As a longtime violin teacher, I have become somewhat obsessed with procuring decent fractional-sized instruments for my youngest students.
The quest for excellence in fractional violins comes from an absolute frustration with the cheap violins in circulation. Even very educated and musically knowledgeable parents can easily get tricked into buying fractional-sized violins that sound squeaky and function poorly.
This does not have to be the case, and it's important to emphasize that a student's success on the instrument depends considerably on the quality of his or her instrument. If the sound is off-putting, if the instrument can't be tuned, if the effort of playing bears no satisfying result...then why would a child want to keep trying? Conversely, a good instrument serves as a partner, rewarding a student's efforts with the appropriate feedback: a clear sound for good bowing, ringing tone for good intonation, and a pleasing response to vibrato and other techniques.
Good fractional-size violin/viola/cello outfits DO exist, and here are some of their most important characteristics:
With all these parameters in mind, I was happy for several of my students to test Shar's New York Philharmonic Violin Outfits. Shar is the longtime stringed instrument supplier located near Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as a major supporter of Violinist.com. I've bought countless strings, cases, instruments and sheet music from Shar over the years, starting from when I was a child. (My American case from 1984 is still in fine shape!). My students have also bought intermediate-level instruments that have worked out very well. Shar also has some nice policies: If you are debating buying an instrument, they'll ship it to you for an in-home trial before you buy it. They also have a trade-in policy for when you need to buy a bigger or upgraded instrument.
Shar's NY Phil Violins have been out for five years. They are modeled after a Golden-period Strad and created by the New York Stringed Instrument Company, with input from members of the New York Philharmonic, including concertmaster Frank Huang, who is quoted as saying, "The violins have a rich and even sound. Perfect for the budding violinist, on the way to becoming a future member of the New York Philharmonic." The violins are officially "fully sanctioned and endorsed by the Philharmonic," in order to use the NY Phil name.
For the current list price of $815, the outfits include the New York Philharmonic violin (available in 1/16 size through full); Meinel pernambuco violin bow; a "New York Philharmonic" oblong case; mini rosin; and a certificate of authenticity.
My two students who tested the violins are beginners, and they have been playing on the instruments for several months. One tested a 1/8-size, and the other tested a 1/4-size violin. In both cases, their parents are also professional musicians, string players in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. So it was helpful to have input from their parents, as well. In a nutshell, both families felt these were excellent fractional-size violins, with a strong sound and good structural integrity. Here is their input about all the specific details:
In the case of the 1/8-size violin, my student was upgrading from a 1/16-size Franz Hoffmann Amadeus Violin Outfit (It has a pretty low price point - $179). That violin had some issues - the biggest being that the fine tuner on the E string did not work, and it was very difficult to tune the E with a peg. Basically, it was impossible to keep the E string in tune for more than a few minutes, so it was always out of tune.
The NYP Violin was a big improvement. Her mother, a violinist, said that "overall the sound is clear and well-balanced. The fine tuners work well and the pegs are easy to tune." She also liked the "great craftsmanship and nice color," as well as the "good quality bow and nice case." They did have an issue at first with the bridge; the D was too low and it wasn't possible to play on it without touching neighboring strings. But when we brought the issue to Shar, they resolved it by having a local luthier fix the bridge, and now everything is at the proper angle.
When it came to the 1/4-size instrument, my other student's father, a violist, said overall that "I don’t see any real negatives to this 1/4 size violin. It’s a lovely instrument for children." And here are some more specifics: "The pegs turn easily and also stay in tune well. Feels very secure unlike some other 1/4 size violins," he said.
When it comes to the sound of the instrument, "considering the size, I think it makes a great sound," he said. "It is pretty even, and it doesn’t have that shrill quality that some small instruments can have. The violin itself is good and seems easy to play, my only criticism would be the quality of the bow - the bow I feel could be a little better, but that also could be the quality of the hair. It may not be up to the same level as the violin."
The bridge "is also good quality and pretty well-graded, the G string could be a little too high, though," he said.
He liked the appearance very much: "It looks great. Nice varnish and purfling and a lovely one-piece back." He also liked the case: "It’s a lovely case, even better than my own! Lots of room for accessories and a full size pocket for music."
Overall, he said, "it’s definitely on the upper end of quality when it comes to fractional-size violins."
Having listened to the violins for several months and also worked with them myself, I can safely say that the New York Phil violins fall into the category of good fractional instruments that I would recommend for young students, and I'm happy to listen to these fiddles each week!
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What is your experience with fractional-sized instruments? Please share your advice, recommendations, and/or warnings in the comments below!
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