Written by Laurie Niles
Published: November 4, 2010 at 9:44 PM [UTC]
If you are new to the violin, you might be tempted to buy one of the low-priced violins advertised all over the Internet – by low-priced I mean anything under about $300.
Don't do it.
Having a cheap violin will make an already-difficult skill even more difficult to learn and will cause persistent frustration in your practice. Your violin will refuse to be in tune, the angle and placement of the strings will be off, the tone of the instrument will be squeaky and unappealing, and the tuners will likely bend and break.
This year has seen a flood of cheap, factory-made violins from China, priced impossibly low. This low price point makes a $400 violin seem like a bad deal, but this is actually a reasonable price for a student violin made from good-quality wood with a fitted bridge, fitted pegs, etc.
How can you tell the difference between a quality fractional-sized or full-sized violin and a substandard "violin-shaped object," or "VSO"?
One fairly reliable indicator is the fingerboard. Is it made from ebony? Ebony is the best wood for violin fingerboards, and it is naturally black. A VSO typically has a fingerboard made from a light wood that has been painted black, said Tom Metzler of Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif. If you turn the instrument at an angle, you can check for brown patches on the underside of the fingerboard, close to where it has been attached to the fiddle. If you find brown patches, that is one indication that the fingerboard has been painted, and that it is not ebony.
If you look underneath this violin fingerboard, you will see the "unpainted" patch. That fingerboard is definitely not made of ebony!
When the fingerboard has been made from cheaper wood that isn't ebony, it is more susceptible to warping, which causes the fingerboard either to be curved upward, or to have a counter-curve, making it more difficult to play. It can also cause rattling and squeaking, if the string vibrates against the fingerboard.
The cheap VSOs generally come with one-size-fits-all bridges that are rather thick and squarish. A quality violin has a bridge with feet that are individually fitted to stand properly on that specific violin. If you look at the feet of the bridge and there are gaps underneath, the bridge probably was not fitted to the fiddle. This can cause instability, making the bridge fall down more easily and also making it lean instead of stand upright.
The top of the bridge should be arched and sloped down to the Eing, to create the proper angle for the bow to touch each string. In a VSO, this often is not the case, the strings may be on a simple, non-sloping arch or possibly almost like a row. If all the strings site straight in a row, it's very difficult to play on one string without hitting another. This business with the angle of the bridge is more important than you might think; you feel it constantly when you play. If the angles are well-calibrated you will feel an ease in crossing strings; if not, there will be persistent frustration.
A poorly-made VSO bridge, on the left, and a properly fitted bridge that slopes down the E string, on the right.
Having the feet of the bridge sit "just so" on top of the violin makes a significant difference in the sound of the violin, the way it transfers into the belly of the fiddle. Another sound issue can involve the sound post, which is rather hidden from view. The sound post sits underneath the right side of the bridge, inside the violin, and is critical in transferring the sound from the vibrating strings into the violin. It is important that it fits just right and that it stays standing. Unfortunately, in a VSO, "usually they are cut far from the mark, fall over easily and don't transfer the sound properly," Metzler said.
If the bridge is too high, it raises the strings too high. When you are pressing your fingers down on the strings, high strings can feel very uncomfortable and also hinder the speed of your fingers. If the strings are too low, they can vibrate against the fingerboard, causing undesirable squeaking and rattling.
Another question to ask: Is the purfling simply painted onto the violin? The "purfling" is that little double line that traces the shape of the violin. It's supposed to be a thin layer of inlaid wood, which protects the body of the violin. If a maker has "cut corners" here, it's likely that other details have been short-changed.
Also, the neck may not be carved – someone with more violin experience would be able to tell if a neck is not carved from simply feeling it. The un-carved neck on a cheap violin might work all right in the beginning, but as soon as the student starts using higher positions, it can cause awkwardness and hinder a student's ability to work well in higher positions.
You can also look at the label. Generally, a good-quality instrument has a label inside that says who made it, where it was made, and in what year it was made. You can find the label by peeking inside the left "f" hole. VSOs often have no label at all. To be fair, some finer violins also have no label, but it's another thing to check.
