Starter Violins for the Beginner: The Importance of a Good Set-Up

February 17, 2019, 4:09 PM · I still remember my first violin; a Chinese-made student violin which came with a bow and a piece of rosin. To this day I remember the smell of the rosin and when I open a new student violin case, the memory is so ingrained that I am catapulted back in time.

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If you are a beginner just starting to learn the violin, you are embarking on an amazing journey that will enrich your life and stay with you forever. Let’s try comparing this to any other journey that you might undertake. If you were setting out on a hike, you would want the appropriate footwear and clothing. Setting out to cross the seas you would wish to ensure that your boat is seaworthy.

Many of you that are looking for a starter violin are doing so for your child. Imagine, for example, that you were introducing your child to horse-riding; you would not ask them to start on a big, angry, bad-tempered beast likely to kick and bite. In this respect, the violin is no different; you need the right tools for the right job. If you want to ensure that your learning experience is not hindered by the violin you are playing, you should make sure that your starter violin is set up properly.

A lot of the cheap factory-made violins aimed at the beginner market are often not necessarily badly-made, but they can often be set up so badly as to easily discourage a beginner. Some, unfortunately, are beyond saving even with a good set-up and for this reason it is always better to seek advice unless you know what to look for.

A cheap violin bought on the internet is a huge risk and a false economy as it may be completely un-playable and a great disappointment. If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is. That is not to say that you should not look online; these days some very reputable violin retailers now sell professionally set-up student violins online, which can be a great help if you live in a rural area and are not able to shop around.

If you are buying from a shop, you need the assurance that the violin you are buying has been set-up correctly by a professional violin maker, which is something most reputable shops do automatically. Alternatively, a professional violin maker will often be able to order a factory-made violin for you and at a small extra cost, which is worth its weight in gold, set it up for you so that your learning experience is as enjoyable and as successful as possible. Some poorly set-up violins can actually be impossible to play and as equally impossible to tune, even for a seasoned professional. Imagine trying to scale that particular mountain as a total novice.

Living and teaching in Italy for 25 years, specifically in Cremona, I was spoiled for choice as a well set-up beginner violin was usually just around the corner, but there are many talented and dedicated violin makers all over the world and I strongly advise if possible, that you seek one out and ask for their professional advice before throwing away good money on something that will potentially make your learning experience disheartening and frustrating.

You may not know where to start looking for a professional violin maker or a reputable violin retailer, in which case you should ask the advice of a violin teacher who will almost certainly be able to help you. Indeed, if you have already chosen a violin teacher, they may well be willing to accompany you to help you pick out a violin. When I was running my violin practice in Italy, I would often connect a new pupil with a more advanced student who was willing to sell on their own starter violin now that they had progressed. I had one pupil who started aged 6 with a ¼ size. He then progressed to a ½ size passed on from his brother and then, after a quick growth spurt, progressed to a full-size. So his ¼ and ½ size could be sold on. One pupil I had was so attached to the whole process that she didn’t want to sell her old instruments on, preferring instead to keep them as a memento of her progress.

Until you start playing the violin you will not really understand the importance of the correct set-up but it can make the difference between falling in love with the violin and allowing it to become an important part of your life, or alternatively, finding the whole experience too frustrating and giving up before you have had a chance to really connect with it.

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Replies

February 18, 2019 at 04:41 PM ·

This is my experience about how I learned that a properly setup-ed violin can improve the violin's tone and make playing the violin easier.

When I was a beginner violin student my Mom bought me a $160 violin in a music shop. However after 3 months of using it the end button broke which really upset my Mom because we just bought it and the shop have taken no responsibility to repairing it . Therefore my Mom bought me another violin but this time a $30 Chinese violin with the fittings that are not even made out of ebony.

