It's all very well learning the violin through lessons and your own practice sessions. But until you're out there in the real world, playing music with other people, it can all feel a bit theoretical.
Of course, it's important to learn solo pieces, and spend time on your own carefully building your technique. In fact, the intellectual challenge of tackling the many subtle layers of violin technique can be very rewarding in itself!
But when we talk about 'making music', we're really referring to the magic that happens when you play with other musicians. That's when we have to listen and interact with each other ... and that's never going to be the same every time. Playing music with other people is a truly creative endeavour.
When playing in a group, you need to develop a fairly strong instinct for what you're doing, so that you can shift your focus away from your own playing and towards other people's. That's how you keep your awareness high, so that you can always sense what's going on, and respond accordingly.
You need to rely on your training and instinct to deliver the technique you need, so that you can stay in the present moment, and focus on the people around you... and on the music that you're creating and sharing together!
At our London school we run a series of ensembles and other community music making opportunities throughout the year, including our popular Violin Orchestra, and the Saturday ViolinHubs where we build up Technical, Performance and Repertoire (group playing) skills.
If you don't have similar opportunities in your area, then it's a good idea to ask around at music schools and shops, to see if there are any local people who are interested in playing music. You'll be surprised at how many 'hidden' musicians there are... people who've played music as a child, and would love to start playing again. Could you start your own music group, meetup, or even an ensemble?
The social aspect of playing music together is incredibly important. As well as providing strong connections to your local community, playing in a group or an orchestra is really great for personal development... and it's often simply a lot of fun, especially when players become good friends!
But orchestras and ensembles are all about using what you already know to create great music. So what happens if you haven't yet learnt how to play?
Traditionally, musical instruments have been taught on a 'master and apprentice' basis, where a reputed musician will pass on their knowledge and understanding during 'one to one' lessons and personal coaching sessions.
But what we're increasingly finding at ViolinSchool is that the social aspect of being in a group can be incredibly beneficial to the effectiveness of your learning.
Whereas in a one to one lesson you only get access to the knowledge of one expert, a group tuition program (such as our Beginner Violin Courses for Adults and our Children's Violin Courses at our London School) can help give you wider context for your learning.
Firstly, you become aware of the progress of the group, and whether you're keeping up. You can see the progression that's expected during a course, and supplement your learning with class resources and a curriculum.
But most of all, you can talk and engage with your fellow learners, discuss ideas that have been covered in the class, and support each other (with perhaps a bit of friendly competition to motivate you along the way!).
As relationships develop with the people around you, you learn more about yourself by learning about each other. Each of us starts with different strengths and weaknesses, and the way that we overcome challenges and obstacles can be both informative and inspiring to other learners.
Being generous with our knowledge and wisdom not only helps other people to progress, but it helps us ourselves to grow. One of the best ways to truly know whether you understand a topic, is to explain it to someone else. By sharing and discussing ideas in a social learning context, we become better and stronger - both as a community, and as individuals.
Social learning doesn't replace one to one attention... there are times when a bit of personal tuition is exactly what's needed in order to break through a particular obstacle, or work in detail on a complex task that needs the advice of an expert, for example.
But a good selection of social learning and playing opportunities blended with online and one to one tuition can provide an excellent mix of perspectives, environments, information sources, and experiences... all of which will enrich your life as a violinist and musician!
If you're about to embark upon a Violin Course, a series of violin lessons, a new school term, or even just a new routine of regular practice, then it makes sense to get your instrument into the best possible condition before you start!
There are few things more frustrating (and demotivating!) than diving into a new period of learning with excitement and enthusiasm, only to find that you can't make progress because your tools are faulty, worn or out of date! So follow this checklist before you go to your first class or practice session!
Check the Strings
Violin Strings wear out. If you've been playing a lot, you'll find that they may have become worn, dull in sound, or even started to lose their outer coating (in which case they'll need replacing immediately - before they hurt your fingers, or weaken and snap!)
Or if you've not been playing at all, and the violin has been sitting unplayed in a cupboard for a while (it happens!), then the strings may have deteriorated through lack of use. Either way, one of the smartest things you can do before starting a new course is to check (and if necessary replace) the strings.