Let's talk about pegs, which hold the strings in place and are turned when tuning the violin. In a good violin, pegs are made from boxwood, but in a VSO, they are often made of soft brown wood and "often they will break off in your hands," Metzler said. I have personally had this experience, of tuning a student's instrument and having the peg simply snap off at the base. There's no cure, other than a new peg. The pegs also fit into holes in the peg box, and if the holes are not exactly the right size, the pegs will either slip, or they will stick.
The strings that come with a VSO tend to be the first thing people notice that is bothersome. They tend to be steel and tinny-sounding. Be prepared to spend between $25 and $50 to replace them, first thing.
Looks can be deceiving, when it comes to violins. A new, shiny violin may well be a VSO. I'd much rather have a somewhat beat-up old Suzuki Nagoya, with a good tone and good craftsmanship. That said, you can find good violins that are new, as well.
Though most VSOs are Chinese, not all Chinese-made instruments are bad. In fact, "there are lots of really good student instruments, and 95 percent of them are Chinese," Metzler said. Some of the better brands of student instruments include old Suzuki violins from Japan, new Suzuki violins from China, Scott Cao, Yamaha, Vivo, Angels, Eastman, Century Strings – there are plenty more.
But buying a violin online, without testing it, is a risky way to go. If you take a chance on a cheap violin, you may well spend an additional $200 upgrading the strings, getting a better bridge, getting an appropriate sound post – and then you still may not like the way it sounds or feels!
I've heard the argument that "I'm just experimenting" or "My child may not like it, so I don't want to make a big investment" to justify buying a VSO. This is a false economy, and I will tell you why: if you are stuck with one of these grossly substandard instruments, you (or your child) will not want to play it. You may not even be conscious of the reasons why you find yourself not liking the violin, but it will be a combination of being displeased with the tone, sometimes even finding the sound of the instrument painful, being unable to tune it, having parts break off, the feel of a cheap violin that doesn't really fit in the hand, the visual ugliness of something cheaply made, and the overall bad feeling of having an object that was not made with care.
Conversely, if you buy or rent a well-made violin, you will enjoy its pleasant tone, you will enjoy the way its mechanics support you, the way it fits in the hand and the craftsmanship behind it.
A violin shop will usually allow you to test a violin before buying or renting it; this is usually possible even when you are renting from an out-of-town shop. If you have a teacher, enlist your teacher's help in selecting a good instrument.
For all of these reasons, I would urge you to consider renting or buying a violin and not a Violin-Shaped-Object.
What options exist for poor students who have no choice and no ability to rent or buy something better, no matter how good it would be for them?
There has got to be more than just telling them, "Well, you just have to pay more," because if their parents can't, they just can't. Saying they should doesn't make money materialize out of the air.
A good companion article for this would be recommendations on how to obtain a violin on a very, very straitened budget where even $20 a month is simply not a possibility. Are there organizations in a given city that have donated instruments? Youth orchestras in their area? Are there charities that can be contacted? Scholarships?
You can't close a door without opening another. I'm just asking in general in response to the ideas of the article, not in response to Laurie specifically. I really feel like I need to keep people's minds on the fact that there are a lot of families out there for whom even a $100 piece of garbage violin would be a massive sacrifice, and those families need to know what TO do more than what NOT to. Having a relatively well-off, white-collar person tell these people "Oh well, you just have to make the investment," when they are living on boxed mac and cheese for a week before the paycheck comes in can be absolutely demoralizing.
Another thing I've been pointing out to my students' parents: a well-made violin, even student grade, is an investment that will never depreciate. In the worst case scenario, it will merely retain its value. The more you spend, the more you are likely to improve upon the investment, and this isn't counting the pleasure you get from hearing a good instrument being played. I do make an exception for violins smaller than 1/2 size, but even then, a lot of people are willing to pay a reasonable amount of money for a 1/4 or even smaller.
What is very unfortunate is that sometimes, using the logic that "anything is better than nothing," schools and outreach programs use their grant money buy VSOs. And I can tell you, from working with kids who have had to try to learn using these violins, there is no better way to ensure their failure on the violin then to give them an instrument like this. I'm not trying to be a snob, I'm really just trying to prevent the rather cruel situation of plying a child or student with high expectations and then giving them a tool with which it is impossible to achieve anything. Would you try to use a plastic toy computer to do your taxes? It's not possible. There is a baseline investment you have to make to have something that is workable.
