Violas, how do they work?
August 10, 2014 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Jeoc jr. will be joining the 6th grade orchestra in a few weeks. She has elected to play the viola. I don't know anything about violas, and am seeking help with selecting an appropriate instrument for a novice 11-year-old.

Her orchestra teacher (who is a very nice person) is not super hands-on about instrument selection. The instructions for procuring an instrument read, "Stringed Instruments: almost any instrument of German/European origin will do. Some major brands are: Yamaha, Scherl & Roth, Glaesel, William Lewis & Son, Sam Shen"

Mr. Jeoc is dubious about renting an instrument (in terms of cost-effectiveness and the quality/condition of the instrument), and would rather purchase an entry-level viola and then sell it if Jeoc, Jr. does not stick with it. This makes sense to me as well, but I'm not sure where to go to purchase one. He's looking at this place to buy a viola.

I'm apprehensive because I do not want to get a viola that is so terrible that it makes learning more difficult, but I don't have a good feel for where the right price point is. There's the additional complication of getting the proper size. There are a few music stores here, but Mr. Jeoc thinks we'll pay an unnecessary premium on the instrument if we buy from one of them, and that they probably won't know anything about violas anyway.

If she were playing a wind instrument, I would feel pretty comfortable picking out something online - I played in the band for years, and have a good feel for which brands are quality, what to expect a different price points, etc. I'm feeling completely lost about stringed instruments.

What is a reasonable amount to pay for a viola outfit that is functional but not amazing? Does brand matter? Are there certain brands I should absolutely stay away from? Is measuring at home and selecting a size that way a reasonable approach?
posted by jeoc to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Unless she is big enough to be playing a full-sized instrument, renting makes sense because she'll need to get a bigger one in a couple years.
posted by metasarah at 1:17 PM on August 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

I was going to recommend Shar, which you linked to above. I've never bought an instrument from them (my violin is from a garage sale), but did try out a selection of bows from them several years ago. My violin/viola teacher in college recommended them highly.

That said, though, I would recommend renting at least until you see if she wants to stick with it. At 11 she may still have some growing to do into a full-size instrument. And if it turns out that viola isn't her instrument you're not stuck with the hassle of trying to sell an instrument.
posted by lharmon at 1:24 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would rent one at her age (at her age/size she may not even be getting an actual viola, but a violin body strung with viola strings) -- see if you can rent from a place where if you decide to buy later, will credit the money you paid renting the instrument towards an eventual purchase.
posted by kylej at 1:30 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Can you take her to a music store? They can have her try different sizes to see what fits, and can give you info about different brands. Also, some places will have a policy where if you rent the instrument for long enough, you can eventually buy it outright and the rental payments will count toward the purchase price.
posted by phoenix_rising at 1:30 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing rental. My son has been playing double bass in his school orchestra for a couple of years now, and rental is the way to go. First off, I think the rental rates for a small instrument are going to be fairly low, and if you're not sure if your kid will stick with it this is probably the less expensive route. Second, rental instruments usually have insurance on them, so if something happens to the instrument a replacement is covered. We've had the bass break twice now (both times because it was dropped accidentally and landed badly on the neck), and our rental company has replaced/repaired the instrument with no hassle at all. And as mentioned above, instrument size will be a factor -- you don't want to buy something she's going to grow out of in a few years. (Edited to add: I think most rental places do let you earn credit towards an instrument purchase in the future, as mentioned above.)

FWIW, I've never felt that the quality of the rental instruments has been bad. Yes, they're student instruments, and perhaps not the most beautiful things in the world, but they do their job and sound decent.
posted by Janta at 1:33 PM on August 10, 2014

Joining the chorus advocating for rental. Our ten year old has been taking violin lessons for two years and has sized up three times during that period. Presuming that if she stays with it that she will need yet larger instruments as she reaches full size. Presuming also that your 11 yo is not yet fully grown.

I surely do not have loads of experience with learning string instruments, but I can say that the mechanics of arm/wrist/finger placement are challenging enough that choosing the wrong sized instrument is likely to be really counterproductive, at least as much as the quality of the instrument in any other way. Frankly, your beginner is not likely to be very melodious for a very long time even with a really high quality viola, so you may as well get him/her off to a good start w.r.t. Fit and form.
posted by Sublimity at 1:39 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was starting 30-some years ago, the advice to go for European brands only was good - but now there are some very good entry level Chinese instruments at good prices. The important thing is to find a local store that can set it up properly. Some stores import instruments and set them up.

If she has plenty of growing left to do she probably should rent, in which case choice of instrument may be quite limited. If she has a good teacher he/she will be able to advise when your daughter might need her own instrument and on what to buy.

