Violin and Bowed
The violin is both a solo and ensemble instrument, and makes an ideal choice for a child who wants to join their school orchestra and play with other musicians.
Practising and performing in groups assists in learning an instrument more quickly, as more advanced students will help you. Although there are notable players in jazz and folk music, most music written for the violin is from the classical repertoire, and this should be taken into account when encouraging a child to take up their first instrument, as they will generally practise harder when they enjoy the music they’re playing!
The size of the violin is very important. Unsuitably sized instruments will affect the student’s playing ability: too small and the student will be cramped, too big and the arms and hands will be over-stretched. As the child grows they will move up sizes until they reach full size. Ask your teacher or get “fitted” at your local music shop.
As a guide, a 4/4 violin is normally suitable for 9 years and upwards, a 3/4 for 7 - 10 years, a 1/2 for 6 - 8 years and 1/4 for 5 - 7 years. There are smaller sizes below this for even younger children. There is also a range of sizes available for violas and double basses. In all cases expert advice is needed on the correct size for a child.
What to look for
- Condition of the Instrument: Violins are made of wood and it is important to examine the body of any violin, both new and old. New instruments made from un-seasoned wood may have bulging ribs, heavily warped fingerboards, and possible shrinkage cracks. Tell-tale signs are in the neck and bottom rib (especially on ‘cellos).
- Alignment: Check to make sure that the neck of the violin is set straight. Make sure the bridge is centered between the f-holes, then sight up the fingerboard to see if it aligns with the bridge. If the bridge has to be off-set to one side to line up, then the neck is out of line (see bridge). If the neck is skewed, playing becomes very difficult as the strings will want to fall off the side of the fingerboard.
- Fingerboard: The best wood for wear and fingering is ebony although other hardwoods are used. The nut which divides the strings at the top of the fingerboard must have equal string spacing and the grooves correctly cut for the type of string used. If changing from metal core to synthetic core strings, the nut grooves will need adjusting or broken strings will result. The fingerboard should be slightly convex down the length to prevent buzzing.
- Pegs: Usually made from ebony, rosewood or boxwood. On in-expensive violins an “ebonized” (usually a fruitwood) peg can be used. Whatever the material used the peg needs to turn smoothly and stay in place. A jerky turn will break strings, while slipping pegs obviously don’t hold pitch. Basses have machine heads because of the huge tensions involved. Are they well fitted and do they turn smoothly?
- Bridge: This should be tailored to each individual instrument. Some important things to look for are:
- Wood quality: A poor soft piece of wood will not offer enough sound resistance and will wear out quickly
- Is the bridge the right way round? (easy mistake to make). The E string should be lower than the G, and the front of the bridge curves back (the back of the bridge is straight).
- Is it in the right place? As a rule of thumb the bridge should be positioned in between the nick in the f-holes in the centre of the instrument.
- Do the feet fit? (there should be no gaps under the bridge)
- Is the bridge bending forward? The continuous tuning of strings can warp the bridge. If it bends too far forward it will want to fall over and may snap.
- Is the height of the bridge right? This, and the height of the strings over the fingerboard are vital. Too high and the strings are very difficult to press down, too low and there is a chance the strings will buzz.
- Profile or curve of the bridge: The profile should match the profile of the fingerboard. Too steep a curve and bowing becomes difficult; too flat and “double stopping” (playing two strings at once) can happen.
- Soundpost: A small and IMPORTANT length of wood that sits vertically in the violin under the treble (E string) side of the instrument. Some instruments are delivered without the soundpost in (if so do not throw away) or if the soundpost falls down it needs to be in place before the instrument is played. Bringing the strings to pitch without a soundpost can severely harm the instrument. Its fitting and position are very important and the tone can be adjusted by moving/re-fitting the soundpost (trained repairer needed).
- Tailpiece: The tailpiece wood usually matches the pegs and chinrest. Some violins have a metal tailpiece with integral adjusters (do the small screws turn smoothly?) The choice of material will be influenced by the type of strings used. Most cellists now use a metal tailpiece or one with built in adjusters as standard. Basses do not need adjusters as pitch can be achieved by the machine heads.
- Strings: There is a vast range of strings available. Most beginner instruments come with metal factory strings fitted. These are fine, but the quality of tone is limited. Upgrading to better quality metal strings helps both the tone and tuning. Other strings are made with a synthetic core or natural gut core, all usually wound with metal. Seek advice on the brand, tension and tonal qualities of your strings.
- Bow: Bows come in sizes to match the instrument. Usually made from wood (or fibre-glass/carbon fibre). Choosing the right bow is important. Check when you look down the length of the bow, is it straight?When you look side-on, does it have a camber? Does the bow feel right in the hand (if it’s too heavy it will be difficult to control, too light and it may jump about). Does it tighten up smoothly? (Too stiff and little hands will find it difficult). For advice ask both your teacher and the shop.
- Left-Handed Violins: Nearly all violins are right handed. Occasionally a left-handed violin is made if the student cannot hold the instrument or bow conventionally. Beware of so-called left handed violins as these are invariably right handed ones with the strings and bridge turned round).