The Rationale for Building a Fractional Instrument
Why Fractional Sizes Exist at All
When I was a child, I don’t recall there being the option of using fractional instruments to start out. I am sure they had to have existed, but when I was (briefly) sent to a violin teacher, there was no suggestion that I be fitted with a ¾ or a ½ size violin, though it would have been appropriate (I was about 8 or 9, if I remember correctly.) I went to class a few times and then gave it up, probably due to lack of interest (I really wanted to play the French horn… so they bought me a cornet…but that is another story), however, the added difficulty of an oversized instrument could have been part of the problem.
But there are children who are delighted the first time they hear a violin, and passionately want to play one. They do have the drive to practice, but they are too small to comfortably use a full-sized violin, let alone a viola or cello. So, we try to supply them with a smaller instrument on which they can develop their skills until their physical stature catches up with their talent and passion.
The value of a good quality instrument is that it feeds the original delight of the child, and convinces him or her that his or her first impression was correct: that the violin is an exquisite tool to make exquisite music. The cost of a poor quality instrument is that the child may lose interest entirely. (Video games, anyone?) The price (good or bad) can only be determined by the long-run result…some things you pay the price up front, and get long-term value. Others, you get a great deal up front and pay the price later. Hard to tell, sometimes, which is which.
Why Few Luthiers Will Build Them
Because parents know the child will outgrow the smaller instrument in a short time, they are reluctant to buy a good, handmade (quite costly, and fragile, as well) fractional instrument. The only alternative seems to be an imported factory-made instrument (often of dubious quality.) Millions of cheap, fractional fiddles are purchased, therefore, with the thought that “Well, they will outgrow this by next year, and then we can get the next size up.” But by that time, the passion is gone, as they are not hearing the sounds they want to hear, and they are ready to quit. Not every child is silly enough to think that the scratchy, squawking sounds coming from under their ear is comparable to the gorgeous music that originally attracted them to the violin.
But, so long as very few parents can afford to buy a handmade fractional instrument, there will be few luthiers who feel it is worth making one. Without an existing order for such an instrument, it looks doubtful that the maker will ever see a return on his/her investment of time and money. I did see a photo, once, of the gorgeous ¼-size violin made by Roger Hargrave for one of the Buckingham Palace toddlers. (Nice work, if you can get it.)
For The Discerning Ear
Here’s the real issue: Most people can hear the difference between a great violin and a “violin-shaped-object” (ultra-cheap, poorly designed, poorly made, of poor-quality materials, strung with poorest quality strings, etc.) But many people cannot hear the difference between an average violin and a great one. It takes a good player to tell the difference in playability, and a discerning ear to hear the difference in tone. For the discerning ear, I want to offer the very best instrument I can make.
But, when dealing with folks who truly can’t tell the difference, I no longer try to convince them that the difference even exists, let alone how important it is to the player. I encourage them to buy the one that fits their perception of value. I am friendly and polite about it, and explain that the differences are subtle enough that it takes some practice to hear them.
But, if they go out and buy a very cheap VSO (violin-shaped-object) from eBay, or the like, and then bring it in, complaining about the sound and playability, I may simply opt out of working on it. The labor to make it playable will easily exceed the purchase cost of the instrument. Again, I am friendly and kind about it, explaining what the problem is. I am not dismissive…they are doing their best to make good decisions.
On the other hand, sometimes they have bought a fairly decent student instrument for a few hundred dollars, and, as they work with it, they eventually develop a discerning ear, enough to realize they have a cheap fiddle that (surprise!) sounds rather like…a cheap fiddle. At that point I am glad that I was friendly and accommodating when I first dealt with them, as they may feel more inclined to do business with me once they understand what I originally tried to explain.
What are the Other Options?
There are a few possibilities that I can see:
- I can buy an unfinished violin of a given (small) size, and re-work it to sound much better (resolve arching and graduation issues, check rib thickness, etc.), then finish it much as I do my own work, and set it up to optimize sound. This will result in a very playable, nice-looking instrument, for less than a third the cost of a handmade instrument. But, in following such a plan, I am limited to the parameters dictated by the work already done at the factory: I cannot make the ribs and blocks taller, for instance. Also I can’t choose the wood from which the instrument is to be made to begin with, as I do my own.
- I can hand-make a fractional sized instrument from scratch, which will take only a little less effort than building a full-sized instrument, and almost exactly the same costs for materials. That instrument will far exceed the capabilities of virtually any factory instrument, but we are back to the issue of cost…who wants to buy a violin at full price, knowing that it will soon be outgrown? So; my best option may be to sell that instrument to a parent at a deeply discounted price, with the provision that, if they bring that instrument back undamaged, when the young violinist is ready for a full-sized instrument, I will apply their full purchase price to a larger instrument at full price. In this way, they effectively have had the use of a top-quality instrument for nothing, as they grew into a larger instrument. Good deal for them…risky for me. I may be able to repeat that transaction several times, if everyone takes good care of the fractional size instrument in question. On the other hand, it may get destroyed the first time out.
- Another possibility centers on adult players: I recently had an adult, petite, female violinist ask whether I make a ¾-size instrument. She was not interested in a trade-up; she wanted a better daily player for herself. I could build such instruments on speculation, hoping for such players to show up at my door. But if they don’t…well, then I will just have a rather expensive child’s instrument on my hands.
With all of this in mind:
I am beginning a ¾-size violin, patterned after the best of the old masters, but slightly altered to achieve optimum sound. The demands placed upon a diminuative violin are somewhat different than those on its full-sizes counterpart. I expect that it will exceed the power and playability of virtually any fractional factory instrument (as they arrive from the factory), and possibly most full-size factory instruments. If I sell it to an adult, who simply wants a smaller fiddle, then the price will be only a little lower than the full-size instruments; it will cost nearly the same to produce. But for a child, perhaps it can be sold at a more deeply discounted price, with the understanding that the instrument will be coming back in a year or so, to be traded in on a full-sized instrument.
I will also look into buying some white Chinese instruments, to work over and improve, to offer as student-grade instruments. We’ll see how it all works out. I don’t particularly want to get involved with that sort of thing.
The new 3/4-size violin is being made of highly figured Red Maple and Englemann spruce. (Really pretty stuff.) I’ll try to post photos of the instrument as it progresses.
Thanks for looking.
2 Replies to “Fractional Instruments”
I found this article interesting and something I had never considered before. Being a self taught guitar player, I’ve assumed people could usually adapt to an instrument, especially a child. But after reading this I realize that a violin of any kind is a much more intimate instrument and that size as well as sound is vital. I wonder if there is a way for a young student to rent or a luthier such as yourself could find an outlet for fractional instruments such as a instrument dealer that would put quality instruments in the hands of a student and be profitable for the luthier as well?
Just thinking out loud.
And thanks for the memory jog. First picking up a plastic (yes plastic) guitar at 8 years old and realizing that I could produce those sounds has affected the rest of my life.
There are certainly rentals available, but the quality is usually not very good, because a very good fractional-sized instrument is also quite fragile. So, it wouldn’t be a good risk to send out a fragile, very expensive instrument as a rental, without a huge deposit. That is why some high-end shops are now offering a high-end instrument at a significantly reduced price, with the provision that IF the instrument is returned undamaged, then the full purchase price will be applied toward the full-size instrument of their dreams. 🙂
Yep, the first guitar I played was an incredible clunker, with 20-year-old, heavy-gauge steel strings, but once I got the bridge in the right place (it had the trapeze-style tailpiece, and a floating bridge), the first chord captured me. I played for six hours on those horrible, stiff, steel strings, until my fingers nearly bled. That was 44 years ago. Still playing.