About Violins

Great Leaps Forward

Are the violins made by Italian master luthiers Stradivari and Guarnieri ever likely to be exceeded? Has the violin reached a perfect form, impossible to improve, or is it outdated technology in serious need of an upgrade?


Stradivarius 1721 – Regazzi 1998

Despite being interesting questions, they miss the point. It’s certainly possible to change the appearance of the violin without drastically altering its sound qualities. Today it can be produced in almost any colour, for example, and some changes could feasibly be made to the shape, yet practically all attempts to improve the fundamental design since Cremona’s golden period in the early 1700s have failed to catch on. Why? Because the violin that emerged from the workshops of these consummate instrument makers combines aesthetic form and function so completely.

It is simply a beautiful instrument that’s very good for creating what we love to hear – music. And good music, of course, is the real point.

(Two small changes were made in the 19th century to accommodate a rise in concert pitch. The neck was lengthened by about a centimetre and the bass bar strengthened to resist the higher string tension. Tellingly, a disastrous attempt to improve the tone by scorching the wood ruined a number of fine violins.)

Progress in Teaching and Learning

Can violin teaching and the way we learn to play the violin be improved?

This question can’t be answered so easily.

Here also it’s commonly believed no substantial improvements are possible. Looking at the rich and mature traditions of violin study, based on an exemplary literature with far reaching sets of major texts and exercises such as Sevcik and Kreutzer, plus the vast violin repertoire, it seems complete.

Newly published methods and textbooks mostly draw on these sources. However, it’s a mistake to rule out continuing progress. Big changes seemed unlikely before the arrival of European innovators like Dalcrose, Kodaly and Orff and from the far east, Suzuki. (See the next post.)

Learning Music with the New Technology

Now we are experiencing the rapid growth of new technologies. Are they beneficial to learning music or just a distraction? Are we on the brink of some great leaps forward or in danger of a slide backwards?


Mastering the violin requires a large commitment of time and effort. Usually about 10 years or more of concentrated study are needed to learn the complex skills, knowledge and meanings (memes) of classical violin, and be fully recreated from previous generations of musician-teachers.

Teachers have an indispensable role. Music is a profoundly human experience, and it’s doubtful that the teacher-student model of person to person musical training can be successfully superseded. Live teaching via video streaming is becoming more common, but it lacks the shared proximity of the studio.

The idea of learning music from a robot is unappealing, to say the least.

The growth of musical ability and meaning is intricate, complex and personal, containing subtleties beyond the capacity of any software program. Computers can play chess with number crunching prowess. Can they determine the interpretive possibilities of an exquisite phrase in a Mozart concerto?

What is making a big difference is the right use of new technology, which allows the violin to be accessible to more people than ever before.

We know that J.S. Bach, for instance, occasionally made long journeys on foot to experience the playing of great musicians, whereas today we can hear and view multiple performances by a variety of international virtuosos while living in some of the most remote places on the planet.

Suzuki and Audio Recordings

As he researched and developed his music education philosophy, Suzuki introduced daily listening to audio recordings of fine players to young students, creating a richer musical environment and speeding up their progress. His revelation about the connection between spoken language and music made immersion in the sound of the student’s current and future violin repertoire a key part of his teaching strategies.

Taking advantage of young children’s natural capacity for language for learning music produces extraordinary results. This explanation has created real progress in music education around the world, as shown by the great surge of fluent young violinists in schools and orchestras. It also lowered the average age at which children start lessons and when they reach the professional violin repertoire.


The spread of online video performances is also having a powerful impact. Due to the large visual component of playing the violin, young children will also absorb the way high level violinists look and move. Video performances highlight the refined actions and expressive movement violinists use to play and communicate their music to the audience.

How to take advantage of the New Technology

Audio recordings provide the opportunity to study the art of world class players and experience their differing interpretations. I’ve summarised this in the post, How to use Audio Recordings for Violin Teaching and Study.

Online video performances enable us to see and experience the music beyond the sound. This includes technical knowledge such as bowing, bow division, positions, musical and interpretive questions such as style and character, right down to phrasing and dynamics. Some accuracy issues, like rhythmic complexities for example, are better understood visually. You can pick up hints about stage presence, movement and how to integrate your performance with the orchestra or accompaniment.

