buying a violin

Buying a Violin

Many people ask me about the ins and outs of buying a violin. It seems like the obvious next step once you’ve decided to learn to play. In this post I will outline the most important things you need to consider. I’ll also give you some useful tips to help you avoid getting ripped off. Most of all, this article will help you to decide whether now is the time to invest in a violin, or to hire one.

What to Consider

Buying a violin can be a substantial financial investment, so it’s not something you should do on a whim. You need to do your homework. I’ve given some thought to this, and these are the most significant factors that I’d advise you to think about carefully:

  • The child’s natural ability
  • Your ability to incorporate practice into your home life
  • The size of the violin
  • The cost of the violin
  • The cost of setup and maintenance
  • Potential for resale

Realistic Goals

Bear in mind that the violin has a high attrition rate because it is not easy to learn. If your child is talented but lazy, you’re going to have a hard time, but it may well be worth it. If your child is capable and industrious, you’re very fortunate and you’re probably doing a great job of parenting. Do either of these descriptions match your child? If so, buying a violin will be a good investment.

However, if you or your child are unsure, it’s best to rent until you have more clarity. Learning the violin is hard work, and if it’s done wrong or without requisite attention, even dangerous. It also makes a lousy hobby, because it will take a long time to get a decent sound. Unlike the piano, where you can achieve a tolerable result relatively soon, you will have to wait a long time to get results from the violin.

Practice and your Home Life

Related to this, there is no point going to the trouble of buying a violin if your home life doesn’t permit regular practice. Playing the violin with poor technique will doom your child to producing a horrible sound indefinitely. It may also result in injury. To learn more about this, listen to my interview with a physiotherapist.

Violin size

Size is important because you can’t learn on a violin that is too big for you. Trying to do so can lead to injury. In general, it’s better to err on the size of smaller rather than larger. Bear in mind that as your child grows, he/she will need a new violin. It’s generally a good idea to rent or buy something affordable in the early stages, and reserve the bulk of your spend for the full size instrument. Violins come in many sizes, but the most common ones are: quarter-size, half-size, three quarter-size and full. These are not precise proportions: a half-size is not exactly half the size of a full-size.

A standard full size violin is about 14 inches (35,56 cm). The smaller sizes all go down in gradations from there. To ascertain the right size for your child, you can measure the distance from the neck to the wrist. Here is a rough guide:

  • Between 42 and 45 cm – quarter size violin
  • around 50 cm – half size violin
  • around 50 to 52 cm – three quarter size violin
  • 53 cm and above – full size violin

Bear in mind that your child could be between sizes. His or her arms could also be particularly long or short. Before you buy an instrument, you should consult with an expert (ideally the teacher) to determine whether the size will fit. Equally importantly, pay attention to the weight of the instrument. Some commercial brands are very heavy. This causes difficulty, particularly for smaller children. This is another factor that is best adjudicated by the teacher.

Costs: Seen and Unseen

When choosing an entry level violin, you need to understand that this isn’t the same as a sport or hobby. A cheap tennis racket might be good enough for a beginner, but this isn’t the case with string instruments. A low quality violin will not have the right dimensions, the strings will probably sit too high and this can cause injury to the fingers. Furthermore, very cheap factory violins are not durable and can break easily, either in transit or in the process of adapting to a different climate. It’s also extremely difficult to make a bad violin sound good. Remember that learning the violin is hard enough. Putting another obstacle in the way of your child is going to make the process frustrating, fruitless and possibly hazardous to his/her musculo-skeletal health.

