Over time, the strings on your violin will become worn and you will need to consider replacing them. However, strings can be very different to each other, and exactly when you need to change your strings will depend on a number of different factors:
The material that a string is made of can make a big difference to how long it lasts. Gut strings generally wear out more quickly than steel strings. Check the specifications of the strings you have (take a look at the packet, or if you no longer have it, check the manufacturer’s website) to see what your strings are made of.
Condition of the Material
Some strings have an outer layer of wrapped metal, and this can sometimes become loose and begin to unravel. This is especially common where your fingers touch the fingerboard. The repeated action can cause the string to become stressed, which can weaken it.
Wear and tear is also common where the string touches the violin near the nut (at the bottom of the scrollbox) or the bridge (see picture).
It’s worth checking that the nut and bridge of your violin are in good condition; if the grooves where the string should sit are not correctly engineered, then they can cause damage to the strings too.
If strings do unravel, change them straight away! It can be dangerous to your fingers to play with strings which have a damaged outer layer, even for a couple of minutes.
Sometimes strings snap (commonly at the pressure point where the string rests on the bridge, but it is possible to snap elsewhere too), and if this happens they will be completely unusable, and you will need to replace them. For this reason, it is worth carrying a set of spare strings with you at all times!
Even if strings do last for a long time without breaking, they will eventually start sounding dull and will become difficult to tune. When a string is old and worn, you may be able to hear inconsistency in the pitch. Also think about the resonance of the sound you are making – does it usually sound like this? If you find that the sound you are producing doesn’t seem as clear as usual, then (assuming there is no fault in your technique!) this may be another clue that your strings are showing their age!
The amount of time you spend playing your violin will obviously affect the lifespan of the string! The more you play, the more the strings will vibrate, and the more their lifespan will decrease. However, there are things you can do to minimise the impact.
Do you clean your strings and fingerboard regularly? If not, the build up of dirt may cause some strings to age more quickly. Do you sweat a lot in your hand and fingers, or are your fingers oily? Be sure to clean up any residue at the end of your practice. Do you wash your hands before playing your violin? Could this affect the cleanliness of the strings?
It’s really hard to define useful guidelines about how often to change your strings, simply because there are so many different factors and each string will have a slightly different lifespan. On many internet forums you’ll find recommendations for changing strings ‘every 120 hours’ or ‘every 3 to 6 months’. But changing strings very regularly regardless of their condition can become an expensive habit.
Some people keep their strings on for a number of years (especially metal strings which last longer), and no doubt keeping things clean and well-looked after will help extend the lifespan. But strings which have been on a violin for an extended period of time are unlikely to work so well. Even if they remain in a good working condition, the tone quality will be significantly reduced.
You can be strategic about when to change your strings. For example, if you have a few months before a big concert when you are just practicing on your own, then it makes sense to change the strings a couple of days or weeks before the concert, so that they are still fairly fresh.
And sometimes the choice about whether to replace a string can be obvious. If you have an old violin that you haven’t played for many years, it’s best to change the strings; the tension holding the strings in place will have made them age them over time, even if they haven’t been played!
If you’re unsure about strings, or if you don’t have any information about what make they are or how long they have been on a violin, then use these simple questions (based on the information above) to identify whether or not they need to be replaced:
ViolinSchool’s recommendation: look after your strings well, be aware of all the factors above, and listen carefully to the tone you are producing. This should allow you to make an accurate assessment of whether your strings have remaining life or not. If you are in any doubt, and if it’s been a long time since you last changed the strings, then it’s definitely worth replacing them for new ones.
The violinists’ chin rest and shoulder rest are accessories designed to facilitate ease of movement in violin playing. They should make holding the violin feel secure and comfortable. But how do you choose the right chin rest and shoulder rest? Should you make do with the chin rest that arrives with the instrument, or is it worth trying different shapes and sizes? And how do you know when a shoulder rest fits?
The chin rest was invented in the 1800’s by a violinist called Louis Spohr. Spohr is less well known today, but during his lifetime he was very famous – as famous as Beethoven. He was the leader of orchestras in Vienna, Frankfurt and Kassel, and also wrote a substantial number of compositions. He was responsible for the preservation and promotion of works by Bach and Handel, and the violin music he composed is difficult.
His invention of a small rest for the chin was designed to enable the left hand to move more freely between positions, giving security in higher registers and more mobility around the fingerboard. The first chinrest was very small and placed centrally over the tailpiece, but it immediately took off amongst violinists and has since evolved into a standard piece of violin playing equipment.
There are now many different designs of chin rest, all sorts of shapes and sizes, to enable players to find a comfortable fit. There are just as many different shoulder rests.
The shoulder rest is a more recent addition to the violinists’ toolkit and the history is less clear. In the August, 1921 issue of Etude magazine, an advert for the Mado Shoulder Rest can be found, whilst the August, 1923 issue of The Violinist contains a list of American violin makers, in which the Lockes' Violin Shoulder Rest is mentioned, stating that this particular shoulder rest was invented by Guyon Locke in April 1876. So just as Spohr’s chinrest idea was adapted and refined, many violinists had solutions for the shoulder rest, and each created something that suited their own playing.
The shoulder rest is also by no means a compulsory accessory. Some people prefer not to use one at all, claiming that it impedes the movement in their left arm, or stating, correctly, that fixing a shoulder rest to the violin prevents it from vibrating fully and mutes the sound.
It’s clear then that right from the earliest days of the chin rest and shoulder rest, no single design worked for everyone. This makes sense, because every violinist has a different shaped jaw, a longer or shorter neck, broad or sloping shoulders, a unique technique and a personal sense of comfort with the instrument. Ultimately, each violinist will find their own combination of chin and shoulder rest. It really is a matter of personal taste, as violinist Hilary Hahn explains in this video.
The Chin Rest
Many violinists will simply stick with the chin rest that came with the instrument. It’s all part of the same thing, right?
Student violins will come with a generic chin rest, often one that is not comfortable for anyone, and every instrument, right up to the best professional instrument will come with a chin rest already attached.
How do you tell if the chin rest doesn’t fit you?
A poorly fitting chin rest will be uncomfortable. It will cause you to tilt your head or even to reach forward with your head in order to hold on the violin with your jawbone. If your violin droops too much or you find that your chin is resting in the wrong place, the chin rest is not right for you. Compensating for a badly fitting chin rest with poor head position will cause neck aches, headaches and soreness in the jaw where the chin rest presses. It reduces the free movement of the arms and actually creates the exact problems that a chin rest is supposed to prevent. The violinist ends up adjusting their technique in order to hold on to the violin securely, limiting left hand freedom and reducing ease of shifting.
The only way to find a chin rest that fits is to visit your violin shop. Finding a comfortable shape may mean trying out many different rests. There are so many shapes available to fit different jaws, but the only way to know is to try them, making online shopping impractical for this purpose.
A well fitting chin rest will be both the correct height and the right shape for your jaw. It will allow your head to serve as a counterbalance to the weight of your extended bow arm. This will relieve your neck and shoulders of any unnecessary tension, preventing muscular pain and improving tone production.
A violinist with a round, fleshy jaw may find that a chin rest with a flat plate and a long, low ridge across the back is very comfortable. A player with a pointy jaw will need a totally different shape of rest. A rest that slopes downwards from the part nearest the neck will give good leverage, but one that is too high towards the left side near the ear will be likely to create skin irritations. If you need to nod your head exaggeratedly in order to touch the chin rest, it is too low. If you have to lift your head it is far too high. If your chin rest fits well but is a fraction too low, you can have it raised with the addition of a small piece of cork under its foot. If you have a long neck you don’t necessarily need a really high chin rest. Try a rest with a larger hump to match your jaw shape.
One aspect to consider, which is also important when choosing a chin rest, is the mobility of the left shoulder. If your left shoulder is flexible, you may prefer a chin rest placed to the left of the tailpiece. If it is less mobile, or if you have particularly narrow shoulders, you may prefer a centrally placed chin rest, or one that reaches more over the tailpiece.
Once you have a chin rest that fits well, you will find that your downward shifting and vibrato feel more secure. The chin rest will hold the weight of the instrument towards the collarbone, close to the spinal column, supporting the violin with the body’s natural balance. Your collarbones and arms will be free to move, the scroll height will naturally fall correctly and your violin will feel lighter.
There is also the option to cover your chinrest with chamois leather or a Strad Pad to prevent the skin from rubbing.
The Shoulder Rest
Choosing a shoulder rest is actually a bit more straightforward. Some players play without a shoulder rest, but some sort of support is often recommended for beginners as it helps to develop correct playing posture. The shoulder rest can help prevent the shoulder from hunching up under the violin, and can aid a comfortable neck position. It also removes the weight of the violin from the collarbone and gives space for the left arm to move freely under the violin.
Conversely, some players find that a shoulder rest can actually limit movement, though in this instance the shoulder rest is not correctly fitted. You should make sure when choosing a rest that there is not too much material pressing into the left shoulder or protruding down over the chest, because this will stop the natural rotation in your shoulder which you need to move around the fingerboard.
So how do you find the best shoulder rest for you?
There are many options. Some rests are soft and cushioned; others give a firm hold that helps keep the violin in place. Shoulder rests come in different shapes and sizes, and physical aspects such as shoulder breadth and the length of your neck are important considerations. Many rests are adjustable and ergonomically shaped to curve with the shape of your shoulder. They can also be positioned in various ways on the back of the violin to provide optimum support.
Again, the best way to find your set-up is to experiment. Many beginners start with a sponge or folded cloth fixed to the back of the violin with an elastic band. This is cost effective, but gives unreliable support and mutes the vibrations of the instrument considerably. Anything that covers a large surface area of the violin, particularly something made from an absorbent material, will affect the tone. A wooden shoulder rest in a design that sits away from the body of the violin will provide more resonance.
There are two basis reasons for using a shoulder rest. Firstly, it can help you to support the violin and secondly it offers comfort while playing. It effectively closes the space between the jaw and the shoulder that is not filled by the violin. You may find you prefer a soft sponge-like rest or perhaps you find a less padded, contoured, bar-shaped rest works better.
