Learning the violin is a life journey. Whatever attracted you to start, whether it was a particular performance, the uniquely beautiful sound of the violin, a desire to learn a new skill or the fact you had always wanted to play an instrument, there’s a lot of fun ahead. For more advanced students too, as you deepen your relationship with the instrument and the repertoire, there is always more to learn.
Progress takes diligence and patience, but there are certain things you can do that will keep you on the right track. These ten violin-playing tips can be followed at every level of playing and will have a really positive impact on your experience of the violin. Treat yourself to an immersive, holistic learning journey. If you’re stuck, if your practice feels stagnant, or progress has ground to a halt, use these ten tips as a checklist for progress.
There are many low-cost student violin kits on the market, and some of them are really horrible! They sound bad, look cheap, and even the most experienced professional would find them hard to play. Shop around for the best instrument you can afford. Nobody expects you to turn up to your first lesson, or even your 101st lesson, with a Stradivarius, but you will learn better if the violin works well.
There are plenty of good student sets too, and an experienced luthier will be able to improve a low-cost instrument by refining the set-up. Ask your teacher’s advice before buying a violin and talk to your violin shop about fitting a good violin bridge. If you don’t want to commit straight away, many dealerships offer rental options while you look around for the right violin to buy.
The cost of violin lessons can seem high, but one-to-one time with an experienced tutor is invaluable. Your teacher will assess where you are in the learning process and which skills you need to work on. A skilled musician will direct your learning and identify problems before you develop bad habits. One-to-one lessons offer a great opportunity for development. Modern technology gives the opportunity to have wonderful learning experiences wherever you are in the world. Many students now have violin lessons over Skype with their teacher in a different city or even continent.
Nowadays, many learners take lessons via webcam using software such as Skype.
Daily practise WILL lead to progress. Yes, there’s the research that says it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, but don’t feel you have to practise for hours every day to see improvement. Much more important is HOW you practise. Work undertaken with focused concentration pays off, but mindless repetition can actually set you back. Study in small time-blocks with lots of breaks, maintaining an awareness of your focus. Before repeating a task, identify where the problem is and what you are aiming to change.
It takes a lot of brainpower to play the violin, but ultimately you make the sound by moving your body. Do some simple warm-up stretches before practising and keep a spot check of your posture throughout the session. Notice any areas of tension, analyse what is causing them (I’m clenching my jaw because I am trying too hard; I’m raising my right shoulder because I’m worried I will drop the bow). If you can’t release the tension by yourself, ask your teacher’s advice. Many problems can be resolved by simply remembering to breathe and maintaining awareness.
A flexible, well-balanced body posture is essential for good violin-playing.
When learning how to manage the violin physically, it is sometimes hard to concentrate on how you sound. And because the violin is placed so close to the left ear, it is not always easy to get a real sense of how the performance sounds to others. Record your practise as often as you can. Listen back, looking for positives as well as points you want to improve.
Whatever repertoire you are learning, it is really important to listen to the piece. By listening to other violinists, not only will you develop a well-rounded idea of your piece, you will develop your ear. Passive listening (listening away from your instrument) can improve pitch, tone and phrasing, while active listening (with the music in front of you and the violin or an air violin in your hand) can actually trigger physical improvements and musical insights. For example, miming your bowing along with a section of a recording can deepen your muscle memory of that bowing, and help identify problem areas. There are literally thousands of videos and recordings available on YouTube, featuring some of the greatest violinists who ever lived. Sometimes you can even get ideas for fingerings and bowings by watching your favourite soloist play!
Technical exercises and scales are the building blocks of violin music. Working on these simple patterns out of context of the repertoire gives an opportunity to improve intonation and tone production across the board. Scales also help teach an understanding of key. You’ll find loads of scales and technical exercises in our resource library.
All music, no matter how simple, comes with some historical and social context. Is your piece based on a dance or a song? Who was the composer, and when was it written. For more substantial pieces, it can be interesting to find out why the work was composed and what was going on in the composer’s life at the time. If someone had fallen in love or was suffering from depression, those feelings will be reflected in the music and might inform how you choose to express certain phrases.
A major reason we get nervous during performance is because it is an unfamiliar situation and therefore fraught with pressure. Practise performing, either by simulating performances where you play your piece without stopping to an armchair full of teddy bears or smart phone microphone, or set up performance opportunities with friends. Integrate the act of performing into your preparation and it will soon feel natural.
To give a good performance, you need to practise performing! Make performance practice part of your regular practice habits.
