Trying to figure out when it is the right time to step-up your students instrument can seem like an overwhelming and daunting task. There are so many violins. They all look so similar. Does it really make that much difference? Yes, it does. Having the right instrument will help the student make progress and encourage them to practice. Whereas the wrong instrument can discourage, and possibly cause the student to quit. This article is meant to help you know what your student needs from their instrument, as well as when they will need it. With guidance from your teacher and your violin shop, stepping-up to a new instrument can be a fun and educational experience.
Stringed instruments are graded according to the wood that is being used and the amount of time put into their construction. For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume the instruments are set-up properly (a poor bridge, soundpost, and strings will undermine a high level instrument.) We can use three components of sound to help evaluate the grade of the instrument for students:
1) the overtones (ring),
2) the amount of projection (volume),
3) the complexity of the sound (round vs. flat). For now, we’ll avoid the terms “dark” (warm & sweet) and “bright” because they are subjective and students often confuse projection with “bright.”
The overtones, or “ring” of the notes when we apply the bow stroke correctly, help students with intonation and musicality. For intonation, teachers will often have students play a “G” (3rd finger) on the D string and listen for a “ringing” sound when the note is in tune. The open G string will physically vibrate, or ring, when the student plays the note correctly, literally creating a bigger, more open sound. Similarly, other notes on the instrument will engage overtones, harmonics. When played in tune, the instrument will sound more “alive,” “ringing”, more “open.”
The more overtones the violin has, the easier it is for a student to learn to play in tune. The violin rewards correct pitch by ringing, and discourages incorrect pitch by sounding flat and dull. Luthiers use wood quality and the graduations of the top and back plates (also the ribs) to maximize the overtones. If a violin costs $150, the makers aren’t interested in overtones and harmonics, they’re creating a “violin shaped object.” A student gets the same flat response from the instrument whether they’re in tune or out of tune. For students in book 1 and early book 2 levels, the instruments should ring well for the open string notes in first position. The “b” and “f” notes are typically weak. As a student progresses, the violin they use should ring in the position the child will be playing in. A beginning violin which rings well in first position is not expected to ring well in third position. The teacher will encourage the student to upgrade before teaching shifts which rely heavily of overtones for intonation.
Projection enables the student, teacher, and the audience to hear the music. Projection also makes the poor intonation and bow strokes obvious. Many students shy away from projection because they are afraid people will hear their mistakes. For the teacher, an instrument that projects is essential to encourage a student to learn how to play correctly and with confidence. The amount of projection again correlates to the grade of the wood and the graduations. Parents are always surprised by the larger volume coming from a $950 violin versus the $430 violin their child has been playing. Students who regularly step-up the level of their instrument as they progress through the books are more comfortable with projection, maybe because they see it as a reward for the work they have done.
Increased projection is easier for students to grasp in small steps than big leaps. Larger volume directly under your ear is loud! Students initially translate the bigger volume as “bright,” or in less flattering terms, “in your face.” Why does this happen? To project on a quiet instrument, players learn to compensate by putting more pressure on the bow to produce more sound. Sometimes they will “bottom out” the bow in the process, or switch to a stiffer stick. When the same bow technique is applied to an instrument which projects, the players produce a harsh, grating sound. The student then has to learn different bow techniques to manipulate the new sound they have to work with. The larger the difference in volume, or the longer the student has played on a quiet instrument, the more difficult the transition. If a student upgrades their violin with the literature, they will develop bow technique appropriate for the dynamic ranges they are working on. They will also learn to manipulate the sound, and to understand how to project sound for auditions and performances.
A string instruments sound can range from simple and clean to complex and rich. A bluegrass player will tend to prefer a different kind of sound than a classical soloist based on their music and the types of instruments they are playing with. Again, the wood is graded and a richer, more complex sound is typically associated with certain grades of wood. Interestingly, Italian poplar is sometimes used instead of maple on cellos and violas to create a darker, sweeter tone. The individual luthiers also tend to produce certain characters of sound based on their choices of wood, the models they use and their graduations (the thicknesses they carve the top and back plates). The model of the violin can alter the sound relative to other instruments from similar workshops in similar price ranges. Typically, an instrument with higher arching and slightly shorter dimensions (Amati or Guarneri models for example) tend to produce darker, sweeter sound than an instrument with the flatter arching and longer model of a Stradivarius. When moving up to a more expensive instrument, players are typically looking for a more complex, or richer sound. Again, the sound relates to the overtones of the instrument. A more complex sound will tend to have more overtones, or combinations of overtones, in certain ranges of our hearing. For better or worse, we don’t all agree on the exact combination. We do agree, however, that the bow we use can add to or subtract from those overtones.
When do students step-up their instruments? Ideally, players step-up their instruments roughly every second book in the beginning. This allows them to make smaller steps to keep up with the demands for more dynamic range, louder and softer. It allows them to expand their intonation with ringing tones for flat and naturals in the scales, and the introduction of new positions. The step-up instruments also allow them to explore new characters of sound, often richer overtones in combination with different bows. Budgets are often the limiting factor for parents. To control the costs, shops specializing in string instruments have different rental levels. The rental programs allow parents to transfer credit from one level instrument to the next. Rental programs do differ, so ask how much credit transfers, what fees apply, are the strings new, and so on. Use these programs to keep your child in an instrument which helps them learn.