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Beginner Basics: Where to get started

By Heather Case

Your child just came home from school and announced that he wants to join orchestra. How did THAT happen, especially since nobody else in the family has ever touched a stringed instrument before? Basically, your child has three to four choices, depending on the orchestra program -- violin, viola, cello, or bass. What makes these instruments different? How can you decide which instrument is best for your child who is suddenly excited about their budding career as a musician? And, how can you decide which size you need for your child?

Let’s start with the violin since people are typically familiar with that instrument. It's the smallest of the stringed instruments and has the highest range of notes or pitch. The violin is played tucked under the chin on the left shoulder and bowed with the right hand. It is tuned in fifths starting at the G below "middle C." Even if you aren't a musician, this is a reference point for the other instruments to come. Violin sizing is in fractions starting at full size (4/4) and decreasing down to around a 1/32. We offer an online measurement chart for sizing your child or you can work with a local teacher or an in-shop staff member to find the right fit.

The viola is somewhat larger than a violin, but it is still played between the shoulder and chin like a violin. It has a lower range of notes starting at the C below "middle C" and is still tuned in fifths. That gives this instrument a deeper and darker personality. One of the unique things about playing the viola is learning how to read alto clef, which is pretty rare compared to the treble clef (violin) and bass clef (cello and bass). Viola sizing is described inches -- 12" to 16 1/2" are most common. Students typically play the largest size comfortable for them.

Some kids are drawn to the cello because they don’t want to hold an instrument under their chin. All cellists play their instrument while sitting and resting the end pin of the cello on the floor. The cello is tuned just like a viola, but it is an entire octave lower. We're talking two C's below middle C now. Cellos are measured in fractions like violins. These also range from tiny (1/10) to full size (4/4).

The least common of these instruments is the double bass, which is even bigger than the cello. That means you should have a vehicle that will fit a gigantic instrument without having to stick it out the window or leaving the trunk wide open. The bass is tuned in fourths and starts with a very low E. Basses are available in fractional sizes as well. Some programs will have students playing bass very early, while some wait to add them until the kids get older.

If your child starts with one instrument now, is it possible to switch later? Absolutely. There are many string players who are able to play more than one instrument within the string family. I was a violinist who started playing viola when my high school teacher sent me home with a school owned viola and told me to take it to youth symphony rehearsal. Before I knew it, I was enjoying a completely different section of the orchestra. I had to adjust the position of my hand and read music from an alto clef, but playing the viola wasn’t too different than playing the violin. Another common transition is from cello to bass. Most string players understand the basics of all of the instruments if they are involved in a group program.

So, here are the basic questions to answer when you child expresses interest in being a string player:

  1. Which instrument will your child be most interested in playing?
  2. What size does he/she need?
  3. Should you buy the instrument or rent?

At Kennedy Violins, we are all string players and look forward to helping people answer all of these questions. We have experienced teachers who answer questions from people who just want information about how to get started, even if you don't know which questions to ask. Contact us and start with the three questions above. Our affordable violins and violas are available for purchase or rent nationwide, and we have cellos and basses available in the shop for local customers. People who spend time talking to us by email or by phone often comment that we give great attention to detail just like your area music store would, even though we run a website that serves people across the country. It's like finding a local violin shop on the internet, and we are passionate about helping kids get a great start on their path as a string player.