So you want to start playing the violin or you want your child to be involved in an activity that will help their brain development, general development of life skills, and something that they will enjoy? Fantastic! As a violin teacher, I am excited that you recognize the joy and life teachings that learning an instrument can bring to you and your family. While playing on a very expensive violin won't necessary make you a better violinist by default, there are some considerations even beginners should make when picking out their first instrument. First, let's discuss what not to purchase...
Beware the VSO
I often have parents explain to me that they want to make sure their child enjoys the violin first before they make a large investment in purchasing a violin. I totally understand this! However, it is important to note that in the last 15-20 years or so (aided by online merchandisers such as Amazon) the violin market has been flooded with what violin teachers call "VSOs" or "Violin Shaped Objects." VSOs are very cheap instruments--many priced at less than $100-- that often have significant design flaws that make them unplayable or, at the least, very frustrating for a beginner to play. Violin is already a very difficult instrument to start on and if your instrument is also working against you, this can be very discouraging. When I first began teaching, I let some of these VSOs slide in my studio when parents talked to me about their reasons for why they were putting off purchasing a better instrument for their children. What I found was that these students were more likely to give up in frustration from playing on an inferior instrument, and the parents, since they hadn't made much of an investment in the instrument, were less likely to be involved in their child's music education.
So, what is so bad about these instruments?
VSOs typically have fingerboards that are not made of ebony (a hard wood and one traditionally used for fingerboards), instead they have fingerboards that are made of a lighter, softer wood and are then painted black to look like Ebony. This is a problem because Ebony can take the high tension of the strings at the nut without wear to the instrument over time. One instrument in particular that I inspected had strings that were cutting into the nut of the instrument... so much so that you could see the wood splintering on either side of the strings! Many of these instruments do not have a bridge cut to fit the instrument and come sent with the bridge in the case for the player to assemble. This is a huge red flag since the bridge needs to be specifically cut to fit each individual instrument by a skilled luthier, and it must be placed correctly to optimize the sound. I have also seen VSOs with fine tuners that do not work because the tuner screws are not lined up with the levers below the tailpiece. I like to teach my beginners to tune first using the fine tuners. This helps them learn the concepts of tuning, train their ear, and more, but with an inferior instrument, developing these skills is much more difficult and teaching tuning to a beginner becomes impossible. I could go on and on about the problems I've seen with such instruments, but I think you get the idea. I don't recommend that anyone bother with the $80 Amazon violins, unless it's for wall decor. Typically you will be wasting time and money with them and beginners tend to end up frustrated with their poor sound and have a harder time learning to play the instrument.
So, what should I buy then?
You have a few choices when it comes to beginner instruments. One choice is not to buy at all and rent an instrument instead. I'll explain more about renting further on, but let me list a few of my recommended retailers for beginning violinists. This list is mostly local to the metro-Detroit area, so if you are looking for violins elsewhere, be sure to talk to your violin teacher. They should have knowledge about where to buy violins in your area.
Shar Music: Probably the most well-known in our area, Shar's headquarters is in Ann Arbor, MI, but they ship nationally. Shar Music has low prices for beginning instruments. Their Franz Hoffmann student instruments start at about $200 for an outfit (includes case and bow). Rentals cost about $20/month. 50% of whatever you spend toward rentals can be applied to the purchase of an instrument later. Shar Music is also a one-stop shop for string instrument accessories, books, etc..
Anderson Music: A Metro-Detroit family owned chain with locations in Troy, Farmington Hills, and Orchard Lake. I don't usually send people here except for rentals because their instruments cost significantly more than Shar. However, their rental instruments come from Eastman Strings Violins which generally sound much nicer than the Franz Hoffmanns and they have a rent-to-own program for these instruments.
Psarianos Violins: Psarianos Violins is a fine instrument shop that sells only handmade violins and their instrument prices start at over $1,000. However, they have an awesome rental program where they will give you almost 100% (minus a few dollars each month in insurance costs) toward the purchase of an instrument later. Rentals are on a 3 month term and about $75/3 months.
