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Pay the Piper
The Violin & the Viola
Cost: £90 or less
Best age to start: any age from 6 years upwards
Easy to start? Yes, fairly easy, but initial progress will be slow
Because these two instruments are so similar, we have included them
both on one page.
The mainstay of all orchestral string
sections, the violin has changed very little for the last three
hundred years. It consists of a beautifully shaped box of thin wood,
with an elegant neck and scroll to take the tuning pegs at one end.
Across it are stretched four strings, in the old days made from
cat-gut (actually, it was sheep-gut but they always called it cat-gut) but nowadays usually steel. You hold the instrument under your
chin with the left hand, and use the right hand to pass the bow across
the strings to make the sound. The bow is a stick along which is
stretched a quantity of horse-hair. Only real horse-hair does the job
because it has thousands of tiny scales that grip the string. You have
to rub the horse-hair with rosin (from pine-trees) that makes it
sticky. The instrument is carried in a specially-shaped case which
these days can be incredibly light and offers excellent protection.
The four strings are tuned to G below middle C, D just above middle
C, then A and then E. These notes are known as the "open strings".
You make the notes in between by pressing the string down onto the
fingerboard with the fingers of your left hand, which is called "stopping"
Because violins come in several different sizes from full-size
through 3/4, 1/2, 1/4 to 1/8 and even smaller, it is possible to start
playing at a very young age indeed. The famous "Suzuki Method"
from Japan amazed everyone when it first arrived in the West twenty
years ago by showing that children as young as 3 and 4 years old can
play the violin perfectly well. Since then many violin teachers have
become very skilled at teaching young children, often in quite large
groups, although not all of them follow the pure Suzuki Method which
requires a heavy parental involvement. You should not assume, however,
that because it is possible to start so young, it is necessary to do
so. Many fine players don't start until they are 9, 10 or 11 years
old, and in some cases have by the age of 13 or 14 caught up with
those who have been playing several years longer. There seems to be a
process of "maturation" that determines how good you are
going to be at a given age, however early you start. While starting
the violin with a good teacher is perfectly easy, parents need to be
aware that initial progress is quite slow. Some teachers claim that it
takes twice as long to reach Grade 1 standard on the violin as it does
on most woodwind or brass instruments, which is probably because of
the complexity and subtlety of the technique required. Also, for quite
a long time the sound is not very satisfactory to adult ears. Pupils
don't seem too bothered by this, but parents may have to be very
The great advantage of choosing the violin - apart from the fact
that, well played, it is one of the most beautiful instruments in
existence - is that any orchestra has an insatiable appetite for
violinists. The average youth orchestra, for instance, will probably
have only four flautists but can easily accommodate 35 or 40 violins.
This means that although the violin is not a useful instrument in wind
bands or jazz bands it does offer unparalleled opportunities for group
music-making. Another advantage is that "student" model
violins are very cheap as instruments go. A basic outfit (case,
instrument and bow) for a beginner can cost as little as £55,
which is lucky because as the pupil grows he or she will have to move
from one size to another. It is important to buy the right size, of
course. As a rule of thumb, if you can tuck the body of the instrument
under your chin and then gently cup your left hand around the very tip
of the scroll with the left arm not quite straight and definitely not
stretching, that is the right size of instrument for you. The average
6 year old will probably need a 1/8 or 1/4, moving to a 1/2 at 8 or 9,
a 3/4 at 11 or 12 and a 4/4 at 13 or 14.
If you have the opportunity to borrow a violin of the right size from
your school, your teacher or the local Music Service, do it. There's
no point in buying one if you don't have to, until you are ready for a
full-size instrument. Besides, small size instruments are often
difficult to sell again. Once you do decide to buy, read our section
on upgrading your
A recent development is that coloured violins are now available - the well-known firm Stentor have a range called "Harlequin". They should cost less than £100, and
come in all the common sizes and in blue, black, red, green and either light or dark purple.
