How To Select A Good Quality String Instrument
Learning to play a musical instrument is a difficult task. Good instruments can enhance this experience, poor instruments almost certainly cause students to quit. Picking out a good quality string instrument is difficult if you don't know what to look for. This guide is provided to assist parents in this selection. Remember, the prettiest shiniest instrument doesn't always produce beautiful tone, have pegs that stay in reasonable tune, and have a proper set-up. Looks can be deceiving! Investing some research into the selection of a string instrument can pay off for your child. Ask string players and teachers rather than vendors/salespeople for advice. You will get advice that comes from teaching and performing experience rather than advice from someone interested in your business.
Why are string instruments challenging to select?
String instruments are made out of organic material--wood. Because of this, it is difficult for manufacturers to produce instruments that are always of good quality. I find inconsistencies within most brands although there are a few companies who seem to have more consistent quality control processes. When I discuss the quality of instruments, I am talking about student model instruments, not professional model instruments. Student model instruments, when made well and set up properly, can sound beautiful even though they are not hand-carved.
Remember, string instruments tend to be like car tires--you get what you pay for. Good quality doesn't always mean higher costs when renting an instrument. There are some specific things that you can look for when selecting a musical instrument. In general, you want an instrument that produces beautiful tone, plays with ease, and is properly set-up. Things to consider include instrument dealer, strings, bow, and set-up. There are miscellaneous needs as well but these shouldn't impact your instrument choice. I have included information on music stores and internet sites and have listed our DTSD recommended brands.Dealer: String instruments are usually set-up by a local dealer. In selecting a string instrument, look for a dealer that specializes in strings. The set-up includes the strings, bridge placement, and pegs. Dealers which employ luthiers (people who make hand-carved string instruments) tend to have a better understanding of the architecture of these instruments. They tend to understand the intricities of bridge placement, sound post setting, peg adjustment, and also tend to use better quality strings. General repair technicians may not have specific string training. This can make a great difference in how well your child's instrument stays in tune and how it sounds.
Strings: The quality of strings can, by far, have the greatest impact upon the sound of a string instrument. Your child should have new or almost new strings on their instrument. Old strings are difficult to tune and lose the ability to produce beautiful tone. There are three categories of strings: steel core, synthetic core, and gut core. My opinions on strings are just that--an opinion. I have formed my thoughts on my many years of working with string students. Successful students are usually those students who produce beautiful tone quality. Students who produce beautiful tone are more likely to practice and more likely to continue pursuing orchestra experiences. Good strings are crucial in this endeavor!
- Gut core strings: Gut core strings are difficult for young children to work with and should be avoided unless recommended by a private teacher. They produce the darkest, warmest tone but are also very susceptible to temperature and humidity changes. They are not as durable as the other two types of strings.
- Metal strings: The cheapest strings are metal strings. Super Sensitive Red Label are an example. These strings tend to produce a bright sound but lack in the depth and resonance of other types. Some vendors use them because they are the most inexpensive. Metal core strings lack the warmth of synthetic and gut core strings. D'Addario Helicore strings are a good brand of metal strings for students.
- Synthetic core strings: These strings have a synthetic core that is made out of a variety of materials including Perlon and titanium that is wrapped in metal. They are designed to produce the warm sound of gut strings but are more stable. These strings produce a more resonant richer sound. They are slightly more expensive upfront than metal strings but have greater longevity. Good brands of synthetic core strings for young students include Thomastik Dominant strings and some of the D'Addaro brands of core strings.
Our district uses several vendors who do upgrade to better quality strings. You will find that they do so without charging additional fees. Note: I have seen inexpensive discount instruments with very thin metal strings that produce sound that is not resonant and that tend to break easily. I recommend putting a better set of strings on these instruments. Good strings can greatly improve tone quality on student instruments.
Bow: Student bows come in two forms: fiberglass bows and carbon fiber bows.
- Fiberglass bows: Fiberglass bows have been the traditional bow for student-use. These bows are acceptable for student use if haired with real horsehair. These bows are often called "Glasser" bows although that is a brand name. You will find that some synthetic horsehair bows are still in circulation. Synthetic horsehair slides on the string and doesn't allow the student to dig in with the bow. These bows tend to be heavier in the tip as opposed to carbon fiber bows.
- Carbon Fiber bows: Recently, some string instrument manufacturers have begun using carbon fiber bows with student instrument. Carbon fiber bows are better balanced for young students. Consider the weight of cello and bass bows--having a better balanced bow will allow students to maintain a correct relaxed bow hold. This will ensure more accurate performance and the student will enjoy the process of learning to play an instrument more. Carbon fiber bows are worth the investment. All bows, regardless of type, should be haired with clean, new horsehair, not fiberglass hair. You can ask your vendor for a replacement if you are unsatisfied with your child's bow. I prefer that our students use carbon fiber bows.
