According to statistics from the People’s Republic of China, one-third of the world’s violins are produced in the Pinggu District on the extreme eastern side of Beijing.
And that’s just the beginning. A recent Strings magazine article by Greg Cahill states, “Officials in the Pinggu District announced last year that the Chinese government would invest 15 billion yuan (U.S. $2.2 billion) to build an international music park and establish China’s Music Valley, an industrial zone that will be the musical-instrument equivalent of California’s Silicon Valley.”
The zone is expected to include facilities for research and development, production, trade, performance, exhibitions, and tourism.
Since the 1990s, says Cahill, “the violin industry in Pinggu has grown from small workshops with several workers to factories with hundreds of employees, making everything from low-end to high-end musical instruments.” In 2009, some 300,000 instruments were sold in more than forty countries.
String teacher Chip Gulbro comments, “There are plenty of good student-level stringed instruments from China these days in the $600–1,200 range.
What to look for when buying a violin or viola (this refers to any manufacturer):
Appearance: If the instrument looks like a five-year-old slapped some orange paint on the body, or you can’t see any grain on the wood whatsoever, move on!
Set-up: This is crucial. The instrument should have the pegs, nut, fingerboard, neck, bridge, soundpost, and tailpiece all lined up and working properly. If not, it won’t be playable or tunable, and your student won’t be able to realize the instrument’s potential. If you buy from a reputable dealer, this won’t be an issue. A good set-up allows the instrument to be played easily and enables the student to produce a solid tone with a bow on all strings.
- Run your finger down the seam where the fingerboard is glued to the neck starting at the nut. Do you feel any bumps, misalignment, or is it smooth as polished granite?
- The bridge should have a definite slope dropping downward towards the thinner string side. If there is no slope, the student will not be able to play on one string at a time. Great for some fiddle tunes, but not so for orchestral work. For new entry-level instruments, a flat or thick bridge may indicate that there are other problems as well.
Tone: Tone is subjective, but if the instrument measures up on the above points, and pleases your ear and budget, then it’s probably the one for you.
Price: You will probably have to pay at least $300 to buy something that will please the student and fulfil your requirements as the teacher.
MENC member Chip Gulbro has extensive string-teaching experience and is currently a general music instructor in the Huntsville City Schools in Huntsville, Alabama. He plays violin in the jazz group Chip Gulbro and Friends.
This piece was adapted from Greg Cahill’s article “The Mother Lode of Chinese-Made Violins,” to be published in the July 2011 issue of Strings magazine, p. 130. Chip Gulbro wrote the tips on what to look for when buying a violin or viola.
–Ella Wilcox, June 1, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (www.nafme.org)