Updated: Dec 10, 2018
Know what to look for and be a saavy violin buyer
Did you know that good violins increase in value over time?
Finding your ideal student instrument is a tricky first step in the violin journey. For most students, renting a violin is the best recommendation I can make for the first 6 months or so. A violin shop will measure your arm for the correct size, and a smart shop will carry insurance on the instrument in case of damage by the student. They will also provide the student with the basic necessities of violin-ing: a decent violin with fresh strings, a beginner bow with a full ribbon of horse hair, rosin, a foam shoulder rest, and a wipe cloth. While you're at the shop (so you don't have to make a second trip), I would recommend picking up a Kun or similar style shoulder rest, some better rosin (I like Jade rosin for coping with the humidity here in Florida), and one of two books:
-For little kids (9 and under), I really like the new My First Violin Fun Book for Young Beginners. It has a nice, slow beginning and doesn't immediately jump kids past the most important fundamentals of violin learning. The songs are great, and by the time they've finished this book, they're ready for Suzuki Violin Book 1 or any other beginning method book that interests them.
-For middle schoolers to adults, I often recommend the Essential Elements Violin Book 1. It was written by Dr. Michael Allen, the late, great string music educator from my alma mater Florida State University. It includes lots of good tunes at each step of the learning process, and again, it doesn't skip over any important fundamentals! It's also a pretty good method for self-teaching. Review the fundamentals daily, insist on them in your playing every day, and you'll gradually develop a solid tone and ability to play the violin!
After conquering the initial challenge of learning the fundamentals (about 6 months to one year), most students will continue their violin journey for a few years if they have a consistent teacher whom they like and a group of music friends. While a child is learning how to play, he or she will also be moving up through the sizes of miniature violins. Here's a quick break-down for most (average height) students:
A 3-year-old will play a 1/16th size violin.
A 4-year-old will play a 1/10th size violin. (It's sometimes hard to find this size, and in that case, we just wait a few more months before jumping up to a 1/8 size.)
A 5 to 6-year-old will play a 1/8th size violin.
A 6 to 8-year-old will play a 1/4th size violin
A 7 to 11-year-old will play a 1/2 size violin.
A 10 to 14-year-old (or very petite adult) will play a 3/4 size violin.
Some students who desire an intermediate size here can play a 7/8th size violin, but they are very hard to find. In olden times, they were considered "ladies' violins" because they are a bit smaller and more manageable, and it is even possible to find some professional quality concert violins in the 7/8th size from the 18th and 19th centuries! I have found this size violin to cost a higher premium than the same quality in 3/4th or full size.
Once a student is over 5 feet tall, they will usually play a 4/4 (full) size violin.
For me, the sign a violinist is ready to move up to the next size is if they can hold the violin in playing position on their shoulder, stretch their left arm straight out under the violin, and easily wrap their left hand fingers all the way around the the scroll and touch the A string peg.
Now that you know what size violin you will need, let's talk about where to find it.
Do a Google search for "Violin Luthier" or "Violin Shop" and your city.
If the only listings that come up near you are for guitar shops and band instrument rental shops, you will need to expand your search online or to the closest major city, which is likely to have a few high-quality violin shops. If you would like personalized instrument consulting right here online, I would be happy to help you navigate the ! I rent and sell great violins, violas, cellos, ukuleles, guitars, and electric pianos for every size and level student.
What to look for in a good violin shop and Luthier (violin doctor):
-Do good musicians work there? They should be happy to play an instrument for you! When I went looking for a new guitar, I asked the employees at the guitar shop to play the three instruments I was interested in for me so that I could hear them from a few feet away and choose based on tone and the player's perception of ease of playing.
-Are there lots of violins, violas, and cellos hanging on the walls to choose from? There should be more than just a handful of violins.
-This may sound strange, but is there a variety of violin music to look through at the shop? If they only have one or two method books for violin, you will want to look for a more violin-focused shop.
-Do their Luthiers spend time playing and improving each instrument they sell or rent? Most student model violins are factory made and may be sent here with "blank" bridges (that are thicker and not shaped specifically for the top of the violin), cheap strings, and rough fingerboard.
-What items are on the shop's violin playability checklist? (see list below)
A Playability Checklist for non-musicians: In order to make sure the violin is easily playable and won't be frustrating for a developing violinist, the violin should have:
-High-quality, brand name strings that are very shiny metal and have no imperfections or are new. (Don't cut corners here - strings really matter and should cost $45-80. I recommend Dominant strings for students for value and quality.)
-A bridge that is cut correctly to that specific violin and in the right place. Look at where the bridge meets the violin. Is there a gap between the bridge's feet and the front of the violin? Are the strings equally spaced on the top of the bridge? Is the bridge where it should be (like when you compare it to a picture of a violin)?
-No cracks or open seams.
-When you look down the fingerboard, does it look shiny and perfectly smooth? If not, the fingerboard will need to be planed a good Luthier, and that roughness is a sign of low quality.
-Does it sound nice and pleasing? (Note: miniature violins for young students will sound shrill.)
Ignore that little dent, scratch, or chip. It doesn't affect the sound! In fact, many violin makers ANTIQUE their instruments by adding some little dents and scuffs so that it looks more beautiful. The interesting thing about good violins is they actually improve with age if they are played, so the price on a high-quality used violin should actually go UP!
Buying a bow for your student-model violin
Buying a bow is a bit different. Just like every violin has a unique personality and tone, so does the bow. I would recommend, if you have the time and patience, to find a bow to complement your violin. This means buying the bow after you've found your violin. Luckily, if you're just beginning violin, you might not even need a bow for the first month or two of lessons! For energetic kids, electric violinists, or musicians looking for a good value, I might recommend a fiberglass bow. They are much less fragile than Pernambuco (that's the type of wood that a good bow is made from), and fiberglass bow makers are able to perfectly balance the bow and have great consistency since they are not dealing with wood.
If you have a bow in your hands, here's what to look for:
-If you look straight down the bow (from the large frog to the tip), it should be straight. If it leans to the right in the middle of the bow, I'd move on to the next bow. If the tip veers off to the left, also move on. (A warped bow can be fixed by a Luthier, but I personally don't bother.)
-Does the bow have a full amount of horse hair? This, again, can be rehaired, but for a beginner looking for a bow under $100, I'd be looking for a ready-to-play bow. Also, don't be surprised if you see some broken bow hairs sticking out. One or two broken hairs is fine and normal, but a whole bunch of broken bow hairs may be a sign of problems. (You can clean up a broken horse hair by breaking it off in the opposite direction that it's sticking out of the frog or tip. Or watch someone else do it.)
-If you hold the bow with just two fingers and play it on the violin strings, where does it bounce? A bow has a natural spring to it, and it should quiver on the string about 2/3rds or 3/4ths of the way towards the tip. If it bounces/jitters quite a bit in the middle or closer to the frog, it will give you frustrations in the future while learning to play.
Finding a good teacher or professional violinist to help you through the maze of violin playing is always recommended, and if you would like assistance finding your next student violin to rent or buy, please don't hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
If would like to study violin with me here in central Florida or anywhere online, please send me an email! I offer violin, viola, cello, ukulele, guitar, and digital piano rentals.