The correct height is important to consider too. If you have a longer neck, you are likely to need a taller rest, though most rests have adjustable heights. Foam rests and small sponges are much lower.
Ultimately, the shoulder rest you choose comes down to personal preference. Try different shapes and sizes and see what feels comfortable, but always remember to consult your teacher too. You may find that a rest that initially corrects one problem can cause another, and it is best to be really sure that your shoulder rest is suitable for your body shape and technique. You may also find that as your playing develops you want to try something different. Many violinists experiment with different shoulder and chinrest set-ups, and not many established players still use the exact same accessories they used as students. Be flexible and imaginative, and be open to experimenting, but be careful not to become obsessive. Ultimately, once you find something comfortable that does the job of supporting the violin, relax and enjoy your playing.
Existing set-ups can often be adapted for even more efficiency. A worn bar-type shoulder rest can be revitalised with the use of rubber bands for more friction and security. Some shoulder rests offer extra long adjustable legs. Shoulder rest feet can be rejuvenated with new rubber tubing. Nickel allergies can be avoided with titanium mounted, silver-plated or hypoallergenic plastic chinrests.
The shoulder rest and chin rest should work together by providing opposite forces. The shoulder rest supports from underneath the violin, and the chinrest gives the violin its position in regards to the body.
For every violin student, from beginner to advanced, the purchase of a suitable instrument is a distinct milestone which can prove challenging. Your violin is your voice, and so must meet your expectations of tone as well as allowing development in technique and musical knowledge. A bad instrument is often much harder to play than a good one.
Most of us would love to own one of the million dollar Italian violins by a great maker, but given that they cost millions of pounds, the more pressing issue is how to find a violin that is just right for you at the price you can afford. This has been a subject of discussion for violin students for as long as the violin has been studied. In Louis Spohr’s Celebrated Violin School, an instruction manual on playing the violin published in 1832, Dr. Spohr notes:
“Every new Violin, even of the oldest wood, has, at first, a rough, unpleasant tone, and arrives only, at one of fine quality, after having been used for a number of years. Old instruments, therefore, which have been brought to perfection by constant use, are the only ones adapted for solo playing. Of these, (and, indeed, of all which have yet been manufactured,) the most esteemed are those of the three Cremona makers, Antonio Stradivario, Giuseppe Guanererio, and Nicolo Amati, who flourished in the latter half of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. The Violins of these makers unite in themselves, especially if well preserved, all the advantages of a good instrument, viz: a strong, full, and rich tone, perfect equality in the tones of each string; and a free emission of every sound from the lowest to the highest. They differ, however, in form, and in the characteristics of their tone.
These excellent instruments are dispersed throughout Europe, but, being mostly in the hands of rich amateurs, are scarce and dear; and as they yearly become more so, a young beginner will seldom meet with an opportunity of purchasing one.”
There are various questions you might consider when looking for a violin, whether it’s your first instrument or an upgrade.
How much should you pay?
For most people, the price you pay will depend to a large extent on what you can afford, but with the violin it is really worth remembering you get what you pay for. The price of an instrument will generally determine the quality. However, it can be possible find a cheaper violin that sounds good, and sound can be improved by the set-up of the bridge and sound post, quality strings and various other adjustments.
The value of a violin depends on several criteria: Who made it, where and when it was made and its condition. Because the violin has become an investment item in some circles, the sound of the instrument actually comes last on the list.
If you are really unsure about which violin to buy, consider renting first. Renting is a nice, low-commitment way to try out the instrument and get used to what you might look for in your own violin. You will also build up a relationship with the violin shop that will be useful when you want to buy.
Generally new violin outfits that cost less than £100 are not worth having. They often have so many problems that it’s likely you’ll be put off playing altogether. The parts are cheap and badly made, the bow won’t work, wobbling and skidding as it’s not properly balanced, the strings will be awful and the accessories will be cheap and poor quality. Some beginner sets can look like good value; you get a violin, a bow, spare strings, rosin and a case for what looks like a bargain. It’s likely that the hair will fall out of the bow in a short time, the bow stick will warp, the strings will sound so bad as to need replacing, and the violin will have cheap components which don’t work and a badly cut bridge that makes sound production much more difficult than it should be.
There are many brands of new violin set, many of which are only available online. These are not worth buying. Lark, Skylark, Cremona, Cecilio, Crystalcello, Mendini, Prodigy, Stentor, Palatino, Stagg, Breton, Doreli, Bellafina, Lazar, Persona and Florea are all cheap brands worth avoiding. Eastman sets are good, and violin shops will usually have their own brand of beginner violin too.
New student violins depreciate in value, particularly those that were cheap new. Another option could be a good quality used instrument. As Louis Spohr explained in his 1832 treatise, a violin that has been played for some years works better than a new instrument. A new violin always needs playing in, whereas an old one can provide a gratifying tone and help develop your playing right from the start.
The best way to buy is in person. Avoid eBay or Gumtree unless you can go and try the violin. Often instruments bought online need hundreds of pounds worth of repairs before they are playable.
Many of the older handmade instruments around are European violins made between 1880 and 1930; the most prolific time for violin making. These are known as trade, or factory made instruments. They are all handmade, but not by a single maker. One person would make the backs, one the tops and so on. It was fashionable for these to be aged to look like antique violins, and they often contain labels marked with the names of famous violin makers such as Stradivarius. These were never meant to be fakes; they were sold as copies. Just because they’re old doesn’t make them good. These factory instruments range from some of the worst violins around to some that are excellent for all but professional players. Never buy a violin because it’s labeled Stradivarius in the hope of netting a fortune. You won’t.
The best way to buy a violin, whether new or old, is from a reputable, specialist violin shop. It is normal to be able to take an instrument on trial for a week or two with no obligation to buy. It should also be possible to hear someone at the shop play the instruments for you so you can gauge how they sound from out front. A general music store is unlikely to employ a member of staff to show the instruments like this, but a violin shop will do. Take the violin to your lesson and ask your teacher’s advice too.
The Basic Milestones:
Don’t waste your money on anything less than £100. Save for a bit longer. It’s worth it. Really cheap violins are no good. Imagine buying any household appliance and going for the cheapest option. You wouldn’t expect it to last. The value toaster that blows up after a week; the washing machine that breaks down after a month; you just wouldn’t.
The better beginner violins are normally Chinese, and cost upwards of £250. You can get a really good beginner outfit for £500.
After you’ve played for a couple of years, you might look to move up to a violin for between £500 and £700. If you can’t afford to buy a better violin just yet, get a better bow first.
A violin that costs above £1000 will have a better quality of workmanship and wood. It will usually have a better sound and more evenness over the strings than a cheap model.
For handmade violins made by one maker, prices normally start at around £5000. These instruments would suit advanced players who were looking to study music. Once a violinist enters the profession and needs a really good violin, the sky is the limit. Professional instruments start at around £7000 and can go into the millions.
Tips on Choosing:
As already stated, buying a violin online is the worst way to do it. Not only do you have no guarantee of quality or workmanship, there is no chance to do the most important thing; see what it sounds like and feels like to play.
Look out for good quality materials…
Pegs: ebony, rosewood or boxwood. Be aware that some cheap Chinese instruments claim to have boxwood pegs but actually use a type of nut wood, which is of inferior quality. Pegs which are described as ‘ebonised’ (cheap wood painted black) are useless and should be avoided.
Varnish: On cheap violins the varnish is usually a thick, shiny, smooth polyurethane. This actually stops the instrument from vibrating as it is too hard. Look for a violin with a quality oil or spirit based varnish.
Strings: Look for minimum quality student strings, not thin Chinese factory strings. The Dogal Red Label and D’Addario Prelude brands are both decent beginner strings.
Bridge: The bridge should be cut to the correct thickness, height and spacing between strings. Bridges on basic beginner instruments are rather crudely cut, but remember the thicker and heavier the bridge, the more the sound will be damped. The feet of the bridge should fit the violin perfectly and the back of the bridge should be perpendicular with the belly of the instrument or slightly leaning back.
Bow: Always look for genuine horsehair, not synthetic hair.
Violin: Avoid a violin with too thick or thin a neck. The neck should sit comfortably in your hand when you play. Purfling (the inlaid detail around the edge of the violin) that is painted or scratched onto the instrument is not generally a sign of a quality violin, though some of the notable old makers used the technique of scratching on their instruments. On older instruments, check for cracks. A sound post crack can seriously deplete the value of a violin, and any crack will affect the sound. Look for an instrument that sounds evenly over all four strings with a clear, even response.
How to Buy a Violin
The best way to buy a violin is in person, not online. Even with kits that look identical, no two violins will sound or feel the same.
Choosing is not easy. You have to decide on your instrument based on your own personal sense of its feel and sound. If you aren’t yet proficient enough to try the violin yourself and judge the tone based on your ear, have somebody help you.
If you are considering buying an older instrument or one that has been repaired, ask the advice of an expert repairman. Even professional violinists often don’t know what to look for or what they’re looking at when they try an old violin, but while some repairs can have no adverse effect on tone, they may decrease the value of the instrument.
Try out the violin by playing scales and pieces you already know by memory. Long notes will give you a better idea of the evenness of tone than pieces with lots of fast notes. Decide your budget before you even get to the shop, so you know the range of instruments you will be looking at. You can either ask to try the instruments in order of price, cheapest first, or ask the shop to give you the instruments to try in a random order so you can make an unprejudiced judgment on the feel and sound. Try as many violins as you can, each time narrowing down your choice until you have selected your two favourite. Borrow these two for at least a week and play them to your teacher and as many other good players as you can. If you don’t like one of the strings, don’t discount the violin. A string is easily changed.
