Sep 26

Beginner Basics: Where to get started

Your kid 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?

Most people are familiar with the violin. There’s a fancy wooden box with four strings and a bow that pulls the strings to make sound. Usually, that initial sound is stereotyped as something screechy and piercing. If you were to put that sound on a diagram, it would fall a few notches above nails across a chalkboard. But, really, that sound doesn’t happen that often if you invest in a quality student instrument and properly care for it.

To set the violin apart from the other choices, it has the highest range of notes or pitch. 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. The violin has the smallest body size, so it will be the lightest and least expensive instrument. Violins come in sizes from tiny (1/32 or lower) to full size (4/4). There are charts online that can help you measure your child to help you decide which is the best size for your child, although I have seen the greatest amount of error when using these charts. Usually, a teacher can help figure out which size is the best for your student, or an experienced string player at a violin shop can usually figure it out very quickly. This holds true for all of the stringed instruments.

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 that most people appreciate right away. 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). Up until the student reaches about five feet tall, she can usually use a violin strung as a viola, although some teachers would argue this point. There are smaller sized violas available, too. The main difference between a small viola and a fractional violin is the thickness of the body. The viola will have a thicker body which allows more room for the sound to travel. That’s a good thing. Violas are measured in inches — 12″ to 16 1/2″ are most common.

Most kids think the cello is cool due to its massive size. 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. The main reason some people do not choose the cello is due to the cost. Cellos can be expensive, not to mention cumbersome. Many families choose to rent a cello in the beginning because of the price tag on a good cello. That isn’t a bad way to go if you can find a rental program that allows you to accumulate credit toward the purchase of an instrument later down the road. 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 kids playing bass very early, while some wait to add them until the kids get older, which brings up a good point.

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 within this family, but they usually are strongest with one of them. For instance, I 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 violin made it very easy to translate everything over. Another common transition is from cello to bass, although 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 once the shock of this new venture as been leveled out.

  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 the phones and emails 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, violas and cellos are available for purchase or rent, and we take such great pride in them that we offer a 45 day return policy. 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.


  1. Faylinn

    My son is eight-years-old and just told me that he wants to play the viola. He has never played any other instrument before, which is why I am unsure about whether or not that it would be right for him. In this post, you mentioned that you started playing in high school. Is that when kids start playing that instrument or when would you say is the best time for someone to begin playing it?

    1. Liz Lambson

      Hi Faylinn, thanks for reaching out. Eight years old is actually a great age to begin an instrument and even begin on viola (instead of say, start on violin and switch to viola later). Check out our article on our blog about starting kids young for more insight on the topic: http://blog.kennedyviolins.com/2013/06/how-young-is-too-young/

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