It is easy to panic and feel stressed if things are not going to plan. Whatever your age or playing level, a bad practise session can feel like a personal disaster. If your practise is really going badly, stop! Take a break, go for a short walk, try some breathing exercises or have a glass of water. Never pick up your violin expecting it to feel the same as it did yesterday, that would be like walking into a room and finding everyone in the exact same mood they were the day before.
Begin where you are today, with a sense of exploration. If something will not go right, break it down to open strings, practise some slow bows or go back to relaxed scales.
“To rely on muscular habit, which so many of us do in technique, is indeed fatal. A little nervousness, a muscle bewildered and unable to direct itself, and where are you? For technique is truly a matter of the brain.” Fritz Kreizler, violinist and composer 1875 -1962
Visualisation, the process of creating compelling images in the mind, is one of the most valuable tools for learning and integrating skill, building confidence and achieving success, yet we constantly underuse it in our lives and our violin practice.
Visualisation accelerates the learning of any skill by activating the power of the subconscious mind, focussing the brain by programming the reticular activating system - the filter which mediates information and regulates brain states - to seek out and use available resources, and by raising the level of expectation, motivating a better result.
Scientists have found that the same regions of the brain are stimulated when we perform an action and when we visualise performing that action: If you vividly imagine placing your left hand fingers on the fingerboard of your violin, your brain activates in exactly the same way as if you were actually doing it – your brain sees no difference between visualising and doing. This research is used to great effect to help stroke patients reactivate muscles that have lost their facility: It has been found to be possible to build strength in a muscle that is too weak to move by simply repeatedly imagining the movement.
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The process of visualisation, which was initially dismissed by many as unfounded, is described in W Timothy Gallwey’s 1974 book, The Inner Game of Tennis.
“There is a far more natural and effective process for learning and doing almost anything than most of us realize. It is similar to the process we all used, but soon forgot, as we learned to walk and talk. It uses the so-called unconscious mind more than the deliberate "self-conscious" mind, the spinal and midbrain areas of the nervous system more than the cerebral cortex. This process doesn't have to be learned; we already know it. All that is needed is to unlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen.
Visualisation simply makes the brain achieve more. Sports psychologists and peak performance experts have been popularising the technique since the 1980s, and it has been integrated into almost all mainstream sports and performance coaching, success programmes and business training.
Athletes using guided imagery and mental rehearsal techniques can enhance their performance by creating mental images to intend the outcome of a race. With mental rehearsal the body and mind become trained to actively perform the skill imagined. Repeated use of visualisation builds experience and confidence under pressure, maximising both the efficiency of training and the effectiveness of practice. This principle applies to learning anything new. According to Jack Canfield, in his 2004 book, The Success Principles, Harvard University researchers found that students who visualised tasks before performing them, performed with nearly 100% accuracy, where those who didn’t use visualisation achieved only 55% accuracy. This is also true when applied to the process of learning the violin, both during practice time and performance.
“Fortune favours the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur, chemist and microbiologist, 1822 - 1895
Most of us are familiar with the idea of reading ahead in the music, or of hearing a note or pitch before playing it. Visualisation - not only conceiving of a phrase before playing it, but vividly imagining the sound, how it feels, where the fingers will fall, how the hand will move in a certain shift and even how the performance will go - is a much deeper way of mentally absorbing and preparing the information. It is also one of the best ways to rid your practice of monotonous repetition and develop awareness of your musical actions.
It’s all very well knowing how great visualisation can be, but how do you go about it? What happens if you close your eyes and don’t seem to be able to see anything?
There are two different ways of visualising, depending on your brain type, both of which are absolutely legitimate. Some people are what psychologists refer to as eidetic visualisers. When they close their eyes they see things in bright, clear, three-dimensional, colour images. The majority of people, however, are noneidetic visualisers. This means they don’t really see an image as much as think it. THIS WORKS JUST AS WELL!