As far as being able to find something for less, I hope this article helps people to be able to identify a good bargain from a VSO. Other suggestions are welcome!
You can purchase decent quality student outfits from Shar or Southwest Strings for less than that $400. They are fitted to MENC speciifcations and are sturdy enough for school use. My students are high poverty and the option to purchase a $400 instrument is simply not there. In order to increase access, I have to have a large inventory and with tight economics, I am happy those instruments are available.
What solutions have teachers found for students who come from very modest circumstances, who may be most susceptible to the low cost of a cheapie POS violin? I would be interested to discover what people have managed, and whether there are lessons learned that can be applied to new situations.
That might be a post of its own, though ... "Teaching Low-Income Students" or some such.
Don't forget the crap bow that usually comes with a VSO. It is nothing more than a BSO and is just as unhelpful to the beginner as the VSO.
As a beginner, I purchased my first violin (a Chinese-made Cremona SV-150 model) about 10 months ago for $560 (Argentine pesos, which would equal about $150 dollars... if it's cheap in the United States, it is expensive somewhere else). I consulted my teacher before our first lesson since I didn't really know what to look for, and she said, basically: "Well, don't buy the cheapest one you find if you can help it, but you're not going to need the finest one either". According to her, the sound is "good enough for a student's violin" but yes, I will definitely need to switch to a higher level instrument as I make progress and start playing more complex pieces or études.
Not to mention that, as time went by, I also had to spare some extra money on the accessory items - a new rosin, a practice mute, a higher chin rest, a shoulder rest, a tuner and a set of playable strings (Dominants + Jargar E) since the strings that are put on the instrument from the factory are extremely fragile (they started to break and jump at my face in less than a month) and... well, I suppose you know what you can expect them to sound like ^_^ .
So far I consider this violin workable; its tone is far from "hauntingly beautiful", but it is responsive enough, stays in tune, and my scales, intervals and exercises sound like scales, intervals and exercises. The scroll-end of the peg box does have a weird shape (it looks like it was cut "diagonally") What bothers me the most is actually the bow: the heel is somewhat loose from the stick so I can actually turn it slightly sideways; the stick collapses very easily under my hand; and the hairs fall off pretty easily too (maybe it has a vitamin deficiency?). I guess Laurie's (nicely detailed and clear, by the way) blog entry would have been quite some paragraphs longer if it had gone into the horrors of using a poor quality bow as well...
I do agree with the conclusion that, even as a beginner, one should not buy the cheapest instrument available, because it's a palpable (and audible) fact that the lower down the price ladder you go, the instrument gets closer to the level of uselessness. But we can't deny that 400 dollars is an impossible amount of money for many, many people to spend on their first instrument. Besides, many people who begin studying an instrument have not yet decided if they will stick with it for the rest of their life, or if it's what they really are interested in learning, so, from an investment point of view, it may not the wisest choice to spend that much money on something you might decide to quit in a few months. Still, we all want to get the best thing we can for the least amount of money possible... sometimes, that backfires.
Excellent article, Laurie! Can I link to it? I'd like anyone interested in lessons with me to read this.
I would be most honored for you, or anyone, to link to my VSO article, Erin. I do want parents to understand the reasons behind why we teachers tend not to be very happy with the cheap violins!
It's tough. Especially in these tough times. I can understand parents who cannot tell whether their little angel's expressed desire to "play the violin" is just a passing whim or something deeper and opting for the cheap version. Rental or secondhand could be a good first step. There must be a lot of abandoned instruments that are not VSOs gathering dust somewhere. Maybe a campaign to get them back into circulation via donations to schools etc?
Other the the students suffer from financial hardship, how about a moderate student with no choice on the market?
Where I am from, I can tell you 99% of them is VSO, but students have no choisces, even parents. They can't afford all the money in Dollars to buy one from oversea, nor have a chance to know what a good violin is. Or when there is no good luthier as well. The city has luthiers, but none of them are good enough to tell me what a 7/8 is! No wonder my country has no violinists at world class or regional class.
