Buying your first violin

Obtaining a violin can be a daunting task for the beginner/parent. Here is what I always advise to students who are beginning the journey:

  • Never buy a cheap violin to “see if violin lessons work out”. Playing on a poorly made violin (as many cheap ones are) leads to lots of frustration which will most likely result in a student not wanting to practice, and quitting the violin. Playing on a quality violin however, is a wonderful experience which will probably make a student take it more seriously. The sound that comes from a good violin will be inspiring and can lead to more spontaneous practice.
  • Do not buy a second-hand violin from someone who themselves do not take the violin seriously.
  • Try not to buy your first violin online unless you have no other choice. If you have to buy online, ask for help from more experienced people or get reviews from unbiased sources on the quality of the seller’s instruments. If the shop you’re looking to buy from offers in-home-trials, it would be great to take advantage of that.
  • Do not be fooled by anyone who tells you (and even shows you the label inside the violin) that you are buying a Stradivarius. What you are in fact buying is a copy of the Stradivarius model – a model which countless violins are based on.
  • Talk to a teacher about what to look for in a beginner violin.
  • If you buy your violin from a general music store, it will most likely have to be set up properly by a luthier at a violin workshop. A master luthier will adjust the violin to bring out its best qualities and make it most playable. You may also at this step want to consider trying a few different chin rest / shoulder rest setups to find the most comfortable fit for your physique.

Caring for & Maintaining Your Violin

The violin is an instrument of supremely elegant design. At its core, it is an extremely sophisticated acoustical device, optimized over time to produce a wide range of different volumes, emotions, and sound colours. On the outside, its appearance is nothing short of a work of art, with beautifully contoured wood, exquisite details and surprisingly sturdy construction. Forgive me for singing the violin’s praises so unashamedly, but I think it is important to realize what an honour it is to play an instrument with such an impressive heritage of craftsmanship.

To maintain the best possible function of our instruments, we need to do a few simple things to take care of them. Parents – please do these things with your child on a regular basis to instil good habits.

General Everyday Maintenance

 

  • When the violin is not being played at home it is advisable to keep it safely tucked away in its case. Keep the case in a place with relatively stable temperatures and away from sudden changes in humidity (the bathroom, for example, is a very bad place for a violin). Also keep the violin away from direct sunlight.
  • The bow should always be wound down after playing. The hair of the bow should touch the stick when it is loosened.
  • When tightening the bow hair to play, give the screw at the end of the bow only 5 or so turns. When the bow hair is tightened, you should just be able to fit a pencil in between the stick and the hair in the middle of the bow.
  • Avoid touching the hair of the bow with your fingers. Natural oils on our hands are absorbed by the bow hair, making it slippery. This makes it difficult to play as the bow will feel out of control on the strings.
  • Rosin the bow hair lightly before playing to ensure it stays in good playing condition.
  • After playing, use a soft cloth to remove any rosin dust which may have settled on the belly of the violin. Remember to dust underneath the fingerboard as well! While you have the cloth in hand, you can also wipe down the strings and everywhere else your skin makes contact with the violin.

Once-in-a-while Maintenance (requires a luthier’s assistance)

  • Violin strings need to be replaced every few months to ensure that the violin is playing with a pure and resonant tone. As strings get older, they not only start sounding thing and lifeless, but they also make it difficult (sometimes impossible) to play in tune. Changing strings can be done at home with a little practice, or by your teacher.
  • The bow must be rehaired every few months to maintain a healthy bow technique. With hours of practice, the hairs of the bow lose their ability to grip the strings or retain rosin which means the violinist must work harder to maintain tone andbow control. You can get about 200 hours of playing out of fresh bow hair.
  • If you’ve been playing your violin for a while it is a good idea to have it periodically checked by a master luthier. They will check a host of things – that the sound post is still in the correct position, that there are no open cracks, that the neck is maintaining the correct angle, that your fingerboard is still in good condition, etc. Remember that a violin is made of organic materials which expand and contract with the changes of season so it is entirely possible that cracks can develop over time all on their own. There is also a lot of stress on certain parts of the instrument, such as the fingerboard – with enough practice you’ll literally play grooves into the fingerboard. Best to spot these things early and have repairs done as needed.