Before we look at how we can apply visualisation techniques in violin practice, let’s look at an example exercise from The Inner Game of Tennis, in which the aim is to hit a stationary target with a tennis ball:
“Place a tennis-ball can in the backhand corner of one of the service courts. Then figure out how you should swing your racket in order to hit the can. Think about how high to toss the ball, about the proper angle of your racket at impact, the proper weight flow, and so forth. Now aim at the can and attempt to hit it. If you miss, try again. If you hit it, try to repeat whatever you did so that you can hit it again. If you follow this procedure for a few minutes, you will experience what I mean by "trying hard" and making yourself serve. After you have absorbed this experience, move the can to the backhand corner of the other service court for the second half of the experiment. This time stand on the base line, breathe deeply a few times and relax. Look at the can. Then visualize the path of the ball from your racket to the can. See the ball hitting the can right on the label. If you like, shut your eyes and imagine yourself serving, and the ball hitting the can. Do this several times. If in your imagination the ball misses the can, that's all right; repeat the image a few times until the ball hits the target. Now, take no thought of how you should hit the ball. Don't try to hit the target. Ask your body, Self 2, to do whatever is necessary to hit the can, then let it do it. Exercise no control; correct for no imagined bad habits. Having programmed yourself with the desired flight of the ball, simply trust your body to do it. When you toss the ball up, focus your attention on its seams, then let the serve serve itself. The ball will either hit or miss the target. Notice exactly where it lands. You should free yourself from any emotional reaction to success or failure; simply know your goal and take objective interest in the results. Then serve again. If you have missed the can, don't be surprised and don't try to correct for your error. This is most important. Again focus your attention on the can; then let the serve serve itself. If you faithfully do not try to hit the can, and do not attempt to correct for your misses, but put full confidence in your body and its computer, you will soon see that the serve is correcting itself. You will experience that there really is a Self 2 who is acting and learning without being told what to do. Observe this process; observe your body making the changes necessary in order to come nearer and nearer to the can, Of course, Self 1 is very tricky and it is most difficult to keep him from interfering a little, but if you quiet him a bit, you will begin to see Self 2 at work, and you will be as amazed as I have been at what it can do, and how effortlessly.”
You can already see how this same exercise might be applied to practising a particular shift or bow stroke, any specific element of your piece that requires a certain physical movement to gain a result.
Here are some more practice and performance ideas from The Musician’s Way, A Guide to Practice, Performance and Wellness by Gerald Klickstein, 2009
Start using visualisation in your practice. You will find you achieve much better results and increased confidence, you can practice at antisocial hours of the day or night, you can save tired muscles, and you will develop a much deeper, intuitive understanding of the instrument and the music. Visualise, imagine and mentally prepare at least as much as you physically play. As you practice visualising it will become easier to integrate it at speed and under pressure.
Visualisation is counter-intuitive in a culture where we are taught to try, try, try again, but it is without doubt the single most powerful practice technique that most of us don’t use!
“If you cannot visualise what it is you wish to become, then the brain doesn’t have the first clue how to get you there." Chris Murray, Author of The Extremely Successful Salesman’s Club
Stage fright is a state of nervousness or fear leading up to and during a performance. It is an exaggerated symptom of anxiety. The hands sweat or become icy cold, the body shakes, sometimes symptoms include nausea, an overwhelming sense of tiredness, a need to go to the toilet or shortness of breath, and there can be a frightening sense of disassociation; of playing your instrument from behind a curtain through which you simply cannot connect with what you’re doing.
Stage fright is a very common problem amongst performing musicians. In one recent survey 96% of the orchestra musicians questioned admitted to anxiety before performances. It’s common to see the backstage sign leading Stage Right enhanced with a cynical ‘F’, and this self-mocking comment is pertinent. To many performers stage fright represents a destructive personal shortcoming.
The physical symptoms are the result of a primal instinct known as Fight or Flight. This is the inborn physiological response to a threatening or dangerous situation. It readies you either to resist the danger forcibly – Fight - or to run away from it – Flight. Hormones including adrenaline flood into the bloodstream, the heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate all increase, the neck and back muscles contract, which means that if you try to maintain an upright posture your muscles shake violently, the digestive system shuts down.
It’s useful on a basic level to understand what is happening to cause the unpleasant physical symptoms of stage fright. It’s also worth knowing that everybody suffers from it to some degree or at some point in their life, no matter how successful or famous. Even Heifetz who was renowned for his perfect performances was apparently stricken with fear before he went on stage, convinced that two thousand nine hundred and ninety nine of the three thousand audience members had come to hear him play a wrong note.
It is useful to know these things but it is not, in reality, any help at all when you are in the grip of stage fright.
So what is the reason for stage fright?
The danger your body is reacting to is the performance. There’s a fear you won’t do yourself justice. The more important the outcome of the performance, the worse the anxiety will be. If the stakes are high, say you’re auditioning for an orchestra you’ve always wanted to play with, you’re broke and you need the money, you’re playing in a competitive situation where you know your performance is being judged in a critical way, even more adrenaline will release and the resultant anxiety can be paralysing.
Many instrumentalists, particularly those playing an instrument as tactile and personal as the violin, relate very strongly with their instrument. “I am a violinist,” becomes more than a job description. In situations like this, the identity of the self as a musician can seem to rely on the outcome of the performance.
There is also a genetic aspect. Some people are simply more genetically predisposed to strong feelings of anxiety than others.
