Derek Roberts Violins

Guide to Student Violins

fitting a peg
Choosing the right violin for a student is key to his or her enjoyment and success with the instrument. In this guide Derek Roberts gives his advice and answers the questions to help you make the right choice.

What sort of violin should I be looking for and how much might it cost? Many beginners start with an inexpensive Chinese mass-produced violin outfit including violin, bow and case. The quality of these varies and many internet suppliers and general music shops sell violins which are not properly set up. I recommend a well set up Stentor II violin outfit featuring ebony pegs and ebony fingerboard and upgraded with high quality Pirastro Tonica strings.

Once a young player is entering for the RCM grade exams, they need a violin which is suitable for the standard they have reached. At this stage good strings are essential. The Andreas Zeller or the Conservatoire outfit upgraded with Pirastro Tonica strings is suitable up to Grade 5. The price range for violin outfits with ebony pegs and professional quality strings is around £200 to £300.

Progress beyond Grade 5 can be held back without the correct equipment. Many players look for an antique violin but these are expensive. Prices continue to rise so a purchase can be regarded as an investment. Prices for 19th century German and French "trade" violins without makers' labels, or with "Copy of Stradivarius" or similar labels, range from around £600 to £1000 plus. Better quality antique violins with makers' labels are considerably more expensive. Usually neither bow nor case are included in the price. At this level it is important to have a good bow

Recently some very good new imported handmade violins have become available, costing less than antique violins. Increasingly, players with limited budgets are considering these instruments because of their combination of high quality materials and workmanship, good playing qualities and modest price. The violins produced under the Jay Haide label are superb examples of this type of instrument.

What about second-hand violins? A basic new student outfit for a beginner is not expensive. A second-hand version of this type of instrument may not be the bargain it seems. Unless you are sure that it is in good condition and set up correctly, it may need further expenditure in order to make it playable. Sometimes this could cost more than a new outfit.

cutting a bridge
What is setting up a violin and why is it important? A violin needs pegs, bridge, strings, and soundpost (a small wooden dowel wedged inside the instrument). Unless these are fitted correctly and adjusted, the violin is difficult to play and the sound is poor. Setting up includes shaping the pegs to fit the peg holes of the violin, cutting and shaping the bridge to the right height and curve, positioning and fitting the soundpost, and adjusting the string action.

Many beginners' violins are supplied without much care taken over the set up, and their owners struggle to learn because of this. The cheapest violins do not have ebony or rosewood pegs and are often difficult to tune, particularly when the pegs are worn.

setting a soundpost
Violins bought from a specialist will have been set up properly. Similar instruments bought from discount mail order or Internet sources may not be supplied properly set up. They may be cheaper but the sound will be poor and they will be difficult to play - a false economy. Before buying a violin, make sure that your supplier has the workshop facilities and the skills to set it up.

Are the strings important? Cheaper violins are usually fitted with cheap steel core strings. The tinny metallic sound of these violins is partly due to this. Good quality strings improve the sound of an inexpensive instrument, while poor quality strings spoil the sound of an otherwise good instrument. Good quality strings with a nylon or gut core are essential for producing a good tone, and should be considered as high priority.

checking arm length
What is the right size of violin for my child? It depends on their arm length. Ask them to hold a violin under their chin and try to curl their left hand round the scroll. They should be comfortably able to curl their fingers completely around the scroll. If their arm is bent, they could try a larger size. A growing child will probably need to move on to the next larger size after about 18 months.

measuring a violin back
What do the sizes mean? The sizes give the length of the body of the violin, from where the neck joins the body to the bottom edge by the endpin.

4/4 full size 14"
3/4 13"
1/2 12"
1/4 11"

Should I buy an outfit or an instrument, bow and case separately? Student outfits offer excellent value for money and, provided the violin is well set up, will see a student through their first year or two. These student outfits cost less to buy than the individual items.

When a student is progressing, he or she will want to choose an individual violin, both for its sound and also for its appearance, and to choose a bow to suit their style of playing and their instrument. Students also like to choose a case based on requirements, for example sturdiness or weight, and on style. Many advanced students choose an oblong case.

What sort of bow should I be looking for? Beginners' outfits include a bow and it is worth checking that the bow has a straight stick and when tensioned, an even ribbon of hair. Replacement bows of this type cost £30 or under. The cheaper student bows have brazilwood sticks.

At grade 5 plus, students are often advised by their teachers to look for a better bow. Better quality bows are made from a wood called pernambuco, or from carbon composite, and these bows cost from around £135. At this level I recommend that a player tries out different bows and chooses a bow that suits them. I believe that when upgrading to a better instrument, it is also important to upgrade the bow, in order to get the best sound from the violin. A general rule of thumb is to buy a bow that costs about a quarter of the price of the violin.

We offer a mail-order bow trial service to UK customers who cannot come in to our workshop to try out bows.

What is the right violin for my grade? There is no one right violin for a student playing at a particular grade or standard. It is important to talk to the teacher and get their advice. For those wishing for guidelines, here are Derek Roberts' suggestions for suitable instruments. You could consider investing in a better instrument than my suggestion, but I recommend not choosing a cheaper alternative.

Beginner — Stentor I or Stentor II student outfit

Grade 1 to 2 — Stentor II student outfit

Grade 3 to 4 — Andreas Zeller or Conservatoire outfit

Grade 5 to 6 — Handmade violin, pernambuco bow

Grade 7 to 8 — Jay Haide or antique violin, pernambuco bow

Finally ... If you have any more questions, please contact me and I will be delighted to help you in your choice. Happy playing!