Planning to Buy a Violin as a Christmas Gift?
I am a contributor on a certain question/answer forum, and I have recently encountered a few questions of this general format:
"I want to buy a violin for my [child/spouse/sibling/friend/other] for Christmas. Is this a good brand? [link]"
I'm not posting a link to an actual question because I don't want to humiliate anyone. There is no shame in not knowing the information you are about to learn by reading this article, nor is there any shame in having already made some of the mistakes described here. It takes someone who already plays the violin - and has done so for years - plus some knowledge of the instrument's construction and history to make a good decision when buying a violin. That means if you do not play the violin, you do not know enough to buy a violin without making a costly mistake. It also is not possible to ensure a violin will be a good fit without the violinist being present at the shop for proper fitting. Therefore, you probably should not surprise someone by putting a violin under the Christmas tree.
Here are some things you need to know before you start looking at violins and some alternative gift ideas for someone who has expressed a desire to learn to play the violin.
Find a Teacher First
The violin is not an instrument you can learn to play without proper instruction. I know, coming from a violin teacher, that sounds like I am trying to sell you something, and in a sense I am. My motives do not change reality. There is not a single professional violinist who has never taken violin lessons. There are very few classical violin professionals without a degree in music. You are much more likely to find a fiddler who claims to have never taken lessons, but they likely attended sessions - which in my book count as lessons - to learn tunes and techniques from other fiddlers in a group setting.
The trouble with trying to learn without lessons is it sets the violinist up with future limitations, and a lack of training can contribute to performance-related injuries. Therefore, someone who attempts to learn the violin without instruction is deciding from the start that they will never progress beyond the scratchy stage (they actually never have to see the scratchy stage in the first place), and they are likely to play with too much tension - which is hard on joints, muscles, and nerves.
Read this article for more information on choosing a violin teacher.
A violin teacher is also the best source of information when it comes to buying a violin. Teachers have unique knowledge of their local markets that you can't find online, and they might also have requirements concerning setup and accessories in their studios. For example, with very few exceptions, children using smaller instruments in my studio need sponges rather than shoulder rests. This is because the shape of the shoulder rest does not change, but the shape of the growing child's shoulder does. A child's shoulder rest that is comfortable today might not be comfortable tomorrow, but sponges are much more forgiving.
You should not buy a violin for someone who does not intend to take lessons. No matter their background or how "gifted" they seem to be, they are very likely to never develop as a violinist - assuming this is anything more than a passing phase. My suggestion in this situation is to either find a more generic gift or agree to pay a certain amount toward violin lessons with the intention of sending payment to the teacher after the lessons are scheduled. Otherwise, you risk giving a gift that is not appreciated, and that could in turn harm your relationship with the recipient.
There No Such Thing As Thrifty With Violins
Violins are expensive. It has to do with the fact that all violins are handmade, primarily from natural materials. If it is not handmade or if the body is composite wood (or any material other than wood), it is not a violin, all appearances and marketing to the contrary. As with all handmade products, you have to pay a premium for the labor involved. The greater the demand for that particular violin maker's work, the greater that premium will be.
The trick is to find that balance between an experienced maker who uses quality materials and a machine that produces violins which are really little more than glorified cardboard boxes. The key prices are 300 USD for new violins made in the United States, Canada, or Western Europe; 200 USD for used violins in those same countries or for new instruments imported from Asia or Eastern Europe, and 100 USD for used imported instruments. If you find a new instrument for less than $100, regardless of where it is made, it is not a bargain but a scam. Selling such an inferior instrument and calling it a violin should be considered fraudulent. You will have to pay three times its value just to get it to stay in tune and replace the useless bow that comes with it, and you will still have a lower-quality instrument than if you had paid three times its value up front.
If you want to buy a violin for your own child, take them to a violin shop, and read this article first. Beginners often rent before they buy, and this is a more affordable option short-term that includes the option to trade the instrument for a larger size as the child grows or give it back if the child wants to quit. Long-term, it is less expensive to buy a quality used instrument that you can sell when your child grows than it is to rent instruments for nearly a decade until your three-year-old is ready for a full-size instrument. Since you cannot predict how fast your child will grow or how long they will be interested in the violin, both renting and buying carry a certain amount of risk.
If you are thinking of buying a violin for anyone other than your own child, offer to contribute to the purchase or rental of an instrument rather than buying the instrument itself.
Under 14 Inches
Over 23 Inches or Fully Grown
Get the Right Fit
It is not possible to properly fit a violin for a child without the child being present. There are devices you can use for measuring a child and sizing charts like the one I use in my studio. However, there are some variations in violin sizing from one maker to the next and proportion differences from one child to the next that result in lots of exceptions to any sizing chart. Your child will not want to practice with a violin that is uncomfortable to play, and telling them to play through pain - which with the violin is always a warning sign that we are doing something wrong - is a very bad idea.
It is also not possible to fit an adult for a violin without them being present. The vast majority of adults are going to need a full size violin and can hurt themselves trying to play a smaller instrument, but there are still a lot of other factors that must be considered. There are several different designs of chin rests, as well as violinists who choose to remove the chin rest. There are several different types of shoulder rests as well as violinists who do not use them. For people who already play the violin or a related instrument, there are personal preferences in tone. All of these decisions are very personal and must be made by the person who will be playing the instrument.
Courtney is part owner of Treble Strings. She teaches lessons both online and in her studio in Smithville, MO. To contact her, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org