitive pressure is put on the area. A temporary irritation becoming a permanent injury can be career-ending, and is unfortunately all too common.

If your back hurts when carrying your instrument case, look into trading in your case for something with more comfortable straps. If your concerto bass is too heavy to carry, upgrade so the bass has a wheel on the bottom. There’s no point in your playing being excruciating, and it may actually lead to long-term health issues if you don’t nip the problem in the bud.

5. When Your Current Situation is Inconvenient

Do you really need to carry around a Marshall stack to play in a coffee shop? Yeah, you have that gear from touring with your last band, but now you have to transport it in the back of your two-door Ford to get it to the gig. Not only is it too loud for your neighborhood cafe, but it’s very heavy compared to a smaller, lighter amp that will do just what you need it to do. Make your life easier and your music sound better for your current situation by trading it in.

Another common example is with band and orchestra instruments. My life became easier when I got a violin that stayed at my violin teaching studio. Sometimes a second instrument makes the logistics of life so much easier that it allows you to focus on more important things, like playing.

6. When Renting is No Longer a Good Deal

Have you had the rental for long enough to know that playing isn’t the hobby of the month? Could you have purchased an instrument for the amount you’ve paid in rent? Consider trading in your rental and actually buying an instrument. Many places that rent instruments offer rent-to-own deals or some other deal when you’re at this step. There are a large number of purchasing options out there, so do your research to find a buying option best suited to your needs.

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7. When You See Gear as an Investment

Better violins and bows increase in value over time, but unfortunately most inexpensive instruments and gear do not. If you want to have better tools to make music and get a return on your money, consider upgrading to instruments that will be appraised for a higher price at a later time.

This is the reason some people, including non-musicians, actually invest in musical instruments. It’s relatively common for investors to buy expensive instruments and loan them to touring concert musicians or to music conservatories, which in turn lend them to their top students. For the rest of us, an instrument can become a good asset, which helps you out in the long run.

8. When Your Gear is Outdated

Recording and notation software also needs to be upgraded periodically, and MIDI sound libraries especially can sound dated rather quickly. This is one of the downsides of rapidly improving technology. Only upgrading when you absolutely need to, as trying to constantly stay on top of new software can cost an arm and a leg.

While classical instruments tend to be timeless, there are few things that become out-of-date or obsolete. For example, bows crafted from pernambuco wood. There have been horror stories of professional string players having their bows confiscated by authorities at international airports due to pernambuco’s status as an endangered wood. If you want to prevent such a disaster, be up-to-date on current laws and issues impacting musicians, and let that inform your decisions when traveling with gear, especially if you play outside of your home country.

9. When You Need Some Mojo

There are times when you simply sense it’s time for a change. Maybe your instrument doesn’t exactly have the sound you want, maybe your taste has changed, or maybe your taste is maturing. If you want to reinvent your sound, experiment, or disrupt the status quo, change can sometimes breathe new life into what you do. Trading in, upgrading or buying a new piece of gear can add new possibilities to your musical world.

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