I got an email this week from David, an electrical engineering student at Clarkson University, who is developing an illuminated electric violin. I’ve always been a bit of a traditionalist fuddy-duddy when it comes to electric violins, so you can imagine how my old-fashioned eyebrows went up when I saw a violin that actually puts on its own light show while you play it! I’ve never seen anything like this before and am impressed by the truly beautiful sound (and the fact that he plays Ashokan Farewell on the video!), so I thought some of you Hot Violinists out there might wanna check it out.
If I decide to get a violin and mess around with it…
My first thought was to check local pawn shops, but I’m not sure what signs of “quality” or brands to look for – I might end up with something shoddy or discouraging in some other way.
Do you have suggestions regarding where I might get a decent quality violin for not a whole lot of money? (Especially if I later end up wanting to plug it into some electronics.)
Or should I just go dirt-cheap at first, see how it works for me, and then upgrade later?
Money isn’t super-tight at the moment, but I don’t want to spend more than necessary.
– Ben S
The instrument you choose is going to make a huge difference in how much you enjoy your first steps toward playing. A lot of people have come to me saying that they’ve tried violin and just couldn’t get anywhere. They were ready to give up, feeling like there was something wrong with them, when in reality they were working with a violin that was nearly impossible to create a pleasant sound with. Many violins at the entry level price range are literally unplayable even though they may look like a violin. The availability of these online has sadly turned into a widespread phenomenon, and these types of “instruments” have been nicknamed “VSO”s which stands for Violin Shaped Object. Looks like a violin, but it really isn’t!
I don’t say this to be discouraging. Rather, I want to encourage you to take your time and be careful choosing instrument. To aid you in your quest, I’ve put together this Beginner Violin Shopping Guide. Hope it helps!
Resist the urge to “go dirt-cheap at first” — your hunch is right that a cheap violin could easily be discouraging.
That said, you shouldn’t have to break the bank for your first violin. I’ve found that $450 for a violin outfit complete with bow and case is the realistic entry level price for something that is good enough to learn on. Any less than that is highly suspect (unless it’s some kind of great deal from a friend).
I found the best thing I could recommend for a quality beginner violin and put it for sale on my website.
This is a great sounding violin for the price, sold by my favorite violin shop, Terra Nova Violins in San Antonio, TX. Many of my students have ordered these, and love them. I recommend this shop because my friends there will test drive it for you. My first few violins were chosen with a lot of help from my teacher, because it’s just really hard to tell what’s good when you don’t know how to play yet.
If your budget isn’t in the $450 range, your best alternative is renting. It costs $15-$20 per month to rent a violin of comparable quality, and a portion of the rental fee goes toward your future purchase. It’s a fantastic way to give things a try without a huge investment. That said, you still have to make sure the rental violin is a good quality instrument.
Go to a dedicated violin shop, because general music stores that sell guitars and/or high school band instruments tend to have very poor violins to rent. Once again I recommend calling Terra Nova Violins at 210-239-4700. Tell them Jenny sent you! They will get you set up with a great violin for about $20/month and will ship it to you for free. They take excellent care of their customers.
Now that I’ve (hopefully!) convinced you that your first violin should not be the “bargain basement” variety, let’s talk about how to get the most bang for your moderate buck.
How To Know You’re Looking at a VSO
Ah, the dreaded “Violin Shaped Object.” Looks like a violin. Might even smell like a violin. Certainly doesn’t sound like a violin. Here are a few dead giveaways:
Look at the photo below (the VSO is on the right). The feet of the bridge of the VSO are thick and rectangular. Also notice that the curve of the bridge is symmetrical. This is a blank bridge that has not been set up. The chunky rectangular feet do not efficiently transfer the vibration to the top of the violin so it will be easier to squeak and the sound you produce will generally be thin. The even curve will make it hard to play the E string without hitting the A unintentionally, which is very frustrating, and playing on D and G strings will be weird too. Not to mention, if a violin is sold with a bridge that looks like this, there is a good chance the rest of the violin is junk.
