How to choose a good student violin

The Violin Violin by Antonio Stradivari, Cremona

Ah, the violin – beautiful, mysterious, alluring, beguiling, undoubtedly the Queen of the musical instruments! Owning one is more like having a special friend than a possession. An object of beauty to create beauty, your violin becomes part of you – an instrument to express the emotions of life, and yes, sometimes a source of frustration as well as joy.

They have a special magic for children. I like to tell my students, you are looking for a violin, but did you know that your violin is looking for you?

Modern violins are based on the models perfected in the golden age of violin making, from 1600 up to the mid 1700s, so in a way, they all look the same. (Which is kind of cool, when you consider: what other everyday objects are still made in exactly the same way as they were 300 years ago?)

But of course there are enormous differences in quality and workmanship. Some of these differences may not be obvious when you first go looking for a violin, but they will have a big impact on the whole business of learning to play. A good quality violin, set up correctly, facilitates better music-making and faster, more enjoyable progress towards mastery.

Faced with the task of obtaining a small student violin for your child, how do you figure out what is a good one? Do you buy a new violin or a second hand one? Does the country of origin matter? Handmade or factory made -what is the difference? What is actually the correct size? How do you know it is set up correctly? What strings are best? Finally, how much should you pay? Is it always worth it to pay more to buy a better quality violin, or do cheaper ones sound just as good?

Let’s unpack these questions.

First of all, I make a distinction between violins for young beginners and players – up to 1/4 size; and those for older students, who suit 1/2 size and above, for reasons I’ll explain below.

Violins up to 1/4 size    

When I began teaching violin over 30 years ago, there was a limited number of very small violins available. Suzuki violins were the best choice, especially for 1/16 and 1/8 violins, due to the impact in Japan of Shinichi Suzuki’s work with very young children. There were a few European models available in larger sizes, but Suzuki violins were more playable in the very small sizes, basically because they got some things just right – such as the width of the fingerboard and weight, plus they were affordable.

Needless to say, other violin manufacturers have caught up. Nowadays there is a profusion of small violins on the market, from Europe and the east, especially Korea and China. In the early days some student violins had amusing brand names, e.g. Skylark, Parrot etc. and some were only one step above toys. Today they are more likely to be labelled with a European name (usually German) or even a famous European composer (Dvorak, Schumann) in spite of their country of origin. In fact some European violin companies have set up factories in China, to take advantage of lower labour costs. There are some good violins produced there, but whether they have all maintained quality is debatable.

I don’t see as many new Suzuki violins these days, perhaps because their entry model is at the upper end of the price range, but I still prefer them, particularly the older ones – pre 1980’s. A second hand Suzuki for under $450 is good value, but as with any violin, you need to make sure it is well set up – especially the bridge and strings (see below).

New small violins we have tried with some success include Eastman and Sandner violins. Sandners are solid and playable but are a little heavy. Consequently they have a smaller voice. Eastman violins are better value – above the entry level model (80). The tone is better and they are good for small children to play on – right down to 1/32.

The Set Up. Watch Out For These Mistakes!

You’ll notice I keep talking about getting the setup done correctly. I can’t emphasize this point enough, because it has such a big effect on a young player’s progress. There are 6 key areas to check below. (I should mention here that even though I recommend some products, such as Dominant strings, I have no commercial interest in any of them and only recommend the products that I use and like.)

1. The Size of the Violin. Size is not really about setup, but is so important that I list it No. 1. Learning to play on the wrong size violin is like wearing shoes that are too large or small for you. Walking is very uncomfortable and running is painful. You won’t enjoy going for a walk.

For younger players, the most common mistake is to be given a violin that is too big. I’m shocked how often I see young beginners struggling to play on large instruments. These days I can tell the right size by looking at the child, but the simplest way for anyone to determine it is to place the violin on the student’s shoulder and ask them to reach their left hand up around the scroll. They should be able to do this comfortably with a bent elbow. The age of the student, size and shape of their hands and fingers, strength and stage of playing must also be considered. For beginners, think smaller rather than bigger. Three year old beginners mostly start out on 1/16ths, but a few need 1/32nd violins. Don’t be talked into buying one that is too big. To avoid building in problems with technique, it is crucial for young players to have the right size.

