"Take my viola. Please!"

The NY Times, in their emailed morning news articles, had the story of a pair of players in a former string Quartet who are being forced to give up their instruments to settle a bankruptcy debt. They declared bankruptcy after they lost a legal battle against a former quartet member. Their instruments (and bows) are valued at $166,o00.

From the NY Times article:

“I don’t have words for this,” said Clyde Shaw, the quartet’s cellist. “The letters and notes I’m getting from around the country – the musicians in this country are shocked. They are floored by this decision. It upsets the world that we live in.”

I don’t pretent to be an expert in bankruptcy law. It’s my understanding that the agent in charge of bankruptcy liquidation may not seize the tools necessary for a person to continue their livelihood. That being said, is it really that critical to downgrade from a $166,000 set of instruments to ones rated at (say) $40,000?

In a lot of respects, I’m a musical moron, and this is probably one of them. How much of a cellist’s livelihood comes from people who pay to hear them, yet cannot distguish the difference between a one hundred thousand dollar instrument and a five thousand dollar one? If it’s a high ratio of people like them to people who really hear the difference, then who cares, really?

I guess the thing that jumped me most from this article was the implied difference between these people’s musical instruments and another person’s house, which might be seized in a bankruptcy case. Class warfare, anyone?

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One Response to "Take my viola. Please!"

  1. Mike says:

    My guess, based on my knowledge of brass instruments, is there might not be an instrument at say the 40,000 price point. Fairly binary differences in the manufacturing process (e.g., handmade vs. machine-crafted) have caused some pretty significant price gulfs in some instruments.

    My horn is a Conn 8D, made sometime in the mid-80s. Something about the manufacturing process makes this an inferior instrument for a professional as compared to Conn 8Ds made in the 70s… something about the manufacturing process changed and caused some quirks to the instrument that hamper the playability. My inability to smoke a high Bb (I can go higher or lower on it) is one of the issues with the newer horns… that harmonic is tricky.

    As a result, you can pick up a newer 8D for anywhere between the 1500 I originally paid for mine (which is still a steal) and probably up to about 10,000 for a newer one. But to nab an older 8D that’s a better professional instrument, you’re probably looking at close to 6 figures.

    Another aspect that’s important is the retraining… for example, if I hit the lottery and got a Lawson horn (handmade by a family in Maryland for decades, and only a few get made per year), I’d actually probably sound significantly worse until I got retrained to the new horn. So two pros who use differing quality instruments may sound identical, but if you swap one’s viola for the other’s, they’ll probably both sound worse.

    I guess my best analogy would be (Lord help me) stock car racing. If you’ve raced the Viagara car for years and years, and know the ins and outs of this particular piece of machinery, you can’t just slide into the Lowe’s car and drive the same way. But any way you slice it, I do think they really violated the bankruptcy laws by taking their instruments. Although I imagine that’s a fine line, particularly with independent performing artists… if I were to build a professional-quality studio in my house that I used to compose music, could by house no longer be seized in a bankruptcy?

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