So as much as I appreciate the article, do you have any suggestion such as buying a violin which is not VSO but still at cheap/affordable price other than saying don't buy cheap violin off from eBay even though you can't afford one or can look for one within the range...er..your country border?
fingerboard - sufficient
bridge - sufficient
purfling - insufficient
neck - sufficient (i think)
label - sufficient ("germany - sandner - sandner dynasty co. ltd - 4/4"- no date)
pegs - sufficent
comment: tries hard - could do better - see you in september
I don't think there's any way around it - when purchasing a stringed instrument, you get what you pay for. I know that doesn't help struggling families, but unfortunately that is the stark reality of the situation.
The best alternative would be to look for groups that donate instruments no longer being used.
I used to be a sport fencer, and with fencing, the same reality was in place. If the parent couldn't afford a well-made blade for their child and purchased a cheap alternative, the kid probably had two or three sessions in fencing before their cheap blade snapped and they were holding a stub in their hands. Bouting/Competition/Fencing class over.
If there is a local University or even a Community College near the student, it may be of some help to contact said Institution and see if they know of any programs to help students in need. I know in my area, there is a big push to donate old, unwanted, or discarded instruments. Some of them are not VSO's - they're pretty nice violins.
Thank you, Laurie, for publishing this fine article! I'll be linking to it as well, to give my customers a chance to read about what I've been telling them for the last four years.
The problem of a minimum price for a decent instrument isn't lost on luthiers and shop owners. In my shop, I offer payment plans and rental options with very reasonable rates, as well as a trade-in policy for moving from size to size as the student grows. But many parents come into my shop, having just bought a VSO from eBay or elsewhere, and look at me with dismay when I gently tell them that it will cost more than they paid for it to put it into anywhere close to playable condition.
In response to the post above, it's not the inexpensive violins from Shar or Southwest that are the problem. Those are at least set up with a solid bridge, decent strings, etc. It's the $79 "brand new violin!" from eBay that's the real issue here.
If you are spending money on an instrument that doesn't work and makes you hate the violin, you're wasting that money. And students of limited means are the last people who ought to be wasting money. Wasting $75 here and $75 there only helps keep poor families in poverty.
There is an alternative to buying a cheap student violin: rent a good one - ideally on a rent-to-own plan in case the student does take to the instrument. If rental rates are too high, then you've got to find a program in the area that will provide decent-quality violins to low-income students. (They do exist in some communities, sometimes through schools.)
But getting the VSO should never be an option. That's just turning off the student and flushing away what little money a family has.
If I may add a few more problems associated with VSOs:
Someone already mentioned the BSOs (Bow Shaped Objects) that come in these outfits. These bows often feature:
And, lest we forget the CSOs (Case Shaped Object) that these outfits reside in:
And there are also the environmental costs of manufacturing and shipping, all for something so useless that it will just end up in a landfill...
Thanks for this, Laurie.
One little reality check here- private lessons are expensive. Any family willing to shell out for regular lessons isn't in the position of finding a $100 instrument or $20/month rental prohibitive. Most low-income students studying stringed instruments are in public school programs. Those programs where I live provide instruments for the kids to use. Is this true elsewhere?
Excellent article, Laurie. Are you giving it to anyone who approaches you about lessons? Submitting it to the Suzuki Journal or ASTA's publications? Getting it into the hands of the clueless purchasing departments at schools countrywide? Print up copies for violin shops to give people coming in to see if they can beat Ebay?
@ Michael -
You are absolutely correct. I am one of the beginners who spent $$ for an internet violin. $350.00 later, I could actually play it....but the sound was horrible. As an older adult, I did recognize that the violin was difficult to play and, well, was just terrible to listen to.
I put up with it for 18 months, long enough for me to save up for the dream machine I now own.
I remember when I first drew a note from my current violin - it was the "ahh" moment.
My VSO currently hangs as an ornament in my practice room.
Other things I have seen in VSOs
Laminated wood instead of solid wood
Extra thick top or bottom (not well graduated). This significantly affects the sound.
Bad neck angle (crooked, or too steep/flat)
filler in poorly mated joints
These are generally in the $100 or less category, but not always.
I unfortunately do not agree with the outlandish metaphysical distinctions and attributes that most violinist create about the violin.
It's a sound box. If Jascha Heifetz was given a student violin and played it you will still come away amazed. Using a student violin as a practice violin in several respects is a great idea. It requires learning the pitfalls and limitations of a student instrument. Taking that learning to a "fine" instrument allows you to better use (and appreciate) the “fine” instrument.
