Did your teacher take a secret cut when you bought a violin?

Did your teacher take a secret cut when you bought a violin?


norman lebrecht

March 23, 2021

Twoset Violin, the Australian comedy duo, have knuckled down to tackle one of the biggest scams in the instrument trade.




  • Anon says:

    Some people argue that a teacher deserves a commission for time spent in helping a student choose the best possible violin.
    But why should a teacher get paid more just because the student purchases a more expensive instrument? Why should the value of their time spent change, depending on the price of the violin?

  • Ben G. says:

    When purchasing an instrument for their child, parents should keep in mind that the instrument does not make music by itself when it sits on a chair or table.

    Spending 4-5 figures on a Violin will not guarantee a success story in the end. Don’t be duped by dealers telling you otherwise.

    Heifetz or Rostropovich would have played with their same majestic sound on any instrument, and in a convincing manner.

    • Ainslie says:

      “Heifetz or Rostropovich would have played with their same majestic sound on any instrument, and in a convincing manner.”

      Point taken, but this is just not true. The quality of the instrument does matter, and a Notoni or Scratchitorius violin will sound terrible even in the hands of a virtuoso.

      People don’t invest 5 or 6 figures in an instrument for prestige. They do it because it makes them sound better.

      • Ben G. says:

        With my utmost respect Ainslie, I said 4-5 figures, not 5-6. The sound of this higher category is a discussion for another day.

        The price makes a BIG difference when you are the parents of a beginner in comparison to a well known soloist who concertizes all over the world.

        Our Twoset friends are simply advising innocent buyers to watch out when entering an unknown territory.

  • Music fan says:

    This is neither new nor confined to violins. I suspect it’s been going on as long as teachers and instrument manufacturers and dealers have known each other.

  • Rogerio says:

    I suspect there is something that is frequent and is much worse than teachers taking a “secret cut” on the sale of a violin.
    And that is teachers taking a “secret cut” on their students lives.
    How many teachers today still demand a “master and disciple” relationship? How many demand “loyalty”?
    How many wield excessive power over the student and the decisions he/she makes regarding study and career?

  • Eric says:

    My father is a violin maker and refused to play this game. He definitely lost a substantial amount of income and sales because he refused to pay kickbacks to some teachers. I’ve known about this myself for thirty years (since I was a child), of course it’s been going on much much longer than that. Many major instrument dealers seem perfectly happy to p(l)ay along…and sometimes it felt like the overwhelming majority of dealers do this.

  • Neil Bacon says:

    When I purchased my instrument, the dealer announced a last- minute discount when I came to buy it. At my next lesson, my teacher ( Steven Starts) nonchalantly asked what price I ended up paying. Later, I realized what had happened, and that not all teachers are in on the scam.

  • Simon Scott says:

    Charles Auguste de Beriot insisted that his students buy their violins directly from him……

  • Madeleine Richardson says:

    No because my father had taken violin lessons in his youth and the violin was still somewhere in the attic.
    Just as well because I had zero talent and only got roped in because the school orchestra was short of fiddlers.
    I had coveted the piano but it was already taken.

    • That is the story of every female trombone player I have ever met.

      Why did she choose trombone?
      “My [father , brother, uncle…] used to play it so we already had the trombone.”

  • MacroV says:

    It seems incredibly unethical for a teacher to take a cut on such a deal. Getting paid a consulting fee (or the standard hourly rate) by the student is fair enough, though I would think any self-respecting teacher would do this for nothing just as part of his/her responsibility toward the student.

  • Jim says:

    Both commissions and false attributions happen frequently. I once had a violin maker insist, after I had suggested she just give a discount to my student rather than to me. I asked her to leave the building and not come back. I once sold a nice unnamed Brescian instrument. Some time thereafter I was shown my former instrument by a very well-known dealer. It had gained a Ruggeri label and was selling for 5 times the price I had received a few months earlier.

    • A Pianist says:

      I have a friend in the antiques business. He tells me it is absolutely rife with frauds. No surprise violins would be no exception.

  • Fred Funk says:

    There are **ENDLESS** inventory reduction sales on violas…

  • David K. Nelson says:

    If the situation involves a faculty member at an institution, then the institution needs rules (and enforcement) — indeed I suspect those rules are there, perhaps under a layer of dust. But if the teacher is totally private and independent then … well I don’t know what then. Let the buyer beware becomes let the student beware and that does not sound like a great teacher/student relationship to me.

