When to upgrade students' strings

October 18, 2018, 11:21 AM · Hi all,

I've got four students, two age 9 and just beginning, one age 10 with a year under her belt, and one 14.

My 9 year olds are doing fine with their beginner, cheap strings (probably red label), but I just switched my 10 year old's from red label to Dominant. Her red labels were getting pretty nasty, and started to unravel, but do you think I should have put on new red labels or do you think it was a safe move to upgrade to Dominants (which I personally hate but I'm not about to tell her mom to buy her Evahs or PI's)?

She's about to do her second solo festival audition in January, and has picked a song from Suzuki 1. She knows her G 2 octave scale, and A and D 1 octave, and seems to be getting better at holding/using the bow properly (with help from a pinky holder I found on Shar). She's incredibly enthusiastic about learning the violin.

I'm thinking of also upgrading my older student's strings, but hers is a rental.

TL;DR (too long; didn't read):

1) is 5th grade too early to upgrade from red label to Dominants
2) is it worth upgrading strings on a rental for a 14 year old

Replies (17)

Edited: October 18, 2018, 11:53 AM · Helicore or Tonica might be worth considering - it all depends on how they "fit" on the fiddle, you never really know until you try.

Red Label ("super sensitive") strings have been around for a long time. I think that's about all my local music store carried when I started needing them for my cello 69 years ago - that and gut. I used gut - don't think I ever noticed the brand. Don't remember what I used on my violin back then - I think my father was still taking care of that.

October 18, 2018, 11:56 AM · Hmm I'll try those on my young one's next. I took her violin for the week (and lent her my backup, the one I played in middle school/high school) to break them in, and I might be biased from being used to my own instrument or it could be the fact that it's under my ear and not across the room, but they sound scratchy and metallic. I haven't played on Dominants in ages, so they might not even be broken in yet. I changed them last Friday. She plays a 4/4 1713 Cremona Strad student copy

Once my older one's strings go, I'll have her try whichever one you mentioned that gives her some more sound. She likes to play "surface sound" and hates digging in (she even has help with a weighter viola bow!)

October 18, 2018, 12:23 PM · Thomastik Alphayue is $20 a set, for a decent synthetic that comes in all sizes.
October 18, 2018, 1:24 PM · Red Labels are terrible. I'd replace them with a decent synthetic right away. Dominants, Tonicas, Alphayues, etc.
Edited: October 18, 2018, 1:54 PM · Yes, upgrade those strings! Red Label strings feel more like steel suspension cables than strings anyway. And the sound!

Thomastik Dominant, Thomastik Alphayue. Thomastic Spirit, Warchal Karneol, Pirastro Tonica, D'Addario Helicore, Corelli Crystal.

October 18, 2018, 2:37 PM · Great, thanks guys! My next question, just because it's been a few years, how long does it take for these Dominants to break in? When I used them I was much younger and didn't have a trained ear to listen for new vs broken in. These new ones sound terrible, and it's been a week. They're not /as/ horrid as they were when I put them on, but it still is pretty unpleasant. Could just be the violin, too. Basic student model.
October 18, 2018, 7:12 PM · Anything but Red Labels! Eek, those things are awful. Dominants usually take about a week, but we do a lot of playing around here, so it may be more if they aren't being played that much.

Most violin shops will replace the strings on a rental with nicer ones if you ask (nicely).

October 18, 2018, 7:53 PM · Why make beginners suffer with awful strings? I agree with Lydia's recommendations.
October 18, 2018, 9:25 PM · Mary Ellen, I ask myself the same question with string players and oboists... I know students start on terrible instruments and horrid, machine-made reeds to save the school a bit of money (let's face it, parents aren't going to want to spend $20 on a reed that will last a couple weeks at best if the kid is careful), but WHY do they have to be so bad?

It pains me when I see a beginner oboist fighting to make a noise because his instrument is barely playable (even I have trouble with beginner oboes and my undergrad/graduate work is in oboe...)and reed is so closed or open that it doesn't even vibrate...

Cheaper isn't usually better... I don't see the point in making a student suffer with terrible strings for the sake of saving a bit of money. They should at least start on Dominants or Tonicas... Let's all boycott Red Label, maybe they'll go out of business (fat chance, but a girl can dream!)

October 18, 2018, 9:42 PM · My child started on Tonica when she was 3. Her 1/16 rental violin came with it. There should be no age restrictions on having a decent set of strings.

If I were to start all over again, I would have bought her a better bow from day one.

Edited: October 19, 2018, 12:28 AM · For the younger ones - Evah Pirazzi fractional size is half the price of full size (I don't think many makers do this?) which makes them even less than Dominants ($60+?). Maybe the idea is you love them as a kid and keep buying them as a grown player.

Another perspective for the parent if needed: Evah Pirazzi fractional and Tonicas are around $40-50. Depending on geography, this is perhaps comparable to the cost of a lesson. In the grand scheme of private lessons (perhaps 40 lessons per year?), the cost of decent strings is peanuts. By the way, if replacing strings before they are totally gone, keep the old ones around as spares in case of a future breakage and you need to string something up for a day or so before getting to a shop.

[edit: price range]

October 18, 2018, 11:43 PM · It's interesting that Evah does fractional sizes, I didn't know that!

I charge my little ones $20/half hour, just because violin isn't my main instrument. I would charge $30 for oboe. But you're right, for a string that should last 4-6 months, $40 is pretty good. I'll have to see if my students' parents would be up for getting nice strings. My older one would probably be okay with it. I always save one set of strings, even if they aren't super alive anymore. You just never know.

Edited: October 19, 2018, 10:20 AM · There are a lot of other strings besides red label and dominants. I avoid both. Red Labels are just awful no matter the level. I see dominants as old technology. Thomastick (and other brands) have new strings (Vision and others) that break in fast and sound better. The break in fast is important to me with less advanced and/or younger students.

The new Ascente strings are good and very affordable($22 at Shar.) They also have a fast break in period. They come in all sizes.

I think it is very much worth it to upgrade/change strings on a rental violin.

October 19, 2018, 10:35 AM · I also kind of feel that Dominants are not great... Breaking in my student's new Dom's was awful; I sounded like a dying cat and my parents made it known (lol sorry Mom and Dad!)

I'll have my older one (14) try something different. What ones would project more? She needs to get used to playing loudly. She says she "hates it" but it's probably because red label strings sound like trash and she can hear it.

Edited: October 19, 2018, 12:07 PM · EP fractional strings are loud, at least they are when my daughter plays them. We have tried a lot of fractional strings from Aphayue to Zyex but we always revert back to EP.

At first (as in for years), I thought EP was missing tonal colors but that had more to do with her lack of skills than string characteristics. They do sound better during the first month but we haven’t changed ours now for 5 months and she sounds fine. When she was a beginner though, EP sounded rather bright and harsh.

ETA: We used Dominant when she was playing an antique French 1/8. I thought something broke when we changed to a new set for the first time. For that violin though, Dominant was the right choice.

October 19, 2018, 12:56 PM · Dominants can take a while to break in. If it is a student playing gently, it can take 1-2 weeks for them to reach their core sound. For a pro really working them, it can take a couple of days.

Not great? They are used by Hilary Hahn and Itzhak Perlman, so they must be "ok" :) But that doesn't mean they are great for all instruments, and you might want something that has more color in the sound in that case. I almost feel in this regard that they are a rather advanced string and not a perfect student string, as they require some finesse to optimize.

October 19, 2018, 3:14 PM · A case where the question only results in more questions. There are reasons why 'practicing' string players most often practice on Red Label or Prelude perhaps Spirocore or Helicore. Extremely good strings and violin and bow may all be 'harder' for a beginning/ inexperienced/ marginally trained player. Few performance String players use unwound gut strings ... and not because temp and moisture make it problematic. Gut is difficult. Likewise, synthetic is more difficult vs steel. My weak minded opinion is, let the 'practicing player' experiment with the more manageable nuances of steel until their level of play justifies a string that is needed to achieve their goal. PS: It is common as a Luthier to see an instrument that 'new strings' are the teacher/ player/ parent's 'solution'. Often it's post, bridge, string height, nut height, or projection height. T.Matthew


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