If you do not wish to buy and cannot borrow an instrument, there are
some music shops that rent them out. There aren't many of them so they
are hard to find, but this is a good option because they will usually
swap the instrument for the next size when that becomes necessary. One
such firm will rent you a violin for £22 a term - pretty cheap!
Because the violin is an example of primitive technology and has
changed so little over the years, there is quite a lot that can go
wrong with it. Fortunately, for the same reason, repairs are easy and
cheap. Some of the most common faults are ....
the strings break with monotonous regularity. Fortunately they
are very cheap to replace - less than £2 in most cases. Your
music shop or violin teacher will put the new string on for you in a
matter of moments (or you could learn to do it yourself). Strings do
vary a lot in material, quality and price. If in doubt, a good, common
and cheap "student" type of string is made by "Dogal".
the bridge may snap. This is the nicely-carved piece of wood
that holds the strings up above the belly. For acoustic reasons it is
made of a soft, very grainy wood which is strong in one direction and
weak in the others, so this is a common breakage. Once again, very
cheap to replace although you'll probably need a repairer to do it for
you as it has to be fitted to the curvature of the belly.
The finger-board may come off. This is the black strip of wood
under the strings, and is never glued on very firmly - sometimes the
slightest knock will bring it off. A very cheap and quick repair.
The tail-gut (which holds the tail-piece to the bottom of the
instrument and is not usually made of gut at all these days) may
break. This can be very alarming as the tail-piece, all four strings
and the bridge will then fly in different directions! It is not,
however, a serious problem and will be cheap to put right
The stick of the bow may snap. Cheap bows are not strong.
Fortunately they are very cheap! Often when this happens it's not
worth trying to have it repaired as a new bow may only cost £15 -
The horse-hair of the bow will gradually wear out and start to
drop off, so eventually the bow will need re-hairing at a cost of
about £12 - £15. If the bow is of poor quality, you might as
well buy a new one instead - it won't cost much more.
More serious damage to the wood of the violin - knocks or cracks
which may sometimes appear all by themselves - is also easily repaired
by an expert, although occasionally he might advise that the cost of
the repair could be more than the value of a cheap violin. Your violin
teacher should be able to recommend a suitable repairer, because she
has to have her own instrument attended to sometimes ( ... or "he"
and "his", of course ....). Whatever happens, if the violin
breaks, do not try to repair it yourself. Remember, this is primitive
technology with primitive materials. They still use the old-fashioned
glue-pot, for instance, and repairs with modern adhesives can
seriously damage both the sound and the value of the instrument.
The Viola is simply a large violin. A full-size viola will have
slight differences (proportionally a shorter neck and fatter body) but
to the unpractised eye these are negligible. The strings are tuned
like the violin's, but five notes lower. They are also a little
thicker. The great advantage of choosing the viola is that no
orchestra can find enough violists. This means that although the viola
is not a useful instrument in wind bands or jazz bands it does offer
unparalleled opportunities for group music-making and will make you a
very popular person! One drawback is that viola music uses its own
clef, called the "viola clef" or the "alto clef".
Therefore, violinists can't immediately read viola music or vice
versa. However, it doesn't take too long to get used to the
difference, and many people can read both with equal facility. Of
course if you are a beginner and have never read music before, it
won't bother you at all. Although the viola does come in small sizes
like the violin, the most common thing for young viola beginners is to
get a small-size violin and have someone re-string it for you with
viola strings. Purists may turn their noses up at it, but this works
perfectly well and is much cheaper than buying a purpose-built
small-size viola. So far as size goes, use the trick described in the
Among orchestral musicians there is a long tradition of making jokes
about the viola and the people who play it. No-one knows why, but
viola jokes are usually rather rude to the poor musicians who have
chosen to play this fine instrument. Here are some .....
Q: How do you get two viola players to play in tune?
