Fall is upon us once again. The leaves are beginning to change color and drop off the trees. The air is turning crisp and cool. Cloud patterns are changing in the sky. Squirrels and other animals are gathering food for the winter. Property tax is due. This is probably a good time to get the heating system in your house serviced. Tan lines are beginning to fade. Also, it is time for students to back to school.
Are you, or your child, thinking of joining the school orchestra this year? I remember when I was in the fifth grade. It was my last year at Sudley Elementary School in Manassas, VA. I hadn't even thought about taking the leap to join the big kids in middle school. My buddy, Stephen, and I were happy just hiking, riding bikes, and watching Star Trek on TV.
One day the orchestra teacher, Mr. Maletick, came around to our class and introduced himself. He asked who would like to join the orchestra. Without even thinking, Stephen and I both thrust our hands up into the air. We didn't really understand what it meant to be in an orchestra, we just thought it sounded fun.
A group of us followed Mr. Maletick to the music room. He showed us some instruments. I thought about choosing the cello, but Stephen picked it first. I decided to go with the violin. I remember going home and telling my parents that I joined the orchestra and that we had to rent a violin. My dad was against it at first. He thought I would never stick with it. My mom played the violin when she was in school so she was all for it. The next day my mom took me to the local music store and we rented a violin. I fell in love with it right away. After a few weeks I even wrote a little tune that I called "Stars". I loved my violin. I couldn't put it down.
At the end of our fifth grade year, Stephen told me that his family was moving to New Hampshire. We shook hands. We both turned away and walked home. I remember crying when I got home. I continued to play the violin in middle school and on through high school, even though Stephen wasn't around anymore. Orchestra was always my favourite class. During the summer I would still practice every day. My father finally gave in and bought me my first violin. He ordered it out of the Sears catalog. I remember driving to Sears with my dad to pick it up. I drove him crazy talking about it. I think he paid $100 for it back in 1979. I still have it to this day. I also have ten other (better) violins and a mandolin that I have acquired over the years.
So you, or your child, may be thinking of starting the violin this year. You may be looking for information to help you in renting, or even buying a violin. Well, you came to the right place. The Fiddle Examiner is here for you.
OK, so your first question is probably how to go about choosing and renting a violin. If you are a complete newbie, and you don't have a clue what to look for, I suggest going to Violinist.com and reading some of the discussions going on. These are posts by everyday people, like you and me, talking about their experiences in renting, buying, playing, and even repairing and restoring older violins. Here is one thread that deals with renting popular student model violins:
So what's a student violin? A student violin is anything under $1000, and usually has fine tuners on all four strings. (No student will start out playing a million-dollar Stradivarius.) Student instruments are typically factory produced and target young students. The most common student brand violin is Scherl & Roth, now owned by Conn-Selmer. Conn-Selmer is one of, if not, the largest distributors of student orchestra and band instruments. Do a Google search for violin shops in your area. If you can't find a local violin shop, chances are there is a Music & Arts near you. Music & Arts is like the Walmart of musical instruments. It is a national chain that caters to the K-12 market. I review some of the popular violin shops in the DC area later in this article.
In these times, many items are bought and sold over the Internet. Can you buy a violin on the Internet? Sure you can, but this is like buying a pair of shoes over the Internet. You don't know for sure if they will fit you unless you first try them on. Reputable violin shops will advise you not to buy a violins sold exclusively on the Web. I do know people that have acquired good instruments on eBay and Amazon, but these are experienced players who know exactly what to look for. In my opinion, NEVER buy a black, blue, or pink violin! They just won't sound good and they probably won't stay in tune.
Now let's talk about choosing the right violin for you or your child. Violins come in all different sizes, ranging from 1/32 (tiny like a toy) up to 4/4 (full size). Children must be fitted, depending on their size and reach. This is accomplished by having the student hold the violin under his or her chin and attempting to reach the scroll. If he or she is able to reach the scroll with some flexibility in the elbow, then that indicates a comfortable size violin for that student. After sizing hundreds of students, I can usually tell what size they need just by looking at them. For the sake of this article, here is a very general guideline for sizing (based on my experience).
Children 4-8 usually need a ¼ size. Children 8-13 usually use a ½ size. Teens, on up to full-grown adults, are usually ready for a full size. Again, this is a very general guideline. It is best for the student to actually try the instrument before renting or buying. The staff at the violin shop that rents instruments should be trained in sizing a student. Violas are fitted in the same manner, although violas are sized by inches rather than fractions. For example, a 12” viola is about the same size as a 1/2 size violin. A 13” viola is about the same as a 3/4 size violin, and a 14” viola is about the same size as a 4/4 (full size) violin. Curtis Violins, in Maine, has a good sizing chart on its Web site:
I would like to make a few quick notes concerning common questions I've been asked about violins, violas, cellos, and basses. The bridge is never glued to the body of the instrument. It is held up by the tension of the stings. The same goes for the sound post inside the violin. The reason is that bridges and sound posts are fitted to the instrument, and can be adjusted to change the tone of the instrument. Also, if the bridge collapses (while loosening or changing strings), it won't break, whereas if it were glued to the body of the instrument it would be more likely to break. Tuning pegs are also fitted to the instrument. Fine tuners are the tiny metal screws located at the end of the stings (between the bridge and the tail piece). Fine tuners (also called adjusters) allow you to adjust the pitch of the string after getting it close with the tuning pegs. Student violins will have fine tuners on all four stings, while professional violins typically only have a fine tuner on the E string (being the thinnest string and also the easiest to break). Also, don't panic if a couple of bow hairs break. This is common.
I hope I have answered most of your questions about choosing a violin for school or for personal use. Now, here is my list of where to get a decent violin in the DC area. Most shops rent violins at around $15-$25 per month. This usually includes a violin, bow, rosin, and a case. Together it is called an "outfit". A shoulder rest can be bought separately. Many shops also offer rental insurance for an extra $4-$10 per month. This will cover any damages that may occur during the school year such as dropping or sitting on the instrument. Students also tend to toss instruments around and bang them on walls. The most common thing I have seen is when the case is not properly closed. When someone grabs the handle and attempts to pick up the case, it pops open. The violin falls out and hits the floor. The only thing that insurance won't cover is strings, because strings are considered a "wear-and-tear" item like tires on a car.
OK, here is the list:
Brobst Violin Shop in Alexandria, VA. This shop rents all orchestra instruments (violin, viola, cello, bass, and even harp). They also sell and repair very expensive professional violins.
Potter Violins in Bethesda, MD. Like Brobst, Potter also rents and sells expensive orchestra instruments.
Foxes Music in Falls Church, VA. All of the Northern Virginia schools know Foxes and rent from them. Foxes carries a wide variety of instruments including guitars, ukuleles, autoharps, and some higher quality violins that are not for rent. Foxes also rents band instruments (flutes, trumpets, snare drums, etc.) This place gets crazy busy during the month of September, especially on weekends. Expect to wait in line.
Music and Arts. Music & Arts is a national chain that sells and rents both orchestra and band instruments. Prices, and quality of service, vary by location. You can even order an instrument online and have it shipped to your door. (Remember my analogy about buying shoes online.)