The viola is lovely and I hope she enjoys it!
posted by altolinguistic at 1:47 PM on August 10, 2014

Response by poster: I want to make a couple of clarifications. In terms of renting - we looked at this and it was about $400 per year to rent an instrument. If we can get a good starter viola in that price range or a little more, we would rather do that and then sell it if she doesn't stick with it.

According to this sizing chart, she would fit a 15" viola (with a 25" measurement), which is technically an adult's instrument and would probably work through middle school. She's not a small kid, and she's in the middle of a massive growth spurt, so a "junior" instrument won't be necessary.

So I guess I'm not looking so much for people to tell me to rent, but to help identify where would be a good place to buy a starter viola, how much we should expect to spend, and what pitfalls we should look out for (e.g., Foo brand violas are known to be cheaply made, Blah brand violas are a good deal, etc.).
posted by jeoc at 2:00 PM on August 10, 2014

On preview:

String instruments aren't like wind instruments in that there are 2-3 major manufacturers that you can trust will always produce solid instruments. There are many more small producers, and the nature of string instruments (they're made of wood), means that 2 instruments built off of the same pattern and with the same varnish/process/etc. can be of highly varying quality.

Shar is a reasonable vendor, although I've only purchased supplies from them. Southwest Strings is also a reasonable store.

If they're charging you $400/year for a rental, find a different store, they're overcharging you. String instruments can be a pain to sell - don't assume you'll find someone immediately.

Don't forget to buy a bow, change of strings, rosin, soft cloth, and case. I believe that the first viola I rented (in the late 90s) was valued around $500 (instrument) + $50 (bow) + $60 (case).


I put my parents through exactly the same thing 15 years ago, only my orchestra director helpfully referred parents to 1 or 2 local, competent stores for instrument rentals. Expect to pay around $20/month for an entry-level student viola rental.

Why you want a rental:
1. String instruments come in different sizes. Your daughter is young enough that she won't play a full size viola, and may play anything from a 12"-15" viola (sizes are the length of the body in inches, often available in .5" increments). A "full size" viola is 16". If you go to a store in person, they will make sure she gets the right size, and as she grows, you'll easily be able to trade up to the next size. I played 3 different instruments from 6th-8th grade as a grew, and that's not unusual; violinists have it much easier and often play full size instruments as 6th graders.

2. Even if you buy an instrument online, you're still going to need to a relationship with a local place to perform repairs and possibly perform string changes if you don't have an instructor who will do it for you.

3. Rentals usually include all maintenance - string changes, lubricating pegs, replacing or fixing stuck fine tuners, bow rehairings, etc. String instrument maintenance can be surprisingly expensive - in particular, bow rehairs can run you $50.

4. You won't be able to evaluate an instrument's quality until your daughter has more experience and can play well enough to hear it, so you shouldn't invest until she can do so. Even if you wait to purchase an instrument, rental shops have better and worse instruments at the same price point, and if you have the patience and the ear she can play a bunch of them to find the best one.

Things to look for when finding a local rental shop:
1. Don't go to a shop that seems to do the majority of it's business outfitting garage bands. If most of what they have in their shop is drum sets, guitars, and keyboards, leave the shop immediately.

2. When you walk into the store 2-4 weeks before school starts, is there a big pile of violin and viola cases in the store? This means that they rent a lot student instruments and are getting ready for the school year. This is a good sign.

3. Shops that specialize in string instruments are often the easiest to deal with - everyone on their staff will be able to fix the instrument if you have an urgent problem - but places that handle both band and orchestra instruments can be fine. Figure out the convenience / competence tradeoff and choose a place that seems reasonable to you; you may want to look for a luthier.
posted by asphericalcow at 2:10 PM on August 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Mr. Jeoc is dubious about renting an instrument (in terms of cost-effectiveness and the quality/condition of the instrument), and would rather purchase an entry-level viola and then sell it if Jeoc, Jr. does not stick with it.

I did the rent-to-own thing with my viola. The rental payments went toward the price of the viola, and after a few years, it was mine. I really recommend going that route, especially since that's incredibly common for music stores to offer (that's the plan they automatically assumed you would be on, at least when I was in middle/high school and playing the viola).

Go to the music store recommended by the music teacher or that other parents/kids in the orchestra recommend, or, worst comes to worst, the one that has the best online reviews. They should be used to working with young orchestra students, and will be able to guide your daughter along in terms of choosing a viola -- both in terms of fit/size and in terms of figuring out which one she likes best at the appropriate price point. The music shop will probably have a set "monthly viola rental (rent-to-buy)" fee, and they'll probably have a selection of student violas that she can choose her favorite from that all cost that same fee. It's not that each viola will cost a different amount to rent.

