“I don’t want to practise my violin, it hurts”. Evasive tactics for a spot of extra sofa-loafing, or the truth? Don’t look into their eyes – look at the left elbow. Does it concertina in, like the wing of a sad battery hen, or is it overstretched into a straight line, with the wrist at a jaunty angle? In either case, your child is dead right: it really, really hurts. I’ve seen grown men cry after three hours of rehearsing on an outlandishly large viola. Equally, a too-small violin is a slippery slope to tendonitis (it’s easy to forget that your child can outgrow an instrument, but if you keep feeding them, it will happen).
As a rule of thumb, for a budding young violinist or violist, the left elbow should hang in a deep V, which can swing forward and backward easily when the first finger rests on any string. The old method is to put the violin on your child’s shoulder, stretch his/her arm out beyond the pegs, and see if they can hold the scroll in the palm of their left hand. If they can, it’s a good fit.
On a ‘cello, the left arm hangs at a more conventional, less tortuous angle, and so the easiest way to check is to see if your child can manage the spaces between the notes: is the little finger having to stretch for extensions, and buckling under the strain? Can they play a scale in tune? The knees are a give-away, too – they need to still fit around the ‘cello, without any gnome-like contortions.
You’re very welcome to bring your bambino along to an Amati viewing day, but, if you don’t fancy a fine for taking them out of school, it’s probably easier for the teacher to measure them up during a lesson, and advise you on the size.
|Violin sizes||Age range||Overall length (mm)|
|Full size||Teenagers and adults||591mm|
|¾ size||8 to 12 years||551mm|
|½ size||6 to 9 years||519mm|
|¼ size||4 to 6 years||460mm|
|⅛ size||3 to 5 years||421mm|
|1/16 size||2 to 4 years||381mm|
|Cello sizes||Age range||Overall height (cms)|
|Full size||Teenagers and adults||121cms|
|¾ size||9 to 12 years||115.5cms|
|½ size||7 to 11 years||101cms|
|¼ size||5 to 9 years||89cms|
|⅛ size||4 to 7 years||77cms|
|1/10 size||3 to 4 years||71cms|
First, find one that your child likes the look of – yes, it matters, it needs to become a friend. If possible, play it gently and slowly, listening to the quality of the sound. Compare it to its neighbours. If it doesn’t currently have strings, you can sing into the f-holes, and see if it responds to the notes by resonating back – a singing duet means that the violin is alive, and should make a responsive sound.
If you’re buying online, without attending a viewing day, then sit up and pay attention now.
Please be careful: always check the condition report. Open seams or cracks on, or near, the edge of the f-holes are generally a straightforward repair – your local violin shop/luthier can deal with these swiftly and neatly.
Any trouble with fingerboard, pegs, tailpiece or soundpost comes under the heading ‘set-up’ and is, again, quite a routine job for a luthier (although costs can mount up, so make sure you agree a price in advance).
A ‘soundpost crack’ (in the front, under or near the bridge) is a more serious repair, as it’s the most vulnerable part of the violin, under a huge amount of pressure. The front of the violin has to be carefully prised off before the crack can be cleaned and repaired, and this is where the cost starts rocketing.
Our specialists at Amati will happily advise on whether a soundpost crack has been repaired (good), or is in need of attention (a little bit bad…). It’s not the end of the line, though: my own violin has a beautifully repaired soundpost crack, and sounds sublime.
Most importantly, whatever the problem, keep away from the glue. This job is not for you, even if you possess a host of power tools or take weekend courses in marquetry. I’ve known parents spend a fortune on a stunning ¾ size, and knowledgeably glue the bridge on. Backwards.
Checked your child’s elbow? Checked with the teacher? Checked the condition report? Checked the chequebook? Then you’re all set. Happy hunting!
Violins can be worth anything from £1 for a factory-made wreck to £10m+ for instruments by Stradivarius.Find out more