Buying vs. Renting
Often times buying an instrument will be more cost-effective than renting, but when you purchase an instrument you are responsible for all maintenance and repairs. When you rent an instrument, the business that you are renting from will complete all maintenance and repairs as part of the rental cost. If your child is on a fractional size instrument and may be outgrowing their instrument soon, it may make sense to rent until they are on the next size. As a teacher, I give guidance to my students and their parents about where to purchase or rent instruments from, but at the end of the day, the decision of whether to purchase or rent is a decision that the family must make based on their financial means and personal values.
As with many other things in life, you typically get what you pay for when purchasing a violin. There is a lot of work that goes into the production of a good quality instrument, so expect to pay for it, but know that there are options even for those on a budget.
Hopefully you found this post helpful. If you have further questions, please comment below.
classical music 101: Classical music for children... and adults! (scale challenge bonus point opportunity)
When learning an instrument, it is important to listen to various pieces composed for the instrument. It is also helpful to listen to a variety of different music in general. Listening to music (or noticing it... as music is played everywhere these days) regularly is a good habit to form as a musician. Being aware of stylistic conventions in different genres of music is a crucial skill for the modern violinist who is asked to play in many different styles. As a violin teacher, I build a foundation of technique in my students based on classical violin playing traditions. Like many teachers, I believe that a good foundation in Western classical techniques can allow a violinist to play not only classical music, but allow them to transfer their technique to other styles. It is important to be familiar with the music which these techniques were developed for.
Today, I am offering a bonus point opportunity for my students for their summer scale challenge, but anyone can participate in this listening exercise by commenting on this post. The assignment is to listen to two pieces from Classic FM's list of "10 Best Pieces of Classical Music for Kids" and jot down some thoughts about them. Classic FM deems this list as good starting point for listening to classical music for children, but these pieces are also a great starting point for the adult unfamiliar with popular classical pieces.
Here are some questions to ponder for each selection:
Ms. Holly's Students: you may respond to these questions as a comment on this post, via email, or hand me a paper in person (or put in my box at Evola) by August 18th to earn 5 bonus points for the Summer Scale Challenge. Follow the link above and watch two videos from the list. Violin is featured/present in most of these pieces. You do not have to choose pieces that have violin in them for this challenge.
What is your favorite piece? Comment below and let me know!
Scale practice creates foundation of good technique for virtually all musicians; the violin is no exception. If you practice your scales each day, you will learn new pieces faster and improve all facets of your playing more quickly than you would without daily scale practice. Scales are not the only technical studies that violin students should devote their time to, but they are a good place to start. Scale-like passages are present in all kinds of music. Arpeggios (the first, third, and fifth scale degrees played consecutively) are derived from the underlying harmony of a musical piece, and are often featured in musical passages for melodic instruments, such as the violin. Thus, learning your scales and arpeggios not only helps your technical ability on your instrument, but also provides a student with a foundation of knowledge for later learning about musical structure and harmony.
So, what is a scale?
Very simply put, a scale is a group of pitches dividing an octave, arranged in ascending order. An example is a G Major scale starting with the note G (open G-string) then ascends to A (first finger G-string), then B (2 on G), C (3 on G), D (open), E (1 on D), F# (2 on D), G (3 on D). For a more detailed overview, click here.
This scale challenge is for my violin students at the Evola School of Music in Canton, MI, but anyone can adapt this challenge for their needs or the needs of their students. Each of my students will be assigned at least one scale a week to learn depending on their level of playing. Most of my students have been playing less than three years, so you could certainly make this challenge harder by changing the bowing patterns, increasing the octave range, or having them learn more scales each week.
The Challenge begins Monday, July 22nd. I will be assigning scales no later than Monday, July 15th.
Several scales and arpeggios can be found in the Suzuki Books, however, the Suzuki books alone do not provide the best format for learning scales and arpeggios.
I suggest the following books for scale study:
You can find all of these books online and Evola Canton stocks "A Scale in Time ($8)", the Suzuki Books, and Essential Elements Book 3 ($10).
What do you think of the challenge? Do you have any suggestions? Do you have an idea for a bonus point opportunity?
Teachers: What scale books do you think are indispensable for daily scale study?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.