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:
- Pieces and ensemble work
- Aural work, listening, clapping, singing and internalising
- Posture, warm ups and technical work
- Scales and arpeggios
- Notation work
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
- Warm up in a leisurely way; awaken to your body.
- Remind yourself what the instrument feels like.
- Remind yourself of your general intentions for practicing.
- Choose a section to focus on – decide exactly where you will begin and end.
- Imagine in energetic detail how you want the specific passage to feel.
- Plunge in with gusto – no caution!
- Observe results closely.
- Relax and take a moment to digest.
- Decide, on the basis of the evidence, whether to repeat the same steps, consolidate on your gains or move on to another focus.
- Clear your head every twenty minutes or so by getting up and walking around for a couple of minutes. This is a highly concentrated activity, and breaks keep you refreshed in body and mind.“
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.