Violinists always get the cart before the horse (moaning if only I had a better instrument I would sound like …). So learn the pitfalls of a less "fine" instrument first. I don’t believe in the "hocus pocus" of the centuries of violin DOGMA (the violin mystique). It's a sound box. Play it like a professional and it becomes an instrument of beauty. There are many elements that make it easier to play it well, but paying a premium price for those niceties is rarely a bargain. That being said, there are student violins that are not functional. Find one that has the right tolerances and for GODs sake man-up and… DON’T sweat the purfling and ebony!!
I agree with Laurie, ease of play is vitally important on any instrument be it a wind instrument or a string instrument. I bought my first clarinet as a youngster on a pavement sale and for the next six months I had to blow with bulging neck and eyes to get some sound out of it. Not knowing better I eventually gave up, only to find out many years later that it was the fault of the instrument and not only my inaptitude. Saying that, even expensive violins can be difficult to play with the wrong set up. Therefor for beginners I recommend that a luthier who also plays the violin do the set up as soon as possible.
Thanks to Patricia for pointing out the options from Shar and Southwest that are between $100 and $200 and playable. While that's not bargain basement, it is still significantly less than $400.
I agree with a lot of what's been said, but I ran right into a problem that I didn't expect with my daughter: she refused to touch a rental. She wanted "her own" instrument and had some emotional reaction to a used rental instrument. There wasn't a rent-to-own option with new violins that I knew about, either. If I or someone else had forced her into a rental I think it would have been as bad an experience for her as a VSO. So Shar really came through for us in that situation.
I think everything needs to be looked at from both sides. I can really see the various points in this blog post, especially the ones mentioning parents opting for the cheaper ones to see whether their kids like the violin etc. But at the same time, it is the fact that money may not be on hand to buy a better student outfit.
In my particular circumstance, I used 2 VSO's. My first was a school one given to me to use... that was a half size. But when I grew out of that, I had to get my own violin, and when I bought my (purple!) VSO, I felt completely and utterly proud of having my own violin. I will have to dig it out and have a good look at it now I know more about violins than I did back then to see whether I'm right, but from my memory, that violin was quite a good VSO. Admittedly, the bridge was replaced and the strings changed immediately, but this was pretty much all it needed. I bet if I go and find it tomorrow and play it, it will sound horrible now, but I always managed on that violin and passed 2 grades with it!
My third violin... well, that was pretty much a VSO dressed up a little bit. It was stupidly cheap actually, but it has got me through to a stage of being able to play pretty advanced pieces on it (even though it became increasingly frustrating for me as I couldn't get the sound I wanted) and that lasted me 4 years, up until about 12 weeks ago when I purchased a pretty good chinese violin.
So all in all, because I was determined to play the violin and loved the violin, I spent my time using my VSO's and making the most out of them as I could. I know I didn't have much in comparison to those kids out there who get really good quality violins to begin on, but I really appreciate the fact that I have a quality violin now.
I understand that this is only my story and won't go for most people. I think I've been fairly lucky with my experiences of VSO's (although I have come across some terrible ones before!). I think if someone is determined enough to play something they want to, then they will, whether it is ideal at that time.
No, VSO's aren't the best option on this planet for your child, but it is better than getting a Barbie plastic sparkly violin, is it not?!
Anyway, I think this is a brilliant blog post and I might just share it with some people I know! I had good look at my new violin after reading this to make sure everything was in check and good order, and so far it looks like it is! Thanks for sharing, Laurie!
EDIT: to add to this, I have no knowledge of any luthier in the whole of North Wales, mid Wales or in the Manchester or Liverpool areas. I would love to find out if there are any people around that I can get in touch with at all though generally. Basically, I've gone my whole violin life without luthiers, proper violins (until now), much money, or most of the other advantages. It has always been my own determination that has carried me through on the violin...
As a luthier I really have a heart for making instruments playable, as well as for making violins affordable especially for kids who have a passion to play and no money in the house. I see a lot of VSOs come into the shop, some of them can be made to work ok, some can't. I also do my share of charity work in repairs or repairs of donated instruments.
