My career as a violinist (such as it is) pretty much got started thanks to the extraordinary generosity of an uncle, who provided the Real Doctor and me with a rather nice violin. In the spirit of avuncular paying-it-forward, we are trying to further the musical education of various nephews and nieces. As part of this effort, we went violin shopping yesterday. Our goal was to procure a reasonable-sounding 1/16-size violin for our niece.
It’s one of the awful paradoxes of learning the violin that you want the worst possible players—the absolute beginners—on the best possible instrument. A good instrument will teach the student. When the player hits a note ever so slightly off, the instrument will just make a rather dead sound. However, when a note is hit properly, the whole violin will ring. I can tell you from personal experience that that ringing sound is a powerful intoxicant, one that makes you want to keep coming back for more—and so you get better and better at hitting the notes properly, and you become a better violinist. None of this happens on a poor violin. Good notes, bad notes, they all sound the same. So a crummy beginner on a crummy violin will just continue to be crummy.
Because of the laws of physics and engineering (and tradition), it’s really hard to make a 1/16 violin that is at all good. Most do not resonate at all, and sound like a taut wire twanged across the mouth of a tin can. From such instruments, parents expect small children to learn to play the violin.
Our usual stop for all things violin, Ifshin’s in Berkeley, doesn’t sell 1/16 violins, so we went further afield, to Scott Cao in San Jose. Cao’s is an interesting shop, typical in some ways of California. Demographically, everybody in California is a minority, and most people are within one generation of being immigrants. Cao’s shop reflects this; it functions pretty well in English, but is more comfortable in Chinese. This was also true of the customers we saw, with the exception of a Russian who was buying a bow. We tried three different 1/16 fiddles. Two had the tin-can sound typical of a 1/16 fiddle; the (alas, but predictably) more expensive one actually resonated when played, and could produce overtones like a bigger violin. It was also of better “set-up,” which has a dramatic effect on sound. So, that’s the fiddle that will be teaching our niece how to make music.
And how big is a 1/16th violin? It’s not 1/16th the size of a regular violin, but it’s pretty darn tiny: