Using a D as an A. Could this damage my student's violin?

March 24, 2010 at 04:34 PM ·

I taught a lesson to a student today who insists on using a D string as an A string.  I objected and when my student challenged me to back my objection with facts I stated that it's because the manufacturer designs the strings to handle the correct tension required for the tuning.  I told him that I felt an A string would sound better and be better for the instrument but he's insisting on using a D string tuned to an the point where now he is going to order sets of E, two Ds and a G from Shar.  He's quite uncooperative and argumentative so I just said "well I can't force you to take my advice, I can only give you information.  What you do with it is up to you".

I need to know from people who know better than me: could it harm the violin to do this?  The violin is a rental instrument and the people he's renting it from are friends of mine.  I don't want him to hurt their violin.  It seems to me that using a D and tuning it up a fifth could put extra pressure on the top and hurt it, but I'm not a luthier so I can't say for sure.


Replies (22)

March 24, 2010 at 07:03 PM ·

I can't offer any facts to support your position... but I'm very curious as to why your student insists on using a D as an A. Does he think it sounds better? Or did he just find a great sale on D-strings?

March 24, 2010 at 08:46 PM ·

I'd imagine the tension is unbearable, and near impossible to press the string down. Strings are only meant to be so taught (is it one octave before snapping? I've forgotten). Tuning it a 5th higher would probably cause it to snap, or be at the stage of near-snapping.

Tuning an E string down to an A would be awful, too. I can't imagine how either an E tuned down to an A or a D tuned up to an A is playable. 


March 24, 2010 at 10:29 PM ·

I think it may be time for a sound post adjustment; he may be doing this because the A sounds off.

If a setup isn't in order, maybe it is time to introduce the different sounds of different types of strings.

I would ask what sound he is trying to go for, and start a dynamic conversation on the different sounds different strings make. Also include what the bridge, the afterlength, etc. can bring to the mix.

Maybe give him some non-playing homework of researching string technology. A good fast find of information would be to discover why violin strings cost more than gitaur strings.
(the short answer; the technology for a bowed instrument, where the string needs to generate sound while a bow is dragging across it is more complex than a string that only needs to respond to plucking).

March 24, 2010 at 11:53 PM ·


Michael, there's a remote possibility that the violin sounds better, or plays better or more easily with the increased tension. I wouldn't know for sure without messing with it.

In the meantime, you could ask the student which soloists or major symphony players use a D cranked up to an A. This might be followed with a suggestion that until he can play like they do, it might not be wise to second-guess them. :-)


March 25, 2010 at 09:39 AM ·

Thank you to everyone for your comments!

To answer your questions: he doesn't think it sounds better.  I asked him why and he won't give me a good answer, he says he "just likes it that way"...  I played the violin myself and honestly the only difference in playability that I noticed is that it feels weird to play with one string so much tighter than the others.  I felt that the sound was adversely affected and not improved by the extra tension.  Anyway, I talked to the people he's renting it from and they're taking it back unless he agrees to treat it properly so the problem is solved.  My only real concern was the safety of the instrument to be honest.

So that problem is resolved...but I have decided to tell my director that I have to let this student go.  This is the same student who tried to argue that it's not important to keep one's bow straight because one time on television he saw a "great violinist play with the bow crooked and over the fingerboard".  He refuses to play in tune and when I try to correct it he scoffs at me for "imposing Western ideas about what's in tune".  He just fights with me every step of the way. and I'm sorry for hijacking my own thread about the D string and making it be about the student but I feel really bad about giving up on a student.  However this is like trying to teach an emu to fly.  He says he wants to learn but when I try to teach him he's got so much aggro.  If any of you have ever been around an emu before you know what I'm talking about.  They kick.  Oh well, at least my other students like me.  I've got students who bring me presents when they don't practice in order to butter me up!  /palmface

March 25, 2010 at 12:48 PM ·

Hm. I'm glad to hear you dumped that student, it sounds like he's more interested in creating tension between the two of you than learning the instrument. Not to sound like a 5 year old here but....... what a dummy :)

March 25, 2010 at 01:31 PM ·

You won't consider keeping the little contrarian pain in the rear? :-)

I once had a student (not a violin playing student) who was also a challenge to teach. He had his own ideas about how to do things, partly from past poor  training. The compromise that finally worked was that I agreed to let him do things his way, as long as he would also learn to do things my way. I tried to convince him that with both techniques under his belt,  he would be more versatile, and have a greater range of options from which to choose.

This guy has gone on to be highly skilled and respected in our trade. He's known for being highly skilled with traditional methods, and also for inventing new and innovative methods. So in a way, I'm glad I didn't try to put him in box and shut down his thinking and exploring. It all worked out in the end, even though I may have a few more gray hairs to show for it.

I realize that this is just a story about one guy, and only you can determine if your student is worth experimenting with.