The two main sources are YouTube and Vimeo. Look at the contrasting  styles of these two performances of the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

Online video tutorials are available that demonstrate specific techniques and exercises, providing a useful addition to live lessons. One of the best is Violin Masterclass.

DVDs. Due to their superior audio and vision in comparison to online videos and their extended length, DVDs are invaluable resources for study.


Software and apps. A great variety of music education products are emerging, and it’s clear this type of technology is just beginning. Some of the more useful ones help with basic skills and knowledge – such as keys, time signatures, rhythm, note recognition, intervals, harmonic analysis, composition, transcription, arranging and editing.

Electronic tuners and digital metronomes have been around for some time and are only marginally more convenient than their analogue counterparts – tuning forks and mechanical metronomes – until their batteries run out. Electronic tuners are easy to use and adjust, even if they take over the ear’s job.

clip on tuner

In the next post, I’ll discuss the potential for progress in teaching and learning beyond the use of technology.

Thanks for visiting Teach Suzuki Violin – and a warm welcome to all of the new members and subscribers!



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Violin Repairs: What you should and shouldn’t fix yourself

On the radio the other day I heard a delightful story about a movement called Repair Café, started in the Netherlands by Martine Postma – where you can have your things repaired by volunteering experts. It’s spread into a world wide café community of enthusiastic fixers and repairers. In an age of disposable goods and rapidly redundant technologies, it’s a breath of fresh air – and better than recycling. By coincidence, I happened to be writing this post about violin repairs.


If well cared for, violins are capable of very long lives and are remarkably immune from redundancy and the foibles of fashion. It’s quite satisfying to know that the most sought after violins are around 300 years old! It’s hard to think of any other item in daily use that comes close to their longevity.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with some talented string instrument repairers and luthiers during my teaching career. In my experience it is usually best to have even the simplest repairs done by an stringed instrument expert, yet there are some easier things that don’t require their level of skills.

4 Things you can and should fix yourself

1. Changing strings

Replacing strings is something every violinist should be able to do themselves. Violin strings are replaced one at a time, and the new string brought up to approximately the correct pitch before changing the next one, to maintain a constant tension on the neck and sound post, and to keep the bridge in position.

Here’s a couple of good videos about how to change strings. The second one, by Olaf Grawert of The Violin Studio, is particularly good for some lesser known important details.

2. Straightening the bridge

When you replace strings, it’s a good opportunity to check the straightness of the bridge. Some people recommend loosening all of the strings, but I’ve rarely found it necessary, especially with smaller violins. I’ve gently straightened and even stood them up at correct pitch for many years without mishaps.

When the bridge is bent out of shape a new one should be fitted.

The video below, again by violin expert Olaf Grawert, demonstrates a good safe method of straightening the bridge that almost anyone can do.

3. Unsticking pegs

There’s less likelihood of pegs sticking if they have been fitted correctly in the first place.

A little peg compound will help. It means taking the peg out before applying it, so is best done while replacing a string. When tuning up, start by turning the peg towards a lower pitch (loosening) to get it moving, before turning it upwards.


Photo by Milliot

Photo by Milliot

4. Changing the chinrest

Chin rests are more often changed for reasons of comfort than breakage. It’s always worthwhile trying out a few different types to find the right one, and the small tool shown below makes it an easy job.

Photo by Aaron Wolf

Photo by Aaron Wolf



7 Violin repairs that must be done by an Expert

1. Worn or loose fingerboard

Fingerboards wear at notes that are played often, such as D on A string (3rd finger in 1st position), causing fizzy (I meant to say fuzzy) pizzicato and vibrato. Planing and smoothing the fingerboard is a very exacting task that must be only done in the luthier’s workshop. The shape and curve can be irretrievably altered in the wrong hands.

If the fingerboard comes loose, it must be glued back on by the violin repairer, who will use the correct adhesive – animal/hide glue.

2. Fitting a new bridge

A new bridge has a profound effect on the tone quality of the violin and fitting one must be done by an expert, who will be happy to accommodate your preferences about the bridge’s quality, shape and height relative to the fingerboard.

3. Setting and moving the sound post

Luthiers and string instrument repairers cut and set sound posts all the time. It’s a quick and easy job for them, so why try to do it yourself? It’s a difficult and risky task I gave up long ago. A good time to check its position or make alterations is when fitting a new bridge. Sometimes the new bridge changes the balance of resonating frequencies of the violin, which can easily be tested adjusted at the repairer’s workshop.


