How to Choose a Beginner Violin Outfit
Buying your first violin will probably seem a bit overwhelming. Before you have had a chance to really learn about the instrument, what you want from it and what you need, it is necessary to purchase a whole raft of equipment that may be totally unfamiliar. There is also the expense. It’s important not to make a costly mistake that may be detrimental to your progress and enjoyment of learning.
There is a huge range of ‘starter kits’ on the market, both in music and specialist violin shops and online. These present an all-in-one package comprising violin, bow, case, rosin and sometimes extras such as a dust cover. An influx of competitive products imported from China and Eastern Europe make for plenty of affordable options, and this broadening market means that the quality of student violins has risen in recent years. For a beginner, the simplicity of purchasing almost everything you need in one go can remove the first barrier to playing.
A sweet story about the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler explains how his talent was drawn into question because as he became famous he was able to play on the finest instruments. It also shows that a low cost student instrument can produce a quality sound.
One evening, Kreisler was due to perform a concert on a beautiful violin by Guarnerius, one of the foremost violinmakers of all time. He moved the audience to tears and joy with his playing that night, but as the applause died away, he lifted the violin above his head, brought it down and broke it across his knee. The audience gasped. Kreisler looked slowly around the hall and smiled. “Do not worry,” he said. “My Guarnerius is safe in my dressing room. I bought this violin today in a local store for only three dollars.”
Violin outfits are available with different specifications. Often the outfit pricing can represent significant savings over buying each element separately, with the value of the violin making up the majority of the price. The case and bow are more or less ‘thrown in’ to get you started. Some violin shops offer custom outfits, a discount on a case or a bow when you buy an instrument, or the chance to upgrade one or more items for a surcharge.
For aspiring violinists who do not have access to a specialist violin or music shop, the Internet offers plenty of choice. There is wisdom in the idea of starting with an inexpensive violin, developing skills and getting a feel for the instrument, then moving on to something better that matches your preferences and playing style. However, it is also true that, right from the outset, progress can be impeded or even utterly frustrated by poor equipment.
The main advantage of the beginner violin outfit is that almost everything you need arrives in one go. But be aware that not every aspect of the kit may be of the same quality. The main differences in quality and playability at this level are in set-up.
What to look for in a beginner outfit
The equipment should not create barriers to learning. Look for these fundamental things when choosing an outfit:
- Easy to play
- Sounds pleasant under the ear
- An even tone from one string to another
- Correctly fitted pegs - pegs and tuning adjusters should work
- Strings should not be too high or low
- There should be good bow clearance from one string to another without hitting the edges of the instrument
- The bridge feet should fit to avoid it falling over
- The fingerboard should be smoothly planed so all notes sound
- The nut (between the fingerboard and peg box) should be well shaped
- Good quality strings
- The violin should be visually attractive
- The case should be waterproof and offer adequate protection
- The bow should be string – the stick should not warp or twist when the bow is tightened
- The bow screw should turn easily to playing tension and loosen fully to put away
- The bow should draw smoothly down its full length without wobbling
- A good even ribbon of hair
As you move to the higher price range, various aspects of the violin outfit will become more sophisticated. A mid range product will offer a higher quality bridge and tailpiece, with more attention to detail in the set-up. In this mid-range, be careful to select an instrument that offers better sound and playability, an even tone and good projection, not just refinement in looks.
What to expect from a high-end violin outfit
- Professional set-up
- Well-cut, good quality bridge
- Good strings
- More attention to detail in the carving of the neck, scroll, fingerboard
- Better quality wood, such a spruce table and maple back and ribs and ebony fingerboard and pegs
- More time spent on matters affecting tone such as arching and thickness of wood
- More responsive tone
- Strong, open, clean sound
- Hand-carved look and better varnish
- Some individual character
- A sturdier, heavier case
- A better quality bow
Outfits are excellent value, provided the violin is well set up. Many beginner outfits are supplied with minimal attention to the set-up, yet an instrument that is correctly adjusted will play and sound at its best. If you are buying online or remotely, it is worth enquiring if your supplier has workshop facilities and the skill to set up the violin. Professional alterations that will improve sound and playability include:
- Bridge adjustment
- Sound post adjustment or replacement
This work can only be undertaken by a qualified luthier but will make a big difference to the sound of the instrument.
Consider budgeting for a better bow
Often the bow that comes with the kit is serviceable, but sometimes this is not the case. A cheap bow can be of such poor quality that it is not worth the price of a rehair (the process by which worn-out hair is replaced). These bows are poorly balanced and difficult to control, draw a poor sound and warp easily. More expensive outfits will dedicate a larger portion of the cost to the bow.
A good bow can make a real difference in clarity, tone production, articulation and ease of use. A higher-spec outfit will come with a pernambuco or carbon fiber bow rather than the cheaper brazilwood option, but even this may be worth upgrading if it does not suit or do justice to the violin.
Quality strings make a big difference
A cheaper model is likely to be strung with low-cost steel core strings. These have a metallic, thin sound. Look for mid-cost aluminium-wound strings with a nylon or gut core. These will make a big difference to the sound.
Other things to note
It is worth buying new. A second-hand outfit is unlikely to be value for money, unless you are sure of the condition and set-up. It may require expenditure that would surpass the cost of a new outfit to make it playable.
The rosin that comes with the violin outfit is usually adequate, but as you progress it is worth looking at other products. Look for an amber coloured rosin that applies easily to the bow hair. Remember, when the outfit is new, the bow hair is unlikely to have any rosin on, and will take patience to prepare. It can help to score or scratch the shiny surface of the rosin before you first apply.
Most violin outfits do not include a shoulder rest, and those that do, the shoulder rest is often inadequate and poorly designed. So it's a good idea to consider purchasing a shoulder rest separately. Look for a strong rest with adjustable legs, and some flexibility. You need to be able to fit the rest to your violin and shape it to sit comfortably on your shoulder at a height that positions your chin correctly.
The shoulder rest, when used correctly, aids posture and mobility. A poorly fitted shoulder rest can actually impede progress. You can read more about choosing a shoulder rest here, https://www.violinschool.com/do-your-chin-and-shoulder-rest-fit/
- Always discuss your purchase with your teacher. A professional teacher will have experience of different outfits and will be able to help you identify the violin that meets the criteria you need.
- Do your own research. There are hundreds of reviews and articles online, comparing different student models.
- If you have a good violin shop in your area, consider a beginner outfit and arrange to have the set-up improved
- If you are unable to visit a violin shop, consider starting with a better quality outfit. Let your supplier know you would like to make the most of the instrument and enquire about the range of strings and bows, and whether any refinements can be made to the set-up.
If you haven't already watched our video about finding a violin, you can do so here: