Important things to consider when buying a violin
When deciding to buy a violin, viola, cello or double bass it is important to make your choices based on understanding the options available and why they might benefit you, your budget and playing level. I have tried to give a few pointers as to the most important things to consider:
- What is a violin outfit?
- What size do I need to buy?
- How much do I need to spend?
- What does the expression “Set Up” mean and what difference does it make?
- How important is the bow?
- Do I need a shoulder rest?
- What else should I consider?
What is a violin outfit?
What size violin do I need to buy?
It is important that young children are not put on instruments that are too large for them.
Moving up onto a larger instrument does not indicate progress as a player, but should be considered a function of a child’s growth. It is true that a larger size will often give a better sound than a smaller one but physical problems can develop if a child is asked to over stretch or be made to feel uncomfortable.
Discomfort is a real disincentive to practice, so important in all stages of learning an instrument. Take advice from your teacher or an experienced violin dealer or restorer. They will assess the size of your child in relation to the size of your chosen instrument and let you know when it is time to move to a larger instrument.
One of the benefits of renting an instrument for younger children is that it is easier to upsize as they grow, ensuring the best possible experience for them whilst learning.
How much do I need to spend on a violin?
Whether you are starting from scratch, moving up through exams or looking to upgrade, it is important to spend as much as you can afford on a quality instrument. This will allow you to get the most out of your lessons and achieve your personal ‘best performance’ at each stage.
It is also vitally important that the instrument you buy is set up properly (see below). A good workman never blames his tools for two reasons, first, he has the right tools and second, he keeps them in good condition. Exactly the same applies to stringed instruments. Make sure they are regularly checked by a reputable repairer who is able to make any adjustments that are needed.
What does the expression 'set up' mean and what difference does it make?
When you first look at a stringed instrument it looks a very simple object, a sound box, strings over a piece of wood that we call the bridge, a finger board and pegs for tuning the strings. Oh, were it so simple!
Because the strings are tuned differently from a low pitch to a high pitch, they have to be of different thicknesses. Also they are at different tensions. In the case of a violin the G string is quite thick and at a much lower tension than the thin (usually steel) E string. When fingers are placed on the string in the lower positions (where the string is nearly at full length) the angle between the string and the finger board is very small, whereas when the finger is put down of the string nearer the bridge the angle is much greater. In order to compensate, both the bridge and fingerboard need to be carved in such a way to stop the strings buzzing in front of where the finger has been put down in a lower position, keep the string heights adjusted to maintain a similar tension despite the different string thicknesses and the angle across the bridge adjusted so each string can be played individually without catching other strings.
To get these adjustments made accurately is a highly skilled job and makes a huge difference to the ease with which an instrument can be played. This is often overlooked when new students are buying their first instrument. Inexperienced players in particular need to work at developing their playing skills rather than battling to overcome the deficiencies of their instrument. Better to have a lesser instrument ‘set up well’ than a better instrument ‘set up badly’.
How important is the bow?
The bow is effectively 50% of the instrument. A poor bow can severely limit a player’s development.
The bow needs to be the correct weight for the player’s technique, make a good sound, work in a well-balanced way enabling smooth changes of direction and be easy to control when playing off the string.
There are a number of exercises that I have developed to help choose bows in an objective manner and I aim to post a video clip showing them in action. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself spending 40% of what you spend on the instrument on a bow, it can pay real dividends.
Do I need a shoulder rest?
The majority of violin and viola players today use a shoulder rest and there are various types on the market.
There is no right or wrong shoulder rest to use; it is a matter of what suits you. They come in all sizes and with the smaller rests often covering a couple of sizes so when a child moves up a size the shoulder rest is still usable.
The advantage of a shoulder rest is that the instrument feels much more secure under the chin. Don’t ignore the chin rest as sometimes discomfort is blamed on the shoulder rest when the answer lies with a better chin rest. I have seen a number of people with a long neck using a very high shoulder rest where they would be better with a higher chin rest so the instrument is not so elevated above the shoulder, enabling them to relax their shoulder muscles.
What else should I consider when buying a violin?
Choose a practical case for the person that is going to be carrying it.
If it is a child that is going to be carrying other things to and from school as well as their instrument, avoid cases that are of heavy construction. There are many lightweight cases that provide good protection from the elements as well as the rugged wear of school use. Ensure that shoulder straps are adjustable so they can be comfortably used whatever the size of the person carrying the instrument.
Don’t forget to buy quality rosin.
Rosin is relatively inexpensive. Better quality rosins tend to work well without excessive powdering. If your rosin does powder a lot, make sure you wipe the excess from the instrument regularly, otherwise it will build up over a period of time and solidify on the front of the instrument and require specialist cleaning to remove it.
Also remember to regularly wash the cloth you use for cleaning off the rosin, otherwise you will find it builds up even more quickly.
All the above questions can be answered in more detail by visiting our Music Showrooms in Tunbridge Wells (Kent) or New Haw (Surrey). We have luthiers and bowed string experts available to help you choose the right instrument for your musical and budgetary needs.