I spend a little time online. A lot, a little. Much of it is spent interacting with others who share similar interests as me (i.e. Wattpad forums, writing chats, music chats, etc). Sometimes, the people on the writing side of things find out I play the violin/piano. And 99% of the time, at least one person will say “I wish I could play the violin.” I’ll ask them about it, try to probe a little bit into why they haven’t picked up something they say they want, and inevitably, the topic will turn to money. They don’t have the money to buy an instrument, or pay for lessons, or this that or the other thing.
It’s heartbreaking to hear, really. Music is a wonderful gift that should be accessible to anyone who wants it, but in reality is available to far too few. So, I thought I’d post an entry on how to pick up an instrument on the cheap. I don’t know how many will find this useful, but I hope at least one person who reads this will.
This post will focus specifically on violins, since this seems to be the instrument that I’ve noticed is “most wished” for. It doesn’t have to be an incredibly expensive endeavor. Truthfully, your first instrument shouldn’t cost you thousands of dollars. Save that for when you’ve actually developed some skills. If you’re able to buy on Amazon, there are some cheap options that you can have shipped right to your door. Admittedly, they may not sound great, but the point of the learner instrument is to work on technique and build up your skills. Learning how to set up an instrument properly (using tutorials like this or this) can do wonders for sound as well. A $2000 instrument in the hands of a beginner isn’t going to sound great anyway, so you might as well save yourself the cash. It’s the same way most people’s first cars at age 16 is going to be four wheels and an engine, not a Ferrari Enzo.
A quick search on Amazon showed me that this Mendini MV300 is their best seller for $59. It does seem to come with most things a beginner will need—shoulder rest, bow, rosin, fine tuners, and a spare set of strings. The accessories makes it a particularly attractive package to me, just because buying all these things separately can really rack up the price. A shoulder rest by itself can cost between $10-50! There are also several other models of Mendini violins (MV400, MV500) which are progressively more expensive. For the budget learner, the MV300 may be the balance between quality and price. You can hear how it sounds here or here. Proof positive that you don’t need $1500 bucks to sound good 🙂
There are a few things to note when buying an acoustic instrument. The cake of rosin will have a bit of a shiny glaze on it, to act as a sort of “sealant” so you don’t open the case to a plume of rosin powder. It’s simple enough to “get it started” with an emery board. You’ll need to put rosin on your bow, otherwise your bow will just glide across the strings with no grip. The rosin acts as tread for your bow. It’ll take more than one swipe across the rosin cake, too, so take a few minutes just rosining the bow.
Your strings will go out of tune. This is normal. Why? Because they ship out to you with new strings, and they need to be “played in”. Your pegs will slip as well. All normal. It takes time and patience to get an instrument going, to play it in. It may not be 100% out-of-the-box, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its defective. Breaking in an instrument is a process that takes a bit of time and patience.
Next up is the Cecilio, for $129. It is twice the price of the Mendini, and may be somewhat better quality. For the extra money, you also get two bows (instead of one), a lesson book, an extra bridge, and a tuner. Truth be told, I’m not sure if this one is necessarily worth the money for the extra stuff. It may be, if you need two bows for whatever reason, you’d prefer an actual book to finding your own sheet music and lessons, or if you don’t have a smartphone with a tuner app. You can hear what it sounds like here.
Or, if you’d like a side by side comparison of the Mendini MV300 and Cecilio CVN300, you can hear them both in this video here!
To be fair, these cheaper instruments might not come with the best strings (there’s a reason the price is so low). However, if you find you really can’t stand the sound of your strings, it may be cheaper to buy a set of strings and restring your instrument yourself. D’Addario offers a decent, affordable string set, and you can watch how to restring your violin here.
Something that you’ve probably already noticed about the violin—it has no frets. The traditional ones don’t, at any rate (though there are a few models of crazy electric violins out there that do have frets, like this one and this one). But your learner violin isn’t going to come with those, so how do you learn where your fingers go? A lot of beginners will use finger guides or fret tape on their violins to help with finger placement. Both are around the same price. I had fret tape on my violin when I was a beginner, but if you don’t want any markings or residue from the tape, perhaps the finger guide is the way to go. It seems like it adheres to itself and you just wrap it around the violin neck, which means no painstaking tape placement.
I’ve been blessed (and utterly and completely spoiled) with Wittner fine-tune pegs, which are pegs that rely on little internal gears to hold them in place, rather than the traditional friction peg. However, they are pricey, and if this is not an option for you, the friction pegs that come with your learner violin should work. However, if you find that your friction pegs are slipping or difficult to turn, you may find peg drops helpful, and a much cheaper alternative to buying Wittner pegs.
Fortunately, all these upgrades can be done whenever you want, so stuff like better rosin/strings/peg drops/shoulder rests can all be accumulated gradually. If, for whatever reason, you decide you want to replace the bridge or sound post, it can be done, but I would recommend going to a professional to have those placed on your instrument.
If you’re unable to buy from Amazon for whatever reason, Ebay has some similar options. As Ebay is ever-changing though, I haven’t included links here. You can also check around your area for local second-hand music shops. It may take a while before they get any violins in stock, but talk to the people running the shop—they may know some other place you can look that you’ve not heard of. Depending on the quality and brand, second hand violins can be a much cheaper investment.
Lastly, you can look around at loaner instruments. If you’re in a school that has a music department, poke around and see if they have a loaner program.
Now that you have the instrument, what’re you going to play?
The famed Suzuki method may be the way to go, if you’re willing to spring for the books.
But, if you want to find your own sheet music, depending on what you’d like to play, you can likely find sheet music online for free. The quality and accuracy of these sheets will run the full gamut, though, so be prepared to whip out some Google-fu if you go this route.
If you don’t have the money for an instructor, you can teach yourself. Nowadays, there’s the magic of Youtube tutorials, and there’s plenty of them that teach you how to play the violin! This series here starts off with the basic “How to hold your violin“, and there’s a bunch of links in the description for starter violins (some of which were discussed here!)
All in all, learning a musical instrument is both incredibly frustrating and rewarding. There will likely be times when you want to quit, and all I can say is don’t. Hopefully this post has been a helpful resource in picking out, setting up, and learning to play your new violin. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please share in the comments below!