Things to Remember:
- Stick to Your Price Point
- Get the Right Size
- Beware the VSO!
BUYING YOUR FIRST VIOLIN
So, you’ve decided that you want to learn how to play the violin. Congratulations! But what next? Well, the first obvious step is to actually buy a violin to play. There are many options out there. You can rent, or you can buy, or maybe borrow one from a friend. If you have a friend out there who is willing to lend or give you a violin, that’s probably the way to go! But most folks out there aren’t so lucky. So here’s a few things to consider before you hop on the internet, or buzz on down to your local violin shop and go shopping.
KNOW YOUR PRICE POINT…AND STICK TO IT!
How much are you willing to spend to buy a violin? A decent starter instrument is probably going to start at around $200-$300. You can find them a little cheaper, but I’ll get to that here in a minute. The bigger problem for many people comes when they first walk into that violin shop, with instruments lining the walls. If you don’t have a price point in mind, you’ll be in trouble! If you only have $300 to spend to by a violin, please, please, please…
Don’t even pick up the one that costs $750, or $1000, or $5000! If you fall in love with a violin that you can’t afford, you may be disappointed when you do actually buy a violin at your price point.
Unfortunately, I had to learn this lesson the hard way.
When I was in high school, along with my parents, we decided it was time to buy a violin…a new, upgraded violin. We had a absolute maximum budget of $6000. We went in to our favorite violin shop, and I started playing. I played instrument after instrument after instrument. I even made the poor sales lady (we knew her personally, outside the store, too) change various instrument strings over to my favorite brand, but I just couldn’t find that one violin that spoke to me.
Finally, she told us that I had tried every instrument under that price range that they had in the store. Very hesitatingly, she said, “We do have one more violin in the safe, but it’s $17,000. You can try it out if you like, but it’s risky. If you love it, you won’t be able to get it, and you may not be able to get it out of your head.” I doubt she would have made such an offer to someone she didn’t already know.
Well, being a rash, young, teenager, I decided to throw caution to the wind and try it out anyway. It was beautiful…absolutely beautiful. I played, and it sang. The tone was gorgeous, and it was so smooth to play. Oh, how I loved that violin! But, alas! The sales lady was right. For weeks, all I could think about was that violin. I knew it was out of reach. It cost as much as a car!
Fortunately, this story does have a happy ending. Eventually, I did find my violin. We bought it from an ancient man who had a little violin shop downtown. He was an eccentric gentleman, well-known to most of the professional musicians in town. He kept strange hours, mostly by appointment, and it seemed that you had to have a personal recommendation from a previous customer to even get that appointment! Going to his shop was quite an experience…but that’s a story for another day. I found a wonderful violin there…I actually liked it better than the one that had cost $17,000. We were a fit. But those weeks of woe taught me a lesson I will remember for the rest of my life.
Chances are that if you are a beginner, you budget will be far lower than mine was (keep in mind that I’d already been playing for about 12 years by that point). We knew I was going to stick with it!
I personally wouldn’t recommend spending more than $1000 dollars on a starter violin, even if you have more to spend (though I know others might quibble with me on this point). I also wouldn’t recommend spending much less than about $200 to buy a violin (unless you find a great deal, or have one of those friends I mentioned at the beginning of this post). Once you learn the basics of the instrument, and start to develop your own musical personality, then it might be time to branch out, and invest more in an instrument.
However, if the idea of spending even $200 on an instrument makes you cringe, keep in mind that most violins hold their value fairly well. Even many mass-produced starter instruments (pretty much everything in the under $1000 range is going to fall into that category) can usually be re-sold for close to the original purchase price. So, chances are, you’ll get most of your money back when you decide to upgrade your violin a few years down the line…you know, when you’re ready to play all the concert halls in Texas!
If all this talk of buying an instrument has made you light-headed, you may want to consider renting a violin, instead of deciding to buy a violin. But that’s a big enough topic for it’s own post. So, for more details on that option, you might want to check out this article.
GET THE RIGHT SIZE
If you are an adult of typical stature, you are going to need a full-sized violin. Congratulations, this section is easy for you!
