All hands on deck! Vol. 2

edited May 2014 in General
Quelle horreur! My son wants to play the violin!

OK, maybe it isn't so bad. Given that violin and mandolin share fingerings and repertoires, I tend to think of violinists as competitors with the ability to drown me out with volume. Moreover, I am more than surprised that he would express a strong desire to play this specific instrument. I was prepared to buy him a good half-size guitar over the Summer, but now my plans have changed.

My son, Eli, will turn 8 in June. He knows a few chords on the ukulele and he can play some tunes on the recorder (he knows all the "white" notes from C to E'. He can also read elementary music (only a few accents, 1/2 notes to quarter notes, basic dynamics). He can also find his way around a Glockenspiel fairly well. His school has a decent music teacher, who has gotten Eli familiar with a few things on the keyboard. He comes with my wife and me to jams and sessions, and he comes with us when we perform for charities and at rest homes. It's fair to say that he has had a fair exposure to music and performance without really mastering an instrument.

On the other hand, Eli is a daydreamer. He's a little forgetful, and he will tune out at times. He will play games until you tell him to stop. He will read something he's interested in until you tell him to stop. He's much better with pull factors than push factors. Indeed, I think that he is being strongly motivated by the idea of playing with my wife and me. Glockenspiel was a simple way of contributing to our performances. He wanted to contribute to a recording we did of Real Old Mountain Dew for a friend, and was disappointed that he couldn't. I think what changed is that he was able to try out a violin in his size, and he was able to get his fingers down on the board without help (probably because of the uke). He had lots of difficulty fingering my mando, so violin must have seemed like a breeze.

So here's how I see the balance sheet: he's a flighty, undisciplined boy strongly motivated to play an instrument normally associated with hyper-achievers and their pushy parents because he wants to help out mom and dad. There are lots of tiger moms and dads in this area, but they focus on making their kids competitive in sports to the exclusion of music. Nonetheless, music teachers seem more focused on the needs of those parents, and I doubt Eli would do well with them. Conversely, we know plenty of people in Bluegrass and Folk, as well as a few retired elementary school music teachers, who want and would love to help out. However, they are almost all guitarists, banjo players, and dobro players. There are few fiddlers/violinists among them. I stopped going to the local Celtic jams (they were too maudlin for my liking), but I might need to start building new connections with them. (I forgot to mention: I got to jam with Bobby Hicks last month.)

After discussing it with a few people, the plan seems to be that I will teach him to play, and we will find someone to check up one Eli's technique every few weeks. Of course, that means I'll need to learn to fiddle as well. We'll rent him a half size (which he will outgrow by the end of the year), and I will borrow a full size from a friend. I'll teach him a few tunes at a time so that he can get used to fingering and intonation. Luckily, I know a lot of tunes from various repertoires that are simple, and that I can transpose and print easily with software. There are a surprising number of sites that offer pre-recorded lessons that I'll have him watch, but I feel that most of our efforts will be on getting down solid basic bow strokes and developing a sense of rhythm on the instrument. I'll take him to a jam every month, whereat he can try out a tune on a forgiving and patient audience. After a year, we will consider lessons again.

How does this plan sound? Any suggestions?


  • Your plan sounds fine, in fact I wish my own parents had been more like you... but regardless, has he ever tried to play a 3/4-size electric guitar, like a cheap Squier Mini-Strat? Or is he still too small for that?

    Violin is one of those instruments where (unlike guitars/keyboards/drums) you have to work pretty hard at it for a while just to get a decent sound out of the thing. Long-term, if he really is flighty and undisciplined like you say, his chances of persevering to the point of getting into formal training and ultimately being good enough to play in front of large groups of people are not good. If he has natural talent that might help him overcome the complexity factor, but if not, the physical effort alone can be enough to turn off most kids.
  • edited May 2014
    He's probably too small. He tried a 1/2 acoustic and, to my surprise, he wasn't in love.

    I hear what you're saying about the problems of being undisciplined. Renting at this point seems smart, and if he drops it after a year, so be it. Nonetheless, he has wanted to play for so long, but he hasn't identified clearly with an instrument until now. Hopefully, learning with him--teaching him what I know about folk melodies, practicing, hearing nuance--will help overcome those obstacles. He's still very oriented toward family, and like when we do things together. I sometimes forget that his interests necessarily become my interests: his love of space forced me to read more about astronomy and buy a telescope, which in turn allowed him to learn more than if I threw a few books at him.
  • Tell him that if he can learn some Irish fiddle tunes and go to college in Boston, he will drink free Guinness for 4 years. I tried to communicate this to my daughter, alas to no avail.

    She was a middlish player, not sure what effect the competition might have had. She didn't last long after the top kids started focusing on competing at regionals, etc. Her school orchestra lost their bassist at one point and I tried to get her to consider switching, again the no avail thing....

    I bet with musician parents and trying some different things when he is young, he will eventually find something that sings for him! Wish I'd had that ability to share with my daughter.
  • His desire to learn a particular instrument is no small thing. Teaching him the basics yourself, with occasional technique checks from others, and giving him the opportunity to jam seems like a good approach. The general music education that comes with learning any stringed instrument (or any instrument, for that matter) should translate to other instruments if he decides down the road that violin isn't for him. My kids (8 and 6) started with piano and my six-year old will probably want to switch to guitar when he gets a little older. If he's learned the basics of reading music, rhythm, and started to develop his ears, I suspect that transition will be a lot easier.
  • Eli's been to pubs and cafes a few times. He knows that playing often means free drinks, but mostly because I use those free drinks to get him chocolate milk and shakes!

    What I am hoping is that the general culture in the household will both encourage him and give him a sense of how he can be expressive. As much as Eli has picked a demanding and competitive instrument, he won't be starting from square one. He knows how to use do-re-mi to find the first five degrees of the major scale. He knows about using thirds to harmonize. He has some practice in playing with people (with some struggles). He knows basic notation, and he has tried to write his own pieces (mostly putting dots on the staves and seeing how they play out, but also singing them). He's seen lots of fiddlers play. Every now and then he will pick up on a melody that he'll start to sing repeatedly--That's A Plenty is among the latest. And he has seen me learn from recordings, notate melodies and leads, and personalize them. From what I can tell, that's better than what a first year Suzuki student gets. All that is missing is the instrument. If he gets into it, youth orchestras, etc., won't be the only applications for his talents. I would be happy to take him to youth workshops or fiddle conventions (I know a few people who go to Galax each and every year). If he only learns a few Irish tunes, he'll have a tool that will help him socialize wherever he ends up.

    Now, the other instrument he liked was the bass. I though about pushing him in that direction, but than I realized how prohibitive it would be. He's too small, the cars are too small, and the budget is too small.
  • Bass is a great instrument. That's what I play (electric, not acoustic) and it's a blast. Bass players are always in demand because everybody wants to play guitar, and the bass ties the rhythm section to the chord changes and the melody. A decent bass player who doesn't overplay and keeps time can always find people to play with. I'm guessing, though, that in the types of music you play, bass means doghouse, and those things seem huge even to me.
  • Hey BT, I second everything Muggsy said about the bass. Although guitar is my real love, I learned some bass because I liked it as well, even had a few gigs, and if I had wanted to make playing my primary career being a good bass player will keep you busy, and being a great bass player will keep you busy all the time. A double bass is a handful but electric might work out, or even an acoustic bass - I haven't played one but I knew someone who was using one for low volume acoustic blues gigs. I always did have a hankering to learn the fiddle though.
  • Muggsy and Big-D: I have a great fretless electric that should he want, he can have when he is older. Now and then, I think about picking it back up myself, but I am then reminded about how much I now hate heavy, cumbersome instruments.
  • edited May 2014
    Depends on your perspective, I guess. To me any electric bass that weighs 10 lbs or less qualifies as light. Get a wide strap and it's very comfortable. I have a great fretless that I mess around with from time to time, but my intonation is terrible. I try not to listen too closely when I'm playing it. Sure is fun though.

    Also, from an equipment standpoint, I have a micro bass head that puts out 500 watts into 8 ohms and weighs four lbs, paired with a speaker cab that's around 40 lbs. I can load in and out for a gig or practice in one trip, and everything fits in my car.
  • My intonation was good, but the fretless was my principle bass (my other, a five string which I sold a few years ago, was used for two-handed stuff). I might yet revisit the bass ...

    I found the method I want to use : Marc O'Connor's.
  • So BT, my mother is interested in buying a mandolin for my father. As far as I know he's never played a mandolin. He has played guitar for 40 + years, and banjo for almost as long; he's mostly a rhythm, strumming type player with both. Any suggestions for brands to look into, brands to avoid, for an experienced beginner? Probably they don't want to break the bank or scrape the bottom of the barrel...
  • edited May 2014
    If they are looking for a good mando at a rock bottom price, I'd recommend a Kentucky KM-150, which should come in around $300 with setup. Indeed, it's the instrument that I see most beginners playing, and it seems very well suited for playing Bluegrass. I would avoid Loars (which has nothing to do with the famous luthier who worked for Gibson) and Fenders.

    Mid-Missouri's are very popular at the $450-700 rang. Not necessarily to my liking, they are really well loved by people who seem to like to play a range of music. They have a nice folky, backporch sound that feels like a lazy day. And they are tough! Breedlove Crossovers are in this range. I know nothing about them, but they sound bright in the clips and seem easy to play. Probably better for improv (especially with its long neck).

    If she intends to go higher, I'll add more recommendations. Above $1200 you can get some good custom options.

    What you hear me play in the clips is an Eastman 505, which you should be able to find for $750 with setup. It's made in China (not necessarily bad), but it has a slightly narrower neck than most mandolins. The sound also tends more toward Classical and Italian than Bluegrass. It has the advantage of being easier to play, and the sound will open up more than a Kentucky.