Don’t be intimidated by the violin shop. Even for seasoned players, going into a specialist violin shop can feel a little like going into a luxury car showroom with your lunch money. The staff are experts and they’re there to help. Ask your violin teacher which shops to try. If you live in a big city there’s likely to be a good violin shop, and if not, it’s worth the journey to find the best violin for you. Learning is accelerated by the purchase or hire of a violin that you really love playing, and playing becomes a real pleasure when you have the right violin.
All about sight-reading, why it's important, and a checklist to help you get things right first time!
From Sight to Sound ...
'Sight-reading' is the term used to describe the reading and performing of music without any previous preparation; to sight-read is to play, or sing, or 'hear in our heads' (audiation) the notated music we see ... at first sight!
Sight-reading is an incredibly important skill; the better you can sight-read, the quicker you can learn new pieces, the more music you can play! It also means that you can focus more on technique, interpretation and performance practice instead of merely note-learning and rhythm-deciphering!
The aim is to sight-read with such accuracy, musicality and conviction that the listener, real or imaginary, has no idea you are sight-reading! It should sound as if you've been practising it for months! And it's not only the pitches and the rhythms you need to get right. Every aspect of the notation needs to be realised - dynamics, articulations, tempo markings, performance directions, bowings etc. Many aspects of music-making are not notated but rather 'felt' - character, style, emotion, atmosphere, phrasing etc. - these aspects should also be realised as fully and convincingly as possible.
At ViolinSchool, we think sight-reading is such an essential skill that we are releasing a new piece of sight-reading every single day! Ideally, you should aim to sight-read something every time you practise. The more you do it the better you will get!
Skilled sight-readers will always be looking ahead, processing information ahead of time and storing it in their short-term (working) memory. As you develop your sight-reading skills, you'll get better at knowing when to look ahead and by how much. Factors such as tempo, visual and technical complexity, predictability, print size (!), will dictate how much you are able to look ahead. Long notes and rests are your friends!
And, in order to sight-read well, you need to be able to play without looking at your instrument, or at your hands and fingers.
We hope you enjoy developing your sight-reading with ViolinSchool's Sight-Reading Exercises! Try each excerpt a few times, and at least once with a metronome! If the excerpt seems too difficult, then try playing each note, one by one, at a slow tempo, without worrying about the rhythm, dynamics, articulation, bowing etc. If it seems fairly easy, then imagine you are in a concert, and perform it first time, as perfectly, musically, and confidently as you can.
Happy sight-reading! 🙂
The articulation of sounds on the violin is much like the production of different consonants and vowels in speech, and the nuance in expression of tone. The many ways of articulating notes with the bow makes them speak in different ways.
Articulation in violin music is created using range of bowing gestures. These can give the violin an array of different sounds on any one pitch. These differences are mainly in the transient sounds at the beginning and end of the note, and in the length of the note and the attack of the bow. Various techniques of bow pressure, position of the bow (point of contact), angle of the bow and position and movement of the wrist, fingers and elbow are used to create different shapes in with the sound.
These techniques can be described as bowing patterns, or thought of in terms of tone qualities, speed, pressure and position of the bow.
The first articulations the violinist will encounter are the simple ideas of separate bows and legato. In separate bows, the direction of the bow is changed for each note, so each note occurs up bow, down bow, up bow, down bow and so on. In legato bowing, two or more notes are played in one bow stroke. Sometimes separately articulated notes are played within one bow stroke.
Legato bowing creates two main challenges. Firstly, the sound of the bow must not be disturbed by what the left hand is doing. An exercise such as the first study in the Schradieck School of Violin Technique is helpful for coordination of the left hand within a slur. This can be more complicated when a fingering during a slur involves a substantial change of position. A change of position not only requires a change in sounding point, the violinist will have to use the bow to help the left hand make the shift. By slowing down the bow stroke slightly and lifting the pressure whilst the left hand is shifting, a shift can be camouflaged without disrupting the legato flow.
The second challenge of legato bowing is where the slur involves any string crossing. A slight pressure of the bow as the string crossing is made will help bind the tone of the first and second note. Generally, the best technique for smooth string crossings within legato is to approach the second string gradually, so as the first note is slurred to the second, a double stop will sound momentarily. This double stop happens so subtly it is not possible to distinguish it, and only the desired note, aided by the slight bow pressure, is heard.
Where the bow changes back and forth between two strings several times in one bow stroke, it is easiest to keep the bow as close as possible to both strings at once whilst still making sure each note sounds clearly. String crossings like this are hardest at the heel of the bow because they require a subtle and active use of the right hand fingers. Practice studies for legato string crossings can be found in Exercise IV of the Schradieck tutor.
Détaché bowing can, in its simplest form, be described as playing with separate bows. However, the more advanced détaché stroke has a slight swelling at the beginning of the note, followed by a gradual lightening. This is created by adding a slight pressure at the beginning of the note without accenting it. When the stroke is played continuously the infection gives the impression of separation between the notes.
Portato bowing is very similar to détaché bowing and performed using almost the same technique. However, portato is a series of détaché strokes played with one bow stroke. This articulation is used to bring more expression to slurred legato notes.
There are many more advanced and subtle bow techniques, all of which create different articulation in the sound of the violin. Some of the more unusual and distinctive include:
Other more advanced bowing techniques can be learned to produce a huge variety of articulation, character and sound.
The Forty Variations opus 3 by Otakar Ševčík is a compact introduction to many bow strokes including collé and spiccato. Collé is a very important practice bowing, invaluable for developing control of the bow in all its parts. It is also musically useful, being incisive and short.
Spiccato is a bow stroke in which the bow is dropped from the air above the string and leaves the string again after each note. It is played mainly in the lower two thirds of the bow and can range from very short to fairly broad.
Articulation markings in music are indicated by various dots, lines and shapes attached to the note. Generally, a note with a dot above or below is played short, and one with a line is played long. These markings inform which gesture the violinist will make with the bow. A passage of quavers, for example, all articulated with dots, might be played with a spiccato bow stroke. The symbol > above or below a note indicates that the note is played with an accent.
A list of common articulation markings can be found here.
The extent of articulation and nuance possible with advanced study of bowing techniques is as broad as the range of language and expression of a skilled singer. This exploration of some of the basic concepts is only an introduction to the possibilities of violin articulation. Ask your teacher to show you some of the more detailed bowing skills, and use studies and repertoire to develop your vocabulary of sounds.
For more ideas on right hand technique and how the bow arm produces sound, read the ViolinSchool article on Tone Production.
Listening is one of the most important skills you can have. How well you listen has a major impact on your effectiveness at work, your relationships and your musical practice.
Listening enables you to learn, to obtain information, to understand and to enjoy, yet it can often feel like an abstract ability. Research suggests that most people remember only 25 to 50 percent of what they hear, meaning that whether you’re talking to a friend, listening to your violin teacher or listening to your violin practice, you’re paying attention to at most, half of what’s going on.
By becoming a better listener, paying attention to how you listen and what you are listening for, violin practice will improve, but good listening and its application in violin practice requires a high level of self-awareness, attention, positive attitude, flow concentration and critical thinking skills.
Listening in violin playing comes in many different guises:
First, prepare yourself to listen. Put other things out of your mind. If you notice you are thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, allow the mind to re-focus on the music you are about to play, the sound you want to make and the shape of the musical phrase you would like to express. It is very easy to allow the brain to drift into autopilot.
Warm up by playing some long notes and slow scales. Really engage with the sound you are producing. Try to do so non-judgementally, just enjoying the variations of vibration and tone. As your body warms up, give yourself some images of colour, texture or objects, for example, a smooth piece of dark blue velvet. Visualise the feeling and the colour, and then play some notes with the same feeling. Really listen to your tone and the feelings you produce from the notes.
Practice focussed concentration. Break your violin practice into short bursts so you can really listen. The mental state in which you are fully immersed in what you are doing, known as flow or being in the zone, represents the deepest levels of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are positive, energised and aligned with the task in hand. This level of positive focus is most likely to occur when you are practising with purpose; with a clear set of goals and progress, giving direction and structure to the practice, and with clear feedback; so having actually really listened to what you’ve just played.
It is important to find a balance between the perceived challenges of the music or technique you are practising, and your level of skill as you perceive it: You must feel confident in your ability to achieve what you want.
Broken down, this level of concentration can be achieved when you know:
If you are bored or anxious, it is very difficult to concentrate properly, and to listen to what you are really playing without negative preconceptions. Use visualisation, listen in your mind to what you want to do, listen to the results and enjoy the process. This is where your critical thinking skills will come in. Use the information gathered from listening fully to what you are doing to evaluate what you are doing and how you might develop it.
Full concentration, really listening to what you are doing, is more likely to produce the information and results you want than simply hearing what you’re playing.
Try breaking down what you hear into separate parts so you can listen more closely. Work on the rhythm, intonation, tone, phrasing and other musical ideas individually, and then start to put everything back together. Sometimes when you concentrate on the rhythm, the tuning will go funny, for example. Don’t worry about this; your brain is focussed on integrating your understanding of the rhythm. You can go back to the intonation later.
Allow your ears to listen to the sound in the whole room, not just to the sound coming from your violin. Imagine you have one ear at each side of the room. Sometimes it can be interesting to put an earplug in your left ear to hear the sound that is going into the space rather than the noise under your earhole!
Read the article about visualisation skills for more ideas and practice techniques.
You can use the ViolinSchool Auralia ear training software (included free with your ViolinSchool membership) to practice your listening skills and deepen your understanding of the music you are learning. Most music has three main ideas to notice: new melodies, repetition and variation. You can also look for colour, balance and texture, key (major or minor), rhythms and accompaniment. The more you understand about how your piece is put together, the easier it is to feel confident in how you want it to sound.
Listening to someone you admire playing the piece you are learning is one of the best ways to motivate yourself and understand the music. You can develop a mental map of the characters, colours and energies that make up your piece.