Another aspect behind performance anxiety is the level of task mastery. The more comfortable you feel with your playing, the more confident you will feel. Our fears of unreliable shifting, stiff left hand, bow shake or dropping the violin are all founded in an unreliable physical reaction.
What has really happened in stage fright is that the positive aspect of music making, an overriding desire to communicate, has somehow become lost as the ego distorts the relevance of the performance. Stage fright is ultimately a product of self-regard in which the performance has become more about the performer than the music or the audience. The idea of giving; that in performance you are transmitting something greater than yourself; has been supplanted by the fear that you will be exposed as not good enough.
So what can you do?
Stage fright is essentially a problem of expression and preparation and there are many creative solutions to nerves. Here are some ideas to try.
Here is a short video from the Ted Talks about stage fright. It’s worth watching to consolidate what you know and ends with a helpful breathing exercise.
The sound of the violin is as close as any instrument to the human voice. The ideal for the violinist is that the instrument is almost an extension of the body; it is the violinist’s voice. In order to create this sense, the violinist must learn to use the body without the interference of mental blocks and physical tensions. Mind and body are engaged in practice, and every practice is an opportunity to learn and relearn and to build a healthy relationship between the body and the violin.
Most focus in practice tends to be on performance. Often the means by which performance is achieved are ignored or taken for granted until injury or pain impedes progress.
Since the sound on the violin is created with the whole body, and the whole body is engaged in the techniques needed to express the music, it is worth spending some time paying attention to the body.
When we practice, all conscious learning takes place within the working memory. This is a limited resource. Nothing can be learned properly if there are too many points of focus at once. Teaching the body to recognise correct postures stretches the working memory and it is not possible to fully focus on the music until the body is comfortable and balanced.
A coordinated body is fundamental for all musical skill and technique to develop.
In his book Life Class, Yehudi Menuhin explains, “My main principle in playing is all-embracing and straightforward: a striving for equilibrium. Perfect equilibrium is, of course, an unattainable ideal, a complex and infinitely multifaceted thing. None the less, one can approach something like right equilibrium when one realises that no part of the body moves without some corresponding reaction or compensation in some other part, in the same sense that not a leaf falls without altering the equilibrium of the earth.”
The engagement with the body therefore becomes an awakening of awareness as to the subtle shifting and balance, the release of tension and the development of mindfulness, which will deepen musicianship, connection and expression in performance.
The subject of how to use the body in violin playing is huge, and different approaches suit different people. Some students find the Alexander Technique helpful, some focus on general wellbeing. There are as many approaches as there are violinists.
Let’s look some of the first points to think about.
- Basic Posture -
Often when playing the violin it’s easy to focus on the upper body but the root of a balanced alignment comes from the feet, legs and pelvis, and from good breathing.
Good posture is about more than standing up straight. Babies instinctively know how to balance as they learn to sit, crawl, stand and walk, but as we get older we often lose this ability and fall into inefficient postures, which we then bring to our violin playing.
The pelvis is integral to correct posture, as it is directly connected to the legs through the hip joints, and connected via muscles to the arms and shoulders. If you think of the pelvis as being the body’s centre of gravity, its positioning becomes vital to good posture whether sitting or standing to play. It should not be either tilted forward or back.
To help achieve balance in the pelvis, the feet should be placed directly under the thigh sockets with toes facing more or less forwards. The knees should be relaxed and in line with the thigh and ankle joints. Then the pelvis rests on the top of the thighs and the trunk is balanced, the chest floats upwards, the rib cage hangs down towards the pelvis and the shoulder girdle rests on top of the rib cage. Think of the head not as a separate entity, as we are encouraged to do with the idea of disparity between mind and body. Instead, include the head as part of the body in your thinking. Your mind is not confined in the space within your skull any more than your body stops at your neck.
To find a good sitting posture, sit balancing upright on your sit bones. You can feel them when you shift your weight from side to side. Think of these sit bones as ‘feet’ that support your torso. Once you have found this solid base, let the spine lengthen up naturally. The knees should be lower than the hips, so if you need to adjust your chair, do so. You can buy blocks to raise the back of chairs which slope backwards, or a wedge cushion to help with posture.
Once you are happy that your posture is comfortable and balanced, bring the instrument to the body, rather than compensating with the body and moving to meet the instrument.
- Positioning the Head -
The head represents about 10% of the body weight. When the neck is not positioned correctly to support the head, the shoulders take the strain. This tension is transferred to the elbows, wrists and hands.
Make sure you have the best shoulder rest and chin rest combination for your body to eliminate unnecessary tension in the neck.
Notice too what is happening with your eyes. Are you under or over focussing, or are you straining your eyes to read the music? Relax the muscles around your eyes and forehead and you will notice a corresponding release of tension in the neck muscles.
