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by Peter Zaret

Selecting or buying a violin for a child/student can be confusing and sometimes intimidating. Here are the typical concerns parents have when they embark on this quest, and my responses.

How “good” of an instrument do I need?

The easy answer is the best one you can afford. The practical answer is more complicated. The two most important considerations are:

  • does the violin sound good?
  • does it stay in tune?

How do I evaluate the tone quality and playability?

Since a fractional size violin is too small for its acoustical range it will tend to sound bright and brassy yet much softer than a 4/4 (full) size. Power is important in a violin — the ideal is a strong sound that is also deep and rich. This must be put into context with the limitations of a small size instrument. (I ask people over and over why does an orchestra have 35 violins and 3 flutes? The answer is the flute produces the power of about 10 violins). Other questions about tone and playability are better left to the teacher and the dealer.

How do I determine if the violin will stay reasonably well in tune?

This is always a vexing problem. The child doesn’t have the finger and hand strength to control the pegs and the parents are usually inexperienced in tuning a violin. A helpful idea is to have a tailpiece with tuners built in. This allows the parent to do most of the tuning with the tailpiece which is easier to control than the pegs. A higher proportion of time and money should go into making sure the pegs and tuning system are operating at their maximum efficiency. The strings on the instrument will play a role in how well the violin stays in tune. Steel strings will stay in tune better than synthetic core strings but they don’t sound as rich. Its a trade-off. A good teacher will be able to make a recommendation based on the child’s age and skill level.

Should the violin be old or new?

All things being equal an old violin will sound better than a new one. This must be weighed against the condition of the instrument. If the old violin has a lot of repaired cracks and the pegs and peg box are worn it should be avoided. Cracks can open, the neck can drop, buzzes can occur and endless problems can result from many repairs. Since children are usually rougher than adults and can’t control the tuning process as well as an adult, a new violin that sounds well is preferable to an old one with problems. There are many fine sounding new violins available.

Does name of maker and country of origin matter?

Most teachers think Italian followed by French violins are the best. This is more true for 4/4 sizes than fractional sizes. Most of the most famous Italian and French makers made very few fractional sizes. Since the small size violin is typically used for about 1 1/2 years there is very little investment potential here. If a parent can afford it and the dealer will take it back in trade there might be some benefit in getting a name small size violin. However just because it has a big name that doesn’t guarantee it will sound well, suit the student or stay in tune well enough for the student to handle it. It will also be difficult to resell if the dealer doesn’t take it back in trade. Under most circumstances a good sounding new violin will do just fine.

Should I buy or rent?

Many people feel you should rent when the child is young, and buy when he or she is old enough and reasonably accomplished. That certainly makes sense. My main caveat is that, for the most part, rental violins are very inexpensive and rarely sound good. The violin is hard enough to learn to play well with good equipment. Challenges are multiplied by a poor instrument. Ultimately it is better from a playing standpoint to buy a good sounding violin. Most dealers take them back in trade so in the long run you have a deposit on a good sounding 4/4 size violin plus the advantage of giving your child the best possible assistance to playing well. The sound quality of a small size violin is crucial. We learn to speak by imitating our parents. We learn to play by imitating the sound our teacher makes and by listening to good violinists. If the sound that comes out of the violin is screatchy, shrill, weak, etc. it is virtually impossible to imitate teachers and other violinists.

If you feel uncertain about your child’s true interest or committment it makes sense to minimize your initial investment. But if/when your child does show that he or she is serious, help them at that point by upgrading their instrument.

How much should I spend?

A fine sounding newer small size violin can be purchased from between $750 -$1,500. Occasionally a dealer might have a newer violin which was taken back in trade with a few dings and scratches which he or she might discount for you. This is, of course, unless the child insists (which happens quite a lot) that the violin must look beautiful.

How important is physical beauty?

If I line up 5 or 6 violins for a customer to try, the first one he or she usually goes for is the best looking one. Quite often people will choose a violin if it is highly flamed or if it has a one-piece back. The flaming has little to do with the tone. Even if the child or parent insists that the appearance isn’t as important as the sound they will gravitate to the best looking instrument. But keep your eyes out for a violin that sounds good but is otherwise nicked up a bit — it may make a good buy. Tone should always be considered first (in conjuction with general condition as mentioned previously).

How do I tell what is the correct size?

A fractional violin is too small for its acoustical range. Therefore, for the most part, the larger the violin, the better it will sound. Having said that, you should choose the size that the child can handle comfortably. (An instrument that is too large may sound better but the child will have difficulty playing in tune.) The teacher and the dealer can help in picking out the right size. Generally speaking if the child puts the violin in playing position and is able to grab the scroll with the fingers wrapped comfortably and the arm dropping down a little, the child is ready for this size.

What happens when the child outgrows the violin?

As discussed before if the violin has been purchased from a reputable dealer the dealer will take it back in trade toward a better and or larger violin. The teacher usually makes the determination as to whether it is time to move up to a larger size.

How important is a good bow?

A violin needs a bow to produce a legato as opposed to a pizzacato (plucked) tone. Children will typically start off with either a fiberglass or brazilwood bow (as opposed to bows made of carbon fiber or pernambuco wood, which are of higher quality and priced accordingly). Many students today use a fiberglass bow. The advantages of fiberglass bows are that they are virtually indestructable and very inexpensive. However doing some of the more complicated bowing strokes and getting a good sound are more difficult with a fiberglass bow. A good and strong brazilwood bow will play and sound better than a fiberglass bow. The disadvantage is that brazilwood bows cost more than fiberglass bows and are much more fragile. Furthermore brazilwood bows tend to wear out and become soft and spongy as opposed to the yet more expensive pernambuco bows. But, since it will typically be used for about 1 1/2 years it can make sense to get a good brazilwood bow. Cost will usually be about $150.00. The playability and controlability of a good brazilwood bow is much better than a fiberglass bow and by the time it starts to wear out the child should be ready for a bigger and perhaps higher-quality bow.

Websites you might be interested in

Suzuki Association: www.suzukiassociation.org
“The Suzuki Association of the Americas (SAA) is a coalition of teachers, parents, educators, and others who are interested in making music education available to all children. The SAA provides programs and services to members throughout North and South America. With the International Suzuki Association (ISA) and other regional associations, the SAA promotes and supports the spread of Dr. Suzuki’s Talent Education.”

American String Teachers Association: www.astaweb.com
“The American String Teachers Association is a membership committed to advancing string education and performance. Our members include teachers, faculty, performers, string industry representatives, students, and string enthusiasts. We are all passionately committed to the future of string education not only in our country but around the world.”