Listen to the piece as a whole and in small sections. It can be fun to listen to a phrase and then try to recreate the sounds and shapes you heard on the recording. Many beginner violin books and graded exam books now come with CDs. For children learning the Suzuki method, listening is one of the first skills learned. Suzuki encouraged his young students to listen to recordings of great violinists, and his method is based on the mother tongue ideal of repetition and imitation. Suzuki children normally start off playing the violin with a beautiful tone because they have listened so much to the sound of the violin. Ultimately, listening to the piece before and during study allows you to build a concept and an ideal of the music, and motivates your listening and your practice.
Recording your violin practice and performances and listening back is an extremely useful practice tool. Don’t listen back immediately if you feel it might be a negative experience. Record one day and listen back the next so you have a little distance from the process of “doing”. Often you will pick up on all sorts of things you missed. The violin is right under the ear and it can be difficult when you’re actually playing to pick up on things that are obvious when you are focussed solely on listening.
It can be easy to go into a lesson with a preconceived idea of what you can and cannot do. Your teacher will have a completely fresh perspective on what you are playing and will hear positive things and aspects you can work on, some of which you may think didn’t sound so good, or which you hadn’t noticed weren’t working. When your teacher is explaining something, don’t talk. Listen. Don’t interrupt or talk over them or you will miss vital information. You already know what you think; this is the time to take advice.
Listen to feedback in a positive way. Feedback that tells you why something isn’t working and how you can make it better is incredibly valuable; don’t let it depress you if your teacher isn’t constantly complimentary. Listen to the feedback and add it to your information banks. It would be much worse if nobody in your support network ever told you something didn’t work and it was only picked up in an important concert.
Playing with other people requires a whole new level of listening. Suddenly you aren’t just listening to your own sound, tuning and rhythm, you’re listening to the group sound and required to play in time and in tune with other people.
Have a look at the article about Ensemble Playing for some in depth ideas for playing with other musicians.
The whole point of playing the violin is to enjoy its sound. Without listening, there is no function to the music. Developing the conscious listening skills in practice that enable you to really express the music in performance is a really important part of practice and learning. Learning to listen when you practice, and to hear the elements of music as it’s performed, will heighten your enjoyment when you go to a concert, or when you hear birdsong, the wind in the chimney or the waves on the beach. You might even find you are listening and communicating better with others.
Start noticing your listening when you practice and see what else comes into your awareness through practising this essential skill.
One of the most crucial decisions to the performance and interpretation of any piece of music is the speed. Getting the speed right allows room for all the intricate levels of technique and expression to work; it creates the mood, tells the story and allows the music to dance.
When we play in an orchestra, the conductor indicates the speed of the piece with his upbeat and subsequent arm movements. In smaller ensembles, the speed of a piece must be decided between the musicians, and somebody has to lead. This is helped by everybody breathing together as the upbeat is given. In violin practice, we can use a metronome or our own sense of pulse, and choose a practice speed that allows us to work effectively.
The speed of a piece of music is called the tempo, which is just the Italian word for time. In fact, most of the words we need to learn in order to understand the speed and feel of the music we play are Italian. In the 17th century, when tempo indications were first used extensively, defined and standardised, many of the important composers were Italian, and these terms have remained widely used in music to the present day.
There tends to be no tempo indication in music written before this method came into common use. In Baroque music, conventions governing composition were so strong that the speed of the music is hardly ever indicated. When Bach wrote a Giga, it was understood what speed that Giga, or jig, was meant to go.
In Renaissance music, most pieces were understood to flow at a speed roughly the same as the human heart rate. The note value which corresponded to this pulse, known as the tactus, was defined by the time signature, so 3/4, 2/2 and 6/4 would indicate different speeds as much as a different musical emphasis.
Many musical forms, particularly those derived from dances, have their own tempo too, so no instruction is given in the music. When we see a waltz, minuet or tango, we understand the speed and mood from our knowledge of the dance, period and style.
The tempo of a piece of music is sometimes indicated by a metronome marking which is measured in beats per minute (BPM). The note value that gives the beat is specified by the time signature. For example in 4/4, the beat is a crotchet. The speed is dictated by the amount of time between beats, specified as a fraction of a minute. A metronome marking of crotchet = 60 means there is one crotchet beat per second, and a metronome marking of crotchet = 120 means there are two crotchet beats per second; so crotchet = 120 is twice as fast as crotchet = 60.
The metronome was invented by Johann Maelzel in 1816. Music written before the metronome became popular will only have metronome markings if they are editorial. One of the first composers to include these mathematical tempo indications himself was Beethoven, but his markings create more questions than answers; they are inconsistent or sometimes impractical, leading to the theory that his metronome didn’t work very well! The modern digital metronomes are much more reliable.
Despite appearing very specific, metronome markings are nearly always only an approximate guide. Depending on the time signature, your musical interpretation and even the acoustic where you are performing, the markings may not always be appropriate.
Most pieces of music are given Italian words as tempo indications. These words are much more specific in their descriptions of how a piece should go than a metronome mark, as they often give an indication not only of speed, but of the character and mood of the music. For example, whilst Presto means fast and Allegro also means fast, the Italian meaning of the word Allegro is joyous or gleeful, giving a new intention to the music.
Tempo markings are also frequently accompanied by descriptive words which give a deeper indication of how the music should sound.
The understanding and interpretation of tempo markings must be affected by when the music was written. Tempos have changed over the course of time, and some of the terms have switched places. A modern Largo is slower than an Adagio, but in Baroque music it was faster.
Let’s have a look at some of the most common words you will see:
Grave – slow and solemn
Lento – slow
Largo – slow and broad
Larghetto – quite slow and broad
Adagio – slow and stately, meaning “at ease” in Italian
Andante moderato – a bit slower than Andante
Andante – at a walking pace
Moderato – at a moderate tempo
Allegretto – moderately fast
Allegro – fast, quickly and bright
Vivace – lively and fast, from the Latin, vīvāx, literally meaning full of life
Presto – extremely fast (168–177 BPM)
As with dynamics, basic tempo markings can be adjusted in various ways:
Tempo can often fluctuate through a movement to give musical interest. Tempo changes are often written into the music, and there are specific terms for these too.
Composers often use expressive marks to adjust the tempo in the middle of a piece. Elgar is famous for his exacting instructions and some of his works have a different tempo marking every few bars!
Here’s what they all mean:
The overall tempo indication will always appear in large type above the stave, whereas tempo adjustments such as accelerandos or ritenutos generally appear below the stave.
After a change of speed, a composer may indicate the return to a previous tempo by marking a tempo or tempo primo. These terms indicate an immediate return to the main tempo of the piece.
Alongside the instructions which exist purely to give an idea of the speed, composers use a huge variety of descriptive words. The slow movement of Elgar’s String Quartet is given a metronome marking alongside which it is simply marked piacevole, which means peacefully. Given the context of Elgar’s music, this word conjures up bucolic interpretations of this peace and gives a clear idea of his intention for the mood. It would mean something different from another composer.
The number of words used to give the character sometimes precludes understanding without the aid of an Italian dictionary, but many of them are quite similar to English words. Here are a few examples of descriptions that often accompany tempo markings:
Although Italian is the most common language for tempo and expression markings, many composers write in their own language. Debussy, Ravel and Rameau wrote their instructions in French, and Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss used German.
Take time to learn as many tempo words as you can, and notice which other words regularly appear at the top of your music. Listen to the music you are learning, and to other music by the same composer or from the same period of musical history. Watch dancers performing modern and ancient dances and listen to folk music.
Tempo markings give a clear academic definition to the speed of a piece, but only practice, immersion in listening and experience will really help you to choose the speed which makes the music work best for you and your audience.
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The beneficial effects of learning a musical instrument are well documented in young children, and the violin has seen its share of child prodigies, but how does the relationship with the instrument change as the player gets older, and is it ever too late to start learning?
Even the youngest children will respond to music. Shinichi Suzuki, Japanese violinist and father of the Suzuki method of teaching, tells a story in his book Nurtured by Love, about a five-month-old baby called Hiromi.
Hiromi had grown up listening to her older sister learning the violin, and her sister had been practising the Vivaldi A-minor concerto. Suzuki recalls, “When everyone was quiet, I started playing a minuet by Bach. While I played, my eyes did not leave Hiromi’s face. The five-month-old already knew the sound of the violin well, and her eyes shone while she listened to this piece that she was hearing for the first time. A little while later, I switched from the minuet to the Vivaldi A-minor concerto, music that was played and heard continuously in her home. I had no sooner started the piece when an amazing thing happened.
“Hiromi’s expression suddenly changed. She smiled and laughed, and turned her happy face to her mother, who held her in her arms. “See – that’s my music,” she unmistakeably wanted to tell her mother. Soon again, her face turned in my direction, and she moved her body up and down in rhythm.”
Suzuki’s method of teaching the violin begins in infancy. Based on the observation that every child is fluent in his or her own language, Suzuki believed that ability is not a matter of inherited talent, but of correct teaching, environment and encouragement.
According to Carolyn Phillips, former Executive Director of the Norwalk Youth Symphony Orchestra, learning music in childhood helps develop the areas of the brain which are involved in language and reasoning. Musical training physically develops the part of the left-brain that is known to be involved with language. It also increases the capacity of the memory. The parts of the brain that control motor skills and memory actually grow.
Phillips also explains in her article, Twelve Benefits of Music Education, that there is a causal link between music learning and spatial intelligence, which is the ability to perceive the world accurately and to form mental pictures of things.
Children who learn a musical instrument have been proven to be better creative learners and problem solvers. In his book Always Playing, Violinist Nigel Kennedy, former enfant terrible of the Classical Music world, describes his feelings about his early schooling: “I guess something like 80 per cent of what I was formally taught at my schools, particularly at the Menuhin [School], I reacted to badly, but that reaction led me to trying my own alternatives and it is always such a buzz when you see your thinking work out.”
Music also gives the player an internal glimpse of other cultures and teaches empathy with people from those cultures. Every piece of music has a cultural and historical back-story. When children come to understand different cultures through music, their development of empathy and compassion, rather than a selfishly orientated motivation, provides a bridge across cultures and leads to an early respect for people of different races.