What surprises me is the older junk (no, the Chinese did not invent the VSO, they just cornered the market for now) that is donated to music schools or programs. Often the school will have a closet of donated instruments that are low quality to start with, and are now broken too. I will appeal to violinists to contribute instruments in playable condition, or to include a cash gift with a broken or heavily worn instrument to get it playable. The programs are usually cash starved and can't afford to fix them up any better than the scholarship student they are trying to help.
Another route that I follow, and I suspect other luthiers do too, is to accept donated instruments, do the repairs, and have a few things on hand to offer when special need cases come along. If I can see the passion in the kid for playing the violin, I will make it work one way or another. Often a teacher is the one who lets me know the situation.
Selling VSOs that only serve to discourage new players before they have a chance is at least a sin, and ought to be a crime.
If you come to me for lessons and you earn your keep as a good student who practices and shows up, I will see to it that you do not play on junk. I've loaned out my own instruments, worked out payment plans, and searched out the best quality bargains I can find, just so I can be proud of the quality of my studio and the students I produce. It's what caring teachers do. Nothing does my heart better.
(...or my ears!)
I once had a student whose mother had purchased a cheap, Chinese-made violin. At her first lesson I pointed out the fact that the strings weren't evenly spaced across the bridge, and the impossibility of tuning the instrument (I don't remember the other defects), but the following week she came back with a new violin; the music store where she had purchased it had allowed her to return it and buy a better one.
That student grew up to become a violin teacher herself. Imagine if her mother had the attitude that "I want to see if she likes it" before spending any real money on it?
I just got my dad to fish out my first VSO from the attic! I've had a good look, and yes, it is a typical VSO... not the worst one I've ever seen on the planet though. It isn't in playing condition at the moment because the strings have all gone to pot on it and the pegs won't budge to change them!!
I've just spent a few minutes explaining to my dad what makes it a VSO, and now all my family are calling cheap violins 'VSO's' without having to ask me what it means again!
One thing my dad said was 'Wow, we got you a VSO without realising it was a bad quality violin, yet you managed to get a great sound out of it!'
Now I feel proud :D
Now I'm wondering what to do with my old Scherl & Roth 1967, which I purchased in 1974 for $100. At this point, perhaps because of its age, it sounds pretty good for a "cheap" violin. The fingerboard is ebony, Labels are intact ( Roth shop adjusted in Cleveland, Ohio), nut is nice, flush with neck, caspari pegs, stamped Roth, No flame on back or sides, but nice spruce on top. I have tried to look this violin up on the net, but the model # no longer exists. I am assuming that it is a very basic model. It is much heavier than my chinese. I honestly don't know if the purfling is real or painted on. How does one differentiate? I want to try to sell this violin, but would not want to put any student through the humiliation of their string teacher turning up his/her nose at the sight of it! Opinions anyone? Sell it, donate it, or toss it on the fire?
Lori, the way I looked at the purfling to see if it was real was to look at the way the grain in the wood was. If it was different/went a different way/was a slightly different colour to the wood that makes the body, and the black grooves in the side were actual dips in the wood, then I deemed it real. if they were smooth just like the rest of the body, the grain flowed exactly the same and the colour was no different or the black lines were uneaven, then I deemed it fake. :)
Can I also ask: How thick is a bridge supposed to be? Or the standard size usually fitted on good violins?
ELOISE: If you're ever in Shrewsbury you might like to take a look at Forte Strings. I haven't bought anything from them yet, only dropped in for a chat and they seem very nice. I am planning to buy a bow very soon and get her to check my setup.
01743 356 458
Oh thanks, Julian!
If I'm ever there I'll definitely take a look!
Thank you Laurie for this thread.
Lori, I seriously doubt that your 1967 Scherl and Roth violin could be considered a "VSO." A student violin, yes, but I'm talking about something entirely different, here. BTW $100 in 1967 is about $650 now. I also doubt that Eloise is truly talking about a "VSO."
As stated in the article, there are plenty of workable, decent-quality student violins in the world that sell for a relatively low price-point, which would be $300-$500. And certainly Shar and Southwest Strings are reputable dealers, so if they have some even-lower-priced student instruments, they are worth looking at. But I am talking about the very lowest grade of violin, which often sells for less than $100. Hopefully this article can help you discern the difference.
Thanks, Eloise, for the info on the purfling. I will have to take another close look.
