The Well Aging Fiddler: Getting the Wrong Violin, Then the Right One

June 28, 2017, 6:31 PM · So…

I’m 68 years old and I want to learn how to play a violin. I have the time, the ambition, and the patience. There is only one big problem. I need a fiddle and a bow. What do I do? Well, my first action was looking online to see what is out there. To my surprise, it was very easy to find a violin! It seems, as with guitars, violins are everywhere. So, I looked at eBay, and within a matter of minutes I found a violin for just $111. What a deal! This was a package that included a bow, case, rosin, and a violin designed after a Stradivarius! I clicked “buy” and that was that. Simple right?

Well, yes and also a huge NO.

I quickly learned I’d been seduced by pretty pictures and a low price. I also learned I’d bought something called a VSO (Violin Shaped Object). When it arrived in the mail a couple of days after I’d ordered it, I slid the case out of the cardboard box. My first cue that something was wrong was with the case itself. It was amazingly light. In fact, it felt too light, as if it was made of Styrofoam rather than a solid material. Opening the case I saw the VSO. It looked great. It looked too great. The shine on the wood resembled a well-polished coffee table. I could see my face in the wood on the back. Clearly, this was not an instrument to be played and explored. This was an ornament to hang on a wall.

I put the object back in the case, slid the case back into the cardboard box, got a return label, and sent it back to wherever it came.

I was back to zero, but I’d already learned my first lesson – when it comes to musical instruments, don’t be cheap. Get a good one. Spend a little more money and get something that really works. Also, if you are going to buy something like a violin, it is wise to actually see it, play it, and hear it. Don’t order it online because it has pretty pictures. Hear it and see it before anything else. Now, if you can’t play – like me – have someone play it for you.

The irony at this point is I ended up buying a violin from a company with an excellent reputation for selling violins online. How and why did I do this if I’d just been skunked by getting an online fiddle?

Well, I was lucky. I live just 25 minutes from the actual store where the violins are sold. Kennedy Violins is in Vancouver, Washington. From what I know, they have an excellent reputation for online sales and service. Since I live just across the Columbia River in Portland, Oregon, all I had to do was get in my car and drive to their shop.

So that is what I did. I drove up to Vancouver, and bought a good student violin. I had a budget of around $400. I knew I wasn’t going to get an expensive violin, but I also knew I’d be getting a good student-level violin, and for my needs, that was exactly what I wanted.

new violin

The salesperson at Kennedy Violins was great. He was patient, good humored, and played several violins for me to hear and judge. He even tossed in a free shoulder rest since my last name is Kennedy! Now, that is good customer relations.

I got home, opened the case, took out the violin and then realized I had no idea how to hold it, how to hold a bow, how to use a shoulder rest how to attach a shoulder rest, or even how to tune the violin But that wasn’t really important. Those things would come. For the moment, all I could do was look at it and admire how amazing it looked. I crossed hurdle number one. I have a good violin.

Next week: The Internet.

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June 29, 2017 at 03:37 PM · The folks at Kennedy do a good job, The one I got from them has aged quite nicely and I did buy it on line.

June 29, 2017 at 03:37 PM · I'm 42 and have also decided to learn the violin. (Or maybe the viola...or it bad I'm not sure?) Thanks for making me feel for the first time like I'm way ahead of the game instead of way behind. I've 26 years ahead of you, go me! I will be following your progress, if only to feel better about myself. (But seriously, I wish you luck and will be reading.)

June 29, 2017 at 07:09 PM · Go for it, Michael. Some people let age define whether they can start activities like music, acting, writing, art, and so forth. Why limit yourself because of your age? I say just go for it. What are my chances of being a soloist with an orchestra? I'd say zero, but so what? In our current culture of contests, talent shows on t.v., award shows, and so forth, a lot of people assume if they don't have a chance at being Number One, they should't even try. I find a lot of freedom in ignoring that limitation. We all get one shot at all of this, so dive in and enjoy the ride.

