The Quest for a Quality Fractional Instrument: Reviewing Shar's New York Phil Violin Outfits

April 15, 2021, 12:15 PM · As a longtime violin teacher, I have become somewhat obsessed with procuring decent fractional-sized instruments for my youngest students.

The quest for excellence in fractional violins comes from an absolute frustration with the cheap violins in circulation. Even very educated and musically knowledgeable parents can easily get tricked into buying fractional-sized violins that sound squeaky and function poorly.

This does not have to be the case, and it's important to emphasize that a student's success on the instrument depends considerably on the quality of his or her instrument. If the sound is off-putting, if the instrument can't be tuned, if the effort of playing bears no satisfying result...then why would a child want to keep trying? Conversely, a good instrument serves as a partner, rewarding a student's efforts with the appropriate feedback: a clear sound for good bowing, ringing tone for good intonation, and a pleasing response to vibrato and other techniques.

Good fractional-size violin/viola/cello outfits DO exist, and here are some of their most important characteristics:

NYP 1/8 violin
Student with Shar's New York Philharmonic 1/8-size violin.

With all these parameters in mind, I was happy for several of my students to test Shar's New York Philharmonic Violin Outfits. Shar is the longtime stringed instrument supplier located near Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as a major supporter of I've bought countless strings, cases, instruments and sheet music from Shar over the years, starting from when I was a child. (My American case from 1984 is still in fine shape!). My students have also bought intermediate-level instruments that have worked out very well. Shar also has some nice policies: If you are debating buying an instrument, they'll ship it to you for an in-home trial before you buy it. They also have a trade-in policy for when you need to buy a bigger or upgraded instrument.

Shar's NY Phil Violins have been out for five years. They are modeled after a Golden-period Strad and created by the New York Stringed Instrument Company, with input from members of the New York Philharmonic, including concertmaster Frank Huang, who is quoted as saying, "The violins have a rich and even sound. Perfect for the budding violinist, on the way to becoming a future member of the New York Philharmonic." The violins are officially "fully sanctioned and endorsed by the Philharmonic," in order to use the NY Phil name.

For the current list price of $815, the outfits include the New York Philharmonic violin (available in 1/16 size through full); Meinel pernambuco violin bow; a "New York Philharmonic" oblong case; mini rosin; and a certificate of authenticity.

My two students who tested the violins are beginners, and they have been playing on the instruments for several months. One tested a 1/8-size, and the other tested a 1/4-size violin. In both cases, their parents are also professional musicians, string players in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. So it was helpful to have input from their parents, as well. In a nutshell, both families felt these were excellent fractional-size violins, with a strong sound and good structural integrity. Here is their input about all the specific details:

In the case of the 1/8-size violin, my student was upgrading from a 1/16-size Franz Hoffmann Amadeus Violin Outfit (It has a pretty low price point - $179). That violin had some issues - the biggest being that the fine tuner on the E string did not work, and it was very difficult to tune the E with a peg. Basically, it was impossible to keep the E string in tune for more than a few minutes, so it was always out of tune.

The NYP Violin was a big improvement. Her mother, a violinist, said that "overall the sound is clear and well-balanced. The fine tuners work well and the pegs are easy to tune." She also liked the "great craftsmanship and nice color," as well as the "good quality bow and nice case." They did have an issue at first with the bridge; the D was too low and it wasn't possible to play on it without touching neighboring strings. But when we brought the issue to Shar, they resolved it by having a local luthier fix the bridge, and now everything is at the proper angle.

When it came to the 1/4-size instrument, my other student's father, a violist, said overall that "I don’t see any real negatives to this 1/4 size violin. It’s a lovely instrument for children." And here are some more specifics: "The pegs turn easily and also stay in tune well. Feels very secure unlike some other 1/4 size violins," he said.

NYP violin 1/4
Student with Shar's New York Philharmonic 1/4-size violin.

When it comes to the sound of the instrument, "considering the size, I think it makes a great sound," he said. "It is pretty even, and it doesn’t have that shrill quality that some small instruments can have. The violin itself is good and seems easy to play, my only criticism would be the quality of the bow - the bow I feel could be a little better, but that also could be the quality of the hair. It may not be up to the same level as the violin."