2. Type of Strings. Many new violin come fitted with steel strings. They are cheap and last forever, but are hard on little fingers and sound terrible – harsh and strident! There are several makers of excellent strings with non-metal cores:

dominant synthetic core violin strings

 Thomastik, Pirastro, Larsen, D’Addario and Corelli. They are well worth the change.

3. The Bridge. The bridge must be (or have been) shaped and fitted by an expert. Often it is too high, making it too hard to press strings down onto the fingerboard. Stopped notes will be out of tune with the natural harmonics. The shape and spacing of the strings are just as important as the height. A wrongly shaped bridge makes clean string crossings difficult.despiau violin bridge

4. The Nut. If the string grooves at the nut (scroll end) are too shallow, it’s hard to press the string down accurately with first finger next to the nut, especially F natural on E string. Conversely, if the groove is too deep, the string will buzz. Only an expert repairer can remedy this problem. violin nut

5. A Good Chin rest. A wrongly shaped or positioned chin rest makes the violin uncomfortable and even painful to hold correctly. Ideally it should fit the shape of the chin comfortably, enabling the player to keep their head straight whilst looking along the fingerboard.

Some chinrests have a high outer ridge – a major cause of discomfort. Wittner chin rest

The Wittner chin rest is an example of good shape for young players – and easy to fit.

6. A Comfortable Shoulder Rest. A good shoulder rest enables correct posture without tension or discomfort and allows the violin to resonate cleanly. Kun shoulder restThere are so many available,but I prefer the shape of Kun shoulder rests and their many imitators.

Violins over 1/2 size

When a student reaches a half size violin, I prefer the older European ones, say from 1900 or earlier, perhaps up to the 1960’s. They have some real advantages. Unlike used cars or computers, better quality violins can improve with age, if they are well cared for. Experience has taught me that there are substantial benefits from owning a good ‘pre-loved’ older instrument. As with the smaller violins, it is essential to get the setup right – by an expert.

The Benefits of Ye Older Violins

  • The tonal quality of older violins are more stable and less likely to change or deteriorate than new violins. The wood has had time to season sufficiently. Often it has been naturally seasoned before work starts on making the violin. Every violin has a unique voice, but a new violin may take several months of playing to establish its true sound. By contrast, mature violins reveal their distinct voice almost immediately, especially if they have been kept in tune and played regularly. So you know what you’ve got, right from the start.
  • You can research the maker’s reputation with more confidence. Good makers of the past are celebrated for the quality of their work and materials. You’ll soon start to recognize the care with which some of these violins were made. A quick search on the internet will often show up previous sale prices of the maker’s violins and comments on quality.
  • Mature violins hold their value. When the time comes to move up to the next size, you can recover your investment and keep saving up for that really special full-sized beauty. Expect prices starting around $1500, but you can be lucky and pick up a bargain. Scratches and even cracks can be repaired with little detriment to the sound and playability. Although good older violins cost more, they are worth it. Over time, they increase in value.
  • You can get better advice from reputable violin dealers, makers and restorers (and of course, teachers) than from instrument shop salespersons. Admittedly, they all want to sell you a violin, but dealers, makers and restorers are string specialists – expert craftspeople who work with a great variety of string instruments. The ones I know love to share their knowledge and expertise.
  • It makes good sense to keep these older violins in circulation and in good condition. I have come across many older small size violins that are true gems – well made and maintained art pieces that have a long life ahead of them with future generations of young musicians.

Three separate factors combine with a violin: the quality of workmanship; the characteristic sound or tone of the violin; and its playability. Occasionally, a violin may be well made with good materials, but have an unsatisfactory sound.

The tone quality of a violin – its voice – is intrinsic and unique, and very difficult to change, let alone improve. There are other lesser influences on tone quality, such as the type of bridge, the strings, and the position of the sound post – which determines the overall balance of frequencies. Playability – how easy or difficult it is to play and produce a good sound – is mostly determined by the violin’s setup.

Many older European violins are handmade. Invariably this results in a better quality instrument. Wood is a natural material with varying density and grain. A skilled luthier takes this into consideration when choosing the wood and refining the final dimensions and thicknesses during the construction of the violin.