Learning an instrument teaches the value of sustained effort. It teaches teamwork, responsibility and discipline. In an ensemble of any size, players must work together for a common goal and commit to turning up to rehearsals on time, having prepared the music. This requires time management, organisational skills and social skills, a focus on doing rather than simply observing and a willingness to conquer personal fears and take risks.
Most of all, learning a musical instrument is a means of self-expression. In Western society the basics of existence are fairly secure. The challenge is to make life meaningful and to reach for a higher state of development. Every human being needs at some point in his or her life to be in touch with his core, with what he is and what he feels. Having an outlet for self-expression leads inevitably to higher levels of self-esteem.
A child will start learning the violin for many reasons, but the violin is an instrument that can appeal greatly. It is small and lightweight, immediately accessible and available in different sizes so even a tiny child can pick up his violin easily. The violin is also a very personal instrument. Each violin looks similar, but no two sound the same, and even the same violin played by two people will sound different. This physical attraction to the violin is what leads a small child who has just begun learning to take his violin to bed with him like a teddy bear.
The violin is also an instrument that seems to attract child prodigies. Mozart was a child prodigy, as were Menuhin, Zukerman, Perlman and so many others. The pressure on these children can be enormous. Many don’t have normal childhoods. Paganini was apparently often locked in his room for hours by his father and forced to practice; a discipline which led him to serious problems with alcohol by the time he was 16.
Child “genius”, violinist Chloe Hanslip, interviewed in the Telegraph in 2007, commented, “I couldn’t be a normal child. Not properly normal, because I’m a classical violinist.” In the same article, Jennifer Pike, who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year on violin in 2002, aged just 12, explained in a more balanced way that an intensive musical education doesn’t suit everybody.
This comment is borne out by the experiences of Julian Rachlin, who won the Eurovision Young Musician of the Year in 1988, when he was 13. He went on to become the youngest ever soloist to perform with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. By the time he was 20, Rachlin had lost his confidence so badly it nearly ended his career. He went to study with Pinchas Zukerman, himself a former child prodigy. Zukerman helped him understand he had to develop his career path at his own pace.
Although in the instance of child prodigies, the motivation for progress often comes from the child, the conventional view is that they often end up as adults with broken lives and unfulfilled dreams. The American violin virtuoso, Itzhak Perlman, said in an interview with the New York Times that many things could go wrong with prodigies, particularly those whose parents had suspect agendas, that is, they wanted to achieve success through their child.
Shinichi Suzuki had a poor view of such parents. In Nurtured by Love he tells the story of a child whose mother had come to him with the question, “ Will my child amount to something?” Suzuki felt this was an offensive question and replied, “No. He will not become ‘something’.” He explains, “It seems to be the tendency in modern times for parents to entertain thoughts of this kind. It is an undisguisedly cold and calculating educational attitude.”
Suzuki told the child’s mother, “He will become a noble person through his violin playing… You should stop wanting your child to become a professional, a good money earner... A person with a fine and pure heart will find happiness. The only concern for parents should be to bring up their children as noble human beings. That is sufficient. If this is not their greatest hope, in the end the child may take a road contrary to their expectations. Your son plays the violin very well. We must try to make him splendid in mind and heart also.”
The ideal, as Julian Rachlin found, is that musical development should compliment personal growth; that is, not just educational growth but the development of the whole person. The relationship with creativity is intrinsic to the relationship with the self. As one grows, the other will become surer.
Watch this video of 11-year-old Sirena Huang, presenting a TED Talk on the technology of the violin, in between beautiful, accomplished performances. She has worked very hard to reach this level, but the main aspect that shines through is her enjoyment of what she is doing, and the need to share it; the fundamental human need to communicate.
A child might begin the violin because he likes the sound, knows someone else who plays or because his parents decide he should learn. But what if you are considering learning as an adult? Is it too late?
In her book Making Music for the Joy of It, Stephanie Judy sets out to encourage adult beginners. The first sentence in the book reads, “Welcome! You’ve chosen a wonderful time to start making music.”
Judy explains, “As an adult beginning musician you have many advantages over a child in the same situation. Your primary advantage is that you are in charge…Maybe you’ll regret that you didn’t start sooner, but that regret is a pale rival to your freshness and enthusiasm. You are not just fulfilling a personal fantasy; you are answering a great human longing.”
The most important prerequisite to beginning the violin later in life is to feel at ease with making music. Many adult beginners feel awkward and overwhelmed by the physical challenge of learning, but feeling at ease has more to do with clearing away self-doubts than it does with holding the instrument. Once you begin to get rid of doubts about your musical self, you have cleared the path for progress.
This is not only true for beginners, it is very pertinent for players who have been playing for many years, perhaps since childhood, but whose relationship with their instrument has always been guided by someone else; a teacher or a parent. Even at a professional level, as a violinist continues to develop, old self-doubts must be cleared in order to free the way for new musical expression and integrity. This then begins to work in the other direction. As you begin to understand your musical and creative self and free up mental blocks, this understanding transfers in a positive way into other aspects of your life. Even at a professional level, a violinist never stops learning.
As an adult beginner you may feel you should have started as a child, but the fact is, for whatever reason, you didn’t. It’s also true that all your experience to this point in your life has brought you to wanting to play. You must begin where you are today.
Playing the violin is a holistic activity. It involves the whole body but also the deeper self, self-doubt and complex experiences and emotions.
Judy says, “Adults often help themselves along the road of musical understanding more quickly than children because of their deeper experiences, both of music and of life.”
The reasons an adult might want to start learning the violin are very different from the reasons a child might have. Adults often get to a point where they want something that makes new demands on them. Sometimes it’s a need to express artistic energy and communicate. It can be a yearning for some activity that needs total mind and body focus, total involvement in a world where we constantly multitask. Learning the violin can offer stress relief and perspective as the music draws you into the present moment. It is a social activity, with the chance to play fantastic orchestral and chamber music repertoire at any level.
Whatever age you are, five or 75, the important ingredients to success are the same: Passion, patience, time to practice and perseverance. We would never ask if it is too late to learn to paint, or to learn a language yet somehow there is a belief that unless you begin the violin as a toddler it is too late. Not so. There is an enormous benefit to engaging the brain in new activities throughout all the stages of life.
Here is an example from www.uncorneredmarket.com, from a selection of inspiring stories for elderly people.
“You are never too old to learn.
Andrew, one of my grandfather’s colleagues from when they both worked in India in the 1960s, now lives in my grandfather’s retirement complex.
He had to give up his violin lessons when he escaped Hungary in 1937 as his family began facing persecution for being Jewish.
“It had been 75 years since my last violin lesson. I wanted to play violin again, but I sounded awful. I decided I needed lessons.”
Earlier this year, he began taking violin lessons again. We asked how things are going.
“I’m progressing pretty well. It’s fun to play again,” Andrew chuckled.
He’s scheduled to play a Christmas concert this week. I imagine there are many more in his future, too.”
Finally, whatever your age, it’s important to maintain your physical wellbeing in order to keep playing at your best. Read the article on the body for some ideas and tips.
Never practice without warming up, and take regular, gentle exercise such as yoga to keep your joints mobile. The DVD Yoga for Musicians shows some simple and effective stretches to release tension and build muscle tone.
The British Association for Performing Arts Medicine has lots of information about health resources for musicians on their website, including a useful chart of warm up exercises.
So whatever your age, keep playing, keep learning and keep enjoying all that the violin has to offer.
The word dynamics in music refers to the volume of the sound or note. Dynamics are part of the vast array of musical expression and interpretation marks written into music. Dynamic markings do not represent specific values of volume; they are relative, depending on many factors, from the size of the room in which you are performing to the style or historic context of the piece.
Dynamic markings are generally written as shortened Italian terms. The basic volumes are quiet, which is written as the letter p, representing the Italian word piano, and loud, the Italian word forte, written as f. Within piano and forte there are grades of volume, including mezzo piano which is louder than piano and mezzo forte which is quieter than forte. Sometimes you might see other descriptive words with the dynamic marking, for example the word più, which means more. When you see più piano it literally means more quiet. At the extremes of dynamic are pp, pianissimo, which is very quiet, and ff, fortissimo, which is very loud. You can see multiples of the p or f, such as fff or ppp when the composer wants a really strong volume effect.
Changes of dynamic are also marked in Italian. Subito forte, for example, means suddenly loud. A forte piano, written fp, is where a note begins forte and suddenly becomes quiet. Sforzandos and accents are notes which have strong beginnings. Crescendos and diminuendos, which are where the music gets louder or softer, are marked as shortened terms, cresc. or dim, or as ‘hairpins,’ which look like this:
The elements of violin technique relevant to the successful realisation of dynamics are the same as the three fundamentals of tone production.
Starting with the basics, this video shows how the dynamic movement of the body; arm weight and back muscles; can be applied to the violin to make a good tone:
The way the bow arm is used affects the tone quality and the volume of sound. The three factors that interplay are the amount of weight placed into the bow, the speed at which the bow is used and at which position between the fingerboard and bridge the bow is drawn.
Within these parameters, the mechanics of playing forte and piano on the violin are very different from each other. The bow hold must alter subtly to effect every change in volume.
In piano, where you might want to create a transparent, quiet sound, the first finger moves towards its base joint in the way it touches the bow stick, and the other fingers come slightly off the stick. When the bow needs to settle into the string more to play forte, where more breadth of sound is required, the index finger readjusts. The wrist will have a feeling of pulling the bow and the first finger will slightly spread away from the second and feel a closer contact with the stick, nearer to its middle joint.
Greater speed in the bow stroke per beat means greater energy transmitted into the violin. If the pressure, which is the other energy-producing factor, remains the same, a change in speed will alter the dynamic. Increasing the speed of the bow makes the sound louder; decreasing it creates a softer sound.