However, if you are wanting to buy a violin for a younger child, it is quite likely that your child will need a fractional sized instrument. Now, the best way to select the size of instrument that your child will need is to consult with your child’s violin teacher. But, if that isn’t possible, the next best option is to take your child to go try out different sized violins at a reputable violin shop. Most shops will have a representative who can help you select the correct size. It’s even better if you can take your teacher with you to help you pick out the violin!
However, to give you a basic idea of what size you’ll likely need, I’ve made this little chart to help give you a starting place. Please keep in mind that these sizes are approximate. A professional should help you select the proper size instrument for your child. When in doubt, it’s best to go to the smaller size first, as an instrument that is too large can be really difficult to play for a youngster, and can really lead to a frustrating experience…which is the last thing you want for a beginner!
Age Arm Measurement Vioin Size
3-5 14-15.5 inches 1/16 – 1/10
3-5 15.5-18.5 inches 1/8
4-7 18.5-20.25 inches 1/4
6-10 20.25-22.25 inches 1/2
9-11 22.25-23.5 inches 3/4
12+ 23.5 inches and up 4/4 (Full)
When measuring the arm, have the prospective student extend their left arm, palm up, at shoulder height. The arm should be extended out sideways, not straight forward. Measure from the neck (where the end of an instrument would contact the neck…approximately at the collarbone) to the middle ofthe palm of the hand.
Again, I cannot emphasize this enough…have your child’s teacher confirm the size your child needs! It is extremely frustrating (and can actually lead to injury) to try to play an instrument of the wrong size.
If your child falls into a size of 1/4 sized or smaller, it may definitely be to your benefit to rent an instrument, rather than to buy a violin.
BEWARE THE VSO!
What? What does that mean?
I know what you’re thinking!
VSO stands for Violin Shaped Object. It is an object that appears to be a violin, but when you try to play it, you realize that it must not be a violin after all! I wrote earlier about finding a beginner’s violin for less than around $200-$300. That can definitely be a bit of a gamble. Often, when you try to buy a violin at a lower price point, you run a big risk of acquiring a VSO.
A VSO will sound awful when played…again, not really what you want when you’re trying to learn to play the violin. Not only will it sound awful, it will be hard to play.
So, what are the issues to look for? When you buy a violin, keep an eye on the following features:
- Pegs – The pegs should be made of ebony, not some other wood that has been painted black. They should be properly fitted into the peg box of the violin.
- Action – The action refers to the height of the strings from the fingerboard of the violin. The nut at the top of the fingerboard must be the right height. If it is too low, the violin will likely make a buzzing noise when it is played. If it is too high, the violin will be difficult and painful to play, and it will be nearly impossible to play the instrument in tune.
- Bridge – The bridge must be the correct height (this along with the nut will also affect the action), and the feet must be securely matched to the violin top. If the feet do not fit properly, sound vibrations will not pass properly to the sound post, and the violin will be difficult to play.
There are other things to look for, of course, but these 3 are the most egregious errors found in the common VSO. A professional luthier at a reputable violin dealer can help you ensure that you are getting a quality instrument.
One way to avoid the VSO is to not buy a violin online. Or, if you do, make sure the retailer where you buy your violin is upfront about their return and exchange policy. Any reputable violin dealer will be very clear about their policy. With that being said, there are some fantastic dealers online. In fact, I bought my daughters’ violin from an online retailer (gasp!). But, I knew it to be a dealer with a fantastic reputation (they also have an actual store, not just a warehouse…but it’s in a different state). Please, please, please…avoid the online auction sites at all costs!!! If you do go that route, be prepared to put several hundred dollars worth of repairs into your new violin.
Well, I do wish you luck on your mission to buy a violin! Hopefully, you’ll have your new violin in-hand very soon, and get down to the real business of learning to play this fantastic instrument! The best thing to do is to consult with your teacher on your purchase. If you haven’t selected a teacher yet, I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have (at least to the best of my ability…if you live in a different part of the country, it’s hard for me to give advice on particular instruments that I can’t actually see and touch!). Please, feel free to contact me, or leave a question in the comments!