Although you may not initially feel confident to recognise good tonal qualities and workmanship, take the time to work out what you find attractive. If possible, listen to a good violinist play a number of violins until you develop an idea of the sound you like (and importantly, dislike). Contrasting the sound of two or more violins is a good place to begin. Your perception of quality will deepen over time.

You’ll notice I haven’t talked about The Bow – a subject – or should I say object – I have strong opinions about. It requires its very own post, which is available here.

Ok. That’s it for now. There’s really a lot more I could say about student violins and despite having just touched on how to choose one, I’m eager to send this post out to you all. I’d love to hear about your experiences in finding your treasured violin.

A warm welcome to all new members to TSV – thanks for joining! I hope you find something useful here. I appreciate your interest in Teach Suzuki Violin.

Cheers, John

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12 Enlightened Replies

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  1. His Irreverence says:

    Well, I can for one vouch for the truth of the statement that a good violin inspires one – my first violin was a Skylark, a solid, work-a-day instrument with a nice tone. But I laid it aside for many a year due to non-violinistic circumstances. I bought a new Hofner the other month, and one of the very first things I played on it was an improvisation on the D scale. I’d never before felt that inspired by a violin. It felt so apt to musical expression. (I am only a satisfied customer, and have no other relationship to Hofner. They wouldn’t know me from a bar of soap.)

  2. Stef says:

    Sir is parrot violin good for a beginner?

    • John Berger says:

      Thanks for your question, Stef. I came across a Parrot violin years ago while looking for a suitable instrument for one of my students. I don’t know if they have changed their production since then, but the Parrot violin I saw (made in China) was only fit for putting on the wall as a kind of joke, not for playing, and especially not for a beginner. Perhaps they have since improved, as some good quality violins are now being made in China, mostly under the direction of well known European makers.

      • Yaqin Shi says:

        Hi, thank you so much for the article. I live in Vancouver, Canada. It is very dry here. If I buy a suzuki violin from Japan directly, does it need any special treatment to prevent cracking?

        • John Berger says:

          Hi Yaqin, a Suzuki violin from Japan shouldn’t normally require any special treatment, but dryness can indeed be a problem in some situations and will occasionally cause cracking. In very dry weather you can use a violin humidifier such as Dampit, available at your local music shop or online on ebay to place inside the f-hole.

  3. saeed gholami says:

    Hello
    Thanks for your website.
    Is sandner 300 good for beginner?
    Thanks so much

    • John Berger says:

      Hi Saeed, yes the Sandner 300 is good for beginners. They are a little heavier in comparison with other student violins and therefore the tone is softer, but they are well made and hold their value. Make sure you buy the correct size, especially for a young beginner, and ask the violin teacher to check the quality of the strings and the setup (bridge height and shape, nut etc).

      Cheers, John

  4. Tina says:

    Thank you for your review and information. My 5 year old son used a 1/8 size Suzuki violin as a beginner 🙂

  5. Christopher Clarke says:

    John, are you aware of the differences between a Suzuki Nagoya #220 circa ’93 and those currently designated NS220 (Nagoya Suzuki)? I have been tempted by a mid-’90s model in very good condition but regularly see them selling cheaply on eBay and elsewhere. By contrast, the current NS version sells for nearly A$800 here in Australia! I did read about subtle differences somewhere but I’m keen to know if the older version would be a better bet than, say, a Chinese Schroeder 50J? Many thanks.

    • John Berger says:

      Hi Christopher, yes it’s odd to see new Nagoya Suzuki violins selling for so much when secondhand instruments from earlier times are just as good, if they have been well cared for. Condition and setup are the critical factors. It’s also important to consider the type and condition of the bow and bridge, and the cost of new good quality strings. To be honest, I haven’t tested the most recent Schroeder violins, so can’t advise you about them. All up I think good pre-loved violins are much better value than most new violins. Let’s keep the older ones alive and circulating. Good luck in finding a gem.

  6. Chris-Marie says:

    Hi I am thinking of learning how to play violin. I have got an violin sander, it sounded like plastic when I tap the instrument with my fingernail.

    I have pictures if that would help?

    • John Berger says:

      Are you referring to a Sandner violin? These are student quality violins, definitely made of wood, often with a darker varnish and a little heavier than many similar priced student violins. The construction and materials were good enough for a luthier friend of mine to take them apart and refine their dimensions, creating a better tone and response and making them more playable.

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