Different shops will have different instruments to choose from, obviously, but you are looking for the viola with the nicest sound and that feels the most comfortable to her. I started playing viola at 10 and maybe started with a 15" rather than full size, but it's not rare for a kid her age to have a full size -- they'll be able to size her at the store. In a couple years, she'll definitely be playing a full-size instrument. Ask about how rent-to-own works if she needs to change sizes next year or the year after.

Other things you'll need, or need to do:
-- A boring hard-shell PVC case is fine, and probably what her viola will come with.
-- She'll need rosin almost straight away. It's OK to get the cheaper stuff, and she'll probably only need 2 or maybe 3 pieces for the year. The cheap stuff is a few bucks per piece.
-- It's not essential, but it's much easier to practice at home with a music stand -- one of those folding metal ones is fine. They're about $15 or so, but last forever.
-- Instrument polish and a soft polishing pad is useful, because the rosin sticks to the instrument and makes it look awful and can mess up the instrument's varnish if it isn't cleaned off. That's probably another $5 or $10.
-- Shoulder rest (we didn't start using them until something like the second or third year, though I'm not sure why. It's not something you need to buy preemptively, but expect for your daughter to eventually need one). That's probably about $15 or $20.
-- Dominant strings are the best student strings, in my experience, but they're probably fancier than she needs right now. Do expect her to need replacement strings relatively often, especially once she starts learning to tune (learning to use the pegs can take some time!). Dominant strings are about $15 or $20, but like I said, you can probably go cheaper than that for now.
-- On that same note -- personally, I find electronic tuners really convenient, especially because they now have metronomes built in. They're about $20.
-- People recommend getting your bow rehaired every year or two (that's maybe $75 each time), but to be honest, you probably won't have to worry about doing that for a few years yet, even if you end up buying the instrument and bow now. Your daughter will probably be taught instrument care in class, so don't worry much about this kind of maintenance stuff just yet. Other than replacing the strings and rehairing the bow from time to time, there's not really much maintenance to be done, aside from keeping the instrument and bow reasonably clean.

For what it's worth, I still use my student viola that I started renting in maybe eighth or ninth grade (before that, I rented directly from the school, but by that point I needed a better quality instrument and that meant doing the rent-to-buy thing from a music shop) and it's still gorgeous. Student instruments really can sound good. I mean, they aren't top-of-the-line, but you don't need to settle for a terrible viola or anything. Mine happens to be German, and that was where it seemed like a lot of people's instruments came from. It's not a "brand" name or anything, though, at least as far as I know.
posted by rue72 at 2:24 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well. OK, so my family member owned a store which sold musical instruments and got me a viola when I started in elementary school. And I kind of wish we had just rented like all of the other kids. I didn't really get to try different instruments and there was a lot of pressure to stick with it even after I was bored since we owned the darn thing.

If you're absolutely determined to buy one... Make sure the pegs and fine tuners are all in good order (doesn't loose tune rapidly while playing, having fine tuners on all strings is nice, having fine tuners which don't stick or dig into your fingers when you turn them is also very nice). The bridge is another point of inspection, but I've forgotten what to look for there.

If the bow is coming with the instrument, make sure the bow is...well, not suck. But different bows will "go" better with different instruments. If you're getting a bow separately, anyone who's played any bowed instrument can probably give it enough of a trial to tell which bow will be at least acceptable (try a bunch, take the one that sounds best). The thumb rest on the bow will probably hurt a little at first, but it's important to get something she can reasonably toughen into, not something that will hurt always. Strings will also hurt at first, but you pretty much have to suck that one up.

Chin rest--possibly comes on the instrument, but if it doesn't then it's very worthwhile to try a bunch of styles. Shoulder rest you almost always buy separately. For both of those, just try a bunch, if it feels right then it is right. For the shoulder rest, get one that will go on and off easily without falling off accidentally too often. You're supposed to hold it on by squeezing, but it's a common trial for beginners--at the same time, she'll need to take it off to put her instrument in the case.

Make sure the case fits all this stuff, plus odds and ends (spare set of strings, rosin, maybe a tuning fork although I hear the kids use their phone for that these days).
posted by anaelith at 2:31 PM on August 10, 2014

Response by poster: I'm super-aware that I need to not be constantly chiming in the thread, BUT - that is the going rental price at the two stores in our area that do a big business in band and orchestra rentals. It might have been $20 15 years ago or in some other market, but that is not the price here.
posted by jeoc at 3:41 PM on August 10, 2014

Best answer: Oh, hey, I'm an orchestra teacher! Who teaches 11 year-olds! Viola is the best!

Generally, I do tell the kids to rent to own from a place in town for a couple of very good reasons, which it sounds like you're not interested in hearing, and that's okay. So, if you're going with your plan:

Measuring at home and selecting a size that way is NOT a reasonable approach if you're not a string person yourself. I would ask her orchestra teacher to measure her, and tell her you're going to buy online but want to do it right. I would definitely do this for a kid, especially if the parent reassured me they were not going to buy a piece of shit blue viola from Amazon or whatever, and I would be shocked if a teacher wouldn't do this.

