(1) Issues regarding purchase of starter instruments. Ten years ago, when this FAQ was originally conceived, my recommendation was to rent a violin at first, in order to determine if the child would remain interested. However, based on experiences with my own private students and given the favorable economic climate between the US and China regarding Chinese instruments, many of which are fine instruments and quite good quality at exceedingly reasonable prices, my views have changed. Currently, one can purchase a beautifully setup starter for $247.00 (viola, cello and bass are consecutively higher, since they're larger instruments), it is more economically sound to just purchase such an instrument. [Please see our
Peccard Violin Outfit] If you work with a teacher the instrument can be sold when the child outgrows it, or traded in for a better and larger instrument. I think, now, that this is the way to go. It's simply that if you can purchase an instrument outright for the price of a few months rental, it's more sensible to purchase it.
The contributing factor in the change of my views is the quality of these instruments. Certainly there are still shoddy instruments, but there seem to be a lot of very nice instruments coming from China nowadays, which are beautiful to look at, play well, have no problems, come with a very attractive case and bow (also with no problems) and at reasonable prices. The bows come furnished with real horsehair; this once-dear stuff has now become so reasonably priced that one can hardly find synthetic hair any more.
NOTE: The advanced player, who is no doubt under the tutelage of an experienced teacher, doesn't need my help—aside from perhaps the admonition to play a lot of instruments in combination with bows, and find what pleases you the best, paying less attention to the price and more to the sound. Fine instruments are a major investment and many professional players spend decades paying off the instrument, acquiring it through a loan from a local musicians union or bank. Many players enjoy instruments given to them as gifts because of their exceptional abilities, but most players buy them or borrow them. As orchestras are ranked, in the top tiers the string professionals require instruments starting in the $30-$60K range.
(2) Requests to appraise an instrument. This must be done by a reputable shop. I get
frequent requests about specific instruments, but that is not my area of expertise, and it cannot be done, people, over the internet without a direct examination from a reputable expert, which most violinists are not. Labels can be—and often are—faked!!
People often write me about instruments with Stradivarius labels, violins which have turned up in an attic, closet, cupboard, or garage sale. The "Stradivarius" label often has a tiny copie de above the word Stradivarius, which means a copy of a Stradivarius, or an instrument built on that model. If repaired, these instruments may be good student instruments, but unfortunately, they're seldom or never valuable. What must be done in every case is to locate a professional repair person who can do an adequate appraisal.
The phrase "Antonio Stradivarius German-made copy" (as characterized by one student) is really not accurate and is misleading. The instrument is not by Stradivarius, but is a copy, designed on the Strad model, of which there are zillions by all kinds of makers.
Stradivarius was a late 17th century maker from Northern Italy. So there is actually no specific instrument brand, "Antonio Stradivarius German-made copy." What she has, instead, is probably a factory made instrument (though it could be bench made), probably from around the turn of the century (the 20th century!), circa 1890 - 1930 or so, which is made by some German factory or luthier.
This is a very, very common misapprehension. I was visiting with a friend of mine who owns a pawn shop and also collects instruments, when a customer came in the shop, plopped down an old violin case, and swore he had a Strad. Of course he didn't; he had one of these copies. There's nothing wrong with luthiers making copies of Strad (or Guarneri or other makers); but the copies are not the original instruments, which are worth millions of dollars.
(3) Are the violin and the fiddle the same instrument? Well, yes and no, it depends. What it depends on is who's playing it, and in what cultural context you're speaking. Growing up in the midwest, I felt uncomfortable using the term fiddle, because what that meant, then, was country and western fiddle, and I wanted no part of that. However, you hear violinists of the highest calibre, like Stern and Perlman, for example, referring to the violin as a fiddle...but their cultural context is Eastern European, which included gypsy-like so-called "fiddle" music, which is not the same at all as the American genre. The instrument itself may be the same, though folk players of violin (and other players who are playing something besides art music) may take more liberties with respect to the way the instrument is held, its fittings, and so on. Aside from some small details, however, the instrument is pretty much the same; there is no separate genre, fiddle, which is not also a violin. I get asked this a lot.
(4) What's the difference between the violin and the viola?
Violins come in "fractional sizes" (4/4, 3/4, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, even a tiny 1/32). The 4/4 is full size, suitable for nearly all adults. The 7/8 size is rather rare, and only available in the more expensive instruments. It is frequently used by adults who are very petite. Please see: K500 Student Outfit available in 7/8.)
