Thursday 30 August 2012

Starting Music? A Parent's Survival Guide!

Back to school means back to music for hundreds of pupils and even more exciting, for many it's the beginning of their musical journey - their very first lesson, their very first instrument! It's a lovely time, filled with new possibilities, the pride and enjoyment of new achievements, and the cuteness of small violin outfits from 1/16 size upwards!
Unfortunately for many parents it's also filled with jargon, confusing and conflicting advice and the feeling of being all at sea with too many options and not enough information.

First off, don't despair. You're not slow, or stupid. Every single parent of a budding Nigel Kennedy, unless they themselves are musicians, has been where you are now. No one should be expected to know what a frog is, or where to find the soundpost, or indeed, what the hell you are meant to do with the resin. It's all jargon until you know what it means, and it takes a while to figure it all out. A good shop will talk you through all the aspects of the violin that you need to know - what size fits your child, what price range is appropriate for a beginner, all the parts of the violin and how to maintain the instrument. A good teacher will explain the day to day lessons that your child will be practising so you can keep abreast of what they are doing and what they need to practise.
Week by week it will become easier and easier and you will understand more.

Pick the instrument that suits you
Generally your teacher should give you a list of what you require but if lessons are being organised through the school, or you haven't had a chance to ask yet the following is what you can expect.
Firstly the instrument. For Violin you will generally be looking for an outfit - violin, bow and case - and can expect to pay €155 new/€120 secondhand. Don't be tempted by very cheap outfits, they sound bad and are a devil to tune and maintain. If anything goes wrong it's hard to get them fixed. Going for the slightly dearer, properly set up instrument saves money and time over the course of the coming year. A properly fitted instrument will be easier to tune and will sound much, much better. For Cello similarly you will look for an outfit - the cello, bow and cover - and you can expect to pay about €480 for a decent beginner.
For classical guitar, a guitar and cover will set you back roughly €70 (4/4) for a decent starter.

Get the size right
All these instruments come in different sizes; it is very important to have your child measured either by the teacher or in a shop. Using the wrong size is not only uncomfortable (causing strain to shoulders, back and hands) but it lessens the chances of the child continuing with and enjoying their new instrument. Get the size right!

Choose a price range that suits you
For a complete beginner the prices outlined above are perfectly suitable. As your child progresses they will often require more tone, more nuance, from their instrument. If you are about to trade in and move up a size, or you suspect your child will take the instrument seriously and progress well, talk to your teacher about a better grade of instrument. Your teacher will be able to advise you and you can always look at a few instruments of a higher grade when purchasing. The best way to buy is to set a maximum limit and see what is available up to and around that limit. That way you won't be tempted to go too high too soon, but you can see if the child can hear the difference, and if they like any of the options.

You have got the right size, you've chosen a price range, now what extras can you expect to be hit with?

violin - shoulder rests are almost always required. These clip on under the violin and help it sit comfortably on the player's shoulder. It is important to get the right shape for the player, so we recommend being fitted for one either in the shop or by the teacher. Using the wrong one is pretty useless - unless it fits properly it won't do its job. Prices range from €13.50 to €57.95 but the majority are around €28.95

You may also be asked for a music stand ; stands range from €11 in various bright colours to €21 for Wittner German stands or €17.95 for Black Boston stands. Large non-folding stands with solid heads are available from €34.95

Resin is the small block of resin that comes included in the outfit and can be bought separately from €2.50. The dust from the resin is what enables the bow to grip the strings. Only use a good quality resin; a poor quality one will give a bad grip, and a very harsh sound. Don't overuse the resin - you do not have to put it on every day. If the child is doing half an hour a day only use it once a week. If they practise an hour a day, use it once every 3-4 days. Ask the shop to demonstrate the correct way to apply it.

Cellists need resin and music stands, and probably some form of spike protector or stopper, to protect your carpets and wood floors from that sharp pointy spike! EG the Dycem "Black Hole" is a circular plastic stopper that gives an excellent grip on any surface (€9.95)

Guitarists need music stands and Leg Rests. (pictured) Leg rests usually cost around €9.95 and support one leg of the guitarist, slightly raised.

Bowed instruments - Violin, Viola, Cello, Double bass - come with a little added jargon, simply because there are more moving parts. The following glossary, added to the explanations above, should help a little.

The Bow - the bow itself is comprised of a stick, hair, and a mechanism that allows you to tighten and loosen the hair, called the |Frog.  The Frog, at the base of the bow, contains a screw and eye system that raises and lowers the tension of the hair. The bow must be "wound up" to play and "would down" every single time after playing. Even the most expensive bow will warp and seize up if you don't do this. Ask the shop to demonstrate the correct way to wind up and down the bow, without over winding it.
As mentioned above one uses resin to coat the hair of the bow in a dust, which grips the string and produces sound. Too much is bad, too little is bad. But it's very easy to see if you have overdone the resin, ask the shop to demonstrate for you and talk you through its use.
The other end of the bow is the Tip and that is the most delicate part of the bow. Don't allow your child to hit the tip off anything, or use the bow to point at things. The most common damage we see done to bows occurs by hitting the tip against a hard surface.

Strings - If your child is just starting the outfit you chose should come complete with good strings. Ask the shop what strings they have used, so that when one breaks you know what to ask for. Strings range from thin to thick, as they move from a high to a low note. The highest, thinnest violin string is the E or First String. Violin strings go E (1) A(2) D(3) G(4) (G is the thickest string) Viola and Cello Strings range A(1) D(2) G(3) C(4)
When buying strings people are often surprised that they are all different prices. The thinnest strings are cheaper than the the heavier strings (eg and E will be much cheaper than G)
Strings fall into one of three categories - steel, synthetic or covered gut. Students will use steel or synthetic as a general rule, until they are more advanced. Traditional players mainly use steel; classical students will use synthetic once they progress past the initial grades. Your teacher is the best advisor on strings, however it can be a very confusing field with myriad options, and lots of conflicting advice. Ask the shop for help if you are in any way unsure what string you should opt for. If your child breaks a string, make sure you know WHICH string they have broken (eg E, A, D or G) before you go to replace it.
Strings can be purchased in sets (all four) or separately
Guitar strings are usually bought in sets but are considerably cheaper than violin or cello strings.

We hope you find this guide to be of some use: if you have any queries or can think of any question we hav overlooked just email us! The most important thing to remember is, learning an instrument should be fun for your child, and shouldn't be too stressful for you :)

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