The very first step I took on my path to learning to play violin was to make a mistake. I didn’t listen to the warnings I read online, and I bought a cheap violin.
You might be like me. An adult with a full-time job who has taken interest in doing something completely new… or maybe something you’ve wanted to do for a long time… and decided to learn to play violin. But you’re not sure if you can really commit to it.
Will work schedules prevent practice? Will you discover that you’re just not meant to play this instrument? You’ve heard it’s challenging, and the idea of spending hundreds of dollars on a student violin for it to only sit in the corner gathering dust after the first few weeks is not an appealing thing.
What IS appealing? That $40 cheap violin you see on Amazon or Ebay.
“Hey,” you think, “I can handle $40-$60 to try the thing out. And if I don’t like it, then I didn’t lose much.”
Meanwhile, folks who have experience – long-time players, teachers and online violin shops – all are telling you, “No, no no no no… If you want to be successful, you really don’t want to do that.”
What do they know, right? I mean, they’ve been playing for years… or they’re the ones selling the higher quality instruments. Of course they’ll tell you to invest money into a hobby you’re not sure you’re going to see through.
Well, I’m here to say… believe them!
Issues I Had Trying to Learn on a Cheap Violin
I did what I wanted and not what I should have. I heard all the warnings, and yet, I jumped straight into the land of cheap violins anyway. And let me tell you from a newbie experience, it wasn’t a good idea.
Even spending double what I did on a baseline Mendini would have been a better place to start than what I did. I figured whatever issues I had going into things, I probably wouldn’t really even be able to tell since I knew next to nothing about violins. I was wrong.
The very first issue I came across was the cheap violin couldn’t stay in tune for very long. I thought this might just be the new strings settling… but every day I’d have to spend time fighting to get it in tune. I visibly saw the pegs slipping — and learned I had to press inward while turning to get them to stay better. While this helped some, the instrument still couldn’t hold a tune for long. And the E string (which I didn’t want to force too much for fear of breaking) never came close to being in tune, though it looked stretched thin!
A violin that’s not in tune isn’t going to sound good no matter what. Research led me to peg compound, which I did apply when I changed the strings. This helped some, but even then, the pegs will still slip from time to time, and I have to be vigilant to check it’s in tune every time I pick it up.
When my lesson book started me out by playing tunes by pizzicato (plucking strings), I didn’t see the sound problems. I did notice, however, that when I held down notes on the fingerboard, such as on the D string, my fingers would also overlap the A string by accident. I tried twisting my hand in unnatural ways to prevent this from happening. I thought this might just be a normal first-time player mistake. I considered maybe a 4/4 violin was too large — did I need to try a 7/8 instead?
I did all sorts off research on proper violin holding positions, especially for folks of a shorter arm and finger length, like myself. I shrugged it off for the time being. I kept practicing, and eventually got to the point where I was bowing instead of plucking. Here’s where I started to see the real issues.
By this time, I’d replaced a number of things on my cheap violin. I’d switched out the shoulder rest and chin rest, for comfort. I changed the strings and put a new bridge on to try to get better sound. But none of that helped when I started bowing.
It sounded awful.
I had buzzing strings. Squeaking strings. Notes sounded metallic and tinny, even with replacement strings. It didn’t sound like a real violin — more like something trying to recreate a violin sound.
I suddenly realized what they meant when they called these violin shaped objects (VSO). It looked like a violin, and it looked quite attractive, too! But something about it, and about the nature of violins – which require a perfect balance of many elements to sound good – was just not there.
The biggest issue: I didn’t know if it sounded that way because I was just that new at playing, and there was something I needed to correct with myself… or because the instrument was that poor.
I tried to practice bowing, but in the end, I just had to break down and replace my cheap violin with a better quality instrument. When I compared the two, I realized that the action on the cheap violin was way too high — probably a result of a poorly crafted nut or fingerboard. I’m not a luthier, so I can only guess. But I do know to fix an issue like this would take a professional, and probably cost several time the original price of the instrument — in which case, it’s just better to have bought a higher quality instrument to begin with!
Alternatives to Cheap Violins
So what do you do if you’re still back at square one – someone who wants to try the violin but doesn’t want to commit hundreds of dollars into a hobby they might just put down? One great alternative that I’ve heard about is renting to own.
Look around at local violin and music shops and see if they provide violin rentals. I’ve seen some as cheap as $20 a month — this is actually cheaper than that cheap violin, and a great way to test the waters. Not only will you get an instrument of higher student quality, but it will be set up properly. This is so, so important in helping you make the decision of whether learning violin is for you!
It’s such a tricky instrument to begin with, but having a poor quality violin only adds to this frustration. You won’t know if the troubles you’re having are things you need to correct about your playing technique, or because the cheap violin is causing them. That’s no way to learn!
Many of these rentals allow you to apply the cost of the rental towards buying the violin. I think this is an excellent option for someone who just wants to try the violin out, but isn’t sure if it’s something for them.
As for me, I find it hard to shove my cheap violin in a case somewhere and forget about it… and keep dragging it out to see if I can get improved sound from time to time. I can absolutely tell the difference in sound when I play my Bunnel vs. the cheap violin. And for someone with a novice ear like mine, that says a lot!