    I was never a “high end” student in need of a “high end” violin, bow or case, and none of my teachers ever suggested going to such and such a place for anything other than sheet music, so I have no personal direct contact with this seedy side of the business. But I can say that I know some violinists who found their teacher very helpful when it came time to shop for an upgrade. Jim comments elsewhere about false attributions but that is not the only practice going on at violin shops that can be a trap for the unwary. Undisclosed repairs to bow sticks is an example. A replaced edge outside the purfling due to a botched removal of top or bottom is another. You have to have gone around the block a few times to know what to look for in these things.

    I suspect wise and experienced teachers have saved students from making some big blunders while shopping for violin or bow. It would be a pity to lose the positive side in an effort to stomp out the negative side.

    • Jim says:

      That is all entirely correct, David. Let us also be careful (I refer more to the article, not to you) about generalizing. In my experience, the vast majority of teaching colleagues would never even consider taking a commission for a student’s instrument, and a vast majority of dealers I know would never ever put a false label in an instrument. Having taught at the same institution for 30+ years, I have never heard of a colleague profiting from the sale of an instrument to a student; quite the contrary, we are delighted if we can help a student get a good instrument for a reasonable price. In the case of the well-known dealer, I was a very young person at the time. When he left the room for a moment, I put down the instrument, left the shop and never went back. And I told colleagues about what I had witnessed. I was young, insecure and poor. Today I would report him to the authorities. I regret to this day that a colleague of mine bought that “Ruggeri”.

  • Zandonai says:

    Many professional musicians and experts were fooled by double blind tests where they were unable to tell a Strad from a $500 violin.

    • Ainslie says:

      Not true. Name one time this has happened. It hasn’t.

      There have been documented instances of professionals unable to tell the difference between a high quality modern violin and a Strad. This is probably what you’re thinking of.

    • Jim says:

      That is veering very close to fake news. There was a study, sponsored by a modern maker, comparing instruments in a carpeted hotel room. A totally random and unbiased study performed in a concert hall would have entirely different results.

  • Ellie says:

    I worked in the brass/woodwind music instrument trade until 3 years ago. I used to hate this practice and we tried to weed it out by not doing it for newer teachers. Here’s some info about how it worked for us.

    1. Maybe 10% of sales via teachers involved commission, not all by any means. We only paid commission if the teacher ‘made the sale’, taking care of the student for a few hours in the showroom, effectively working on our behalf. This is why we paid commission – repeat custom from influential teachers who made easy sales for us by doing the work.
    2. Commissions were completely confidential, we never let the purchaser know and I think most purchasers had no idea, thanking their teachers with huge gratitude for ‘giving up their time’ in helping them find an instrument. I was uncomfortable about this but it was how it worked. Taking instruments abroad for work trips, I found that in other countries, it is much more open that teachers get a cut, so less of the covert dealings – much healthier all round, why shouldn’t the shop pay for the teacher’s time making a sale rather than the student paying for them?
    3. Most teachers claiming their commission were not wealthy, it made a difference to their income. They were often embarrassed to ask for it. It wasn’t a lot, usually £50-£200.
    4. A significant number of teachers ‘passed on their commission’ to their students – effectively we would discount the price for the student equivalent to what we would pay as a commission. This is a frequent, genuine kindness from teachers to their students as we wouldn’t otherwise give a discount.
    5. Commission was a % of the sale price, but in reality this very seldom swung the teacher to push hard for more expensive instruments. Plus, if I was making the sale directly, I’d also be thinking of the sale prices too…
    6. I discovered after a while that a very small number of teachers charged us a commission, AND also charged their student a commission! I found this behaviour pretty disgraceful.
    7. One teacher was completely notorious for always pushing the most expensive instruments, completely beyond the need of their students. They’ve been the subject of this blog for other reasons and it’s been very hard for me to keen schtum about their outrageous behaviour (which I’m only doing out of loyalty to my previous employer, not the person). Their behaviour was just appalling and an abuse of their student-teacher relationship.

  • TrumpetGod23 says:

    Sorry, nothing to see here. They say Affiliate marketing links are OK, but that is a hugely scammier and dirtier market than you (or they) know. I know, since I used to be an Affiliate manager. This is just an attempt to find a scandal where there is none.