For regular players, it makes sense to buy a new set of strings every year or two, but if you play a lot, you may want to do this more regularly. Some professional players will replace the strings before every major concert tour, but it quickly becomes an expensive habit if you do this every couple of months!
On the other hand, you don't want to leave it years between each string change. Even if you don't notice the strings wearing out because it's so gradual, you'll definitely hear the difference once a new set is on the violin... it breathes new life into an instrument!
It's remarkable how many people, especially at beginner level, don't have a spare set of strings. Strings do sometimes break - this is normal! But if you're nowhere near a violin shop, or need to wait for an online order to arrive, you may find yourself unable to practise for several days...
...don't risk it! Get a spare set of strings and you'll be prepared for when string disaster strikes!
'Playing In' New Strings
If you replace your violin strings the day before your first class, then you should expect to have minor difficulties tuning the violin for at least a couple of days. This is because new strings need to be 'played in'... they need to get used to the tension that's created by winding and fixing them onto the violin.
The strings will naturally stretch during this process, which musicians sometimes refer to as 'settling' ("I just changed my strings; they need some time to settle"). Until newly attached strings are stable, you may find that they violin slips out of tune far more than usual!
The amount of time it takes for violin strings to settle does depend on the make and model of the string, and on the thickness (generally, the lower strings will take longer to settle than the higher strings, though this can vary). As a general rule, a few hours of playing over a couple of days is usually enough to 'play in' strings to the point at which they become stable.
Keep a set of old strings!
It's good practise to have used strings on hand in case you have a string break during a concert, and need an urgent replacement that's already been 'played in'. After all, if a string has already been stretched and worn, it's not going to slip out of tune as easily as a brand new string that hasn't been used.
So keep your most recent set of old strings in your violin case... just in case you have a string snap just before - or even during! - a concert or event. You'll be glad you did!
Check the Bow Hair
Another 'perishable' part of your equipment is the bow hair. Over time, the bow hair - like the strings - becomes worn and less responsive. Bow hair can also become dirty (especially near the heel, if you're in a habit of making contact between the bow hair and your right thumb.
So you should consider refreshing it on a regular basis (but be aware that, if you're using a cheap bow, it may not make economic sense... bow rehairs are usually more expensive than replacing cheap bows).
It's also common for the hairs of the bow to break from time to time (especially if you're playing a lot of ferocious, fast music... or if you're pressing too hard on the string!).
So even if your bow hair is fairly new, make sure that you've got a full complement of bow hairs on the bow, and that it's not becoming too one-sided (as hairs will tend to break on the far side of the bow - i.e. away from you - due to how we tilt the bow when playing).
If you play a lot, then you might find yourself needing to replace the bow hair more than once per year. But for many people, it's something that only needs to be done every couple of years.
Is your rosin in good condition? Is your music stand working well? Do you have enough pencils and pencil sharpeners? Do you need to replace the soft cloth that you use for wiping down your violin after using it?
It's easy to get into bad habits and forget how important these tiny details are. Having a 'duster' or microfibre cloth (for wiping rosin off the instrument's surface when you put it way) is a good example... there are plenty of violinists who keep the same cloth for so long, and don't think of ever washing or replacing it!
Music stands, especially cheap collapsable ones, can break easily. And though it might seem like a secondary detail, a faulty music stand can be enough to significantly disrupt a violinist's practice routine! Make sure that you have all these little things taken care of, and you'll have fewer obstacles in the way of achieving your learning goals.
Here's a comprehensive list of things to check before embarking on the next stage of your learning. Can you think of anything we've forgotten? If so, let us know at [email protected]!
'Big Circles' are simple, straightforward exercises that you can use as a warm up at the beginning of your practice. They're also useful for improving your bow control, and your feeling for the 'balance' of the bow.
Before we get started playing Big Circles, we need to be clear about how the balance of the bow works.
Depending on where we play in the bow, the balance of the bow changes. This is because at any given moment, there is more of the bow - and therefore more bow weight - on one side of the strings than the other.This is why we have to have a flexible bowhold that is constantly rebalancing the weight of the bow, by acting as a suspension system. If instead we have a 'fixed' bowhold that quite literally 'holds' the bow, then we can't rebalance the bow properly, and we end up with a hard, inflexible sound!