For a note that requires the same dynamic throughout, the best and simplest way to use the bow is with an equal speed for its whole length. Equal speed means equal bow division. For example, if there are four quavers (quarter notes) to be played within one bow stroke, each note should be played with one quarter of the bow. If there is a dotted crotchet (dotted half note) and a single quaver (quarter note), the dotted note will be played with three quarters of the bow and the quaver with the remaining quarter. It is tempting to set off with too fast a bow stroke which means that the bow runs out towards the end of the stroke. This makes sustaining an even dynamic impossible. Practice long notes of four beats with the metronome at crotchet = 60, dividing the bow equally into quarters with the beat. Make sure that after two beats you have not passed the halfway point. Another way to practice slow bows is to gradually work up with a metronome to long notes of 30 seconds per bow.
The volume of the violin also depends on the weight of the bow into the strings. The bow is not equal at each end. The frog is much heavier than the tip, and also supported by the weight of the arm, whereas the tip of the bow is much lighter and used by the arm in almost full extension. When an even dynamic is required, the pressure used must be uneven to compensate for this difference. At the frog, the volume comes from the weight of the arm into the thumb and the third and fourth fingers. In the middle of the bow, the weight comes from the arm into the middle fingers and thumb, which requires a free upper arm and shoulder without excessive tension. To get extra volume at the tip of the bow where the arm is extended, use flatter bow hair, so there is more hair in contact with the string, and transfer additional weight from the middle and fourth fingers into the first and second fingers. The wrist and hand move down slightly and help the weight transfer.
There is a constant fluctuation and balance within the hand with every bow stroke, between the first and second, middle, and third and fourth fingers and the thumb. See if you can draw a long slow bow, starting at the frog with only the thumb and fourth finger on the bow. As you move towards the tip, transfer the weight into the middle fingers, lift off the fourth, and let the weight gradually transfer into the index finger, until you are at the tip of the bow holding it between only the index finger and thumb. Reverse the process, ending back at the frog with only your fourth finger and thumb on the stick.
One tricky aspect of technique is where bow division is not straightforward, for example where there is a recurring rhythmic pattern of long and short notes. To stay in the same part of the bow whilst playing a long, short, long, short rhythm, the speed of the bow for the short note will have to increase. This change of speed will create an increase in sound, so the shorter note is louder. To make the dynamic even between the two note lengths, it is necessary to adjust the pressure. By lightening the pressure of the bow on the short note, you can maintain a steady tone.
Often though, the dynamic is not meant to be even. Accents, crescendos and other expressive dynamics give subtle nuance to phasing and interpretation. Constant tiny manipulations of the bow occur to produce changes in speed and pressure.
Experiment with different degrees of pressure. Notice that too much pressure actually prevents the string from vibrating and crushes the sound. Extreme pressure can also have the affect of altering the pitch, and if you press really hard you will hear a sound an octave lower than the note you are playing.
A sforzando, written sfz, is an accent at the start of a note, followed by a sustained draw for the value of the note. It is a similar stroke to martelé, which is a strong, expressive detached stroke. The volume of the sforzando depends on the dynamic level in the phrase where it is played. The weight for the accent comes from a first and second finger bite on the bow and thumb pressure against the frog.
An accent, shown with this symbol > above or below a note, is a similar articulation to the sforzando, but with a lighter accent at the beginning of the note. Immediately after the accent, the weight is released and the bow drawn in a legato style for the rest of the note. Again, the amount of accent depends on the dynamic level. A loud accent will naturally be stronger than one in piano. The weight comes from the first and second fingers on the bow and thumb pressure against the frog.
The third element of technique that determines the creation of dynamics is the sounding point; the position of the bow on the string between the bridge and the fingerboard. The violin will produce a louder, more vibrant tone closer to the bridge, and a softer, less distinct sound near the fingerboard. A flat bow, pulled parallel to and near the bridge will bring out a full, loud sound.
As explained in Simon Fischer’s book Basics, the two famous violin teachers, Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian, both divided the area between the bridge and the fingerboard into five sound points. Flesch called them:
Different sound points combined with different bow speeds and pressures create more subtle variations of tone and dynamics. Whatever amount of speed and pressure you are using, there is a sound point where the string will vibrate more and the note will sound more vibrant.
Slower, heavy bows on sound point 2, which is near the bridge, will produce lots of volume. Fast, light bows on sound point 5 will be quiet.
It is possible to use the sound points to crescendo and diminuendo with rich and expressive tone. Glide the bow towards the fingerboard or pull it towards the bridge in such a way that it never loses its right angle relationship to the string, like the gramophone needle gently moving from one ring of the record to the next. An alternative method is to slightly angle the bow, using the non-parallel angle to move nearer to the bridge or fingerboard within the bow stroke.
The performance of dynamics, which are relative and not absolute, depends on many factors. Galamian explains in his book, Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, “Anybody who talks to a few people in a small room need not even raise his voice…Speaking in a large auditorium, however, to an audience of thousands, is obviously an entirely different matter. The speaker will have to speak louder, slower and more clearly. These are obvious things, yet it is strange how few are the instrumentalists who realize that the same things apply to them when they perform in public.”
The way dynamics work within a piece change depending on the size of the hall and audience, and on the acoustic. If the hall is very resonant and not too big, not much needs to be done, but if the acoustic is dead and dry, or the hall is very large, all of the dynamics need to be upgraded. This is easy enough in the piano and pianissimo passages, but when loud dynamics such as forte and fortissimo occur, you need to be flexible with bowings, so you can change the bow as much as necessary to get the required volume without forcing the tone.
Dynamics are also relative depending on your role in a performance. As the soloist in front of an orchestra, your dynamics will be augmented, whereas if you are sitting in the orchestra, you should never play louder than the other players or your sound will not blend. As the second violinist in a quartet, you need to project your sound through that of the first violinist and cellist who are not only sitting further forward, they are playing at pitches which naturally project better on their instruments. It is important in chamber music to know the score; to understand what role your part has. If you have a melody or important countermelody, the relative dynamic of your part may be more than someone else’s, even though you both have the same dynamic marking. The same goes if your part is accompanying. You may need to play more quietly.
Let’s recap with a short video demonstration of different dynamics on the violin:
You might also find this printable worksheet helpful (courtesy of www.teachervision.com) to make sure you recognise the dynamics in your own music.
Search “Learn Violin at Home” online, and you’ll be overwhelmed with resources; video courses, self-teaching plans, books, forums and advice. The violin is a notoriously complex instrument. Is it possible to learn it from home, essentially self-taught, or is there another aspect to learning from home which is more valuable when balanced with lessons?
There is some evidence to suggest it should be possible to teach yourself the violin. Young children learn by watching others, by demonstration and emulation, and research with animals (Byrne, 2003) has shown that even apes are able to acquire elaborate skills by imitation. Many folk musicians and guitarists are described as self-taught, though they have not necessarily learned in isolation. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen is self-taught, but musicians like him are an exception. For every success, there are thousands of people who end up as examples of bad habits and an instrument in the attic.
Learning violin is an intricate process. If you can’t afford to pay for lessons there are lots of free resources, but be wary. If you have a good ear, an analytical mind and good body awareness it is possible to learn the basics, but there are many details you can get wrong without a teacher. There are also a lot of people selling or promoting resources online who don’t actually know what they are doing, and as a beginner it’s impossible to decipher good from bad practice. Wikihow, for example, has a page titled, “How to Play the Violin,” which promises all you need to know in 14 easy steps, illustrated with pictures like this one, which is an astonishing illustration of poor posture and left wrist over-extension.
Feelings on the subject run high. Matt Molloy, a contributor on the ABRSM forum, puts it this way: “Can anyone tell me how to teach myself a set of extremely fine motor skills and artistic ideals whilst paying attention to loads of small details which could lead me down a nightmare path of bad habits and possible injuries…?”
Guitar teacher Jamie Andreas, who runs the website guitarprinciples.com has this to say about self-teaching on her instrument:
“Let's get a few things straight right at the beginning. Let's really look at this question, "should I take guitar lessons?" I have to tell you, whenever I hear a beginning player ask that question it makes me laugh. It's like a five-year-old saying they want to be a doctor or lawyer when they grow up, and asking if it would be a good idea if they went to elementary school! The mere asking of the question shows how much the person asking doesn't have a clue about what they are getting into, and how best to get into it.
“When I hear this question, I think "why on earth would it ever be a bad idea to learn a very complicated subject from someone who knows a whole lot more that you do, and has years of experience with the subject?" Why on earth would it ever be a bad idea, before beginning a journey to an unknown place, to ask for help from a guide, who has traveled the route many times? The very fact that someone is asking the question shows they don't understand how the whole process of the development of talent works.
“They don't understand, for instance, that playing the guitar is a very sophisticated mental/physical process. Like many activities, such as various sports (tennis, golf, basketball) it has evolved over many years, and continues to evolve, becoming increasingly complex, and new standards of excellence being set all the time. Would anyone seriously ask the question, "would it be a good idea for me to go to baseball camp?", or "would it be a good idea to take tennis lessons with a tennis pro?", or "I'd like to improve my golf game, do you think I should take lessons with Tiger Woods, or his teacher?". We all know the answer would be "Duh!!?!!"
“Yet, when it comes to learning the guitar, people somehow think that perhaps it might be a good idea if they shut themselves up in a room and spent their time re-inventing the wheel!”
This video shows a student who is self-teaching, four weeks after starting the violin. There’s a lot of good progress, but there are already some serious postural issues that will really hamper her development and could have been avoided with some hands-on guidance.
So let’s look at this subject another way. As it says on the ViolinSchool Practice Centre page, the famous American violin teacher Ivan Galamian believed that practice should be self-instruction. All good practice should be the continuation of a lesson. Self-teaching, learning from home, is about educating yourself and developing independently of your teacher, but the teacher must be there in order to give guidance. The best teacher will teach you to teach yourself, but every teacher needs to learn how to teach.
Emily Hogstad, writing on the violinist.com forum, says this:
“I never denied some people have a natural gift for teaching. I totally agree. And yes, some will be able to teach themselves better than others. But they won't be able qualified and have spent years learning the instrument. Period.