At first i was really frustrated because of it's nasty sharp sound. However I soon outgrew it out and after 3 years and I realize that it has a soul, the sound was now quite matured and I become a better player. ( I also noticed that it has a real purfling and have a maple back and spruce back which is rare on that price range ). Also this is the time when I discovered that better strings, rosin, fittings , bridge and most importantly better set up can improve a violin's tone . So I first bought a much better rosin,better strings,better bridge, real ebony fittings and most importantly I went to a luthier and asked for a proper violin set-up so now my cheap violin now sound sweet, warm , and clear.

My advice if your tempted to buy a cheap violin under $300 is to avoid it, buy a much better violin with a proper set-up and ask a teacher or a professional for advice. However if you already bought a cheap violin go to a luthier,ask for a proper violin set up and also have decent fittings, string, rosin and other accessories so by doing this a cheap violin will hopefully sound quite decent and playing the violin with joy.

February 18, 2019 at 05:00 PM · This made me cast my mind back to my my early violins. Before I owned one, I used instruments owned by the county music service, I started on a Skylark 1/2 size violin, followed by a Stentor 3/4. When I moved to full size, I had a violin that cost £50 in a charity shop, I still have it! Its a Chantry violin, pressed back and top, not sure about the sides. The finger board might be wooden, the pegs are almost certainly plastic. The bridge was fine too. With a set of dominant strings this violin got me up to Grade 5, whereby I saved up for a new instrument that cost £250.

It was a Caswell's Overture, what I considered to be my first "real violin". (I still have this one too). Actually carved tone woods, lovely fingerboard and pegs, I learned a lot with this violin, but progressed quickly also. Together, we travelled to Paris on my music centre tour in 2012. This one also came to Ireland with me. The violin is now used by one of my students, as I believe it deserves to be played. At the old age of 10 years, its still improving, the tone changes and is still developing. Remarkable for the price if you ask me.

My main instrument that I use today, was a 16th birthday present. Its an 1890 JTL violin labelled 'Dulcis et Fortis". Oh my, it sounds fantastic. She (yes my violin has a pronoun), has had an upgraded Despiau 3 tree bridge fitted, I use Warchal Amber and I love everything about her. She got me to Grade 8 and beyond. These days we play together in a local symphony orchestra. I would love to upgrade, but the thought of part exchanging her in hurts me.

Advice to beginners, go to a violin shop and pick out a beginners instrument, I cannot fault the Stentor Student 1 or 2 range. With better strings and a set up, they sound fantastic. Do not use a violin shaped object (VSO) that I used with the county instruments. But I appreciate being able to use loaned instruments, as buying fractional instruments while growing was not a practical investment for my family.

I am still very fond of my £50 Chantry violin. Trusty little fellow that he is. :)

February 19, 2019 at 11:18 PM · Buying from a local shop, if you have one nearby, will cost a little more but it's worth it because they'll help you with the kinds of problems that plague beginners -- strings breaking, bridges falling etc.

A decent beginner violin costs less than it ever has. Shar's beginner models start at under $200 for an outfit that includes case and bow -- though the sweet spot is probably to spend about $300. Shar's competitors -- Southwest Strings, Carriage House Violins, Fiddlershop.com -- have comparable pricing.

Prices at a local shop I think will be $100-200 more but you have that local person to lean on.

It's also possible the local shop guarantees trade-in privileges so you can get the value of the beginner violin applied to the next step up.

I would also look at renting a violin for the first year. Cost will be less and you keep your options open if your beginner wants to switch to another instrument. .

February 23, 2019 at 09:14 AM · I remember my first violin... Oh God, it was so bad, but even though I really loved it. Sounded like hell. One day my father took it to the luthier and he would just moved the sound post and then moved the bridge a bit, it took just about 5 minutes. Wow, what a change! It was a totally different violin, almost impossible to believe it. My Chinese violin was actually not bad at all! When I grew up I bought a Guidiano violin, which has been my concert violin for more than ten years and has a great sound. Of course, now I realize the huge difference between both violins, but I will never stop loving my first Chinese violin.

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