A: Shoot one
Did you hear about the viola player who boasted that he could play
semiquavers? The rest of the orchestra didn't believe him, so he
proved it by playing one
Q: What's the range of a viola?
A: About 35 yards if you throw it hard enough
If you want to see some more of these awful jokes, click here or here.
Nevertheless, our advice is that if you have the opportunity to learn
the viola - perhaps your school violin teacher is trying to put
together a group to start on the viola? - then go for it. Equally, if
you are already a violinist, think about switching. There are never
enough viola players in the world!
A recent and exciting new development in violin and viola technology
is the "hole in the heart" operation. Not yet very
well-known, this idea originated in Finland where there is a strong
tradition of violin folk-music. Normally the sound-post, a little
stick of wood, is inside the violin or viola roughly under one foot of
the bridge, wedged (not glued)between the belly and the back. Its
function is to transfer the vibrations from front to back and make the
whole box "buzz" with sound. The Finnish idea is to drill a
hole in the belly, put the sound-post through it, and attach it firmly
to one foot of the bridge this achieving a much more direct
transference of vibration to the back of the instrument. A recent
article in "The Strad" magazine described the wonderful
effect this has on small-size violas, producing a much richer sound
especially from the lower strings which on a small instrument are
often rather weak. However we have heard a small-size violin
which had been thus modified, and can confirm that the tone and volume
produced by what was actually a cheap and poor-quality instrument was
remarkably good. We suspect that this technique has a great future,
but it will be some time before it gains acceptance among
violin-makers and repairers. You should not attempt to make this
modification yourself - consult a professional luthier.
There is also such a thing as an electric violin. You may have seen
them being used by the soloist Vanessa Mae and the group Bond. You
play these in exactly the same way as an ordinary violin - the fact
that they are electric doesn't make them any easier! They are
expensive and not a practical proposition for a beginner, and they are
really only suitable for certain types of music - you will not be very
welcome if you take one to your local youth orchestra! However, for
jazz, pop and folk music they can be very effective, so if you're a
fairly advanced player and want to try this, have a look at
Strings' excellent website.
Nearly all violin and viola players hold the instrument the same way.
Whether they are naturally right-handed or naturally left-handed, the
bow is held in the right hand and the instrument is fingered with the
left. This is (a) because violin teachers have always taught it this
way, and they don't see why they should change! (b) because bowing and
fingering the violin are skills so radically different to anything we
do in everyday life, it's hard to see what difference it makes which
hand we use to do them, and (c) because in an orchestra violinists sit
in pairs and share a music stand. When they are playing so close
together, it is very awkward if one of them is holding the instrument
the "wrong" way round. Of these three reasons, it is the
third one that is the most compelling. However, it is pefectly
possible to play any string instrument left-handed - it just takes
some minor alterations to the instrument - and some people do. One of
them is Ryan Thomson, and he has a very interesting
website about it. While visiting his site, have a look at the
wide-ranging "articles" page as well.
If you'd like to learn more about the violin and viola, here are some
books that might be interesting - you can buy them online at
discounted prices. For beginners,
Rough Guide to the Violin and Viola and
Fun Factory Violin Book would be suitable, while more advanced
violinists might enjoy
violin explained. You might also enjoy listening to
CD which features a wide range of famous violin music, while
Romantic Viola shows just how beautiful the viola can be in the
right hands. One of the most usable violin tutor books is
in Step, and another good one is
Time Joggers which even comes complete with a CD. This would be
really useful if you were so brave (or foolhardy) as to try to learn
the violin on your own without a teacher. We think this must be really
difficult, but if you must do it, have a look at
Tune a Day for Violin. It's fairly old and may no longer be the
best tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly suitable
for lone students. There's
Tune a Day for Viola as well.
Fairly easy to start, but slowish progress
Easy to find a teacher
Excellent opportunities for group music-making
Prone to damage, but cheap and easy to repair
Easy to transport
Electric violins are something for the more advanced player,
not the beginner