June 29, 2017 at 08:22 PM · Thanks for writing this, You are exactly the age I was when I started violin. I am 71 now. Lucky I live near Gaile's Violin shop in College Park, MD. They rent excellent student violins so I rented for 6 months. Then I bought a Cecelio electric for practice and a Scott Cao for lessons. Violin can be frustrating but also very rewarding and always interesting.

June 30, 2017 at 01:40 PM · I agree with you when it comes to the poor quality of the "VSO".

I started with one of those "things" by 100$ and played it for 6 month.

BUT, I tried it. I did not just looked at it and say NO.

I don't want to troll but you only look commissioned to denigrate VSO. How could you ever know it was a toy with a bad sound if already you did not know how to hold the instrument ?

By the way, as I said, it is right that a luthier violin is the choice, not a 100$ VSO, I just wanted to say you should have tried it

Good learn to you !

June 30, 2017 at 05:19 PM · I thought I'd add my experience as a adult (in my 50's) new to the violin. I've wanted to play for a while, my husband bought me my violin last year. He bought it online from Shar Music. No test drive before purchase.

But before he bought the violin he asked several musicians in town what to look for in a student violin, what to consider, what companies had a good reputation.

We had a luthier replace the bridge with a better option and I quickly bought a better bow. It has been about 6 month now and I am still happy with my violin for now.

I'll likely upgrade by the end of the year and since there are no violin shops within 250 miles will likely buy from Shar again using their trial before you buy program.

June 30, 2017 at 05:37 PM · For many of us who want to buy a violin, but don't have the skill to know a bad one from a good one, or even how to play the instrument, this is a real challenge. To me, the key to buying a violin - or any musical instrument - is research. Study the woods, the construction techniques, the use of vanish and/or oils. For years I've played guitars and mandolins. I've often gone into music stores and inspected instruments seeing cheap construction, and poor materials used in some of those instruments. Their sound would only confirm the poor quality of their construction. In the case of the VSO, before it arrived I did research on what to look for when buying a violin. Although I didn't play it, from what I saw - the plastic chin rest, the plywood, the poor finish, and so on. I concluded I simply didn't like it. Hearing it would have been a good idea, but I just didn't want to deal with it. Plus, I'm a bit old school. When I see bad fruit, I don't take a bite. I just put it back.

July 1, 2017 at 03:09 PM · Michael, Congratulations on finding decent starter fiddle. I am 71 years, played as a child for a couple years and took up fiddling again about 12 years ago. I certainly will never be a concert Violinist, but the friends I have made and the experiences I have had just trying to make a beautiful sound now and then has been very rewarding. Now my wife plays guitar to accompany me and we can share that time together and with our friends at jams, and occasional play-outs. if I could suggest, take time to find an instructor that you really enjoy working with, who helps you find tunes that you like and can play right away. With admiration, Davie

July 1, 2017 at 09:00 PM · Michael,

Congratulations on getting a good student instrument. A thought about teachers (and I do have a preference)- try and find a teacher who either uses, or is willing to use, the Doflien method. Why not Suzuki? You are an adult and Doflien aims more at your brain learning both how to read music as well as some music theory. Also, Doflien doesn't introduce you to "Oh, Mother can I tell you" until you are ready to tackle all 12 Variations that Mozart wrote for the tune that we now call "Twinkle, Twinkle,..."

July 2, 2017 at 05:45 PM · Thanks Davie and George!

Your comments about teachers are good and thoughtful. As a bit of a spoiler alert, I submit these blog entries about six weeks after they actually happen, so I can have some perspective on what I write. My next blog will deal with how I used YouTube and other online resources to teach myself, with a conclusion that as good as many of these resources are, it is best to work with a teacher. Two weeks from now I discuss how to get a good teacher, and I will use your suggestions.

July 3, 2017 at 08:44 AM · I'm with you Michael....I'm 62 and last week bartered a very basic and probably at best a student quality fiddle/violin from a local antiques type shop...always wanted to play....although I shunned lessons in primary school for soccer/football as you did at that age and at that time! I've been a drummer since but not taught or schooled one and spent a lot of money on my gear, and dabbled a bit on keys, but always had a notion that one day, I learn to actually play a stringed instrument .... and being Scottish probably drawn to the'll be great reading how you are progressing...

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