In contrast, the bridge on the left has been carved and customized by an experienced luthier. Notice the feet are curved and very thin. These have been masterfully customized by a luthier to fit the specific violin. The curve has been artfully shaped to allow easy string changes, including a steeper slope down toward the E string. There is a good chance that you are looking at a decent instrument if this kind of attention has been given to the bridge set up.
The VSO fingerboard can be made of a soft wood and painted black to imitate ebony. Look under the fingerboard for gaps in the paint. A real violin will be solid black underneath because it is solid ebony.
“Purfling” is a fancy word for the very thin strip of inlaid wood around the edge of the body of the violin. Purfling protects the violin body from temperature changes and is a sign of good craftsmanship. VSOs do not have purfling, but rather might have a thin strip of paint to imitate purfling.
A VSO’s tuning pegs can be made of a softer wood and often are not fitted properly to the instrument. This makes it very easy for them to slip. If your violin, or the one you are looking at, goes constantly out of tune, there’s a good chance it’s a VSO.
Cheap strings sound tinny and harsh. The good quality strings that come with a good violin cost $25-$50 per set and this is part of the value you get when buying something good.
Only thing as frustrating as a VSO is a BSO: “Bow Shaped Object.” Ironically, BSOs often are not bowed enough and will appear somewhat straight. Or it will bow in the wrong direction curving side to side. You can also sometimes notice sloppy connections where the hair meets the bow. It’s amazing, but a bow is just as important as the violin! If you encounter one of these objects I suggest using it for backyard baseball or as a backscratcher, but minimize trying to use it to learn violin!
Location, Location, Location
The store you buy from makes a difference. I haven’t found any online dealers I can recommend wholeheartedly. To be fair, I don’t have extensive experience here. I had a $1500 violin from “reputable online dealer” Shar before I found my trusty local shop, Terra Nova Violins. The one imported by Terra Nova sounded worlds better and cost only $1000. Plus the one from Shar strangely had this tacky finish that never fully dried. After that experience I’ve gone local and never looked back. (The Shar one was good, not a VSO, but just not nearly as good as the less expensive one imported by Terra Nova.) My theory about why quality standards for online violin shops are inconsistent is that they know they can get away with selling the less desirable instruments of the bunch without having repercussions in their local community.
Also avoid music stores that specialize in guitars or school band instruments – their violin selection is likely to be a gorgeous array of VSOs.
Signs of Quality and “Good Brands”
Unfortunately, I don’t have a perfect answer for you here. It’s not like a guitar where you can buy a good brand and know what you’re getting. This is because it’s relatively easy to mass produce a good quality guitar. Not so for violin! You can’t tell what you will get based on brand name alone until you get into the very high price ranges of makers.
It’s easy to give a checklist for spotting a VSO (what not to buy), but the only way I know to get the very best for your money is to use a personal connection. Shop extensively with an experienced violinist or find a dedicated violin shop that you trust. I trust my friends at Terra Nova Violins the most, so I send people there. Another good way to find the best violin shop local to you is to call your nearest symphony and ask where the symphony members go.
Keep me posted,
p.s. If you want to read an in-depth discussion about the pitfalls of less expensive instruments, complete with photos, here’s a very thorough article I’ve found on the topic.
Are you scouting gifts for violinists and fiddlers? To help you with your search, here are some of my favorite things that will inspire and delight the violinists, fiddlers and music lovers on your holiday gift list. I just love the idea of channeling some of the season’s shopping mania to support local musicians, or to help create some new ones!
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #1 – THE HOT FIDDLE
If you know a violinist who is struggling to scrape by with a cheap fiddle and bow, this violin will change their life or at least totally alter the course of their violin learning. Several of my students have upgraded to these from eBay fiddles, and everyone loves them! The sound is pure and clear, it comes with a good bow, and the set-up from my friends at Terra Nova Violins of the bridge and strings is primo.