Violas: While violins come in fractional sizes, violas are measured in inches (17", 16 1/2", 16", 15", 14", 13", 12"). For students changing from violin to viola, or adding viola after studying violin, the 14" viola is approximately the same size as a full size violin. Many violists start on violin. [Please see our Peccard Viola Outfit]
The 16" is the usual adult size. Any size above the 16" may be difficult to handle for young people and is probably not recommended. Viola length is measured in centimeters in Europe (41cm, 41.5cm and 42cm), and there is no exact standard with respect to size. Many professional violists play a 17" viola; Michael Tree (of the
Guarneri Quartet), Bruno Giuranna, Gerard Coussè. [See discussion on Maestronet]
The viola is a fifth lower in pitch than the violin; the lowest string on the viola is the C string. The viola's second string, the G, is the violin's lowest string. Violas have no E string, the top string on violin. The A=440 (the violin's second string), is the top string on viola. The viola is primarily written in the alto clef (though high registers may be written in treble, like the violin). See:
Note that the viola is "not just a big violin." Violists will have you assassinated if you even think that. Playing the viola requires a very different touch, different fingerings, different position work, different vibrato, and an entirely different mindset with respect to its role in the orchestral and chamber music repertoire. Violists are very sensitive about this.
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There are a number of ways of determining the correct size of violin or viola for the player:
Stretch the left arm under the instrument, and have the player wrap their fingers around the scroll. If the elbow is slightly bent but not too bent or too straight, it fits.
Stretch the left arm straight out under the instrument, and under the scroll, and if the instrument's scroll ends flush with the pulse, it is just right.
Most shops which sell instruments, and many violin teachers, have the Vio-meter (pictured, below). You can go into the shop and have them measure the player, or if you need to do this frequently, you can purchase a Vio-meter ($20 plus $5.00 shipping). Please contact us if you would like to purchase this item.
(6) What is the best way to protect the violin from extremes of temperature and humidity?
There is a lot of disagreement about whether the two items used to manage this problem are necessary: hygrometers measure humidity levels; humidifiers correct dryness. Hygrometers in cases are either digital or analog (dial), and are not always accurate; in some cases the hygrometer has to be recalibrated regularly.
Sometimes there is a plastic vial (a humistat) which contains water and supplies humidity for the case. It clips in place somewhere down around the pegbox/scroll portion of the case and can be adjusted to allow more or less water vapor to escape. If there is not one of these vials accompanying the hygrometer itself, you can purchase a humidifier to put in the f holes of the violin. Both Strettos and Dampits seem to work well, although Dampits are more of a hassle since you have to resoak them frequently. Many musicians keep a humidifier in the music studio (aim for a steady 50-60% humidity), which protects stringed instruments and pianos.
Certainly there are players who question the usefulness of these products and wonder whether any kind of humidification is a good idea for string instruments, in terms of avoiding cracks. Humidifying an instrument in its case may be unnecessary except in extremely dry environments. It's conceivable that too much humidity could cause problems with insects and otherwise damage the wood. The constant changing of the moisture content of the wood can't be good for the instrument; if the maker has selected well seasoned wood, the best thing to do is let the instrument adjust to the prevailing humidity or lack thereof.
For example: like Italy, Los Angeles is classed as a Mediterranean clime by geologists. Violins sound better in L.A. then they do in the humidity of NYC, but players often don't have any problems- or use humidifiers. Dryness may be good for fiddles - avoiding extremes, of course.
Violin bridges have a flat side and a rounded ("belly") side. [See closeup photograph, below.] The
"belly" side needs to face the scroll. Loosen the strings and set the feet of the bridge between the nicks
in the F holes, with, as mentioned, the rounded side of the bridge facing the scroll and fingerboard.
Make sure the bridge is straight up and down, at right angles to the top of the instrument, and not tilted
in either direction. Please contact customer service if you experience any difficulties. We will be happy
to help you. See: Bridge Setup and Maintenance of Violins/Violas (printable pdf file)]
"Belly" side should face toward the scroll.
(8) Rosin: Most new student violin outfits are provided with a cake of rosin. Take this out of the case and scratch the top of the rosin in a cross-hatch pattern. Just for the first time, not after. Hold the rosin steady in one hand and draw the bow hair over the rosin; a good deal on either end, and then back and forth. Shake off the excess and then take a clean, dry rag and dust off the bow stick and frog. Keep a clean, dry rag in your case and dust off the violin after playing every time.
Rosin is needed to "catch" the strings; a new violin will not play without rosin on the bow. Normally, a bow should be rehaired once a year, or every six months if you play a lot, depending on the quality of the original hair. I've seen the costs of rehairing a bow anywhere from $25 to $45, or more, depending on what part of the country you live in.
