When you’re first starting to play an instrument, it’s important to find a compromise between affordability and good quality. It’s not always smart to buy the cheapest model available, as not only is this likely to produce a poor sound and hamper any incentive to practice or progress, but it’s likely to lose a lot of value on the resale market – it’s worth bearing in mind that student models will be resold at some later date, whether you’re moving onto something better, or to another instrument altogether.
Purchasing a violin is a very personal thing; just as one car model might be ideal for one person and unacceptable for another, the same can be applied to any instrument. In the case of violins, you might find that you prefer a thicker neck over a thinner one (depending on your hand size), or that you prefer a slightly broader body to the violin. In terms of violin brands, you have a choice between factory-made instruments, and handmade models from specialist makers. There are pros and cons to both, and it’s worth assessing when looking at quality where usability ends and snob-value begins.
Violin Brands – Factory
Perhaps the most common of the factory violin brands is the Chinese-produced Stentor. If you’re at school and given an instrument to take home to try, there’s a good chance it’s a Stentor. Although quality control assessments take place before they leave the factory, these instruments are not hand-assembled, and as a consequence, often lacking the individuality that handmade violins provide.
A solid choice for a less expensive student instrument of any kind is Yamaha; the Yamaha name is synonymous with reliability and value for money. Again, individuality is unlikely to be a key factor in deciding to buy a Yamaha violin, but the set-up – especially with good quality strings and a good bow – is likely to be more conducive to continued practice and play.
Perhaps the most intriguing out of the factory-produced violin brands is Hofner, a German maker. Producers of “white” instruments – unvarnished, and with only a fingerboard attached – from student to professional level, they provide an ideal opportunity to ask a maker if they can set up your instrument to suit you, and, for a relatively small amount of money, get your hands on a good-quality, semi-handmade instrument that can take you several years into your playing life.
Violin Brands – Handmade
As a student, where can you look to find an affordable handmade violin? Cecilio violins (after St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music) are one great option. Made with the student violinist in mind, Cecilio violins are tested at the factory, then again when they reach their final destination. Although by no means a “professional” quality instrument, this is the best handmade option at the student level.
At the advanced student level, Jay Haide’s artificially-aged instruments present visual as well as playing quality. With terrific responsiveness, these instruments are available in models first developed by famous makers such as Stradivarius and Guarneri.
There’s also a case to be made for moving away from brands and makers, and looking around for quality secondhand instruments. It could be that your violin teacher has more advanced students looking to upgrade, and whose violin might be more than suitable for your needs, or you may get lucky and find a bargain at an auction or even at a yard sale. Before you get excited about labels that say “Stradivarius”, be aware that this is more likely to refer to the model followed rather than the great maker himself!
Whichever option you select, it’s important that you get professional help when shopping for your violin. However much you might like the look of a violin, it may turn into more of an unplayable piece of firewood when you become more accomplished and realize its limitations. If possible, take your violin teacher with you when you’re looking – and please remember to offer to pay them for their time! – or bring instruments you are trying out to your lessons so that they can make an adequate assessment as to whether they are suitable for you or not.
Aside from the instrument itself, a good quality violin bow and the best strings you can afford are essential in getting the very best out of your instrument. There are few occasions where the workman can blame his tools for a poor job, but a string instrument that is poorly set up is definitely high on the list!
Photo by Patrizia Vinale