Set-up: The instrument set-up is crucial to student success. Instruments which are set-up properly will have well-fitted pegs, well-fitted bridges, and have a better chance of staying in reasonable tune between lessons. Well set-up instruments will have strings that are of a proper size and tension. If you child's instrument has pegs that slip frequently and/or doesn't stay in tune between lessons should probably be looked at. Remember that long exposure to cold temperatures will also cause pegs to slip. Instruments which have been sitting in a closet or attic for a long period of time should be checked and set-up by a qualified repair person who specializes in string instruments. Look for repair people who specialize in string instruments. Please contact me if you need assistance in finding a qualified repairperson. There are some very qualified string specialists in the Hershey area.Pegs: Tuning pegs are one of the most important parts of an instrument set-up. Pegs must be fit properly or the instrument will not stay in tune. Well fitted pegs will often allow the instrument to stay in reasonable tune between lessons. I find that discount store instruments tend to have poor tuning pegs that do not stay in tune for a 30 minute lesson or rehearsal, much less between school tunings. An instrument that doesn't sound right will most certainly inhibit students from practicing.
- Size: Students should be measured by me before an instrument is rented. I measure students in two ways: arm length and finger size/spread. I find that my measurements are more accurate than music stores. An instrument that is too large for a child is not comfortable to play and encourages poor instrument and left hand position.
- Rosin: Rosin should be clean and preferably new. New rosin will need to be sanded before use. Rosin must be of an appropriate type for the instrument. For example, bass rosin is very different from violin rosin. Please avoid miniature rosins which have a more narrow surface than traditional rosin. I find that this rosin is soft and will often not work properly when used by students. This type of rosin usually has a red plastic case. I recommend Hidersine rosin for bass and cello students. Violin and viola students can use either dark or light rosin, both will work well.
- Cleaning cloth: All instruments will get dusty. Students need a cleaning cloth. This should be clean and small enough to fit in the case. Washclothes, cotton baby t-shirts, and clean flannel rags will all work. Music stores sell cleaning cloths too. Students should regularly dust the strings and surface of their instrument.
- Music Stand: Students must have a music stand. Period. Some vendors include one with rental instruments. Others charge a fee for music stands.
Can I trust my local music store, internet sites, or E-bay?
It is important that parents/guardians become advocates when purchasing instruments. You must ask questions about brands of instruments while remembering that music stores and internet sites are more interested in their own profits. It helps if you know the qualities of good instruments and what brand you want. Remember that people in stores are interested in making sales. I have found both ethical and unethical sales practices in musical instrument vendors. I find that stores which specialize in strings rather than general all-purpose music stores have the best set-up for string instruments. We have several of these stores available to students in our district.
To avoid unethical sales practices, get advice from people who are not connected with instrument sales. Teachers are probably your best source of advice. Your child's teacher is interested in your child's success and has probably tried most existing brands of instruments. Be extremely aware that internet stores and auction sites do not always share accurate information with you--they are concerned only with making a sale. When purchasing off the internet, make sure that you can return an instrument if it is flawed. Once again, ask for advice from teachers before purchasing.
DTSD Brand Recommendations:
"Best-recommended brands" were chosen based upon the quality of sound, quality of construction, bows, strings, case construction, and durability with young students. Our vendors which supply the Eastman, Yamaha, and Samuel Shen brands of instruments do provide synthetic core strings, carbon fiber bows, and rent instruments which are set up by string specialists. If you are interested in a brand not listed, please contact me before renting/purchasing an instrument. Remember, the physical appearance of a string instrument has little to do with the tone and playability of the instrument. Pretty shiny instruments do not always sound pretty!
Best-recommended brand--Samuel Eastman Also acceptable--Yamaha
Best-recommended brand--Samuel Eastman
Best-recommended brand--Samuel Eastman, Samuel Shen
Best-recommended brand--Samuel Shen, don't purchase this instrument without contacting me
Before you rent an instrument, please contact me so that you have complete information when making rental decisions. Insist upon knowing the brand of instrument that you are renting.
In summary, parents often express the idea that young beginning students should start on a discount, poorly made instrument with the idea that "if they stick with it, we'll get him/her a better instrument". In fact, having an inferior instrument can almost certainly ensure that they won't stick with it. Beginning students need instruments that will allow them to fall in love with making music. Inferior instruments will only create frustrated learners. Please consider this information, call me for advice, be an advocate when at the music store, and consider renting an instrument that will encourage success.
Once again, please contact me with questions. I am happy to help! My primary concern is with the success of your child.
The opinions expressed in this article are based upon my work with students--I am not a salesperson. On a daily basis I see instruments that perform well and instruments that do not. Most of the time, struggling students have instruments that do not stay in reasonable tune, prduce harsh tone, and have physical set-up issues. Our elementary music staff has spent much time researching student instruments. We have no ties to music vendors other than a professional relationship that benefits our students. It is my sincere wish that all students perform on instruments that play well and that produce beautiful tone. Our music staff works hard to balance quality instruments and financial considerations. You will find that the instruments that I recommend have reasonable monthly rental fees and are no more expensive than the ones that I don't recommend.