4. Repairing cracks, chips and damage to the wood, and glueing open seams

These difficult and detailed repairs should be left to the experts. And remember, even severe damage is repairable by a skilled luthier.

5. Repairing the varnish – scratches

Tiny scratches can be polished out by the repairer. For everyday use, just clean the varnish with a soft cloth. Violin polishes should be applied sparingly and are best avoided, especially on older instruments.

Photo by Anthony V

Atelier d’un luthier  by Anthony V

6. Changing the height of strings at the nut

It’s rather common for the grooves at the nut to be too shallow on new student violins, so that a lot of pressure is needed for the first semitone – especially B♭ and F♮ on A and E strings. This is a small delicate task with a significant benefit for the player. Leave it to the repairer and test it out in the workshop.


7. Changing tailpiece and end gut

Since they are no longer made from ‘gut’, nylon tailguts are less likely to snap these days. Replacing an integrated tailpiece with fine adjusters is more common, when the adjusters malfunction.



Although changing a tailpiece or end gut can be done by non-experts, it requires standing up and repositioning the bridge and tuning the strings up again. If you’re not confident to do this, ask your repairer to help.

As a teacher, I’ve had to deal with all of these common violin repairs and part replacements, on student models of all sizes and good number of fine quality full size violins. As you’ll see in the post, How to choose a good student violin, I prefer older violins, especially ½ size and beyond.

Let’s take good care of our treasured violins, keeping them alive and healthy for those future generations of violinists.



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How to Tune the Violin

When one of my student’s mothers called me on a late Saturday evening to tune her daughter’s violin I was happy to help out, thinking to myself, “What a dedicated parent she is, doing a great job with her child’s violin studies.” She drove about 10 kilometres to my house through busy traffic, knocking softly on my door in the dark, grateful to me for the minute or so of getting the 1/4 size violin nicely back in tune. On a couple of occasions I’d actually tuned violins on the phone, an entirely unsatisfactory undertaking, but it took this time for me to realize the problem I had made, for my students, their parents – and myself. For all of my fussiness about intonation and keeping violins precisely in tune, I’d failed to adequately train parents and students how to do it themselves.

fine tuning

Photo by Mitch Huang

A week’s practice on a poorly tuned violin starts to erode a student’s sense of good intonation. They usually know something is wrong, try to compensate, adjusting finger positions in the attempt, but it’s a losing battle. After a while they become accustomed to the out of tune strings, much in the same way as people who live near a busy road get used to the sound of constant traffic. They gradually stop hearing it.

Experienced violinists keep their violin in tune as a matter of course and are acutely aware if it drifts out of tune. Modern strings, made of wound metals and synthetic materials, hold their pitch much better than in those of the past, which were made of more natural stuff (sheep intestines). Nonetheless tuning takes practice and skill, even when the violin is set up correctly, a crucial prerequisite that is sometimes overlooked. Read about correct violin setup in my post: How to Choose a Good Student Violin.

How to Tune the Violin

What’s best to tune from? For parents and students I recommend starting with an electronic tuner. You’ll also need to be able to tune to the piano – I’ll talk about this later.

Electronic tuners that clip on to the pegs or scroll read directly from the vibrations in the violin itself are the easiest to use. This is a good one made by Intelli.clip on tuner

I use a tuning fork and eventually you may want to acquire one as well, since the advantages outweigh the convenience of an electronic tuner. You’ll learn to listen more precisely, tune strings from each other, and the result will be more accurate and violin friendly. For a start, tuning forks don’t require batteries. You’ll learn how to tune with pure perfect fifths, make slight adjustments to suit different circumstances such as playing with a piano or ensemble, or even tune to favour a particular key.

TIP: New strings can take up to a day to stabilize and stop stretching, so it’s a good idea to keep an older string in the case, for that rare but unsettling occasion when a string breaks just before a concert.

Tune the A String

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How to Choose a Good Student Bow

First, a confession. Over a year ago I wrote about how to choose a good student violin. Unbiased advice about choosing a good student violin is hard to find, especially since there’s an unbelievable amount, if you’ll excuse the pun, of advertising about them on the net. I’m happy to share the knowledge I have accumulated during my 30 or so years of teaching young children. How to choose a good student violin continues to be one of the most popular posts on Teach Suzuki Violin. And I promised to write about choosing a good violin bow. In this post I attempt to make up for my tardiness.