A 15" viola is really, really unwieldy and heavy (and cheaper instruments tend to be heavier) so unless she is really the size of a small but not tiny adult or has extra-long arms, I'd be pretty surprised if that's the best size for her to start. I start my beginners in 6th grade and out of 10 violists in September maybe 1 or at absolute max 2 in a weird year kids are ready for a 15." It is actually really painful to play a too-big instrument and can cause huge and long-lasting technique problems, so if a kid is between sizes it is ALWAYS best to round down. Please please do not order without having a real string teacher or local music store operator actually put an instrument in your kid's hand.

I have played a bunch of instruments from Shar, bought some and order (strings, shoulder rests) from them frequently. I don't much like the sound of their extremely cheap violas, especially the C string, especially on smaller-sized instruments, although they're okay and not the worst I've seen by a long shot. The upper end of their beginner "Hoffman" line, however, meet your "functional but not amazing" requirement, are a decent value for the price and will last through middle school if you're not super super picky.

If you get one of them I would upgrade to a carbon fiber bow if at all possible. Also, I can't remember what brand strings they come with, but if they're Red Label or similar you'd be well-served by replacing them with Helicores or Dominants. Please make sure that you also get an appropriately-sized shoulder rest (Kuns are the most adjustable reasonably-priced option) and rosin and you should be pretty good to go.
posted by charmedimsure at 4:10 PM on August 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Entry level instruments often have very little resale value. If you go that route, make sure to check out the secondary market.
posted by jeffamaphone at 4:38 PM on August 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah! Also get a basic folding music stand (the fewer knobs/bells/whistles to break the better) for home practice- the home practice environment makes a lot of difference in whether a kids develops lazy awful technique or not. The technique stuff is SO MUCH EASIER to screw up on an orchestra instrument than a band instrument.
posted by charmedimsure at 4:53 PM on August 10, 2014

Former violist here.

1) Your 11 year old isn't going to be able to play a full-sized viola yet. You'll want a 1/2 or 3/4 size (more likely 1/2) for now. Renting, although it may seem more expensive, makes a lot more sense than buying three new violas over the next few years.

2) You're going to need an extra bow, strings, rosin, shoulder rest. Probably also, for convenience, a music stand at home.

3) Violas are the best instrument and anyone who says otherwise is dangerously deluded.

4) If/when your kid decides that playing viola is something they want to do a lot of, then look at purchasing. At that age and beginner skill level, specific brands are largely irrelevant.

Best of luck, and remember: FACEG and GBDF.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:55 PM on August 10, 2014

Violist here. Though I agree that renting is generally a good way to start, and agree with charmedimsure that a 15 inch viola is going to be pretty heavy for an 11-year-old to play, it seems like you've made your mind to buy.

So to answer your question-- I'd steer away from Shar and online shopping altogether-- the same brand/model often produce instruments of wildly different quality, weight, and ease of playing. And, chances are you'll have to get to properly set up in a string shop.

My recommendation would be to raise your budget to, let's say, 1000 (so that you can at least sell later), and find a string instrument shop that specializes in string instruments. Not generic music stores with guitars lining the window! Your daughter's orchestra teacher would be able to recommend a few in the area. Take jeoc junior to the store, and the specialized staff will be able to help you pick out an instrument that's is appropriate for her and for your budget.

I would say $400 instruments generally don't retain value and are very hard to sell, even just for $150 and in a major metropolitan area (speaking from experience!) A slightly nicer instrument, even one that is junior sized, on the other hand could find home with a talented youngster looking to upgrade.
posted by atetrachordofthree at 10:41 AM on August 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: FINAL RESOLUTION

We rented an instrument.

We went to a local luthier (Swanson Violins) who has an instrument rental program. He put her in a full-size violin (14") strung as a viola. We tried a 15", but he thought it might be just barely too big. She's pretty tall for an 11-year-old (around 80th percentile for height), so I was wary of suggestions for much smaller instruments.

I was hesitant about suggestions to go to $LOCALBANDSTORE, because violas are not super-common instruments, and I thought the salesperson might not know what they are doing. In fact, her grandparents took jeoc jr to a big string specialist store and the salesperson tried to sell her a 13" violin-strung-as-viola, which would be needlessly small.

The rental program does build equity toward an instrument, and we got very individualized advice from a highly knowledgeable person while supporting a local craftsperson. So win win!

For future viola-acquirerers, I do recommend looking around your area for options that are not $LOCALBANDSTORE.
posted by jeoc at 6:26 PM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

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