Sometimes new players confuse "hair" with "strings." Strings are the E-A-D-G on the violin, which one tunes (or A-D-G-C on the viola - the viola is a fifth lower than the violin); "hair" is bow hair. [See: Tuning Instructions, below.]
Note that in order to prevent the bow stick from being warped, it is very important to remember to loosen the hair (with the end adjuster) before you put the instrument away, and then tighten the bow hair again when you play. Hair should be about a fingertip width between the stick and the hair.
Several of the most popular brands of rosin are as follows:
(9) Strings: Many students start their study of the violin with a so-called "student" outfit. To improve the sound of this instrumnent, a better set of strings (Dominants, for example, versus the metal strings usually shipped on the cheaper instruments), and some better rosin (such as Hill), is recommended.
Strings are usually available in Weich, Medium and Stark: Yielding, Medium, and Strong (respectively, lower, medium, and high tension). I always order the "Medium."
How often you change your strings depends on how much you play. Students should probably try to change their strings every year; professionals who play a great deal, every six months, or sooner. Always change a string if it begins to sound dull or begins to unravel.
Regarding ball-end and loop-end strings:
Ball-end strings can work either with a tailpiece slot or with a tuner. Which is appropriate depends on the material of the string. Synthetic core strings are meant to be used without a fine-tuner, most metal-core strings meant to be used with one.
Loop-end E-strings work only with a tuner designed for loop-end E strings. Ball-end E-strings work either with a tuner designed for ball-end strings or (usually? always?) with a loop-end tuner if you take the ball out.
Gut core strings generally end in a knot and loop of gut, but this is not designed to be used with a fine tuner.
I think it may be accurate to say that the Dominants are the most purchased strings, followed perhaps by the Evah Pirazzi;
players frequently choose a different E-string from the one that comes in a set with the other strings they use. In the viola world, for the past several years, it seems to be Dominants, followed by Obligatos. I use the Pirazzi's on both my violins and violas; they sound rich and warm to me. I don't use a different E string on the violins.
The steel strings are frequently fitted on the so-called "student" instruments, and also by "fiddle" players. However,
most Celtic fiddlers prefer synthetic core strings. Steel core is an "old-time" fiddle thing -- they like the brightness. It may even be more an Appalachian old-time than a New England
old-time (contra) thing.
Some kinds of steel-core strings (with a steel rope or similar core rather than a plain steel wire as core) are intended for classical playing and do not have the extremely bright "steel" sound (e.g., Helicore). They are more popular on viola and (especially) on cello than on violin. They are also suitable for electric instruments with magnetic pickups (as are the
plain-steel core strings, depending on what sound is required). The better sounding strings are wound aluminum over perlon, a synthetic which replaces the old gut strings used in baroque instruments.
For Baroque instruments, affordable gut strings are available in the Pirastro Chordas (see: Baroque Violin Strings) or for high end instruments, may be purchased, hand made, by Damian Dlugolecki.
Note: A matched set of string fittings includes the pegs, chinrest, tailpiece and end button. The only items you might replace yourself are the chinrest and tailpiece; replacing of the end button and pegs requires the services of a luthier to fit them properly.
(12) My pegs are not working right; how do I fix them
Sometimes pegs may not be shaped correctly. The optimum thing to do is have them shaped by a luthier, but that may be too costly for that particular instrument:
Pegs are not sticking: Gently try to press them inward toward the peg box but never force a peg. In emergencies you can use a small amount of blackboard chalk, but it's better to use peg drops;
Pegs are too sticky, and won't move: In emergencies you can use pencil lead as a lubricant, but it's better to use peg compound.
(13) My chinrest came off; how can I fix it?
The chinrest can be tightened, using the following little tool. You can also use a bobby pin (hair pin) if you don't have anything else. Make sure that the cork between the metal of the chinrest and the wood of the violin, is in place, so you don't damage the instrument. As always, it's best to have a luthier do this, if you can. See: What on earth is a "Violin Hickey"?
(14) My tailpiece came off; how can I fix it?
You can, if you need to, replace the tailpiece yourself if the leather bit at the end is broken. There is a great deal of pressure at that spot, so you will need to replace the tailpiece or take it to a luthier and have them do it. Below are some examples of tailpieces you can purchase online.
Never use any household products on an instrument; only use those products especially designed for violins. Rubbing alcohol and four-in-one oil are the only two exceptions I can think of; rubbing alcohol for the strings, and a tiny dab of oil on the bow screw if it's fussy. No Elmer's Glue, furniture polish, chemicals of any kind, varnish remover, etc.
Use a small amount of polish/cleaner and gently buff with a dry cloth until dry.
Let the instrument sit out for a while (out of its case), so it can air dry.
If you are going to use polish, don't polish over twice a year; in between times, just dust the instrument off with a clean, dry cloth after playing. Too much polish can lead to build-up and attracts dirt.
If you're not clear whether your violin has a French polish, test a tiny spot before using any product. Discontinue immediately if the area becomes sticky.
Don't let rosin, skin oils or dirt build up on the strings or the wood; the best way to keep the instrument clean is to wipe it off with a dry cloth after every playing session.
In the process of cleaning/polishing the instrument, if you see any cracks, take it to a luthier and have them repaired. Don't polish the instrument until this is done; polish in the cracks will interfere with the repair.
In the process of cleaning/polishing, make sure not to move the bridge or damage the f holes; take care that you don't snag your cleaning cloth on the intricate carving of the bridge.
If the instrument has a really thick build-up of rosin and dirt, you should take it to a luthier and have it cleaned.
Carefully shake the polish before using, and use a small amount, about the size of a small coin.
Fiddlebrite: A luthier told me that it's really not a polish, but a cleaner. And it may be used to clean the stick of the bow (don't get it on the hair), the violin wood, and the strings. It is appropriate for all so-called "student instruments," but you should not use it on expensive instruments with French varnish (which young beginners should not have anyway, in my opinion.) For very expensive instruments, you should use regular cleaner and polish, or better still, just dust the instrument and have it professionally cleaned periodically.
Cautionary note: Don't confuse Fiddlebrite with the regular cleaner and polish products. Fiddlebrite may be used to clean not only the wood, but the strings. Other products are designed only for the wood of the instrument (not the fingerboard, either, but the wood of the body of the instrument) and must not be used on violin strings.
An alternative way to clean violin strings, is to take a couple of clean, dry cloths, folded several thicknesses; place one, several thicknesses, on the violin wood directly under the "playing area" (the area between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge), and place another cloth, at least double thickness, on the fingerboard, between the fingerboard and the strings. Then take another clean, dry cloth and put just a tiny dab of rubbing alcohol on the tip of a corner of the cloth, and clean your strings with that. You must not get any of the alcohol on the wood of the violin, or on the fingerboard. Make sure that the cloths you use don't have soap or chemical residue on them. Using alcohol to clean the strings must be done very carefully, as any drop of alcohol on the wood may damage the wood permanently. I prefer using the Fiddlebrite. An additional alternative way to clean the strings is to use the cork from a wine bottle. I've never done this, but it's often mentioned.
The common way of removing dust bunnies from inside the violin is to put 1/2 cup of DRY uncooked rice in the f holes, and then turn the instrument upsidedown, and shake out the rice.
Other issues: when you take the violin out, check the strings to make sure they're not unraveling, make sure the bridge is sitting up straight, make sure the chinrest is not loose, make sure the fine tuners are not rattling. Don't forget to loosen the bow and remove the shoulder rest when you put the instrument away.
A violin/viola hickey is a dark, usually roundish abrasion on the neck, caused by extensive playing or practicing, perhaps from skin sensitivity to metals in the screws (chrome, nickel) and the chin rest itself (chemical dyes). Metal parts made of titanium alloy are more expensive (but lighter); some producers have started making the screws out of surgical stainless steel. A violin/viola hickey can be serious if it becomes infected.
To address this concern, some players use the Wittner hypoallergenic chinrest and a Strad pad. It is recommended that the neck and chin rest be kept very clean, perhaps with witch hazel. And experiment with different chin rests and shoulder pads, to find the most comfortable setup. See:
A buzzing sound could be caused by any or some of the following:
loose fine tuner (loose metal doughnut)
lowest point of fine tuner pivot, barely touching top plate
string slot on the nut too deep, causing open string(s) to buzz against the fingerboard
seam that has come unglued
crack in the instrument somewhere
chin rest rubbing against the tailpiece or saddle
loose chin rest hardware
a high spot on the fingerboard
top and/or bottom block poorly glued
dirt in the f holes
loose sound post
loose collar or pin on decorated pegs
gap between bassbar and plate (one has opened up due improper or "sprung" fitting)
the bridge protectors are floating on the strings in the afterlength area
problem with endpin cork, ring, tip or screw
a label on the inside of the instrument can come loose, and buzz at a certain frequency
dead string falling apart; loose winding
loose string end in the pegbox
shoulder rest buzzing back of fiddle
loose sliding mute
loose wolf eliminator
buzz caused by an object in the room buzzing in sympathy with a certain note; sometimes can be mistaken for a buzz in the instrument
buzz caused by player's personal effects, jewelry or a button, etc.
check the bow; a screw loose on the threaded post can buzz
Aside from making sure it's not a problem with a fine tuner (#1-2), or some problem extraneous to the instrument, (#21-28), you should take it to a luthier and have them examine the instrument, as only a luthier can do the repairs.