Hunching the neck and shoulders is a common habit, and it’s easy to press too hard with the head on the chinrest. Experiment with gripping the violin between the shoulder and chin and notice how the less freedom you have in your head and neck, the more negative emotions may surface. Stiffening the neck stiffens all of the joints of the body.
Hunching the shoulders also limits the movement in the collarbones and shoulder blades, which should float freely from the shoulder girdle. It results in the ribs lifting which gives the heart and lungs less space to work.
See here how the shoulder muscles are attached to the ribs, the collarbone and the arms, and travel right down the body to the pelvis.
Each part of the body moves best when it moves in harmony with the other bones, muscles and limbs. Menuhin describes the process of learning to play the violin as one whereby, “the body of the player becomes aware of itself.” He says, “The principle is grasped not intellectually, but through sensations, through becoming aware of the subtle checks and balances which, when properly understood, permit ease of technique.”
- The Arms -
In playing the violin, the arms function both as a system of levers and as a channel for visceral energy. They carry a charge of energy and emotions from the player to the instrument. For musical expression to be free this route from the torso to the fingers must be without unnecessary tension and the posture must allow energy to flow.
Tension in the neck and shoulders can put pressure on the nerves that lead into the hand, creating pain, pins and needles, numbness and even loss of facility in the fingers.
See from this picture of the human skeleton how the arms and shoulders balance on the body in a free, open way. Try to imagine this space in your own shoulder girdle and feel your spine lengthening as your head floats upwards from your pelvis.
It is also worth observing the range of movement in your wrists. The body works best in the middle of its range of movement. When your wrist is bent forward or backward it is extended beyond this optimal point and this causes tension. This is why a flat left wrist, which leans against the neck of the violin, is not good technique. The hand and wrist are locked in an extended part of the wrist’s range of movement, and this impedes intonation, shifting and vibrato.
- Exercise -
Physical exercise is an important tool in maintaining and developing a healthy body, which in turn has a positive impact on violin practice.
A practice such as yoga is helpful in diminishing anxiety and improving strength and flexibility, and will also teach awareness and knowledge of the muscles.
Yoga based exercises must be approached gently and by no means forced. Find a good teacher. There are a lot of classes run by inexperienced teachers and musicians report suffering two months of tennis elbow, pulled muscles and other disasters after attending classes where the teacher pushes them too fast.
Exercising the body in the right way keeps it supple and adaptable, just as exercising the mind strengthens character and musicianship.
Warm up the body before you practice. A useful selection of stretches is available from the British Performing Arts Medicine Trust. Integrate them to your daily routine.
- Breathing -
Posture is dynamic, not static. Subtle movements such as breathing constantly occur, even when we are still.
Noticing your breathing is also the first practice of mindfulness meditation, which begins to incorporate mind and body in a holistic way. It is not possible to practice the violin without working on the body, and it is not possible to engage the body without using the mind. The violin practice in itself then becomes a holistic and far reaching experience.
Begin where you are today, and begin noticing how you use your body to create your sound on the violin.
Watch other violinists to see how they use the whole body to play and express the music. Here is Joshua Bell playing from his feet:
Make time in your practice to develop this physical learning with a sense of childlike exploration.
If anyone ever says to you, “It sounds like you’re playing the violin with gloves on!” then you can take it they aren’t complimenting you on your performance. But sometimes, especially as winter approaches, we have to practice and perform in cold conditions. Is there a solution for violinists? Something which doesn’t interfere with the sound or ease of movement, and which is smart enough to wear on stage, or are there better ways to keep the hands warm? You can’t, after all, just put your gloves on.
Keeping the hands warm and flexible is important for every violinist. Increasingly, professional musicians are being alerted to the importance of a physical warm up. Many muscle and tendon strains can be attributed to overstretching when the body is cold. It’s for this very reason that ballet dancers wear leg warmers to stop their calf muscles from getting cold and stiff. For violinists rehearsing in cold churches, practising at home as it gets colder, travelling to and from work in the winter, and even playing outdoor concerts in the summer when it can become very cold as night falls, cold hands mean loss of dexterity, painful joints, poor vibrato, and compromised left hand agility, bow control and facility of shifts. If your hands get really cold, you’ll find you can’t even feel the string.
The first thing to do if you’re somewhere you can do so, is to put the heating on. Practising in a warm room is much less tiring. If you’ve been sitting at your computer or watching TV, or something else sedentary before you decide to practice, counteract the cold by doing something physical. Exercise in general improves the circulation. Do the washing up in a nice bowl of warm water, using rubber gloves to keep your hands dry. The combination of heat from the water and physical movement will get your hands warm in no time.
