The time has come. My son is growing like a weed and his violin teacher says he needs a full-size violin, a good one. The grandparents are willing — eager, in fact — to chip in.
And so I find myself in Foster’s Violin Shop, “Makers, Dealers and Restorers of Fine Violins,” in Orange during my lunch hour on Friday. The shop is a house, actually, circa 1920, on a residential street in the old part of town. My wife and son, toting his current violin, meet me there. You walk in the place and are surrounded by wood, from floor to ceiling, string instruments everywhere. To the left is what must be the dining room, only it’s Roger Foster’s work room, a giant table covered with the tools of his trade and a bird in a cage its most noticeable features.
An assistant greets us at the front desk, and asks our mission. Her next question is necessary — what price range are we looking for? My wife’s answer is enough to make anyone nervous, especially me. The assistant doesn’t bat an eye, though. In the big scheme of violins, the number we quoted her is no big deal.
She takes us into a back room (there’s a cat sitting in the kitchen as we walk by), a small bedroom with a ceiling fan above, shelves of violins on the walls and no bed. She then begins setting violins atop a chest of drawers for my son to try out, seven or eight of them once she is done, tunes them using a pitch fork sitting there, and then leaves us to our fun.
My son goes to it. The violins all sound different, strikingly so. I hadn’t quite expected them to, not this much. They all sound pretty good, too, each in their own way, which immediately creates a difficulty. You suddenly have to decide which sound you “prefer” in your violin, not which is “best.” There are old violins and new violins. The old ones have character, focused tones with patinas you can hear. The new ones are more brilliant and clean sounding, kind of rangy and elbowy sometimes, but also attractive, not bad at all.
My son plays Bach, Mozart, Kreisler, scales, an exercise or two, on the instruments. We whittle our choices down to four.
The friendly Foster stops in, chats, is impressed with my son’s playing. I ask him to weigh in on the violins. He points us toward a new violin made in Poland, and the boy gives it a try. It is impressive, forthright and even throughout its range, a nice solo sound, I think, and real nice in the Mozart concerto the boy is playing. Foster also points out a mutt violin that he has cobbled together from several old instruments. It too has special qualities, though it doesn’t make our final cut.
We end up with a French violin from the early 20th century (I love the mellow tone of this instrument, its compact richness and tightly focused lower register) and the new Polish one. By end up, I mean we get to take them home and try them out at our leisure. The assistant fills out a form, documenting which violins we have in our possession; the wife writes down our address, no i.d. necessary. The assistant tells me they’ve never had anyone steal any violins. She puts our two choices into a double case, along with a couple of nice bows that the boy has liked.
That evening we get together in our living room for another audition. The results certainly aren’t black and white, though the tendency for all of us is to try and make it so. It’s more comforting that way. This violin is great; that one is terrible. But truthfully, they both have good qualities, and it just depends on what you want, and who knows? I don’t. My son’s teacher will weigh in this week, and that will help. He has strong opinions.
On Saturday, the boy says he regrets not bringing home one of the Italian violins that he had tried. So my wife takes him back to Foster’s, and they leave the French one there for now. The Italian one, about 100 years old, turns out to be German, we find out, but made in the Italian style. More listening, more difficulties deciding. This could take a while.
I’m not worried, though. It’ll turn out all right. We’ve found some good instruments and I doubt we can lose, no matter which one we pick. It comes down to picking an instrument that we’re all happy with, but mostly that the violinist is happy with.