It's all very well learning the violin through lessons and your own practice sessions. But until you're out there in the real world, playing music with other people, it can all feel a bit theoretical.
Of course, it's important to learn solo pieces, and spend time on your own carefully building your technique. In fact, the intellectual challenge of tackling the many subtle layers of violin technique can be very rewarding in itself!
But when we talk about 'making music', we're really referring to the magic that happens when you play with other musicians. That's when we have to listen and interact with each other ... and that's never going to be the same every time. Playing music with other people is a truly creative endeavour.
When playing in a group, you need to develop a fairly strong instinct for what you're doing, so that you can shift your focus away from your own playing and towards other people's. That's how you keep your awareness high, so that you can always sense what's going on, and respond accordingly.
You need to rely on your training and instinct to deliver the technique you need, so that you can stay in the present moment, and focus on the people around you... and on the music that you're creating and sharing together!
At our London school we run a series of ensembles and other community music making opportunities throughout the year, including our popular Violin Orchestra, and the Saturday ViolinHubs where we build up Technical, Performance and Repertoire (group playing) skills.
If you don't have similar opportunities in your area, then it's a good idea to ask around at music schools and shops, to see if there are any local people who are interested in playing music. You'll be surprised at how many 'hidden' musicians there are... people who've played music as a child, and would love to start playing again. Could you start your own music group, meetup, or even an ensemble?
The social aspect of playing music together is incredibly important. As well as providing strong connections to your local community, playing in a group or an orchestra is really great for personal development... and it's often simply a lot of fun, especially when players become good friends!
But orchestras and ensembles are all about using what you already know to create great music. So what happens if you haven't yet learnt how to play?
Traditionally, musical instruments have been taught on a 'master and apprentice' basis, where a reputed musician will pass on their knowledge and understanding during 'one to one' lessons and personal coaching sessions.
But what we're increasingly finding at ViolinSchool is that the social aspect of being in a group can be incredibly beneficial to the effectiveness of your learning.
Whereas in a one to one lesson you only get access to the knowledge of one expert, a group tuition program (such as our Beginner Violin Courses for Adults and our Children's Violin Courses at our London School) can help give you wider context for your learning.
Firstly, you become aware of the progress of the group, and whether you're keeping up. You can see the progression that's expected during a course, and supplement your learning with class resources and a curriculum.
But most of all, you can talk and engage with your fellow learners, discuss ideas that have been covered in the class, and support each other (with perhaps a bit of friendly competition to motivate you along the way!).
As relationships develop with the people around you, you learn more about yourself by learning about each other. Each of us starts with different strengths and weaknesses, and the way that we overcome challenges and obstacles can be both informative and inspiring to other learners.
Being generous with our knowledge and wisdom not only helps other people to progress, but it helps us ourselves to grow. One of the best ways to truly know whether you understand a topic, is to explain it to someone else. By sharing and discussing ideas in a social learning context, we become better and stronger - both as a community, and as individuals.
Social learning doesn't replace one to one attention... there are times when a bit of personal tuition is exactly what's needed in order to break through a particular obstacle, or work in detail on a complex task that needs the advice of an expert, for example.
But a good selection of social learning and playing opportunities blended with online and one to one tuition can provide an excellent mix of perspectives, environments, information sources, and experiences... all of which will enrich your life as a violinist and musician!
If you're about to embark upon a Violin Course, a series of violin lessons, a new school term, or even just a new routine of regular practice, then it makes sense to get your instrument into the best possible condition before you start!
There are few things more frustrating (and demotivating!) than diving into a new period of learning with excitement and enthusiasm, only to find that you can't make progress because your tools are faulty, worn or out of date! So follow this checklist before you go to your first class or practice session!
Check the Strings
Violin Strings wear out. If you've been playing a lot, you'll find that they may have become worn, dull in sound, or even started to lose their outer coating (in which case they'll need replacing immediately - before they hurt your fingers, or weaken and snap!)
Or if you've not been playing at all, and the violin has been sitting unplayed in a cupboard for a while (it happens!), then the strings may have deteriorated through lack of use. Either way, one of the smartest things you can do before starting a new course is to check (and if necessary replace) the strings.