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #2 – MUSIC STAND
I’ve done my fair share of propping up sheet music against stacks of books or inside a desk drawer. Once I got one of these foldable stands, I thought, oh my gosh… why didn’t I get one of these sooner?? Such a simple tool, but it totally changes the comfort of playing from a sheet of music. Adjusts from sitting to standing. Learning violin can be frustrating at times, so you might as well not have to worry about catching a book as it goes sliding off your desk. The little carrying bag is convenient and the different colors are fun for gift giving. If you’re brainstorming gifts for violinists, this should definitely be on the list!
Guardian Portable Music Stand – Pink
Guardian Portable Music Stand – Blue
Guardian Portable Music Stand – Red
Guardian Portable Music Stand – Yellow
Guardian Portable Music Stand – Purple
Guardian Portable Music Stand – Black
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #3 – TUNER
I’m offering two ideas for tuners, basic or fancy:
Clips onto the scroll so you can tune even with background noise at all the fancy gigs you’ll be booking. It’s fine for getting the strings generally in tune for fiddle music, but not as accurate or versatile as the Korg.
Fancy: Korg Orchestral Tuner
This is a super-advanced tuner with settings for different “temperaments,” or systems of intonation, that are available on violin. If you ever want to use a tuner to test your intonation on scales or double stops, a fancy tuner like this is a must. Relying on your ear is best, but these are still fun and enlightening to play with.
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #4 – BERNADEL ROSIN
My favorite stuff for smooth playing! And it comes in a fancy velvety pouch!
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #5 – STRINGS
Basic: D’Addario Helicore
Clear, bright, and great for fiddle playing styles.
Fancy: Pirastro Evah Pirazzi
Oooh la la, the luxury… I usually reserve these for recording because the price matches how rich they sound.
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #6 – BAGGS BRIDGE
This pickup will turn any acoustic violin into an acoustic/electric with very natural sound. Great for the violinist on your list who wants to start performing soon. Must be installed by a trusted violin luthier.
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #7 – JENNY’S DISCOGRAPHY
Listening to recorded violin music is very beneficial for learning the instrument and progressing in different styles. Plus, I won’t lie! I would love it if you would give my music to violin lovers on your list this Holiday season! The combo pack is a killer deal and it shows the progress along my own path of learning violin as an adult.
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #8 – JOSHUA BELL ALBUM
I had to balance out the offerings of my fiddle discography with some work by a true virtuoso! He got together in his living room to record “At Home With Friends” with other musical bums like Sting, Regina Spektor, Josh Groban and more… It’s really good!!
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #9 – SUZUKI BOOK 1 WITH CD
I studied fiddle for two years before I finally broke down and decided to study the Suzuki method. I credit this method as the foundation for every pretty sound I make no matter what the style. I recommend buying it with the CD because listening is really important.
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #10 – MARK O’CONNOR FIDDLE METHOD
This is a well organized fiddle method using traditional folk music written by the famous fiddler, Mark O’Connor. No relation to me that I know of, but I do love how the books are titled, “The O’Connor Method”.
GIFTS FOR VIOLINISTS IDEA #11 – HOT VIOLINIST LESSON PACKAGES!!
I teach a combo of classical technique and world fiddle styles with an emphasis on training the body to play beautifully with ease. If you purchase one of my lesson packages as a gift, I will email you a printable voucher for wrapping as a scroll or stuffing into a card.
What are your ideas for gifts for violinists and fiddlers? Share them in the comments below!
I want to learn to play some songs that are cool and sound great but are simple enough for a beginner. I don’t like the songs beginner books offer — things like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or worse, songs I’ve never heard of! Can you recommend a good book or specific songs to look for?
– Robert K., age 51
I know exactly what you mean; it is neither fun nor productive to learn songs that you’re unfamiliar with. Because of the fretless nature of violin, you really have to know what you are going for before you can try to play the notes in tune.
I have searched high and low for a replacement to Twinkle as a first violin tune. I planned to proudly stamp my teaching materials with a big circle with an X through it saying “NO Twinkle Taught here!”.
But… as I’ve gone through the options, I can’t find anything that is as beneficial or accessible as a first tune on violin as good ol’ Twinkle.
I’ve looked through beginner fiddle tune books and beginner gypsy violin books, and it’s the worst of both worlds: the tunes are completely obscure so you don’t know how they are supposed to sound AND they still don’t sound very good or fun to play. On top of all that they are also sometimes still too complex for a beginner to tackle without incorporating some bad habits along the way.
