Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the violin or viola? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

Why play an instrument?
What instrument to play
How to buy an instrument
Other costs
Where to get lessons
How much progress will I make?
Doing your practice
Music exams
Upgrading your instrument
Finding opportunities to play
Switching instruments
Double Bass
French Horn
Trumpet & Cornet
Other brass instruments
Your questions answered
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The Violin & the Viola

Family: String
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" the strings.
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 patient!
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 instrument.
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 - £20.
• 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 Violin section.
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, go to "Viola Jokes".
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 Electric 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, The Rough Guide to the Violin and Viola and Instrument Fun Factory Violin Book would be suitable, while more advanced violinists might enjoy The violin explained. You might also enjoy listening to this CD which features a wide range of famous violin music, while The Romantic Viola shows just how beautiful the viola can be in the right hands. One of the most usable violin tutor books is Strings in Step, and another good one is Fiddle 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 A 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 A Tune a Day for Viola as well.
• Cheap instruments
• 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


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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005