Bow by François Tourte, French Master Bow Maker

Fine quality violin bows are objects of great beauty and craftsmanship. They combine strength and flexibility with elegance and balance. A good bow is vital to your music making: it can enable and inspire you to play with ease, confidence and power. Playing with a great bow is exciting. I love my beautiful old silver mounted Weichold bow. Over the years I’ve performed with bows bearing more illustrious pedigrees, but always come back to it with renewed delight – and gratitude to the artist who created it with such skill and finesse.

As a parent with a child studying violin, it is important to know what makes a good student bow as much as a good violin. And you don’t want to pay the earth for one – unless you have to.

8 Important Questions About Student Bows.

  • Why do I need to choose a bow? Don’t almost all violin outfits come with a good bow?
  • What are the most important things to look for in a bow?
  • Should I buy a new or second-hand bow?
  • Which material is best? Does it matter if it is made from wood, carbon fibre or fibreglass?
  • What is the right size bow for the violin?
  • Should I rehair or re-buy?
  • How much should I pay?
  • What are the good makers of violin bows for students?

1. Why choose a bow independently from the violin outfit?

The bows that come with student violins, even with some expensive outfits, are often unsuitable or inferior. Either they have a basic flaw or the quality doesn’t match that of the violin. Stores specializing in stringed instruments should allow you to select from the range of bows that accompany the violin so you can choose one in the best condition – or upgrade to a better one. Good music stores are happy to let you choose.


You can play a lot better with a fine quality bow in good condition. Bowing skills are harder to master on a poor quality bow and some techniques are virtually impossible. A good bow enables you to have finer control over musical and technical elements such as tone quality, tone shape and colour, projection, legato and staccato strokes, bow speed and string crossings.

2. What are the most important things to look for in a bow?

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Fred’s “Stradivarius” Violin

This week’s post is a little different. It is a true story with a twist, about an old friend of mine. As I send it to you, we are about to depart for Melbourne, a journey of 3,500 kms from here in Fremantle. I’m telling you this because we’re driving – it will take about 4 or 5 days – and I’m hoping that I can send my next post from somewhere along the way, in the Outback.

Fred was a lovely old bloke, with more enthusiasm for all things violin than anyone I knew. Obsessed really, which was a bit of a problem, because he tried to repair them. But more about that later. I was just there to buy a bow.

Lady Blunt Stradivarius

Lady Blunt Stradivarius

I’m looking for a good bow, Fred. Have you got anything interesting?

He peers around the door, his face a smile of recognition.

Oh yes, John, I’ve got quite a few. Come in, come in!

It’s early evening and I’ve had a long day teaching. I follow him into the living room, where he beckons me to take chair. There are bits and pieces of violin paraphernalia over the laminex table. I see a box of pegs. Some are exquisite – ebony with gold studs. In another box are rosewood and ebony tail pieces. One has a pretty inlaid fleur-de-lis, the pearl shell glinting under the kitchen light.

Have a seat. Look, I won’t be a minute. Before I show you the bows I want you to look at some violins I have been working on.

Inwardly I groan. I know what this means. Showing me violins means playing them. Not by me. Fred loves to play, but he can’t keep in tune. The trouble is, he’s such a kindly soul I don’t have the heart to dissuade him. Unhappily, no-one wants to listen to his earnest violin playing, which makes him a little desperate to find an audience.

He emerges from his workshop with the one of his latest treasures. It’s a darkish golden brown violin with a pretty one-piece back, made in Germany in 1902. With a grin of anticipation, Fred rosins the bow. As he plays, the notes slide around perilously under his wide slow vibrato, mournfully out of tune. His face is a mixture of intense concentration and pleasure, oblivious to the sour notes. But underneath it all I discern the sound and character of the violin. It has a kind of distant quality. Perhaps the top plate is a little too heavy. Or, surely not, revarnished? No. The middle range isn’t bad, but the higher frequencies are weak. F natural on the E string is way too dominant. It may settle down with lots of playing, and a better brand of string. Fred hands the violin to me with reverence. I spin it over in my hands to look at the lovely flame of the back and place it carefully on the table.