“I don't think it's a contradiction… the best teachers teach you how to teach yourself. If you don't have a teacher who can do that, or if you are never taught how to teach yourself, then you will run into a lot more roadblocks than you would have otherwise. There are many kinds of learning on the violin; learning from books, learning from watching Youtube videos, learning from seeing students perform at a recital, learning what angle to have the bow at, learning tricky rhythms from hearing someone play them specifically for you. Some of those types of learning just can't be done by yourself.
“Look, I by no means want to dash the dreams of anyone. I consider myself mainly self-taught; I only had one teacher who taught me up until I was fourteen or so, but after that it's been just me. And I screwed up a lot of stuff that has taken a long time to fix. Yes, if you have a sub-par teacher or are teaching yourself, you will be able to play. And you may be able to play certain things quite well. But at some point you'll hit a brick wall, or become injured, or start using bad technique. This is incredibly de-motivating and devastating. It happened to me; it's happened to a lot of people. And I don't think it's fair to sugarcoat this very real possibility to people who are considering teaching themselves.”
So the ideal is to be taking lessons from a qualified professional, and in between the lessons to continue to teach yourself. If you really need to be at home, or you are somewhere you can’t get to your lesson, it is often possible to have a lesson at home with your teacher on Skype. This is not as effective as having a lesson in the same room as your teacher, where they can observe your physical movements from all angles and really gauge what is going on, but it is better than trying to learn from a video course. One-on-one lessons, where you can get personal attention and adjustment, are the best way to learn.
Your practice should then be a continuation of your lesson, in which you set yourself tasks, supervise your own progress and work objectively. Let’s look at a few pointers for a successful lesson, as explained in Paul Harris’s book Improve Your Teaching. A lesson could cover any of the following aspects of playing:
Harris is working on the basis of something he calls Simultaneous Learning, where everything you do connects. Your pieces represent your core activity from where all of your practice, or self-teaching should grow. By using pieces to stimulate thought and work on any area of musical activity, you will have an immediate grasp of the relevance of technical, theory and aural work. Spend some time analysing your lesson or ask your teacher to explain the relevance of different activities to your learning process so you can connect them in your practice and continue to learn violin at home.
William Westney describes the process of healthy practicing in his book The Perfect Wrong Note.
“Healthy Practicing: The Process
Your ViolinSchool subscription gives you access to free aural and theory software, and articles which share in-depth knowledge from professional violinists. We have worksheets and online courses to deepen your practice and many resources such as practice planning to help you continue the work you are doing in your lessons. These subscription services are not only relevant to people who are able to study with us, they are useful for anyone studying the violin, anywhere in the world. We provide a support package and a community in which you can find information and advice on any aspect of your playing. We aim to facilitate your learning and progression. The three main focal points of our teaching are acquisition of violin technique, development of musicality and interpretation and consistency of performance. Use all of these resources to help you learn violin at home, and use your lessons with your teacher to develop further, faster and fulfil your goals.
Proprioception, from the Latin proprius meaning ‘one’s own’ and the word perception, is the sense of the relative position of the joints, and the strength or effort that is employed in their movement. Violin playing requires a highly trained, very specific level proprioception, and conditions such as Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS) can create challenges in achieving the desired results. These challenges can be overcome with the correct understanding of the relevance and context of proprioception and wellbeing, and with the appropriate training.
Proprioception, or kinaesthesia, is the sense which detects bodily position, weight, or movement of the muscles and tendons. It is provided by proprioceptors in skeletal striated or voluntarily controlled muscles, and in joints. It is distinct from exteroception, which is perception of the outside world and things external to the self, and to interoception, which is the internal perception of sensations including hunger and pain.
The major component of proprioception is a sense of the position of each joint, a sense which is determined by measuring the ability to accurately perceive the position of a joint, and to reposition a joint without the aid of vision. It is a key factor in muscle memory and hand-eye coordination, and it can be improved by training.
The ability to play the violin requires a finely tuned sense of the position of the joints. When this sense is automatic, the violinist is able to focus on other aspects of the performance such as listening and musical intention. Learning a new technique or piece of music on the violin requires familiarisation with the specific proprioceptive tasks relevant to that technique or piece. Without integrating the proprioceptive input, it would not be possible to put the bow onto the string, or the fingers onto the fingerboard, without looking at the hands.
Several studies have shown that this kinaesthetic sense can be improved with Alexander Technique, yoga, Pilates and even juggling, which teaches spatial location, efficient movement and increases reaction time. Practising a skill with the eyes closed can also improve the efficiency of training.
Temporary loss or impairment of proprioception may happen during adolescence, when students experience sudden growth spurts. It may also happen during sudden weight loss or weight gain, as the balance of fat and muscle in the joints fluctuates, and in people who have high levels of flexibility. Experiencing a new range of motion in a limb can disrupt the sense of location of that limb.
Proprioception is permanently impaired in people with hypermobility (JHS). The range of movement of any single joint naturally varies from one person to another. Everybody’s joints are flexible to allow movement, but bone shapes vary, and may give greater or lesser flexibility. A ball and socket shoulder joint with a shallow socket will have a wider range of movement than a joint with a deep socket, for example. This is unlikely to be altered by training.
People with JHS can suffer from chronic pain, degeneration of spinal discs and muscle fatigue in muscles that cannot cope with protecting the abnormal range of movement in the joints. The condition is associated with coordination problems, including Developmental Coordination Disorder, formerly known as Dyspraxia. People with JHS can experience problems memorising physical movements and in learning and coordinating a new movement.
This hypermobility and its effects on proprioception can be managed and improved by training and muscle strengthening. Targeted exercises can train the kinaesthetic sense, and strong muscles help support loose joints. Stability of joints is achieved by the strengthening of collagen and the muscles that act around the joint.
People with JHS can work on strengthening their muscles and developing postural control. This can involve daily strengthening exercises for core stability. Pilates or yoga can help manage spinal mobility and activate deep postural muscles. The symptoms of JHS, which is more predominant in females and people from African and Asian communities, diminish with age. Young violinists with JHS may experience episodic exacerbation of their symptoms through the physical stretching of tendons and ligaments as their bones lengthen during growth spurts.
Proprioception and balance can also be tested using the ‘Stork Test,’ which involves balancing on one leg with the eyes closed. The amount of wobble experienced informs both balance and how good the proprioceptive system is. People with JHS are normally less stable and have a poorer sense of the location of their joints in space.
Violin playing is a matter of delicate physical balances and requires strong body awareness. The ability of the brain to recognise the exact position of the joint at any one time is obviously highly desirable.
The violin also requires quite different functions between the two arms. Players may actually benefit in some laxity or looseness in the right shoulder joint and the left fingers, provided that the joints are supported by strong muscles. Since all violins at any size have the same proportions, each player, no matter what physical build or challenges, has to adapt to the size and shape of the instrument. Manual dexterity and hypermobility of the hands is in some sense advantageous, and many players work on achieving increased finger stretch by working on scales and studies. Hyperlaxity of the shoulders requires strengthening of the muscles and spine, as the shoulder and spine act together when the violinist is playing. If your joints have a larger range of movement, the muscles around them need to be stronger in order to support that range of movement and prevent stiffness and injury.
Alexander Technique, Pilates and yoga are all good ways to address this strengthening. Alexander teachers believe that every person has a built in proprioceptive blind spot. Habits are designed to adapt to repetition. The kinaesthetic sense can become untrustworthy and the body needlessly overcompensates. A student may repeat a physical movement that a teacher knows is unnecessary, but the teacher allows the mistake because the student is trying to learn. A violinist may develop a certain way of moving which is not so efficient or healthy, without recognising that the body is reacting in that way. Alexander Technique improves perception, ease of movement and self-knowledge. Improving kinaesthetic acuity and moving more easily with conscious awareness is a basic skill for life. It also has musical benefits, giving better tone production and ease of technique, which allow interpretive freedom.
When a student is hypermobile, both teacher and student need to be informed and able to approach each problem as it arrives. Whilst the physical challenges require care and attention, as explained earlier, hypermobility of the hands and fingers can actually be an asset in violin playing.
One aspect of JHS is double-jointeness in the fingers, thumb and even wrists. Hyper-extension in the joints of the hands and arms is never desirable in violin playing as it causes all manner of problems with freedom of movement, intonation and even injury, but beginner violinists with double-jointed fingers tend to find it very hard not to squeeze the neck of the violin to compensate for the weakness that causes the fingers and thumb to collapse.
Violin teachers suggest trying different thumb positions, moving the thumb forward so it is opposite the first and second fingers. Keep the hand soft between the end joint of the thumb and the base of the index finger. Try turning the thumb so that the nail points back towards the scroll a little, and so that the inner edge of the thumb, nearest the index finger, is touching the neck of the violin. This stops the bottom joint of the thumb from rising up and becoming locked.
Once the student has started learning to shift and play with vibrato, problems of double-jointed fingers are normally eradicated. It is the stiffness and tension of weak joints that causes the fingers to double over. A soft bow hand, weighted by the arm, helps in the right hand.
Try this exercise for strengthening double-jointed fingers, using a simple clothes peg.
A fuller description is available here.
Any muscle training, which strengthens joints in order to facilitate violin playing, can only be of long-term benefit to the overall wellbeing of people with JHS, as can the improved awareness built up through the relevant study of Alexander Technique, yoga or other physical training.
Use visualisation techniques to train muscles. Research has shown that the brain does not differentiate between a physical action and the same action vividly imagined. This understanding has been used to successfully rebuild muscular function in stroke victims. Read more about how to use visualisation in violin practice here.
Proprioception is a big part of violin playing. Violinists can use anchor points, octave shapes and muscle memory, which can be developed using scales and pattern building exercises [link to articles Scales and Pattern Building], to find their way around the instrument; however, the kinaesthetic sense is not the only learning guide. A 2008 study of pitch performance in skilled cellists by Chen, Woollacott, Pologe and Moore, found that string players rely as much, if not more, on their auditory senses than on their proprioceptive senses.
