V.com weekend vote: How often do you play your backup instrument(s)?

June 11, 2022, 11:31 PM · Certain situations call for a "backup" instrument. A backup can be an old instrument that took a back seat when you got a nicer one, or it can be an instrument that you purchased or acquired expressly to be a "back-up." It can even be a different instrument - like a violinist having a backup that is a mandolin!


The most obvious use for a "backup" instrument is when your violin is in the shop for repair or upkeep. While many shops will loan you a violin (or viola, cello, etc.), it can be handy to have another instrument that feels familiar and comfortable to use.

But there are plenty of other occasions for using a backup instrument. For example, you might not want to use your beloved and (possibly very expensive) primary instrument for an outdoor concert, especially if the weather looks particularly cold, hot, humid, windy or threatening. When I was in college, I spent a summer playing three shows a night at EPCOT, in Orlando, Florida, which is notorious for sudden changes in weather. There were dozens of concerts in which a surprise rainstorm sent us running off-stage, mid-show! A backup violin would have been very useful in that situation.

As a student, back in the day, I kept a backup violin in my locker at school so I didn't have to bring it back and forth, and so that I didn't have to take my better violin to school. The better violin stayed at home, for practice and youth orchestra.

As a teacher, I have a "backup" -- a nice-sounding student violin -- that I use in classroom settings, especially if I'm teaching, say, a "pre-Twinkle class" to a group of small and wiggly children, with lots of games and activities.

Travel can also be a good time to use a backup. In an early interview, violinist Hilary Hahn talked about going on a rafting trip and taking a junior-sized Martin guitar, just to have something to play while on vacation. With airplane travel as difficult as it is, taking a backup instrument might feel less stressful. It also might be the best choice for a long car trip, where the instrument will be in the trunk, in hotel rooms, etc.

The Colorado-based fiddler Andy Reiner provides an example of perhaps the most interesting use of a backup instrument: he skis down mountains while playing his violin! He calls the violin he uses for this a stunt instrument or, with affection, a "beater violin"!

For many musicians, a "backup" instrument might simply be an instrument they use for a different genre of music. You might have one instrument for the concert hall and another for playing bluegrass at a nightclub.

Do you have a backup instrument? How did you acquire it? For what occasions do you use your backup instrument? Please participate in the vote and then tell us all about your experiences with backup instruments.

Thanks to Jim Hastings for this Weekend Vote idea. If you have an idea for the Weekend Vote, please e-mail me. I welcome your ideas!

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June 12, 2022 at 08:26 AM · I'm primarily a violist, and my backup instrument is a violin.

It was actually the first instrument I started learning on. It's a 1950s German workshop violin, basically an intermediate to advanced student instrument, that had once belonged to a great-uncle who died before I was born. It had gone unplayed for 20 years when I rescued it and started learning on it. I had intended to play viola from the start, and only started on violin because one was available to me free of charge. Once I switched to viola, it became a backup.

Since then, I've played the violin for a few reasons. One year, I was bumped to second violin in an orchestra because there was a shortage of violinists and surplus of violists. I've occasionally played violin in chamber music -- most recently in a reading quartet where all three of the upper string players were primarily violists. I've played violin when my viola was in the shop. And I played mainly violin for about two months in 2020 to reduce neck and shoulder strain while recovering from car accident injuries. In a typical year I probably play the violin about 5 times.

June 12, 2022 at 01:33 PM · I don't have a violin that is notably less good than the others in the rotation. Which isn't to say that I don't have favorites. Maybe when I get the crack repaired in my grandfather's German workshop instrument. Which isn't to say that I don't have favorites.

Mostly, the strategy now is to pack a double case with whichever two modern instruments I most wish to play for a few months. The idea is that they are worth getting to know better, and they are both insured and replaceable (i.e., the makers are still living).

Sometimes, one will seem noticeably less happy than the other with strings, adjustment, or some other quirk. So I'll switch. Otherwise, it's really a question of which might suit the music better at that moment.

I do have a couple of bows that I would call 'backup' material-- one is a Chinese carbon fiber model and eases stress in orchestra pits, etc.

June 13, 2022 at 01:43 AM · My backup violin is one that probably suits an intermediate level player. It was my primary violin until I upgraded instruments during high school, and afterwards its purpose was to be left at school. For the remainder of high school, it was played on everyday that I was there for orchestra. Once I graduated high school I rarely touched that violin since I never had a time when my primary violin had to be out of commission. Then when I opened up the case one day years later it was in need of some minor repairs. Since then I learned that I should play it at least a few times per year to keep it in playable shape.

June 13, 2022 at 02:05 AM · I guess my backup violin is the one I learned on and that was replaced by better later on. Since both were inherited, I can't say I bought it to replace, but I did invest in restoration and a neck reset. I also have a couple instruments bought specifically bought to take for travel. I do try to play them regularly enough to keep their sound open,

June 13, 2022 at 07:27 PM · Looking at the "Stunt Instrument" discussion, I was disappointed not to be able to contribute, but there was one phrase on my mind throughout my reading, and I was surprised not to see it there, the phrase: "Carbon Fibre". It's not for nothing that one well known carbon fibre brand is apparently named (though not spelled) after two people who, famous for travelling into physically challenging conditions, feature quite a bit in Greg Larsen's cartoons.

June 13, 2022 at 09:49 PM · My backup is my childhood violin - a nice German Wolf bros. I use it when I need to play in non-perfect conditions such as this Friday when our orchestra plays outdoors for a town event. Its always fun to say hello to the old guy (1888), what memories...

June 13, 2022 at 10:43 PM · I have an early 20th century Italian instrument.(Let's just say it is separately scheduled on my homeowner's policy). It is supposed to be my primary instrument. But a friend showed me a Chinese violin he bought off of ebay. He plays it in his professional gig. I bought one ($269) and really liked it. Then I bought another and liked it even better. I have now purchased a third Chinese violin on ebay (still $269) and I like it best of all. All three are by the same maker and are his Amati model. I have no doubt that they are mass manufactured using machine tools but they are beautiful instruments and sound fantastic.

I changed the strings when I bought them and installed gear pegs.

I rarely play my Italian instrument.

June 14, 2022 at 06:55 PM · I have four violins presently in my possession, only two are mine.

For "daily" practice I play on a friend's Collin Mezin 1932, best violin I ever played on. My own best violin is a 2017 instrument I commissioned to be MY best violin and that I take to class (wouldn't risk the Collin every week). I used to leave my student violin at my mom's, and so it was kind of a backup. Another friend's violin stays in my bedroom, so if the living room is too noisy (teen daughter) I don't have to haul anything along to practice in my room (backup 2).

June 16, 2022 at 04:32 AM · I have 4. #1 is a bit fragile and is only used for concerts and some rehearsals. #2 is restored after breakage (not by me) and is used for most practicing and teaching. #3 is a loud German, used outside. #4 has an electric pickup and is gathering dust under the bed. The same approach for the bows.

June 16, 2022 at 03:40 PM · Every day. I have two backup fiddles I acquired in summer 2005 after two in-home trials arranged with an online dealer. During those weeks, I compared multiple instruments and finally selected these two.

My main instrument is the one I got about halfway through my time as a music major. Besides this one, I use the backups every day to get more variety of tone than I can get with just one fiddle. Also, depending on room acoustics and repertoire, I will sometimes prefer one fiddle over another. Each has a different string combo.

Another advantage in playing the backups every day is that I can be sure they're well tuned and ready to play when needed. I review past studies and rep on my main instrument and both backups so I can play whatever I want with minimal adjustment.

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