Here’s my “beginner story”:
I had no interest in playing classical music, so I studied with an Irish fiddle teacher for the first year and learned about 30 tunes. I didn’t know how they were supposed to sound, and my technique was all over the place. I was just kind of winging it to get the tunes out to the best of my ability, but after a year they all still sounded terrible. That’s when I went on my quest for a classical teacher to help me sort out these techniques. I went through about 3 teachers over the course of that next year but it all still felt very aimless. I remember sitting on my bed thinking, “Is there just something wrong with me? Maybe my arms just aren’t attached right to play violin…”
Then I found a new teacher who started me on the Suzuki method. At that point I was so desperate to play a single thing with good tone that I didn’t care if it was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. After about four months of going through the simple initial steps of the Suzuki method, I was able to go back to some of those Irish fiddle tunes I knew and play them well. After a year and a half of combining Suzuki method with my interest in world fiddle music, I had a few very simple Irish fiddle tunes under my belt that I could play for an audience and people would actually enjoy listening and maybe even dance. At the five year mark I was jamming many styles of world music, but I don’t think I would have gotten there without the Suzuki method.
Part of the process of learning violin is developing muscle memory for particular movements: bowing, left hand intonation, certain string crossing patterns, etc… This muscle memory has to be in place before you can put it all together to play nice tunes. If you try to go the other way around, it just makes the whole process take longer and many people quit before they get there because it feels convoluted and frustrating. It’s different from guitar or piano where you really can learn great sounding tunes right off the bat just by hitting certain keys or using a certain pattern of frets and strings.
I think the Suzuki method is the BEST for training your body to do those basic techniques. Each piece only introduces one or two new techniques while most tunes that actually sound good combine many techniques. Many of the pieces are recognizable melodies, and it comes with a CD so that you can listen to all the pieces and get them in your head. (I know… yawn….) But it works! And it doesn’t take forever. After about 6 months of going through the methodical process of the well designed method, you would be opened up to playing a wide variety of good sounding fiddle tunes.
I’ve dreamed about creating my own beginner method using simplifications of the cool fiddle tunes I know. Once I started looking closely at the tunes to see what techniques they require, and tried to analyze the sequence in the Suzuki method books, it gave me a much deeper appreciation for how genius Suzuki was. Even if it was possible to create a beginner book just as beneficial only with hipper tunes, I’m frankly not sure I’d have the patience! I’m pretty patient generally, but not like him! This method was his life work:
I have just ordered a new book in the hopes of finding something good: Mark O’Connors Beginner Fiddle Method. I will let you know what I think of it.
All that being said, here is a well organized website with a few beginner violin tunes (including audio so you can hear them): http://www.fiddlestudio.com/search/label/Beginning%20Tunes
Be warned, though: the offerings on this site have many of the common problems I talked about above. The first tune is legitimately a beginner level piece and it doesn’t really sound like much more than a bowing exercise. The second piece sounds very nice, but is a HUGE jump in difficulty level.
Good luck and keep me posted!
Last September I was performing at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival and someone asked me, “How do you amplify your violin to get such a natural sound?”
I get that question a lot online, but this time, I had everything set up in position to shoot a quick video showing you exactly what I use. It’s actually quite a simple set-up.
The video explains how everything works together, and you can also follow links to the exact equipment I use along with some alternative options depending on your situation.
It all begins with the pick-up on my violin which is the Baggs Bridge made by LR Baggs:
It’s a transducer style pickup that is embedded in the wood of a high quality violin bridge with a side mounted 1/4 inch jack, also known as a carpenter jack. This all needs to be installed by an experienced violin luthier, because the bridge will replace your old bridge and needs to be custom carved to fit your violin.