The next one is a Breton, from Mirecourt, with a light yellow varnish. I have great respect for some of the old French violins. Often they have a richer bass sound than German violins of similar quality and are less inflated in price than comparable Italian instruments. The tone of the Breton is too harsh for my liking and the scroll has had major reconstruction. I see a crack in the top that has been poorly repaired. It’s had a tough life.

I had to fix the top, Fred says, handing it to me.

Four more violins lie on the table in front of me before I venture a reminder about the bows.

The bows? Oh yes, John. You want to see the bows. Hold on.

Now, I love bows – these wondrous objects crafted from pernambuco  – Caesalpina echiizata Lain. The tree grows primarily in the Mata Atlantica region of Brazil, in the state of Pernambuco, so most people call it pernambuco as well. Originally exported to Europe for use in dyes, it was the wood of choice for most bowmakers by about the beginning of the 19th century, because of its extraordinary strength and flexibility.

A great bow is a joy to play with. Difficult passages become easier and the music flows sweeter and cleaner from the violin. Lately, new cheap bows from the East or carbon fibre fabrications have elbowed the old masters aside. They’re improving in quality, but I’m biased towards the European bows. And when a student buys a nice violin I’m perplexed when they turn up with an ordinary bow.

Fred returns with a case containing ten bows. At first glance they seem a pretty uninteresting lot. A couple look as if they have been left wound up in their cases for years, resulting in a fatal loss of strength and tension. There’s a gleam of silver on a dark hexagonal bow and I pick it up. It is an old silver mounted German Weichold, with a very elegant slender tip. The weight feels just right and I look along it lengthways for straightness. Mm, pretty good. It could be nice to play with, so I pick up one of Fred’s violins and draw it across an open string. Ohh! It has perfect balance and tension! I tune up, launch into a Beethoven sonata and the bow springs into life.

How much is this one, Fred? I ask.

He names a price less than I expect and I accept immediately. The bow is a real discovery. I am thrilled to find it and stand up to go. The thought of playing music with this lovely bow gives me a little frisson of pleasurable anticipation. It will prove to be an enduring friendship. The Weichold is still my treasured mainstay many years later.

Fred is happy that one of his bows has found an appreciative owner. Or has the bow found me? As I turn for the door, he says,

I think that bow is meant for you. Now look John, before you go, I want to show you something really special – my Stradivarius violin.

I glance at my watch. It is after 10pm. I look up to tell Fred that I really can’t stay, but he’s gone. A minute or two later he returns with a violin.

Several times over the years Fred has mentioned his “Stradivarius” violin. Of course, I don’t believe him. No-one does. Legendary Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari (1644 – 1737) is universally acknowledged as the greatest of all the makers. About 650 of his 1,000 or so stringed instruments survive today, including 450 to 500 violins. They sell for millions, and are owned by famous players and wealthy music academies. The list includes Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Yascha Heifetz, Joshua Bell, Nathan Milstein, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Salvatore Accardo and Maxim Vengerov. Fred’s claim is fanciful to say the least. On the labels of many old violins and you will see the name, Stradivarius. Original ‘Strads’ have been assiduously copied, simply because they are the pinnacle of violin making.

"Antonio Stradivarius" picture

So I sit through another excruciating rendition of Humoresque and take my leave, thanking Fred again for the bow. This turns out to be the last time I see him. Allie, I and the children leave Australia in 1986 to spend several years living in Matsumoto, Japan, where I study violin teaching and performance with Shinichi Suzuki. Following Japan is a year teaching in England before we return to Perth. Back home I’m saddened to hear that dear old Fred has passed away.

One day I ask a colleague what happened to Fred’s violin collection. She looks at me in surprise.

You don’t know? A family member sold off most of them and put the remainder – the 5 worst looking ones – up for auction at Gregson’s. My husband bought the lot for $2,000. One of them was the “Stradivarius”. On a whim, we investigated the origins of the violin. Eventually we took it to Charles Beares, the Stradivarius expert in London. He verified it as an authentic Stradivarius! It needed some expert restoration to fix up Fred’s repairs and the top plate is not the original, but it could be worth up to a million dollars.

Incredible, I think, laughing to myself – picturing Fred’s beatific smile as he played away that night long ago. He was right.

It was the real thing, an original Strad!

Thanks for coming to Teach Suzuki Violin!

Cheers for now, John


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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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