Whether you have the means to buy a modern (starting at € 25.000), an old Italian (starting at something like € 250.000 and up into the sky) or a nice elderly French, German or English (somewhere in between) instrument, you can drive yourself crazy in finding “the right one”. Amateurs, students, and professional players face similar problems.
First we hardly ever get to try all the available instruments at the same time. We have to travel to see/try them in different acoustics under different circumstances. This makes it almost impossible to compare them as we rely entirely on our memory, which is awfully subjective and selective. On top of that every space has its own feel and sound, and most players (including the writer) feel different even with their own instruments every other day – how to make a fair judgement over the stretch of maybe a year?
Secondly we have no idea how any given instrument sounds even a couple of meters away from us let alone in a big concert hall, playing chamber music or a solo concerto. We totally depend on what we hear while playing (which most of the time has absolutely nothing to do with the actual sound in the hall) and what the people (friends, fellow musicians, dealers) who are present tell us about it. While we can’t trust our own feeling we should trust the person who wants to sell the instrument to us even less. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but ultimately we all want to be flattered, and while trying an instrument we do want to hear how wonderful we make this instrument sound. This is very human, but please just don’t buy an instrument based on flattery. I have played on so many crap instruments (in great sounding rooms) and been told that I have never sounded so good. Unfortunately for the salesman I shut off completely when I hear praise, kind of self-protection. But whom to trust? Some dealers offer substantial amounts of money to teachers to make them convince their students to buy certain instruments, so even the advice of a teacher might not be totally objective. Yes, friends are helpful, but who can come and hear every single instrument you want to try?
Some musicians like to try the instrument in an empty hall which I find rather useless since halls tend to sound nicest when they are empty. Try it in a dry room, or if you have a chance, do it while your pianist is playing the piano possibly in a Brahms Sonata, so a trusted friend can hear how well your sound projects over the thick texture of the piano part. We don’t need a loud instrument, we need one which can be heard and fill a room while other instruments are playing as well.
Third, maybe the biggest problem of all: most musicians try to find an instrument which “fits” them, which is easy to play, which has a huge sound and great personality. This instrument doesn’t exist! We have to be ready to make compromises and take into account that a real great instrument will change the player, but one has to be open and ready to make adjustments in one’s own playing. There are limitation to almost all instruments I have ever played on, so I had to learn to search for the quality in the instrument and try to work with it, make the best out of it and at some point stop worrying about it. I love my father’s story: When David Oistrakh performed once with his orchestra (Berlin Philharmonic), at some point he and many other musicians gave them their (back then not so great) fiddles to play on, and my father claims they suddenly all sounded the same; a great player makes any instrument work, and to get the perfect sound, practice!