The Baggs Bridge has no on-board pre-amp so you’ll need a piece of gear to boost the signal a bit before going to your PA mixing board. I explain two options here:
Option 1 (which I use when playing at outdoor festivals)
A wireless transmitter which boosts the signal and sends it magically through the air to the corresponding receiver:
For some reason on Amazon it is only available with the additional hand held mic. Unless having the mic as another option looks like fun, I recommend getting a better price for just the Audio-Technica 4000 Unipak transmitter and receiver by calling these guys: http://www.northernsound.net/
And this is the unique cable that will plug into your violin and into the unique jack on the Audio-Technica transmitter pack:
Staying with an entirely cabled system. If you don’t really need to hide cables (as in a Renaissance Faire setting), you can save a lot of money and get a slightly better sound this way. When I’m playing indoors on a small stage and don’t plan to run out into the audience and dance on tables while playing, I use a 1/4 inch instrument cable like this:
I like having the “right angle” connector to plug into my violin because it’s less visible and hugs the side of the violin instead of sticking straight out of the violin under my left ear.
Then simply plug the other end into a DI box or preamp. I use this one, also made by Baggs:
Whether you send your signal to a wireless receiver, or plug right into a DI box, you will use an XLR cable to take the signal to the mixing board or amp:
This covers everything to get you from violin to the board. If you’re putting together an entire PA system, and are curious about the rest of the PA gear that I use with my band Circa Paleo, here ya go.
We use this board:
JBL powered front speakers:
And a sub woofer for the drums and bass:
For new players, I hope this helps you to get out there and start performing!
If you already amplify your violin, please let us know your fave gear in the comments below.
I’ve been performing on tour with Circa Paleo for 20 weeks now, and have gotten waaay behind on answering emails and messages. I just got a Facebook message today with a juicy question that made me really miss interacting with all you fiddlers out there- it’s been so long that I’ve been on tour I can’t wait to get back to making videos!
Here’s the question from Michael Cannain that I can totally relate to:
“Hi Jenny. I have a question. What kind of advice do you have for those of us who play, but get nervous in front of crowds? Nervous up to and including shaking..sounds horrible on a violin…just wondering.”
And here’s what I said:
This is a great question!
I used to get nervous and shake as well. I know- it makes it completely impossible to play the dang thing.
There are a few personal tricks and warm ups that I could demonstrate better in a video. I will add this to my list of videos to make in the new year. But for now, I still wanted to share the three most basic helpful tips for managing nerves while playing in front of people:
1) Be Prepared.
It helps if you have practiced the tune a LOT on your own time. Try this confidence building exercise:
Give yourself a challenge to play the piece or sections of the piece 10 times in a row with no mistakes. If you make a mistake, play only that section 10 times in a row. Once you have the section down consistently, then go back to playing the whole piece. Once you’ve achieved the 10 times all the way through with no mistakes, celebrate and take a break.
2) Keep doing it!
Playing in front of people is a separate skill that has to be practiced. It’s sometimes difficult being a capable adult to accept that other people will watch us learn, or in other words… see us while we still suck at something.
Seek out every opportunity to play in front of people even though it’s scary. Start with one or two of your best most prepared tunes. Play for an individual friend, or small groups of family- just anyone you can get to listen. Tell them that playing in front of people makes you nervous, but that you are trying to overcome it. When you are ready you can step it up to playing for strangers. Many hospitals and nursing homes have programs for volunteer musicians, and you will find very appreciative small audiences.
Holding your breath is a common unconscious reaction to playing in front of people, and it makes things infinitely worse. If you can remember to breath, you might find that helps your body stay more relaxed. Thinking about breathing also gives you something to distract you from the fact that there are people watching you. Try practicing at home with designated spots to breathe in rhythm with the tune.
And stay tuned on youtube, because I will be very interested to answer this in more depth when I get back to making videos next year.
If anyone else has a tip for Michael, or experience with getting over nerves, please leave your ideas in the comments section below!
I could totally relate to this question sent in by Rodrigo in Mexico city:
“I’m 32 years old, and I am very busy most of my day. I have a sales franchise and work in a consulting firm here in Mexico and most of my day is spent on my work. However I’m very enthusiastic about learning to play the violin. Could you please give me some advice on how I can learn despite my hectic schedule?