The bridge "is also good quality and pretty well-graded, the G string could be a little too high, though," he said.

He liked the appearance very much: "It looks great. Nice varnish and purfling and a lovely one-piece back." He also liked the case: "It’s a lovely case, even better than my own! Lots of room for accessories and a full size pocket for music."

Overall, he said, "it’s definitely on the upper end of quality when it comes to fractional-size violins."

Having listened to the violins for several months and also worked with them myself, I can safely say that the New York Phil violins fall into the category of good fractional instruments that I would recommend for young students, and I'm happy to listen to these fiddles each week!

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What is your experience with fractional-sized instruments? Please share your advice, recommendations, and/or warnings in the comments below!

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April 16, 2021 at 04:22 PM · I'm waiting and waiting for comments that aren't coming. I have a 7/8 instrument but I'm not sure if that's considered fractional size because it's the same size as some old instruments used to be. It is a wonderful brand new instrument and I'm very happy with it. I had 7 instruments to choose from and this one was just right.

April 16, 2021 at 05:02 PM · Hi Ann, I'm so glad you found a good instrument! I know a number of people who have 7/8, usually to accommodate being a smaller build, smaller hands etc. It's a great option. It's not a size that children generally go through on their way to a full size; they generally go from a 3/4 straight to a full-size, and so I think it's harder to find the 7/8. But 7/8 have been in existence for a long time, you can find examples of very fine old fiddles that are that size. What kind of instrument did you get and was it a difficult search?

April 16, 2021 at 07:00 PM · I got a new M-F Bieg that had been built in Bubenreuth last August according to the certificate. I bought it in October. There were 5 at my local violin shop which were built as 7/8 instruments plus 2 new Amati copies by a company in China which uses an Italian sounding name which I forget. One of the others was a much damaged and repaired Italian instrument that sounded horrible with a reedy tone. I was told "that's the French sound." I thought (but did not say, being polite), "no that's the sound of kindling." Camp fire anyone?

One of the instruments was a 1906 French instrument labeled Jean Baptiste Colin which is a workshop instrument there being no one of that name. I have read since that the ones with the date in pencil on the label are regarded as very good and this instrument had the penciled in 1906 and a perfectly beautiful sweet tone.

I chose the new instrument though because the French one didn't have the power that would be necessary to play music by George Perlman which I aspire to play.

Some day I want to be able to play Hebraisch as well as the other pieces from his 2 suites. His work is extraordinary and don't get me going! (Oh, I am already, oh well). He was a violin teacher and wrote some pieces for his students such as Indian Summer and his entire works only run 60 minutes. As a review on Amazon says when you finish the CD "you are left with an unfulfillable desire for more." An unrecognized genius.

Perhaps this deserves a blog entry?

April 18, 2021 at 03:14 PM · How are the fracional dimensions determined? A half size violin is not physically half the size of a 4/4 violin.

April 18, 2021 at 06:06 PM · Good question, Victor! Does anyone know?

April 18, 2021 at 06:29 PM · There are no set dimensions but they are approximate. A luthier could tell you.

April 20, 2021 at 12:35 AM · My kids are ready to move up to bigger violins (3/4 and the other 7/8 or 4/4 maybe). I am so tempted just to buy their violins "online", and it will probably be cheaper. But before the covid pandemic, I promised that I will take them to a violin shop so they can pick their own violin/bow/case. We are fortunate to live where there are several violins shops within driving distance, but because of covid, the shops are not yet letting anyone test in-house. So we wait...

IMHO, there's nothing like picking your own violin/bow in-person - even with fractional instruments :-).

April 20, 2021 at 08:54 PM · Ben, that can be very helpful, especially at a good shop that is willing to work with you! It's also helpful if you can get your teacher's opinion for the final decision. In "before times," I would have my students get three from the store, bring them to their lesson, and I'd help them determine which was best. Or, sometimes I'd meet them at the shop.

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