It is also important to realise that cold hands can be a result of an overall cold body temperature. If your core, or torso, is warm, blood is readily released to the extremities. When you get cold, blood is kept back for the vital organs and the brain. It’s no good sourcing the perfect gloves for your outdoor gig if you don’t dress appropriately to keep warm, especially when for most concerts you will be sitting fairly still. Layers of clothes trap in body heat and full-length sleeves make a huge difference to the warmth retained in your hands. Try wearing a HeatTech™ vest (available from Uniqlo for both men and women) under your concert outfit for incredible warmth.
The next stage is to find a glove (or ideally a pair of gloves) which allows for the dexterity needed and doesn’t get in the way. Here, Maxim Vengerov gives a moving performance of the Bach Chaconne from the D Minor Partita, at Auschwitz as part of a Holocaust Memorial.
There is snow on the ground, and from about five minutes into the piece, as he moves outside, Vengerov is wearing fingerless gloves to play.
Fingerless gloves or wrist warmers, or in extreme circumstances a combination of the two, are the ultimate solution. Chose a warm material such as wool or cashmere, but make sure the fabric is not too thick. These violin gloves from Etsy are fun, and they’re made of merino wool so they’re probably quite warm, but they’re no good for the platform. Something like these unisex thermal gloves from Sealskinz, which are specifically designed to keep the hands warm whilst allowing for high levels of dexterity would be more suitable. And they’re black.
A simple wrist warmer may be less obtrusive. Orkney Angora do some good ones, but they don’t help much when it’s really cold, whereas these heated “Wristies” look great. These customer reviews on Amazon US are helpful in recommending “Wristies” for violin practice, and the product comes in different sizes with several arm lengths. The longer sleeve will give more warmth, the shorter may be less restrictive.
There is also a wide range of hand warmers on the market, whether reusable, portable gel packs, or microwaveable pads to use at home. These can be a comforting alternative on a cold day.
Avoid anything like these support gloves. These gloves are designed for knitting, and while the idea of a supportive fabric seems appealing, they compress the muscles, hampering freedom in the tendons and ligaments, in the same way that playing in a support bandage does.
If you can’t find any fingerless gloves or mittens that take your fancy, or you feel like exercising your creativity, try knitting your own from one of these free patterns. Not wishing to succumb to stereotypes, these Man Paw gloves are perfect for the violin playing man-who-knits. Or he could get someone to knit them for him for Christmas. These cable knit gloves are warm without being too chunky to play in, and would be smart enough in black for a performance. Some people even find shifting is easier with these sorts of mittens on. These smaller gloves, which have individual fingers, rather than an open mitten-style top, and therefore keep more warmth in round the fingers, are also great for busking and for concerts outdoors or in cold churches. Choose a warm wool or wool blend, something fine enough to make fairly thin gloves, or treat yourself with cashmere.
And if none of those solutions seem creative enough for you, there’s always this violin playing glove puppet.
It’s no good at all for helping your violin practice or performance, but at least it will get a laugh.
Finally, remember that when you perform, your hands will often feel very cold. Circulation in the hands can decrease when we feel nervous. Sometimes it is good to practice with cold hands, just to get used to this feeling; otherwise it’s easy to get obsessed with everything being “just so” for a performance and panicking when it’s not.
I was tutoring at a conference event recently; a slightly unusual one where I was asked to take a room full of delegates, fresh from lunch and expecting some generic team-building exercise, and teach them the basics of violin playing. I stood up and started off with the ill thought-out premise, “Your violin is held in the left hand.”
A small voice came from a lady in the middle of the group.
“But I’m left handed,” she said.
Recent surveys suggest that 13% of men and 11% of women are left-handed. This is an increase on previous figures as left-handedness becomes more accepted in society. It seems ridiculous now, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, left-handed people were severely discriminated against. Many had their left-handedness beaten out of them. They were shunned in adulthood, meaning fewer left-handed people married and had children. As this prejudice began to wane in the 20th Century, the number of natural left-handers who stayed left -handed increased.
There is however, no significant data about left-handed violinists. Apart from a list of a mere dozen players on Wikipedia, there is almost no information on the subject. There is apparently no interest in which famous violinists happen to be left-handed and play right-handed, or on the proportion of left-handed musicians working in today’s orchestras. Since a paper published in the Journal of Mental and Nervous Disease (Volume 195, number 10) found a conclusive link between left-handedness and creativity, stating that musicians, painters and writers were more likely to be left-handed than the control participants, it seems obvious that our orchestras may contain a higher proportion of left-handers than a less artistic workplace. So why do we all play the violin right-handed?
