Allocating your budget for instruments can get complicated. Here are a few thoughts on finding the right balance.

When it comes to violins and violas, the choices are fairly straight forward at the school purchasing level. Since the materials should be more or less the same across brands and models, you can rely on your local violin shop to keep you stocked in high quality instruments that meet your budget.

Rack of Shen cellos.

With cellos and basses, you have many options among laminated, hybrid, and fully carved instruments. Let’s take a look at where each build type fits into the big picture.

Laminated Cellos and Basses
  • Very durable
  • Inexpensive to buy and maintain
  • Crack resistant
  • Tolerant of harsh environments
  • Available in fractional sizes

Laminated, a.k.a. plywood, instruments fill the role of the workhorse in the teaching environment. They are cheap to buy and maintain, and can take a serious beating from students. With such a low cost instrument, you can get more instruments into the hands of students, and expand your orchestra quickly. They resist cracking very well, and are more tolerant of poorly humidified buildings. They are also readily available in fractional sizes.

The trade-offs are the tone and the look of the instruments. Plywood basses and cellos won’t speak as well as the other options. It's not as much of an issue for younger players, but in full sized cellos and three quarter sized basses the difference in tone will be apparent to your good players.

Fully Carved
  • The best tone
  • High end varnishes
  • Expensive to buy and maintain

Solid wood instruments have the best tone and playability, and have more attractive varnishes. Your better students, such as those that study privately, will be able to put them to good use. Students at that level also tend to take better care of their instruments.

The downsides of carved instruments in the school setting are many. They are prone to cracking and warping in buildings with poor humidity control, which includes most school buildings. They are more fragile and likely to break through hard use, and cost significantly more to buy and maintain. Fractional sized carved instruments are difficult to find. If you're one of the fortunate few that has a properly humidified school, by all means get the best tone you can. For the rest of us, carved instruments can be a recipe for repair bills and class interruptions.

Hybrid Instruments

The best of both worlds

  • Reasonably priced
  • Good to very good tone
  • Available in fractional sizes
  • High durability
  • Smart overall investment

Hybrids come into their own in the middle and high school settings, hitting the sweet spot between great sound and durability. A high quality hybrid will often times match the tone of entry level carved instruments, with durability nearly matching the plywoods. Hybrids are available in a number of configurations and in many fractional sizes.

Our experience has been that even though the hybrid’s top is fully carved, cracking tops or popped seams are seldom seen due to the stability of the laminated back and ribs. You should still have a proactive approach toward humidifying your music rooms, but your repair costs will drop significantly compared to fully carved instruments.

Some Solutions from Samuel Shen

Walking the line between durability and tone can be a challenging task. Here are a few things we at Shen have done to close the gaps between the build types to make your job a bit easier.

Shen laminated cellos and basses are made in our proprietary manner to sound livelier than you would expect in a plywood instrument. We’ve made the instruments lighter through advanced lamination techniques, and use varying thicknesses to approximate the plate graduations of carved instruments. You no longer have to think of plywood as weak from a tone standpoint.

With our hybrids, we use plate tuning techniques on the tops to produce great sounding instruments, and offer a broad range of configurations to suit your needs. Varnish options, carved tops protected by an optional thin veneer, and flamed maple choices allow your dealer to configure the instruments for what you feel is important without paying for options that aren’t necessary to your program. A Shen hybrid can satisfy the most frugal office, and still allow your best students to express themselves in a manner that can win solo festivals and All County seats.

The Shen SC200 Willow cello is a fully carved cello that possesses a warmer tone than new maple, at a very reasonable price. You can have that warm and full response filling the section without breaking the bank. Slab willow is also a beautiful tonewood to look at!

The willow is a softer wood, which causes less stress on the spruce top when the humidity changes. The cello therefore spends less time in the repair shop than a maple and spruce cello.

Choosing the right matrix of instruments for your program can be a challenge. With high quality instrument options and the help of your trusted local dealer, you should be able to make the most of your hard-won music budget. At Shen and CSC Products we will continue to fine tune what we do to help your orchestra thrive.