    Above that, I would recommend a Weber, entry being around $900-1000. This one is really well loved by people in Celtic as well as Berklee players.

    Style choice: an F-style mando (the more elaborate) tends to be more expensive without adding significantly to the sound. On the other hand, the choice of f-holes (like on a violin) or ovals (like on a guitar) significantly impacts how the instrument carries. F-holes have more presence, but ovals are brighter. Ovals are more Bluegrass, but if he's more of a rhythm guy, f-holes with give a chunkier sound that has more presence.

    The Pick Sermon: this may be my little quirk, but I am serious about picks. I know too many guitarists who use those paper thin Fender picks, and they sound like crap on the mandolin. A thicker picks (1.2-1.5 mm is good) not only improve volume and tone, they decrease the chances of wrist pain (looser grip, less energy expended). Dunlop makes a good range of sizes and shapes that aren't expensive and should be carried by most stores with guitars. I use 6 types of picks, which may seem obsessive--ok, it's obsessive, and people point it out. My go to is a D'Andrea Pro Plec 1.5 mm teardrop. It has a darker sound, but it wears nicely, and is really stable in the hand. They are generally .60 to .75 cents per, but they are difficult to find in stores. I buy mine online a dozen at a time. If your dad is going to develop a strong tremolo, you might want to get him a V-Pick Pearly Round: 2.75 mm and smooth. They also cost $4. It's not necessary, but it allows for tremoloing for longer periods of time and over two or more strings with greater comfort.

    As for pricing, you should check the Mandolin Store. Not always the best price, but probably close to it. And check Youtube for samples of people playing.
  • Thanks! That's a lot of info.
  • Big ETA: In the $700-900 range you might look at a basic Gibson from the 1910-1930 era. During those years, banjos and mandolins were mass produced; guitars weren't. As a result, there are a lot of them around. They are also more of a charge than an investment. I find them a little more cumbersome, but whenever I play one, people are beside themselves to tell me how wonderful I sound. Probably the best sound you can get under $1000.
  • I haven't been on emusers much lately and so I just now saw your post here from last week. I read it with great interest, since I play the violin (well, at least I USED to play the violin!) I began learning how to play in the 4th grade and I kept playing all the way through high school, but only very occasionally have picked it up since then. I loved it.

    It takes a whole lot of perseverance to learn how to play the violin (I would think maybe a little more than most instruments require) and if Eli is not very disciplined, he may quickly lose interest in it and want to switch to another instrument. But you never know. The fact that he knows some fingering already will help, for sure, as you surmise. I don't know how to play the guitar with chords, but I can fingerpick almost any tune I wish on a guitar since I know how to play the violin.

    Learning to handle the bow is a little more difficult and will just have to come with practice. In the beginning, there is going to be an awful lot of scratchy, screechy sounds coming from that little violin and you are going to wish you had earplugs. Scratching on a chalkboard is more bearable. But that will eventually go away with practice and Eli will learn the right touch needed to produce a musical note when the bow glides across the string instead of a screech. That is, if he stays interested in the violin. Renting a child-size violin on a month-to-month basis sounds like a great way for you to find out without investing too heavily.

    I think it's great that you and your wife are making an effort to be encouraging, even though Eli's choice of instrument wouldn't have been your choice for him. Keep us posted on Eli's experiences. I'd like to know how it all turns out.
  • Hey, BT, a thick pick is where it's at. I like a heavy pick, generally Fender but only the fake tortoise or multicolor ones because they are stronger for some reason. I have actually melted single color picks during surf numbers so I need one that stands up, I also use a pick when I play bass, a Tortex 2.0 mm purple one's my favorite - two reasons, 1. I didn't play bass often enough to get good callouses, and 2. with a super heavy pick and palm muting of the strings I found I could get a faux stand-up kind of thump from my P-bass that was a good sound for blues/swingabilly stuff.
  • edited May 2014
    BigD, I dare you:


    11 mm!

    I love V-picks--they are freakishly fast. However, they wear quickly. I keep emory boards around to even the edges. The only exception is the pearly picks, which keep their edges quite nicely.

    I also use John Pearse horn picks and a smaller D'Andrea teardrop for classical.
  • BT, what the heck is that - a pick or an arrowhead? Can you chip flint with that thing? I'll have to keep an eye out when I get back to a music store - I've been staying away for a while to avoid temptation, but I've been very good so I deserve to take the risk.
  • Here's a different view:


    $35, but you can also use it to study light spectra of celestial objects!

    lightning, thunder, fog machine, creeking door, long shadow and footsteps, etc.

    hey kids. always good to idle around with you.

    truth be told, nothing will transpire as you forecast. sure, there's some dialog which is well-grounded and even informative up to this point but there is nothing like LET IT BE.

    it's a wonderful journey, wherever it goes. clink.
  • Not to discourage your dad, but has he thought about a ukulele? $220 would get a Mainland Mahogany Concert--as much quality as a Mid Mo, very versatile, and well respected.
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