Thankfully, it is actually possible to source a decent violin at a reasonable price, but you can’t do this alone. You need expert advice to help you navigate the market. Once you have bought a violin, you will need to take it to a luthier or violinmaker to set it up and make sure that is safe to play. Manufacturers almost always make the bridge higher than necessary. This allows for customization to a user’s preferences. A competent teacher should be able to help you navigate these details. Other “hidden” costs, over and above the cost of the item itself, include:

  • strings (they break often)
  • bow hair (this needs replacing annually)
  • shoulder rests and other accessories
  • import duties

How to Spot Quality

Violin making is a very complex process. It coordinates a wide range of materials and skills relevant to each. All of this takes time and skilled labor. Of course, this elevates costs. Nowadays, it is possible to get hold of an instrument with lower production costs that is nevertheless decent enough to facilitate learning. The key is to know what you’re looking for, so that you can find your niche on the quality/price continuum. There are a number of places you can look.

The Scroll

The scroll is the curved part of the violin above the peg box. It’s a decorative touch that is one of the most obvious places to look when you’re trying to determine the quality of the instrument. A good maker will show off his workmanship here. Look at the scroll. Has the wood been turned very well? Is there finesse in the way the maker has finished it? If so, this is a sign of quality. Consider the two examples below. Both of these are basic student violins. The one on the left would fetch around ZAR6000 at the time of writing. The one on the right is worth about ZAR1000. Notice how the one on the left is far more precise. The carving is clear and exact. You can also see the grain of the wood. The one on the right is far less precise and the surfaces are covered with a thick varnish to hide imperfections. It almost looks like someone dipped it in syrup.

The Back Plate

If you turn the violin over and look at the back, you will also get an idea of its quality. The quality and thickness of the wood are both important. They’re usually obvious to the eye. In general, better woods will have a tighter grain (the distance between the “lines” is smaller). On a low quality instrument, the grain might not even be visible, and the varnish will give it a gloss reminiscent of plastic. Here are the same two instruments we looked at already:

Notice how the instrument on the left has a clearly visible, tight grain. The one on the right is much less striking and the finish is overly glossy. The higher quality wood isn’t just cosmetic; the violin on the left sounds much better and is much easier to play than the one on the right.

Cracks

When inspecting a violin, look out for any cracks or other signs of damage. Minor damage can be repaired, and most violins will experience some damage over their life spans. However, damage should affect the asking price. If there are vertical cracks in the front or back of the violin, you should probably not buy, unless you know a very proficient luthier who can deal with that. One of the most common locations for damage is the spot where the neck of the violin meets the body. Because of the pressure from the strings, the neck can sometimes warp or even separate from the body. The usual fix is a neck graft, where the luthier reattaches the neck with glue or by inserting a peg. You might have to look closely, but it will look something like this:

This violin has undergone a neck graft. Notice the thin crack.

Don’t be Fooled: if it Sounds too Good to be True, it is

Unfortunately, there are some unscrupulous people out there. Sometimes, factories insert fraudulent labels in their violins. You can find the label by looking inside the left f-hold of the violin. Usually, you’ll see a sticker indicating the maker and date. I’ve had people bring me an instrument that they insist is worth thousands of dollars, because it says “Stradivarius” inside. We’ve spoken about Stradivarius on this blog before. No matter what you’ve been told, you are not in possession of a Stradivarius violin. Similarly, if the label makes claims about the instrument’s age that seem too good to be true, they probably are.

Also be aware that it’s quite easy to fake an “antique” look with the right varnish. There’s nothing wrong with buying a new instrument, and if you insist on something “old” you are painting a target on your back. You might end up with a cheap factory item with a clever varnish job.

Buying a Violin: Summary

As we’ve seen, going for the cheapest option isn’t the best idea. Very cheap violins will put obstacles in your child’s path. This will essentially mean that the money you are spending on lessons is wasted. Instead of opting for the cheapest, take some time to find the best combination of affordability and quality within your budget. Make sure that you have answered these questions at the outset:

  • Is my child self-motivated? (If yes: buy, if no: rent)
  • Can my child devote time to practice? (If yes: buy, if no: rent)
  • Is my child between sizes? (If yes: rent, if no: buy)

Lastly, remember to get your child’s teacher to appraise anything before you buy it. The music teacher has to work with the instrument and is in the best position to determine whether it will work for your child.

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