For regular players, it makes sense to buy a new set of strings every year or two, but if you play a lot, you may want to do this more regularly. Some professional players will replace the strings before every major concert tour, but it quickly becomes an expensive habit if you do this every couple of months!
On the other hand, you don't want to leave it years between each string change. Even if you don't notice the strings wearing out because it's so gradual, you'll definitely hear the difference once a new set is on the violin... it breathes new life into an instrument!
It's remarkable how many people, especially at beginner level, don't have a spare set of strings. Strings do sometimes break - this is normal! But if you're nowhere near a violin shop, or need to wait for an online order to arrive, you may find yourself unable to practise for several days...
...don't risk it! Get a spare set of strings and you'll be prepared for when string disaster strikes!
'Playing In' New Strings
If you replace your violin strings the day before your first class, then you should expect to have minor difficulties tuning the violin for at least a couple of days. This is because new strings need to be 'played in'... they need to get used to the tension that's created by winding and fixing them onto the violin.
The strings will naturally stretch during this process, which musicians sometimes refer to as 'settling' ("I just changed my strings; they need some time to settle"). Until newly attached strings are stable, you may find that they violin slips out of tune far more than usual!
The amount of time it takes for violin strings to settle does depend on the make and model of the string, and on the thickness (generally, the lower strings will take longer to settle than the higher strings, though this can vary). As a general rule, a few hours of playing over a couple of days is usually enough to 'play in' strings to the point at which they become stable.
Keep a set of old strings!
It's good practise to have used strings on hand in case you have a string break during a concert, and need an urgent replacement that's already been 'played in'. After all, if a string has already been stretched and worn, it's not going to slip out of tune as easily as a brand new string that hasn't been used.
So keep your most recent set of old strings in your violin case... just in case you have a string snap just before - or even during! - a concert or event. You'll be glad you did!
Check the Bow Hair
Another 'perishable' part of your equipment is the bow hair. Over time, the bow hair - like the strings - becomes worn and less responsive. Bow hair can also become dirty (especially near the heel, if you're in a habit of making contact between the bow hair and your right thumb.
So you should consider refreshing it on a regular basis (but be aware that, if you're using a cheap bow, it may not make economic sense... bow rehairs are usually more expensive than replacing cheap bows).
It's also common for the hairs of the bow to break from time to time (especially if you're playing a lot of ferocious, fast music... or if you're pressing too hard on the string!).
So even if your bow hair is fairly new, make sure that you've got a full complement of bow hairs on the bow, and that it's not becoming too one-sided (as hairs will tend to break on the far side of the bow - i.e. away from you - due to how we tilt the bow when playing).
If you play a lot, then you might find yourself needing to replace the bow hair more than once per year. But for many people, it's something that only needs to be done every couple of years.
Is your rosin in good condition? Is your music stand working well? Do you have enough pencils and pencil sharpeners? Do you need to replace the soft cloth that you use for wiping down your violin after using it?
It's easy to get into bad habits and forget how important these tiny details are. Having a 'duster' or microfibre cloth (for wiping rosin off the instrument's surface when you put it way) is a good example... there are plenty of violinists who keep the same cloth for so long, and don't think of ever washing or replacing it!
Music stands, especially cheap collapsable ones, can break easily. And though it might seem like a secondary detail, a faulty music stand can be enough to significantly disrupt a violinist's practice routine! Make sure that you have all these little things taken care of, and you'll have fewer obstacles in the way of achieving your learning goals.
Here's a comprehensive list of things to check before embarking on the next stage of your learning. Can you think of anything we've forgotten? If so, let us know at [email protected]!
For the new academic year, we're transitioning all our Online Courses to a more robust digital platform at https://learn.violinschool.com/. This will allow you to track your learning as you move through all our video tutorials and online tuition.
You may see a few changes around ViolinSchool in the next couple of days. If you run into an error, just let us know at [email protected] and we'll fix it straight away.
Existing ViolinSchool members - you may need to reset your password or have us update your account details in order to access the online courses. Please follow the instructions you see on the site. If there are any issues, just contact us.