(18) Why do some violins, particularly smaller, "fractional" instruments, have four fine tuners, when the adult and higher priced instruments only have a fine tuner on the E string?New!
The reason fractional instruments have the fine tuners on all the strings has to do with the smallness of the instrument. The adjustments on the smaller instruments are proportionately smaller, in other words. The built-in tuners found in Wittner tailpieces (see, right) and other brands are an improvement on the old "Suzuki" fine tuners and older designs that have the post that is apt to grind into the top plate of the instrument.
However, lower priced full size instruments also have fine tuners on all the strings. This may be in part because of the notable difference in skill levels between beginning students and more advanced students; beginners aren't at least initially able to tune using the open strings and by wrapping the left hand around the scroll. Beginners are frequently not yet able to tune by playing double stops, listening to the open fifths of the strings. It's easier for beginning students to tune with the fine tuners. I try to eventually teach students to get the A and then tune by listening to the open fifths. This fine tunes the ear and sounds much better and works better under performance conditions.
More experienced players also make fine adjustments on the three lower strings by pressing the string within the peg box, just after the string crosses the nut into the peg box--which stretches the string and brings up the pitch slightly. Alternatively, you can lower the pitch of a string by grasping the string on the fingerboard and pulling slightly. Neither of these methods really work on the E string.
Additionally, all that hardware on the tailpiece may dampen the sound on a better instrument. Non-wooden tailpieces also fail to transfer vibration as well as the wooden tailpieces.
Other issues include:
The movement of the bridge: With fine tuners the bridge may tilt backwards, whereas with tuning using the pegs, the bridge may lean toward the scroll. In either case, the bridge must be examined periodically to make sure it is at right angles to the top.
"Fiddle" versus "classical" practice: Fiddle players tend to use metal strings which do better with all four fine tuners.
String length: Use of the fine tuners cause all the strings to have the same length.
Perfection pegs: I had a student come to me with a violin with those perfection pegs, on an instrument in the 5K range; I had never seen them before. The violin tuned extremely easily but it felt weird. I'm hesitant to recommend something which is not consistent with normal or usual practice in the context of orchestral or chamber music practice. But it may just be that I'm hopelessly old fashioned.
(19) How do you change a violin or viola string, or restring a violin or viola?
If you're going to replace all the strings, I would not take them all off at
once, but replace them one at a time, the outside strings first, then the
inside. By doing them one at a time you can retain the placement of the
bridge and also better avoid having the soundpost fall. It's also crucial that
you put the strings in exactly the correct/same peg, and not change that. If
the pegs are lower left, upper left, upper right, lower right, the violin strings
need to be: G, D, A and E. Viola strings: C, G, D and A.
Carefully examine the strings and the way they are attached to your
tailpiece and to the pegs in the peg box.
Remove the string.
Attach the new string to the tailpiece, either to the fine tuner or looping through the hole in the tailpiece, depending on the way it was before, if you're not changing the setup; the top string (E
on violin) will normally always have a fine tuner; the other strings may or may not use a fine
tuner. If you have a Wittner style tailpiece, all four fine tuners will be built in.
If you're changing the E (E on violin, A on viola), make sure the "doughnut"--the little either sleeve or black, doughnut shaped rubber ring--is going to be in place under the string when it crosses the bridge.
Pull the string towards the pegbox, and insert the tip of the string into the hole of the
Turn the string in the direction away from you, if the violin or viola is facing you. As you turn
the peg away from you, be sure that you wind the string against the side of the peg box. Never force a
peg; always turn it down (towards you) first, and then back up. Again, make double sure that the
strings are attached to the correct peg; otherwise they may cross each other and cause a problem, and
the balance will be off.
Tighten it a bit but not too tight, get the pitch from a tuner or another violin, and tighten the
string slightly higher than the prescribed pitch (so it can stretch).
Repeat this process on other strings you wish to change.
While doing this, you might also want to examine the nut to see that it's not too deep, or so
rough that it may break the string, especially on the top string. If it needs smoothing, you may
need to take it to a luthier to do that.
When you're through changing the strings I would tune the one(s) changed up slightly, and
leave the instrument out (or with the case open, if you can), so the new string(s) can adjust
more quickly. Before you play, you will of course tune carefully.