March 25, 2010 at 02:38 PM ·

Playing in tune is a relative concept. Thats a funny kid. You should treat an acoustic violin as delicate as an egg shell. Maybe he would like bigger strings.

March 25, 2010 at 03:22 PM ·

Generally, a violin string is considered safe if it is tensioned at 75% of its breaking point. Tune it lower and it sounds flabby; tune it too much higher and it breaks. In any case, if the core of the string is synthetic or gut, it will certainly stretch, and the windings will loosen. Your student will be replacing this string a lot. If this odd arrangement works on your student's violin, I'm with David. The cause of the problem is elsewhere.

I'm kind of amazed that the D in particular will withstand being tuned up a fifth since in my observation many D strings are already thick to begin with. I have tuned strings up a third (with heart in throat). I guess this is a testament to the strength of synthetic cores.

March 25, 2010 at 07:06 PM ·

It really just sounds like the student is very rebellious and wants to be difficult for no reason. I think you've made the right choice in letting him go, but have him understand that because of his behavior (an inability to work with someone) has caused this to happen. He needs to learn. Turn this into a teachable moment.

March 25, 2010 at 07:21 PM ·

Well I did take the possibility of a setup issue into consideration but in this case it would be only a slight adjustment (if at all) and not to say that beginners don't deserve good setups but the stage at which this particular student is playing (basic rudiments are still being struggled with) I believe that in order to play "French Folk Song No. 2" he'd be better served to be sure that his bow was actually landing between the fingerboard and the bridge at least most of the time!!   If I was dealing with a young child I'd perhaps admire his tenacity but this is an adult beginner (mid 20s) and he really just needs to get a grip and accept that there's a learning curve and stop being silly.  My director asked me what he should say to the student and I said "on behalf of thousands of years of violinistic tradition we apologise that the violin is not easy-peasy.  Best of luck!"  I can't in good conscience take this man's money and lead him to believe that he can proceed in that manner.

March 25, 2010 at 07:55 PM ·

Oh, my! I was picturing a young boy of perhaps age 13. Someone in his mid-20's should be past that kind of behavior. Does he have cognitive or emotional disabilities?

March 25, 2010 at 08:08 PM ·

> He refuses to play in tune and when I try to correct it he scoffs
> at me for "imposing Western ideas about what's in tune".

Why would you even want to teach someone who isn't interested in learning?


March 25, 2010 at 10:56 PM ·

Don't feel too bad; you made the right decision.  He is not a real student and your time is better spent elsewhere. "You can lead a horse to water..."

March 25, 2010 at 11:27 PM ·

Doesn't play in tune
Mixes up his strings
Can't bow straight
Takes a stand on the wrong side of things, and doesn't budge

Are you sure he's not a fiddler?

March 26, 2010 at 11:15 AM ·

this reminds me of the guy who tuned his cello one octave too high and complained to his luthier that his strings kept breaking..


March 28, 2010 at 02:49 PM ·

GOOD GOD! This kid sounds like he is in some sort of Delusional World! and I thought I had problems!

For the sake of the discussion regarding using a higher tension string, would not one go up to a Heavy Guage string?

March 31, 2010 at 12:11 PM ·

Hmmm. Van Gogh was thrown out of art school, and Verdi wasn't even admitted to the conservatory that now bears his name.

Maybe the guy's a genius! ;-)

March 31, 2010 at 02:52 PM ·

 ^ Made in jest, and probably isn't going to happen, but like the old saying goes "You never know who you will meet that ____"  Hence the reason when talking to all people, in any trade or medium, that I do not make judgement.


  An example was when I was about 19, I was riding my bike in my driveway (I do "tricks")and some little punk kid with a broken wheel rolls by.  Looks all dirty and ragged and the bike looked all beat up and LOOKED stolen.  I called the kid over (he didn't come to me), changed his flat tire, trued his wheel and sent him on his way.   He had no idea you could true up a wheel.  I figured I'd help the little guy out and change his flat for him too.


Years later, I'm get applying for a job at a bike shop, and guess who the manager is....and to top it off, guess who's now a professional in his trade (he's a pro BMX rider).  Apparently, I had such an impact on him, that it got him interested in riding bicycles and learning everything about repairing them as well as riding them to the best of his ability.  He's now a paid, sponsored athlete.  I didn't need to help that kid, and frankl;y had better things to do, but something inside just made me want to help the kid, and now he's amazing on a bicycle.


  That kid may very well be very successful down the road through his own learning and trials.

March 31, 2010 at 04:31 PM ·

 Oh, sheesh! Talk about contrary. So glad you were able to show him the door, Michael!

April 4, 2010 at 12:48 PM ·

Aaaaaahhhh!  Sure he'll love it, until it snaps and hits him in the face a couple times!  (Okay...perhaps that's an exaggeration...but it's a bit dangerous, no?)

Reminds me of a student I knew who, like many, was old enough to use the pegs but still had fine tuners and would crank them up as tight as they would go.  The neck was pulling away from the body.  Yikes.

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