    As a violin-maker you are HAPPY to have a teacher selling your violins. At $10,000 for a beginner’s instrument, you WANT and NEED help selling these instruments. Otherwise these Violin makers would need to ADVERTISE their violins. When is the last time you saw a full-page newspaper ad for a $25,000k Violin?

    There is MASSIVE sticker-shock for the cost of a Violin and the manufacturers NEED the teacher to MAKE THE SALE FOR THEM. Should car dealerships not pay their salesmen commissions just because they don’t explicitly tell you up front how much they make? The teacher usually guides the worried/cheapskate parents past the “Sticker shock” and emphasizes the importance of a good instrument. Do Violin makers go door-to-door? Most of them don’t even have a sales department, so the commission they pay is probably STILL cheaper than a marketing budget.

    When you’re at a car dealership, do you have a 3rd party by your side to negotiate for you, someone by your side with you making the right recommendations, guiding you to the right car for YOUR CAREER, filtering out the salesman noise?

    Also, if the student is going to buy a violin THEY like AGAINST their teacher’s recommendations, I’d say the teacher should probably drop the student. There’s no way a 16 year-old has any idea of the right violin to play, or the sound they want, (they might think they do), so if they go against their trained teacher’s recommendation.

    Also, as a musician your violin is your career, so I believe a teacher SHOULD get a commission to help you make that choice. They likely spent hours (probably unpaid) listening to you test out 12 different instruments in the shop, as well as probably spending their own private time trying the violins out for themselves so they KNOW which violins to recommend in the first place.

    I highly doubt a good violin teacher would make thousands of dollars recommending junk violins they don’t play themselves. The point is to recommend something you would play. The commission is incentive to take the student seriously.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Twoset Violin is (are?) absolutely great! Their (its?) video with “Uncle Roger” is an absolute classic. Get on their (its?) YouTube channel and prepare to be entertained mightily.
    As to violin teachers taking commissions from violin makers…. that stuff’s been going on for ages. Is it deplorable? Yes it is, but so are Republican politicians, and those assholes keep going on for decades until they basically die in office.

  • CelloFellow says:

    This behavior goes both ways – there are high profile shops that use their money & clout to try to bribe teachers, rather than teachers actively looking for commissions.

    My teacher got harassed by multiple shops offering him money which he refused… until he decided he might as well take it, but pass it along to the student so the instrument would be cheaper for them.

    Unfortunately, this behavior is the exception rather than the rule.

  • Larry W says:

    Violin dealers may offer a “professional discount” to a teacher. That can become a commission when the instrument is sold to a student. It is then up to the teacher what to do with it.

    If you think the violin business is bad, check out pianos.

  • BruceB says:

    I bought an instrument for myself, from a well-known flute manufacturer – I’ll call them “XYZ.” I liked it. When I had a student who was ready for a better instrument, I didn’t direct them specifically to this company, but I did recommend them among others. They ended up choosing the XYZ flute. A week or two after they bought it, I received a check in the mail for $200 from XYZ (the flute was about $5000). I called the company and asked what it was for, and they basically said the same thing Ellie did below, that I had done a lot of the salesperson-type work on their behalf. Oh, OK. Well thanks. I kept the money with a clean conscience.

    That was close to 20 years ago. Over subsequent years, with other students looking for flutes, one or two of them ended up with XYZs and I got a $200 check each time. Other students went with other brands — whatever worked best for them. The money wasn’t enough to make me steer students specifically to that brand* (and wasn’t enough to make me think the company was trying to do that), but sometimes the XYZ instrument was the right fit.

    *Or so I thought. I went to another city to judge a music festival once, and noticed that in the case of one teacher, ALL her students played XYZ flutes. That’s when I realized I could have made an easy thousand bucks or so over the years, just by saying “get one of these, they’re great!” Oh well 😛

  • RogerCello says:

    During my decades of teaching I made a point of not ever accepting a commission. I made that policy clear to the student and to the seller. I wanted to avoid any taint of impropriety. The student invests in lessons. Part of my job as teacher was to provide honest assistance in finding an instrument.

  • Fiddleman says:

    Twoset Violin hit the nail on the head. There are few areas of life where so much trust and power are entrusted to a mentor. Unfortunately this practise is very widespread. Corruption is the only word which actually describes this breach of trust.