Although a mere 1% of people are truly ambidextrous, left-handed people have to learn to use both hands with similar dexterity as they adapt to a right-handed world, in which simple items such as scissors and can-openers are asymmetrically designed for right-handed use. Left-handed people are therefore more likely to develop motor skills in their non-dominant hand than right-handed people.
Playing the violin is not a single-handed activity. It requires advanced skill and dexterity in both hands. Some people are convinced that the dexterity required in left hand violin technique actually favours left-handed people; others say that both bowing and fingering are difficult so it makes no difference. Neither of these statements is entirely correct.
As a beginner left-handed violinist, you will find your possibilities limited. You will struggle to find a teacher who is prepared or equipped to teach you left handed. It just isn’t done. However, with an open mind, there is no reason why the mirror-image approach shouldn’t work. It’s also not unheard of. Terje Moe Hansen, Pedagogue and Professor at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, plays the violin left-handed. Here is his video lesson on perfect intonation.
The violin itself presents problems. Its set up needs to be reversed, with strings and bridge the other way round. Internally, the bass bar and sound post need to be moved to the opposite side to produce a comparative tone quality, and whilst the violin body is designed symmetrically, the peg box will need to be rebuilt and the neck tilt may need to be readjusted. Left-handed student violins can be purchased, but you will never have the pleasure of playing on an old Italian gem without completely reworking the instrument.
There is also the attitude that a left-handed violinist in an orchestra looks unnatural or untidy, and that the logistics of seating players so as not to cause colliding bow arms are difficult. In this age of equal opportunity, this should not be an issue.
Paavo Berglund, OBE, (1929-2012) who was a member of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1958, played the violin left-handed. He played a violin made for him by his grandfather and had to be accommodated at the back of the first violins to account for his reverse technique. He is most famous as a conductor, and known for his work in bringing the music of Jean Sibelius to mainstream European audiences.
Other notable left-handed players include the Viennese virtuoso, Richard Barth (1863-1867), Charlie Chaplin, and Rudolph Kolisch (1896-1978). Kolisch started learning the violin the conventional way, but re-learned after losing the top joint of his left middle finger as a child. He was the leader of the Kolisch Quartet and the Pro-Arte Quartet and his playing, which can be heard in this recording of Mozart, was beautiful.
Left-handed students, particularly of classical music, are almost always encouraged to play the violin right-handed. It is much more common to find players in traditional music fields such as folk and jazz who play the other way round. It seems that of those classical violinists who do play left-handed, some are actually right-handed musicians who have re-learned as a result of an injury. The author of the only extensive study on the subject, Playing the Violin and Fiddle Left Handed, professional violinist and fiddle player Ryan Thomson, is right-handed and relearned after focal dystonia in his right arm left him unable to play.
Thomson argues that as children we naturally want to hold the bow in our dominant hand. Whilst the left hand dexterity of left-handed beginners may initially help them learn more quickly, the bow is, after all, what makes the sound, and sound production is arguably the most important part of violin playing.
As a left-handed violinist myself, I have found that I have to work twice as hard on my right hand technique. It is not just a matter of dexterity and coordination; it is necessary to be able to conceive tone quality before producing it. I often find that while my brain is processing left hand finger patterns away from practice, it is my right hand fingers that move, (apparently I practice the “wrong way round” in my sleep) and it takes a secondary step having conceived the sound to process it with the right arm. Another effect of left-handedness I have noticed in myself is a tendency to slow reading. When I learned to write, I wrote mirror writing. It took a lot of practice to turn this instinct around in my head to enable me to sight read at speed. I find my more dominant right-brained instincts very useful when it comes to intuitive musicianship, but I also had to learn that certain left-brained analytical approaches, which are essential for some players, actually hamper my ability to express myself physically and musically.
Ultimately, it is difficult to find an instrument and a teacher to enable you to learn to a high level left-handed. A good violinist is never entirely satisfied and every one of us has different physical and mental characteristics to work with. Some people are more confident, some have short arms or a long neck, some read more quickly, others learn more slowly and some are left-hand dominant. I don’t believe the answer to a satisfying experience of violin playing lies in which hand does what. I think it’s about learning to work with your own body, with all its limitations and advantages. There may be benefits to learning the violin the other way round, and in the future it may be more possible, but for centuries left handed people have adapted and produced fantastic results on the violin just how it is.
The violin has held a central position in European culture for almost five centuries. Throughout that period, violin makers have taken great pride in the visual appearance of their instruments, which in turn has inspired generations of visual artists. As a result, the violin has enjoyed a second career as the subject of paintings. The representation of the violin in paintings now offers a fascinating insight into the instrument’s history. The physical development of the instrument can be traced through these images, as can the gradually evolving cultural status of music and the social standing of the musicians who perform it.
