Getting started: Lessons on stringed instruments

Want to learn to play a bowed string instrument? Your beginner string FAQ’s are answered here.


Interested in learning to play the violin, viola, cello or bass, but not sure where to begin? Perhaps you are interested in buying an instrument, but did you know that you can rent instruments as well, and that this may be a better economic choice for you? Perhaps you have a family heirloom instrument and wish to dust it off and give it a new life. Where can you get it repaired? What about the extra supplies needed to play in addition to the instrument? Finally, where do you get music to play?

There’s lots to cover, so let’s get started!


String Basics

Stringed instruments have, in addition to the instruments themselves, a few essential accessories that should be purchased with the instrument so the user is prepared to play. Each stringed instrument has two parts, the instrument itself and the bow. Both parts must be present for the instrument to be complete. The instrument will also have four strings which are detachable and must be replaced, at minimum, once per year. Strings can also break if mishandled or struck at the wrong angle, so it is very handy to have a spare set. A shoulder rest makes the instrument more comfortable to hold and helps the player retain their posture. Shoulder rests can also be replaced with a kitchen sponge, makeup sponge, or Huber pad. If you choose to use a sponge or pad, make sure to have rubber bands to attach them to the instrument. Finally, the bow will need rosin (small cylindrical cakes in square boxes), to keep the hair of the bow fit for playing. All of these supplies will be stored along with the instrument in a case.

Here’s a recap list of String instrument essentials:

  • instrument
  • bow
  • spare set of strings
  • shoulder rest or equivalent sponge, etc
  • a few large rubber bands for sponge shoulder rests
  • rosin
  • case

This may seem like a lot to remember, but many violin shops sell comprehensive sets for beginners that include the violin, bow, case and perhaps also rosin. Online, you will find all the other items listed as closely related on the same page as the violin/bow/case outfits, so it will be easy to pick everything up at once.

Here are some recommendations for shops that sell sets for beginners: Stringers of London, Bridgewood and Niezert, Chimes

Stringers, Bridgewood and Chimes have shops in central London, so you can also go in person to speak to them. Stringers and Bridgewood are specialists in stringed instruments and will be more able to answer specific questions, while Chimes have more variety in case you wish to make purchases related to other instruments as well.

Instrument Sizing

Unlike the piano which has one size, stringed instruments vary in size based on the size of the person playing them. Violins and cellos use a scaled system starting form 1/8 size (for very small children, aged 4 or 5), then to 1/4 size, half size, 3/4 size and full size. Full size is the largest size and is meant for an adult. The vast majority of antique and fine violins and cellos are full size, and the shape of their bodies are similar.

Violas and basses use less standardized measurements. Violas are sized simply by their length in inches or centimeters as the shape of the body varies significantly. They begin at a minimum length of about 13 inches and can be past 17 inches in some very tall cases! The average adult would play an instrument just over 16 inches.

If you’d like more information specifically about playing the bass, we recommend speaking directly to the violin-specialist shops linked above for the most informed advice. We advise consideration before choosing the bass due to its immense size and the danger of back problems both from poor playing technique and from transporting it.

Regardless of the instrument you choose, if it is for a child, take care that the instrument fits them. A child who isn’t yet full grown should have their arm measured in person, by a professional working at a violin dealership or by their private teacher, to determine which size of their chosen instrument is suitable. This is very important because playing an instrument that’s too big can hinder a student’s progress, make playing harder, and even injure the student’s tendons in extreme cases.

If you have access to an instrument as a family heirloom, etc, and plan to have a child learn to play on it: bring the child and the instrument to a reputable violin shop such as Stringers (Marylebone) , Bridgewood and Niezert (Stoke Newington), Guiviers (Oxford Circus), or Blackburn String Instruments (South Kensington) to have the child’s arm measured. Have the staff at the shop make sure that the heirloom instrument isn’t too big for them. You and the child will avoid frustration, lack of progress and injury.

Playing an instrument that’s too small is also a recipe for poor posture and discomfort. Larger instruments tend to make more vibrant sounds, so of course they will be more more fun to play! Therefore we advise for our younger, growing students to play the largest instrument that they comfortably can. As a child learns to play a stringed instrument, be prepared for them to need progressively larger instruments as they grow. We will advise about when to obtain a larger instrument as we teach a child, since it will become evident as they grow over a period of months and years. We will also explain below how hiring schemes make this trade-in process easier.

Financial Investment: Rent or Buy?

As a beginner looking for their first instrument, you can expect to invest at least £400-£500 upfront if you wish to buy an instrument and its necessary accessories. This number can be much higher depending on the quality of the instrument you purchase. If you would prefer a smaller upfront cost, many shops offer hire schemes which take a small monthly payment and may even deduct payments from an eventual purchase. This is a great option for a child who is still growing and will need a larger instrument later, or for a student of any age who isn’t sure how much they wish to commit just yet. Generally, instruments for rent are of student quality, so perfect for children and complete beginners. If you want a higher quality instrument, we recommend purchasing an instrument outright and preparing for a larger upfront investment.

Below are some of the hire schemes in London, all of which include a rent-to-buy aspect.

Stringers Hire Scheme
Bridgewood and Niezert Hire Scheme
Chimes Hire Scheme

Repertoire, Scales and Music to Play

For beginners, we recommend obtaining a book of scales and a book of repertoire. For more advanced students, we also recommend a book of studies. Studies are essentially “practice pieces,” pieces of music written to exercise a particular technique or set of techniques. Studies aid technical development, provide sight reading material, and prompt us to make musical, creative decisions just like we would in our repertoire.

Beginner Scales:

Intermediate and Advanced Scales:

  • Carl Flesch Scale Method (Important: this link is for violin scales, so if you need scales for viola or cello, do another Amazon search specifically for the Flesch Scale Method for your chosen instrument.

Study Books:

Repertoire:

We will recommend specific repertoire, or pieces to play, based on your individual level and your goals. For children preparing their ABRSM or Trinity exams, we recommend purchasing books of repertoire for the appropriate grade, 1 through 8, and working directly out of that book. You can do this on any of the below web sites. For other repertoire that we assign to you, you can purchase it at these web sites as well.

Optional but useful extras

All of the products below can be purchased at the same links for the repertoire list above: Thomann, MusicRoom and Amazon. enter the product into the search bar.

  • Music stand: to hold up your music as you practice so that you can maintain good posture and practice anywhere. Many music stands fold up so they can be stored when not in use.
  • Metronome: This is an essential for anyone learning any instrument, but you may prefer to use an app instead of an additional physical object. If you prefer an old-fashioned metronome to an app, we recommend Korg, because their metronomes have a tuner function as well.
  • Tuner: Again, required material but you may wish to use an app instead of a product. The Korg metronome doubles as a tuner.

The Return for Your Investment

It may seem daunting, and initially expensive, to start and maintain a hobby of string playing. We can, however, assure you that the investment will give you, the musician, back an invaluable return. Here are just some of the benefits that you will see through string playing or any active music making:

  • learn to express yourself physically and intellectually
  • challenge all areas of your brain, both logical and creative
  • apply your imagination
  • learn to clearly articulate your ideas
  • appreciate music from an active and informed perspective
  • improve your hand-eye coordination
  • perform for friends and family
  • see improvement and build confidence

If you have any further questions about starting a stringed instrument from scratch, please contact us.

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