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Fit as a Fiddle: The Violin and Viola Market

Christian Wissmuller • June 2019 • June 5, 2019

Violins and violas (particularly violins) are often the very first “real” instruments a child learns and a crucial mainstay of any school music program, but the violin market today is not limited to orchestral, classical music. Electric violins are significantly extending the instruments’ reach to pop, dance, rock, country, and hip-hop, while simultaneously changing the nature of stringed instrument departments within MI retail stores across the globe.

Advances in design and construction are making both acoustic and electric violins and violas more durable and capable of better sound production, while also affecting available price points for the earliest beginners through to the most advanced professionals.

We sat down with reps from four major brands to learn about what trends are driving the market in 2019…

For your brand, what are currently your best-selling models of violins and violas?

Ken Dattmore: We have a few that fit into different categories: the V3SKA is our “workhorse” instrument used by dealers for student rentals and by school districts for student use. The AV5 is a deluxe rental outfit with a stackable case option that’s a great benefit to dealers and educators. The AV7 and AV10 are the best-selling intermediate models or step-up instruments. Either would serve as the instrument a student owns rather than rents and would complement the level they’ve reached in their proficiency and musicianship because of the wood quality and improved sound.

Gary Byers: In terms of units sold, the WAV series is our top seller because of the exceptional price/performance value ratio. However, for the “gigging pro” market, the new NXTa Active series has become our top performer, in part because of its affordability in that class, but mainly because the battery-free active output feature gives players absolute freedom to plug into any gear, in any performance environment, and sound fantastic.

Lang Shen: Our flagship Bucharest solid carved violins and violas from Romania remain a top seller, valued by dealers and end users alike for the superb quality and consistency of the workmanship and materials – especially the exceptionally stable European tonewoods and rigorous standards of construction, graduation, and full adjustment in the U.S. in our Knilling Shop. Bracketing the European Bucharest in popularity are the Chinese Sebastian and Sebastian Artist outfits for those seeking a budget entry-level student or value priced step-up outfit, which are also adjusted in our shop. And, for players seeking a true pre-professional instrument, our American-made, independent, bench-built Nicolo Gabrieli violins and violas have been turning heads with serious players and dealers.

James Phillips: The Stefan Petrov (Superior, Standard, and Workshop Models) and Trista (Superior and standard) – both violin and viola.

What are some “best practices” embraced by dealers who do particularly well selling these stringed instruments?

GB: We’re finding that retailers who can talk to players about the right pedals, amplifiers, and other accessories they’ll want for their electric instrument have stronger sales results because that kind of advice adds a very encouraging level of confidence, especially for the buyer who may be new to the world of electronics. This is really important because, in general, high schools and colleges generally don’t provide string players with much training or exposure to the technology that goes along with the electric.



JP: Our dealers find out from their customers exactly what they are wanting to accomplish with their instrument. Things like, are they looking for a brighter or warmer sounding instrument? Something powerful? What types of music will they be playing et cetera? All this helps us tailor the instrument to their customers’ needs.

LS: Whether for rental or sale, dealers who engage in “best practices” embody a knowledgeable, trustworthy, and responsive resource, supplying and servicing reliable, quality instruments which meet or exceed expectations, supporting and engaging actively with prospective clients, whether individual, school, or community.

KD: In my years in the stringed instrument business, the one common denominator among the most successful school music dealers is the adage, “The educator is always right.” As the manufacturer, we do the best we can to serve educators, but we can only go so far. Providing well-built instruments that that are durable and will stay in tune is a great service to the educator, but we rely heavily on our specially picked dealers to provide the added value that helps directors do their best job. We  are constantly looking for ways to work with our dealers to support educators in innovative ways, and the partnership our dealer base provides is critical in achieving that mission.

Are there any trends of note that you’ve been noticing with respect to violins and violas?

JP: Both vendor and consumer are looking for higher quality instruments both in material and workmanship, even for student-level instruments.