It can feel damned near impossible to find time to practice as a busy adult, and I believe this is one of the top reasons that adults think they can not learn. Some slight adjustments to how we think about practice can go a long way in violin progress!
1) You can progress on the violin with a very SMALL amount of practice each day. As a beginner, focus on frequency rather than duration. In other words, it is much better to practice for five minutes a day, than to have longer less frequent practices. Five minutes a day IS enough to progress through the first stages. Five minutes twice a day is even better. Most of the actual progress and learning happens in between practice sessions when your subconscious mind can chew on what you’ve done.
Try to create a habit of practicing for five minutes just before your lunch break, and again before you end work for the day. By lumping your practice time together with your work day, it may feel less like you are sacrificing precious down time. And you can use the momentum and focus of your work day to assist your violin playing. This can be easier than trying to get focused back on the violin after beginning your evening relaxation.
2) Take lessons via video Skype for 30 minutes once a week. This is a big one. The violin has many technique tricks that are hard to figure out on your own, but very easy if you have someone show you. A good teacher can keep you on track and help to avoid frustration and bad habits. By using the video Skype, you can cut out the time of traveling back and forth to lessons. Having a weekly check point gives your practice sessions focus throughout the week. If you have a great practice week you have someone to show off for at the end of the week, and if you have a busy week and can’t practice at all, you can have a chance to refocus and recommit yourself for the next week.
It is a big motivator to have put some money on the line. By paying for lessons you can make a clear statement to yourself that says, “this is important to me!” I’m amazed once I’ve paid for lessons, I will step up to get what I’ve paid for and put in the practice time. My Skype teacher is Corrin Evans and I highly recommend her: www.rosincloudschool.com.
3) Keep your violin outside of the case. Use a violin stand or shelf to display your violin so that it’s easy to pick it up without having to go through the whole process of unzipping the case. This saves time and keeps the violin on your mind. Try keeping it at the office so you can pick it up to practice before leaving, or put it in a prominent area so that it’s the first thing you see when you get home.
4) Practice your bow hold with all sorts of objects. Learning a comfortable bow hold is the first and most important thing to learn. To practice this you don’t even need to hold the violin or bow. You can learn to have a comfortable and relaxed bow hold by taking 20 seconds to stop work, think about your right hand, and try a simple relaxed bow hold with your pen or pencil.
If you can remember to this a few times each day you will exercise the “bow hold creation passages” in your brain much more effectively than by beating yourself up for 30 minutes straight some evening in an official practice session. When I was first beginning I would think of the bow hold very often and try it on all sorts of objects including my steering wheel when stuck in traffic.
Does anyone else have time saving tips for busy adults? Has anyone tried these? Do they work? Please let me know in the comments section below!
Happy brief and frequent practicing, everyone.
The bow hold can vary and still be “good” just depending on the style, but here is a basic starting point that is good for any style of music. Please let me know if it makes sense or not and send along any questions that come up when you try it. If you don’t have a violin or a bow, you can use a pencil just to see how awesome you are at this.
My heart skipped a beat when I heard that “The Hot Violinist” which features the full length performance of The Kiss and just passed 900,000 views was removed from YouTube. But now it’s back! It was a little sad to see it go (so close to a million!), but I can’t complain because Contragear, the original poster, has been so super supportive of me! Apparently he wanted to clean up the ending of the video so here it is in its new and improved form:
I’m glad it’s back, because without the reference of the original popular YouTube video I appear to be a crazy girl seemingly going around calling myself Hot all the time! Please share this video with your friends if you feel inclined to help me rebuild the groovy momentum that the original video had going for it. Thanks guys!
Attention fiddlers! This will get you started on the ornamentation needed to play this tune:
I will soon be posting the follow up Parts 2-4 as well as some beginner tips, so hop on over to the YouTube channel to subscribe if you don’t wanna miss one. If you still need the sheet music, just use the sign up form in the sidebar to join the mailing list and receive the FREE sheet music.
Soon we will have a worldwide orchestra playing this tune~ Muah-hahaha!
Oh! If you get a chance to try this technique, please leave me a comment and let us all know how it’s going for you.