One of the areas where we need to 'balance the bow' the most, is at the very heel of the bow (the bottom end, where the bow hair connects into the 'nut' or 'frog' of the bow). When we are playing at the heel, the bow is very unbalanced, because most of the bow weight falls to the left of the strings (as you look at it whilst playing).
This is why it's hard to control our bow strokes in the lowest quarter of the bow.
To stop the bow falling in the wrong direction, we use the little finger as a counterweight. When the little finger is sitting on top of the bow, and its knuckle is engaged as a counterweight, it stops the bow falling uncontrollably.This provides stability to the bowing movements, and allows us to bow smoothly at the heel.
Big Circles: Relying on the Little Finger
The Big Circles exercise relies on the little finger operating correctly. If the little finger isn't acting as a counterweight, then the exercise won't work!
So the first step is to check that your bow hold is correct.
Use our Checklists to be sure that you've checked each part of your posture and your bowing arm technique, before you begin!
Raise your bowing arm into the air. Make sure that your little finger is already working as a counterweight, keeping the bow steady as you move.
Breathe out, and relax your body as much as you can without collapsing your posture. As you breathe out, lower the bow downwards towards the string (start with the D or the A string first). Focus in on your little finger, and feel how it continues to support the weight of the bow.
Allow the bow to touch the string very gently, but stay focused on the little finger counterweight. The little finger should continue being a counterweight until the bow is firmly engaged with the string, and above the level of the balance point (half-way point in terms of weight) of the bow.
Play a down bow all the way until the tip of the bow. Feel how the bow balance changes throughout the stroke, and note how the feeling in your right hand and fingers changes throughout the stroke.At the beginning of the stroke you will be trying to counter the heaviness of the bow weight, and not let it fall too heavily into the string.During the stroke, the bow will become more balanced, and your hand/fingers will not have to 'do' so much.Towards the tip of the bow, you may need to add in more weight into the bow, to create a consistent sound all the way to the end of the stroke.
Repeat the Big Circles several times, and stay focused on:
Long Slow Bows are one of the best - and most straightforward! - techniques that you can use to warm up on the violin! They're also great for improving your bow technique.
Practising Long Slow Bows involves playing lots of up and down bows on your violin. But even though the task isn't complicated, there are lots of things you need to look out for ...
Here are some of the things you should check for when practising Long Slow Bows:
Posture - Is your body correctly positioned? Are all the elements of your body posture, your right arm and your left arm technique in the right place? (If you're not sure, use our '3 Important Checklists' to find out!)
Bow Control - Is the bow doing exactly what you want it to, and nothing else? Or does it have a life of its own? You need to make sure that the speed, weight and placement (position of the bow) are exactly how you want them to be!
Pure, Clean Sound - if you have good bow control, then you can create a beautiful, clear, vibrant and resonant sound. Listen closely to your sound production, and make sure there aren't any 'rough edges' to the sound.
Straight Bows - The bow needs to remain at right angles to the string as you play. This is what we call a 'straight' bow. If it doesn't remain straight, then the connection between the bow hair and the string will be disrupted, which will affect the sound you create.
Many people like to take a few minutes to play Long Slow Bows at the beginning of a violin practice session. It's a great way to get warmed up and ready to play - and it can be a useful way of 'clearing the mind' and focusing your awareness on your sound production.
It's a particularly good exercise because it's so simple... there aren't any other complicated techniques or musical demands filling up your brain, so you're free to focus on the sound, and the precision of your core bowing technique!
There are a few methods that you can introduce to your Long Slow Bow practice that will increase the effectiveness of what you do.
Play it SLOW! - This is sooooo important! Yes, the clue is in the name... it should be obvious! But it's easy to forget about bow speed after a few strokes, particularly if we're feeling enthusiastic and want to move quickly through our practice tasks.
But you need to stay disciplined and make sure that you take the time to play with a slow bow stroke. It's actually MORE challenging to play with a consistently beautiful sound at a slow tempo than at a fast tempo. So practising slowly is extremely helpful for the development and maintenance of your bowing technique.
Also, when you play slow, you have more TIME to consider the movements that you're making, and the sound that you're producing. This means you can listen in more detail to the resonance of the sound that you're producing, and make adjustments as you go along!
Play it IN TIME - It's one thing to get a technique working fluently, but it's another task altogether to make it work effectively in time with the music.