LS: The increasing accessibility and sharing of information, particularly online, has had an impact on options and alternatives available to and requested by both consumer and dealers. While Chinese violins and violas still command a significant share of the overall market, we have seen a trend that started actually some time ago of dealers and players looking back to Europe for instruments. It should be interesting to see how the current friction between the United States and China affects this shift. Although not specific to the violin or viola per se, the advent of Perfection planetary geared pegs continues to be a game-changer for all segments of the market, solving one of the most challenging aspects of playing a string instrument – tuning the violin, viola (and cello)… just as “worm and gear” machine heads solved tuning issues for the guitar family in the 1800s. (Who wants to go back to six friction pegs?!) More and more, it is not only end users and schools requesting Perfection pegs be installed on their individual or school instruments, but dealers find that Perfection pegs on their rental instruments have increased retention and accelerated progress.

KD: For many years there was a race to the bottom on pricing. Average prices of stringed instruments declined as instruments from other countries entered the market at incredibly low prices. This resulted in a sharp drop in the average lifespan of a violin or viola in a rental program or school inventory. People began to realize they were paying less per instrument but having to replace them more often. Now, there has been a rebirth among educators in the demand for quality and they are looking for more dependable products that play well with greater durability. As the acoustic violin enjoyed a golden period over 200 years ago, the electric violin is now reaching that stage. School programs all over the country are adding electric string ensembles to their traditional curricula; it isn’t unusual to see an electric violin in a jazz band, marching band, or drum corps. YouTube stars like Lindsey Stirling, 2Cellos, and Black Violin command views into the billions. The scene for electric strings is changing. Today every player wants one, but tomorrow every player will need one.

GB: There are at least two interesting trends we can report. It’s become striking, when, for example, Beyoncé’s amazing Coachella performance featured violinists and cellists with NS instruments, just how mainstream the electric violin has become. We’re hearing from more and more seasoned players who have built their careers around their acoustic, but who are now looking for ways to expand the range of what they do. Rather than being part of some other world, they are recognizing the electric as an important extension, or even a way beyond, their current playing. Interestingly, we’re also experiencing an uptick in interest in the fretted violin. Players, who in the past thought of frets on a violin as a crutch for good intonation, are more readily embracing the fretted instrument as a musical tool with unique performance capabilities and character, in particular the rich sustain when playing pizzicato and the ability to articulate chord structures not possible with a fretless fingerboard.

Do you have any recently released or upcoming new violin or viola models that you’d like to share with our readers?

GB: An important part of our success is that we listen to our players. At this year’s Anaheim NAMM we brought a prototype of a new SuperLight NS violin, hoping to gauge the reaction of players visiting or performing during the show. I’m not making an announcement just yet, but we were surprised at how positive the reaction was.

LS: American-made, pre-professional instruments from Nicolo Gabrieli continue to gain traction, and we have expanded models offered for advancing students and serious players.

JP: The Trista Violin and Violas, and The Gatchell Innovations Carbon Fiber Violins Endeavor and Aspire models

KD: In January, we launched the YVN Model 3 student violin. Yamaha has been working for more than five years to rethink the way a student instrument is made. We knew educators wanted an instrument that was consistent from one to the next, durable enough to withstand rigorous student use and, of course, have a great sound. In addition, as part of our Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, we make sustainability a high priority; it’s an essential part of our culture. The YVN Model 3 has an amazingly innovative, patented manufacturing process that allows the production of three times the number of violin tops and backs compared to traditional carving techniques, using the same quantity of wood. This process also lends itself to a consistency never before seen in a student violin.

What are your expectations for this market segment in the coming months?

KD: The market for student violins and violas has always been resilient. I notice orchestra programs weakening and disappearing periodically, but for every program I’ve seen diminished, there has been another program birthed elsewhere that continues to grow. I don’t foresee the next few months, or even the next few years, being any different.

GB: Ned Steinberger has over two decades devoted to the electric bowed instrument segment via NS Design, and we have seen a tremendous growth in interest and sales over this period. This exciting market is still young, and we anticipate continued growth this year and beyond, not just for our own business, but for the bowed electric market overall.

LS: Based on the past few years, we do expect there to be continued growth and demand specifically for fractional size instruments, violas in particular, indicating an increased participation by younger students in string programs throughout the States.

JP: I believe that in the coming months the consumer demand for violins and violas such as the Stefan Petrov and Trista models will increase significantly compared to previous years due to the increasing demand for higher quality from both players and instructors, alike.

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