The development of the modern violin began in Northern Italy around the middle of the 16th century. It was a product of the Renaissance, which by that time had already spawned a flourishing visual arts culture, which in turn documented the early evolution of the instrument.
This image was painted in the 1490s by an associate of Leonardo da Vinci, possibly Francesco Napoletano. It is one of three panels for an altarpiece for the church of S. Francesco in Milan, which are now in the collection of the National Gallery in London. The angel plays a vielle, a precursor of the modern violin. The vielle may have developed from Byzantine lira or the Arab rebab. It differs from the modern violin in having five rather than four strings, a more rectangular body and a leaf shaped pegbox with the pegs facing forward. Illuminated manuscripts of the period also often feature vielles, although usually in the hands of troubadours rather than angels.
Forty years later, in 1529-30, Gaudenzio Ferrari painted this image, Madonna degli Aranci (Madonna of the Orange Trees), for the Church of St. Cristoforo in Vercelli, Italy. The cherub at the bottom of the image plays an instrument that is much more recognisable as a violin. Both the shape of the body, with its clearly defined bouts, and the playing position, link this example to the modern instrument. However, it has only three strings, suggesting that the modern four-string configuration was not yet firmly established.
By the end of the 16th century, the Cremonese school of violin makers had transformed the instrument. By their efforts, the structure and design of the violin was standardised, and the quality and sophistication of the instrument rose significantly. This also had a bearing on the violin’s cultural status, and by the mid 17th century it had become closely associated with the aristocratic classes. As well as playing a central role in the music-making of the nobility, the violin also became a decorative object in mansions and stately homes. This image, painted in the late 16th or early 17th century by Jan van der Vaardt, originally hung at Devonshire House in Piccadilly but is now in the collection of Chatsworth House. It is a Trompe l'oeil, designed to fool the eye into believing that a real violin is present. So the background is painted to imitate as closely as possible the wooden panel against which the painting originally hung. The bow is an interesting feature of this image. Although the shape of the violin had been standardised by this point, bow design remained variable. But most followed this design, shorter than the modern bow, with no distinct head and a very pointed tip. The modern bow design was pioneered by Francois Tourte in the 1780s.
The violin makes many appearances in 18th century portraiture. This painting, by François-Hubert Drouais, dates from 1756 and shows the marquis de Sourches and his family posing in a pastoral setting. Although the violin was considered the height of sophistication by this point, the instruments it appears with here suggest it also retained some more rustic undertones. There was a fashion at the time for aristocratic families to visit the country and dress and behave like commoners. The instrument played by the seated boy is a musette and was developed specifically for this pastime. It is a kind of miniature bagpipe, but quieter and more civilised than the folk instruments it is modelled on. The appearance of the violin in this setting suggests that it was also called into service on these occasions.
From the Renaissance onwards, it was standard practice to represent characters in contemporary dress, even in paintings depicting biblical or classical subjects. Similarly, the musical instruments that appeared tended to be those of the painter’s time. But this painting, Song of the Angels (1881) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, takes a consciously archaic approach to the instruments depicted. The three angels are shown playing a lute, a portative organ and a violin. The violin is modern in configuration, but the bow is of Baroque style. Clearly, the painter was not aware of the changes that had been made to the violin since the early 18th century, especially in the shape of the fingerboard. Also, the bow is shown to be under much higher tension than would have been the case for this early design. The painting dates from just before the earliest explorations of period performance practice by musicians and shows the significant gaps in understanding (at least of non-specialists), of the violin’s early history.
In the early 20th century, the violin made appearances in the works of many of the most radical avant garde artists. Picasso regularly painted violins, or at least produced paintings in which the title states that a violin in present, even if it is only suggested in the image through a pair of f-holes or four converging lines alluding to the strings across the fingerboard. This painting, Violon bouteilles de Marc et cartes (1919) is by Louis Marcoussis, another Cubist based in Paris. Marcoussis was particularly interested in representing musical instruments in a Cubist manner. Guitars and zithers also appear regularly in his work, but neither as often as the violin.
Painters continued to be drawn to the violin throughout the 20th century and beyond. The resemblance of the instrument’s body to the female form was exploited by many painters seeking to convey Freudian themes through apparently inanimate objects. This recent painting, Violin (2006) by Portuguese artist Rui Carruço, continues the theme. It demonstrates that, right up to the present day, the violin continues to have a powerful presence in the visual arts, where it is rarely treated as an inanimate object, but rather as a living entity, presented, as here, as if it were the subject of a still life.