Thanks, Laurie. I had no idea what the comparison in dollars was. The person I purchased it from in 1974 stated that he had paid 200 for it. I don/t know if that was new or used or what year he had puchased the violin. Very interesting blog and discussion. Thanks for posting this.
After a close look, purfling on Scherl & Roth is definitely painted. (sigh)
Shall I post some pictures, Laurie, to help determine whether it is a true VSO or not? It shows 'signs' of being one from your article - the purfling is painted, the fingerboard is softwood that has been painted, the pegs have to be turned with pliers otherwise they have the ability to snap off in your hand, it has no label inside, and it was bought in 2004 for £60 (around 97 USD) with a case, bow, rosin and music stand included. The bridge was also replaced because the first one warped and was originally completely straight. Nevertheless, I still played it and learnt on it. I'm not saying VSO's are good, they are far from it. But if someone is determined enough to play the violin or do something they want to, they will find a way of doing it. If someone wants to play football but has no proper ball, they will use a bottle. If someone wants to do arts and crafts but has no proper materials, they will use little bits of torn up paper. And if someone wants to play the violin enough but has no 'violin', they will use a VSO. That is just how I see it.
I do however, completely agree with your article and think that in an ideal world, anyone who plays the violin should start off on a good quality student instrument, no VSO's included!
Here are some pictures of the violin I've been on about for the past few posts. I don't think the pictures are the best but I didn't exactly take time over them!
I'm now unsure as to whether this violin is a 'true' VSO now.
Could be, Eloise. Your violin is one of your teachers, I do hope that at some point you are able to find a fiddle that supports your considerable efforts better than what you describe!
Don't worry Laurie, I purchased a very good quality chinese violin about 10 weeks ago! And it is brilliant! All of that frustration about not being able to get the sound I wanted has vanished. The violin pictured next to the purple one is my new one :)
I have a little hobby that helps to address this issue. Often I can find a good quality older German student violin (often similar to Lori's) and bring it back to playing condition. This usually involves nothing more than new strings, replacing a broken tailgut and setting up the bridge. I then donate it to a local charity that donates the instruments to local school programs. Our local program is "Music in Schools Today /Adopt an Instrument". I've donated maybe 10 violins/violas so far and there seems to be almost an endless need for instruments. Based on what I have found, there are quite a few decent student instruments out there gathering dust that really deserve to be played. Maybe people hold onto their first instruments for sentimental value? Anyway, most of the time I can find these violins for much less that $100. Since most of these violins were set up properly initially, they are maybe less "shiny" but play and sound much better than a new VSO.
I have to agree with Janis, Michael F., Eloise, and others.
When there's no money, there's no money. Telling someone that what they can afford is crap, and if they can't afford $400 for a 'basic' instrument, then they shouldn't even try - that's cruel. And whether it's meant or not - that's what a financially-challenged person comes away with from these articles.
Many people, especially adults, are under no illusions that the $100 instrument they've bought is 'quality'. But sometimes 'good enough' really is good enough. It all depends on what a person's goals are, and I don't think that's taken into enough account by people who have been blessed with the finances to be able to study the violin with a high degree of seriousness.
I bought a violin off of eBay (gasp, choke) nine years ago. A new instrument, from a violin shop with an eBay storefront. About $160 all told, with case and bow. I knew I was getting a student instrument, and I had no expectations of a stellar sound. But I figured - I'm a *beginner*. I'm going to sound like crap anyway, so what does it matter? I only wanted to see if the violin was something I would like - if I would enjoy the physical act of playing it. I just wanted something to be able to find the notes with my fingers. I knew I didn't have the time or money to devote to lessons - so renting an instrument would have been financially irresponsible. I knew there would be gaps in my attention to it, so buying something inexpensive, that I could pick up at random when I felt like it would be a much better deal.
I've played it on and off over those nine years - with the anticipated large gaps as I had two babies that required a bit of my attention and money. I've had to teach myself, using whatever books and online helps I could find (and that's a whole other post right there, about the difficulty picking through the violin snobbery just to find anything). But I'm a self-learning type anyway, with anything, so that suited me just fine.
