Wednesday, December 01, 2010

For the Man Who Has Everything

Catalog season seems to be in full force in my mailbox (the postal one that hangs outside of my front door). Yesterday's cache had a catalog clearly targeted for men, or, as much of the copy reads "gentlemen." This one has a soup maker that chops vegetables for you, a toaster that cooks your eggs, a $1,400 Swiss Army Knife that has 87 tools, heated socks, and various other articles that might make appropriate gifts for the man who has everything.

Among these items is a $200 banjo that comes with a DVD, so you can learn how to play. Then there's the violin:
This hand-carved solid wood violin and instructional DVD help aspiring virtuosos learn to play the fiddle. A Hammacher Schlemmer exclusive, the violin meets or exceeds all string instrument standards set by the Music Educators National Conference, allowing you to master the fundamentals on an authentic, full-size instrument. A spruce top and a maple neck, back, and ribs produce rich, full sound. The maple bridge, solid ebony fingerboard and fittings, built-in fine tuners, and a precisely balanced Brazilwood bow with real, unbleached horsehair provide the feel of a professional violin while remaining manageable for novices. The DVD teaches the fundamentals of tuning, bow preparation, correct hand and arm positioning, and how to play several songs. Includes a pitch pipe, adjustable shoulder rest, rosin cake, and a hard-sided carrying case. Ages 13 and up. 23 1/2" L x 8 1/4" W x 2 1/2" D. (5 lbs.)
I suspect that the violins they sell are very much like the $80 factory violins that too many of the students who call me for lessons told me they got on e-bay or as a gift from some well-meaning relative. Invariably these instruments are extremely difficult to play, almost impossible to keep in tune, and are not capable of making the kind of sound that would motivate a beginner to practice. (The solid wood DVD would be something to see.)

The copy above is filled with statements that give the impression that the fiddle is more than what we know it is. The "string instrument standards set by the Music Educators National Conference" are standards in size, and not quality. I don't know how a violin could exceed these standards and still meet them. Hmmm. Then there's the "precisely balanced" Brazilwood bow." I imagine that it lives up to factory specifications, and that there might have been some precision involved in measuring the mold for the plastic frog, and I imagine that the length and shape of the stick would be precisely measured. Other than that, the statement says nothing. The phrase "authentic full-size instrument" is also meaningless. I don't know about "mastering" any kind of fundamentals on this kind of instrument. Many people who play rare Italian instruments are still on the road towards "mastering fundamentals."

Caution! If you want to give a violin as a gift to anyone, don't buy one from a general-merchandise catalog. Contact a teacher, and arrange for a number of introductory lessons. Call up (or e-mail) a respectable violin shop and rent an instrument (your teacher should have some good recommendations).


Michael Leddy said...

Go, Elaine, go! I hope this post points some reader toward a much better experience in learning to play an instrument.

Anonymous said...

I vaguely remember seeeing that in the catalog... I guess it didn't leave as much of an impression as the car that converts to a plane on the cover... a steal at $300,000, I'm sure.

socratidion said...

Well, yes, the meaningless advertising puff is annoying (but playing devil's advocate for a moment, pity the poor person whose job it was to write this nonsense. Can't be easy. And at least they didn't say it was 'stunning'). To the extent that the ad is misleading, I agree it is pernicious. But somehow I wanted to say, I have reason to be grateful to those cheap $80 factory violins you're so down on: it was just such a violin that induced me to give violin-playing a go late-ish in life -- if I had had to pay any more it wouldn't have happened. Six months down the line I bought myself a decent student viola, and string-playing has taken over my life. So there's a place for those cheap instruments, as long as you don't confuse them with the real thing, or expect to be able to advance very far on them. Mind you, I don't think I'd buy one from a catalog -- I'd prefer a music shop for any number of reasons, but that's another story.
Can I just take this opportunity to say how much I enjoy your blog: so sane, so humane. I'm with you on so many issues that I never really have anything to add -- just this once, in fact!

Elaine Fine said...

I'm glad that you had a positive cheap violin experience, and that it lead you to get a better instrument.