In order to play any piece of violin music in tune, the violinist is required to produce a series of notes, with the continuum of note pitches along the length of the strings, with limited visual and kinaesthetic cues. The spatial distances between notes are not equal along the fingerboard. Lower notes away from the bridge are further apart than higher notes near the bridge. The hand is required to move along the fingerboard in shifting, which causes a displacement of the hand, associated movements in the hand and arm and a change in the posture of the hand. Accuracy depends on the precision of the desired pitch and the development of skill that enables the player to move to the required position.
The 2008 study of skilled cellists found that the players were unable to accurately find the desired pitch without hearing the note. Proprioception alone did not enable them to play. The concept of muscle memory expresses the idea that much of highly practiced performance is deeply ingrained and does not require conscious control. The study does not support this. What was found was that each musician had an inner ‘map’ of pitch, which was used in conjunction with a physical ‘map’ of the instrument. Accurate pitch required alignment of the two. Without acoustical feedback the spatial and pitch ‘maps’ became disassociated. Whilst the physical movement from one note to another was highly skilled and the result of years of training, it was not independent of acoustic guidance, and deprived of the ability to listen to the pitch, it became wildly inaccurate.
The pitches played without acoustic guidance were produced with the left hand only, without the bow. The researchers also suggested that the proprioceptive sense in the bowing arm provided important information vital to the musicians’ three-dimensional model of the instrument on which skilled navigation depends. It is unusual for a string player to practice a shift from one note to another without taking into account the timing necessitated by tempo, bow distribution and sound.
In certain situations, it can be difficult for the violinist to hear the instrument in order to benefit from the necessary acoustic guidance. Sometimes in a loud passage of orchestral music or an amplified concert the violin is inaudible under the ear. In this instance the player will achieve accurate intonation by a strong use of the inner pitch map, hearing the note so vividly in the mind that the hand finds the correct position. Again, this skill shows a combination of an inner pitch ‘map’ and a three dimensional spatial ‘map’ of the instrument. Playing like this over a long period of time requires constant reparative practice in an acoustic situation for the intonation to remain constant.
This study seems to conclude that whilst proprioception is important, it is not the only tool which can be used to build sound violin technique. This finding is backed up by violin teachers who suggest that students practice new skills with their eyes closed, immediately marrying the proprioceptive sense with the auditory sense. The acquisition of new technique, whether it is a problem of timing, tuning, sound or movement, is speeded up by practicing with the eyes closed, then with the eyes open before adding the sheet music. This is particularly recommended for students with dyslexia. It makes sense that a student relying on visual cues, looking at the fingers and bow, will struggle when he has to focus the attention on the sheet music.
In the end, playing an instrument is all about the sound. Build strong muscles for general wellbeing, practice to get a physical sense of the instrument, and learn to really listen [link to article Listening]. Listen, visualise, listen and listen more, and your sense of the instrument will improve.
The violin is traditionally built as an acoustic instrument. The shape of the body is designed purely to produce and amplify the sound created by the vibrations of the strings. However, since the American jazz clubs of the 1920s, modern popular music genres have created the need for violins that can be amplified beyond the normal capabilities of the instrument.
There are various different ways to create an electronically amplified sound for the violin. Some musicians argue that the best tone is produced with an acoustic violin and a specialised microphone, but this can sometimes create feedback and amplify unwanted sounds, as noise from a loud room will resonate inside the body of the violin and pass back into the microphone.
Another way to amplify the violin is with an electric piezo pickup, which is a small transducer in contact with the body or bridge of the violin, designed to amplify only the sound created by the violin. A violin modified with a pickup is referred to as an electro-acoustic violin.
Electro-acoustic violins are often custom built, as most violinists are nervous of applying a contact pickup to the varnish or bridge of their best instrument. They can still be played as acoustic instruments, although the extra weight of the pickup can make them less comfortable to use, and the pickup itself on the body of the violin can mute the sound slightly by dampening the vibrations.
The first use of electronically amplified violins was in jazz music. The jazz violinist Stuff Smith (1909 -1967) who is featured in several trio numbers on Nat King Cole’s album After Midnight, is thought to have been the first violinist to experiment with adapting the violin with pickups. His better-known counterpart, Stephane Grappelli (1908 – 1997) apparently struggled to find a solution to the need for amplification.
There is a gap of fifteen years between 1956 and 1971 in Grappelli’s discography; a time when he barely recorded anything. This is thought to be due to the technical developments in jazz music at the time. Electric guitars, improved microphones and bigger brass sections made it hard for the violin to compete, and Grappelli was dissatisfied with the results of his experiments with amplification as they had a destructive effect on the unique, gentle timbres of the violin. He tried out lots of different things, one of which was an early electric violin.
In an interview with Max Jones of the London Melody Maker in November of 1952, Grappelli declares of the electric violin, "Now the Violin Can Find a Real Place in Jazz . . ." It possible he was either testing or endorsing the instrument as his enthusiasm is not followed up with any noted performances or recordings on the violin. The article continues:
"In his Variety act with pianist Yorke de Sousa, Grappelly [he often used this misspelling as it was preferable to the alternative mispronunciation] still uses his standard violin. But for dances and jazz sessions his improvisations are now amplified directly he puts bow to steel strings. He is an enthusiastic exponent of the electric violin - an American instrument that radio listeners heard for the first time in World of Jazz on November 1.
'Of course the instrument's full value cannot be realized from a record or broadcast, because the amplifier isn't really needed then. The tone sounds different, yes; but you must hear this violin in a hall to get the whole effect. It is wonderful.'
The wonder instrument is a curious sawn-off looking thing, visually unimpressive and extraordinarily heavy. We wanted to know if it demanded a special technique.
'The fingerboard is the same, but it has to have metal strings. For me, the finger- pressure is about the same as I normally use, but the bowing is different. This needs great control. You must have very steady bowing, for every little sound is enlarged through the loudspeaker. Each time I am going to use the electric fiddle I must get used to it again; I must play all day. It isn't easy to play well at first, but once you have mastered this fiddle it is fantastic. This fiddle is definitely better than the normal one for jazz playing; there is no comparison. For solos it is powerful and exciting. It means that the violin can take a full part in the jazz orchestra at last. It's no longer a little voice; it's more like four fiddles. I mean, I may play louder than four fiddles, but, of course, the sound is not the same. In fact, it is an entirely new sound, and eventually it will add new tone colour to jazz recordings, too.’”
Melody Maker November 15th 1952
The instrument Grappelli was talking about was made by the American company Vega, who were manufacturing electric violins from as early as 1939.
The American company, Fender, which is famous for its electric guitars, also produced some of the early electric violins, with the first model appearing in 1958.
As we can see from this interview with Grappelli, and from the Vega advert, even by 1939, the electric violin was a very heavily modified version of the violin.
The modern electric violin, most accurately described, is an instrument almost entirely distinct from the violin, with built-in pickups and a solid body.
The body of the electric violin is solid for three reasons:
The shape of the electric violin is modified to be as minimalistic as possible, to keep the weight of the body from becoming too great. Materials used to build the body include carbon fibre, Kevlar and glass, although performers increasingly customise and embellish their instruments, as demonstrated by these two Swarovski Crystal encrusted instruments belonging to electric violin duo Fuse. For more information please visit www.fuseofficial.com or www.electricstringquartet.com"
Fuse also commissioned two 24 carat gold plated violins, which are each insured for £1.35 million.
The electric violin is still seen as a somewhat experimental instrument. It is much less established than the electric guitar or bass, and produces very different results from the best acoustic violins. There are many variations on the standard design. Some instruments have frets, extra strings, guitar heads instead of violin pegs and sympathetic strings.
It is also not unusual for an electric violin to have five, six, seven or more strings. Dutch violinmaker Yuri Landman built a 12 string electric violin for the Belgian band DAAU. The strings on this instrument are clustered in four groups of three strings tuned unison creating a chorus.
The extra strings on these multiple-stringed violins are usually a low C string on a five-string, which gives an instrument which can serve simultaneously as a violin and viola, a low C and low F on a six-string, and a low C, F and B♭ for strings.
The amplification signals for the electric violin pass through electronic processing in the same way for the electric guitar. The audio output is transferred through an audio cable into an amp or PA. Most electric violinists use a standard guitar amp, which will be reliable but may not give the best tone for the violin. Few amps exist specifically for the electric violin. Effects pedals that create delay, reverb, chorus and distortion can be used to create variations on the traditional sound. Electric violins may use magnetic, piezoelectric, or electrodynamic pickups, the most common and inexpensive of which are the piezoelectric pickups. Piezo elements detect physical vibrations directly. They are placed in or on the body of the violin, or more commonly they take their output from the vibrations of the bridge. These pickups have a high output impedance, which means they must be plugged into a high impedance input stage in the amplifier, or go through a powered preamp. This matches the signal to avoid any problems with low frequency loss and microphone noise pickup.
There are increasing numbers of electric violins to choose from, and various companies that produce their own version of the instruments. They are ideal for pop and rock music. With the correct pedals and equipment they produce a huge range of sounds and effects, and they also create a modern image, which fits better than a traditional violin in certain settings. The sound is not as sophisticated as the acoustic violin, and levels of expression and nuance are more electronic than imitative of the human voice. However, the electric violin particularly gives the opportunity to experiment with multiple combinations of strings and instrumentation, which is not possible on an acoustic instrument. It is also great for silent practice.
For those purists who love the sound of the violin, the electric violin is a long way from replacing the violin’s sheer beauty of sound, but there is an increasing market for electric violin music, and several popular artists and groups have based their careers entirely around the versatilities of the instruments, as well as many musicians who have integrated the range of the electric violin into their repertoire. In fact, electric violin makers often work with violinists to produce newer and better solutions to the musician’s needs. Instruments can be really personalised.
The electric violin is still an instrument in the developmental stages, but the demands of musicians wanting the perfect combination of versatility and sound quality will continue to improve its status and desirability. It will never replace the violin, but the electric violin is gaining its own place in music.