So once your Long Slow Bows are generating a consistently beautiful sound, you should try increasing the precision of your bow control by adding a regular beat.
A simple way to do this is to set a metronome at 60 beats per minute, and then making each Long Slow Bow last for four beats. That way you're using a quarter of the bow for each beat.
Once you've tried a few strokes like this, you'll feel how important it is to get the bow speed consistent, in order to stay correctly in time with the metronome. This will help to improve your co-ordination and the accuracy of your bowing.
Although it's important to have a good set of practice routines, you should change around your tasks from time to time. You don't want to get 'stuck in a rut' by doing the same things over and over again!
Be creative in your technical practice, especially if you want to develop as much flexibility as possible in your bowing.
There are SO many different ways you can practise Long Slow Bows, and you should feel free to invent different approaches and think of new ways to practise the exercises. Here are a few to get you started:
How's your slurred string crossing technique? We've just added the first video tutorial to course 1D, and it's a smooooth ride for those that string-cross steadily...
Or, if you're still getting to grips with music theory, then Setareh has a 'Quick Fix' for your sixteenth notes (or as we like to call them here in Britain, semiquavers...!), over in the Beginner Quick Start course:
We've just added some new video lessons for the Beginner level...
Get to know the open strings of the violin, and how it feels and sounds to play on them. Click here to download the sheet music!
Ready ... Steady ... Gooooooooooo!!! These fun rhythms will keep you busy while you wait for the green light! Click here to download the sheet music!
Plus, one of our most popular feature articles...
One of our most popular pages on ViolinSchool.com is our article Violin Notes for Beginners. If you need a basic primer on the strings of the violin, it's a great place to start! Click here to read it: Violin Notes for Beginners
Cuckoo! An exclusive arrangement for two violins, by David Worswick, of the fabulously filigree piano piece, ͚Le Coucou͛, by French composer, Louis-Claude Daquin.
1st Position G Minor Arpeggio exercises featuring different note patterns, rhythms, bowings and articulations.
The sublime, sweeping main theme from Tchaikovsky’s much loved ballet, telling the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse!
Let's practice clapping some rhythms together!
What is music? It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer! … hard to come up with a satisfactory definition. Here’s our best effort, taken from the ViolinSchool Glossary:
The vast vast majority of music will contain varieties of these three elements: Pitch, Rhythm, and Sound (timbre). And so, when you are practising the violin, you need to be super-duper-hyper aware of all three, developing and honing, developing and honing, then honing some more!
In Beats Me!, we’re going to look at the fundamental units of rhythm, the units that you’ll find in pretty much every piece you will ever play.
So, what is rhythm?! Again, let’s consult the ViolinSchool Glossary:
Sounds good. But, what is pulse? How is it different from rhythm?
Once we’ve established the pulse, felt the beat, then rhythm can take place within and around it. It’s such a natural, human thing (and a parrot thing, too, it would seem … keen “headbangers” that they are!). When we ‘sense’ the pulse, or ‘feel’ the beat, it makes us react kinaesthetically: we tap our feet, we clap our hands, we nod our heads, we dance! The pulse of music can be super super fast, or super super slow, and everything in between … we call this the ‘tempo’:
The basic units of rhythm are as follows:
American Terms --- Whole Note (4 beats); Half Note (2 beats); Quarter Note (1 beat); Eighth Note (½ a beat); & Sixteenth Note (¼ of a beat)
British Terms --- Semibreve (4 beats); Minim (2 beats); Crotchet (1 beat); Quaver (½ a beat); & Semiquaver (¼ of a beat)
Now we’re clear on the definitions, let’s try clapping or tapping the rhythms in Beats Me!
Make sure the pulse is really solid and consistent. Start with a slow tempo, and then try it at a faster tempo, and then at an even faster tempo, etc., etc. You can also ‘speak’ the rhythms while you clap/tap, saying out loud “1-2-3-4” … “1-2” … “1” … “half” … “quarter”.
A great way to strengthen your sense of pulse (and to check you are getting all the rhythms right!) is to use a metronome … Glossary-time! …
Time to cast some spells! Your bow becomes a magic wand to conjure up some wondrous sounds in this bedazzling little open string piece. Abracadabra!!
Arpeggio-based note patterns, rhythms, bowings, techniques, and articulation exercises in 1st position G major.