I've finally begun some inexpensive 'lessons' (really, just playing in a small orchestra class with four teenagers), and my teacher seems to think my violin has a nice sound. It has no label, I can't remember the brand name, and I'm using the same strings and bow it came with nine years ago. I haven't had any particular problems with it, although now that I'm playing more, I've decided to change the strings and upgrade the bow. (I just took a good look at my bow, and realized that it is a bit torqued at the end - not good! However, even with that, the sound has been reasonable for me, and there are things I like better about the sound it produces, even over the carbon fiber bow I just bought.)
My point is - I wanted to learn the violin. So I did. I have no aspirations to play professionally, I don't even care if I play in public. I wouldn't mind jamming with other musicians, but in an informal manner. Basically - all I want to do is make simple, somewhat pretty music. Like - I don't want to be an opera singer, I just want to sing my kids lullabies.
I think an inexpensive violin can be just fine, if that's all you want to do with it. And I think that assuming that everyone who picks up a violin either wants to be a pro, or should want that, is kind of ridiculous.
I have had no problems with my violin that make me not want to play it. Even with nine-year-old (probably cheap) strings, it holds its tuning just fine - better than the instruments of the kids I play with, and I'm sure they have more expensive instruments than mine. I think that assuming that if someone has an inexpensive violin, that they'll just want to quit, and therefore, they shouldn't even start - that's rude. People make the best of what they have. I wish that there were more support out there for those of us who just want to play, and have no designs on being 'good' - rather than the condescension we get for being poor, yet daring to want to do something (even in the simplest of ways) that the privileged would rather reserve for themselves.
It's more cruel to pretend that these instruments are workable and playable, when there are myriad reasons why they are not. Certainly, judge for yourself. But if things aren't going so well on your $79 violin, don't blame yourself right off. Try a better-quality instrument.
Can I just add that good violins have tuning pegs which are not only made of boxwood (as stated) but also ebony (the most usual and very strong) and rosewood (which perhaps turn more smoothly and were often used by French makers). Boxwood is the most easily substituted by cheap, rather similar-looking brown wood, so you have to be sure that the purported "boxwood" really is boxwood. Personally, I don't find boxwood is quite as smooth-turning as either ebony or rosewood, both of which seem to have a little natural oiliness, although boxwood looks good for imitation antique pegs.
I have some excellent Chinese violins with full ebony fingerboards, pegs and tailpieces, good wood elsewhere, and certainly no problems with angle and height of fingerboard. (Even some modern Italian violin makers get their fingerboards too low, and for much higher prices). I admit my Chinese instruments sound better with Dominant strings from Austria, but it's a little unrealistic to expect a Chinese maker to fit expensive Dominants (which they would have to import), especially as the end buyer may not like Dominants anyway!
Here's my word of advice for the financially strapped: get a knowledgeable person to help you shop. Sometimes you can really score with a cheap-ass violin that actually plays well. It happens all the time, actually. But if you are a new beginner, you simply don't know what to look for. A knowledgeable person can help you avoid losing money on something that only resembles a violin.
thanks eloise! - took a magnifying glass to my fiddle's purfling and - lo and behold - it's genuine. for some reason, i feel relieved. mille grazie! - bill
Again, inexpensive doesn't necessarily mean VSO. I would hope that the cheapest violins sold by Shar or Southwest Strings are functional, if nothing fancy, and that's just fine. A great place to start. An instrument that is impossible to tune, with poorly spaced strings, and a fingerboard that causes all sorts of odd buzzes and rattles is a huge impediment to a beginner. It's the utter lack of proper function that defines a VSO, not the price tag.
Robert, your post was so well put that I came back to read it again, only to find it had been removed.
My wife and I operate a private music school, and cringe all too often at the "deals" that some parents acquire on eBay and elsewhere. If they are too bad to be playable, we let them know that we will be happy to provide quality affordable instruction for the student as soon as they produce a truly workable instrument. We have been directing them to www.wwbw.com for the Bellafina 50 violins. They are under $200, and play exceptionally well for the price, even the fractionals.
Our thought is that in an era where people will pay $150 for a pair of designer sneakers, they can afford what they want to. The secondary benefit is that, with substantial "skin in the game" financially, the parents are sure that the student practices regularly, which is the real key to their success as players. With cheap instrument shaped objects, there is no risk of loss, and therefore little regrets if "things don't work out", which is just another way of saying that they will not commit themselves to success. We can't cure that attitude.
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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