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.
“When everyone else has finished playing, you should not play any notes you have left over. Please play those on the way home.” Anon.
Making music with other people is one of the best ways to enjoy playing the violin and an important part of developing your skills as a musician. The benefits of playing as part of a group or ensemble include improvement in every aspect of general musicianship, a better sense of pulse, rhythm and intonation, a heightened awareness and a chance to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
A chamber music ensemble plays without a conductor. This is a small group such as a string trio or quartet with one person playing each part. A larger ensemble where many people are playing the same part, normally guided by a conductor, is called an orchestra.
When you are learning to play in an ensemble of any size, there are important skills you must develop and practicalities to consider.
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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.
Karl Jenkins is a Welsh composer and musician, born in 1944. He started his musical career as an oboist in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and studied as a postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music. He went on to work mainly in jazz and jazz-rock bands, on baritone and soprano saxophone, keyboard, and oboe; an unusual instrument in jazz music.
Jenkins’ compositions are amongst some of the most popular around. His choral work The Armed Man was listed no.1 in Classic FM's Top 10 by Living Composers, 2008 and his work has featured in adverts for international companies including Levi Jeans, Renault and De Beers.
The Palladio Suite, one of Jenkins’ most famous works, is written in the Concerto Grosso style more commonly associated with Baroque music. It is made up of three movements; Allegretto, Largo and Vivace; and harks back to the writing of Venetian composers such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. It is conventional and unchallenging, its techniques and harmonies remaining firmly based in the 18th Century, a feature which is unusual for Jenkins who often combines a mixture of modern and traditional musical styles in his work.
Palladio was inspired by the architect Andrea Palladio, who designed many beautiful villas and churches in the Venice region in the 16th Century, and who gives his name to the London Palladium. The piece mirrors the idea of artistic beauty within a defined architectural framework.
This is not the only time Jenkins has found a connection between his music and visual aesthetics. On the front page of his website he tells the following story:
“Very late one night in 1997, across a dark and deserted St. Mark’s Square, Venice, I saw a painting, lit like a beacon, drawing me inexorably to the window of Galleria Ravagnan. It made a deep impression on me and as my wife and fellow musician, Carol, remarked, it looked like my music sounded. I simply had to have it so I returned the next day, bought the painting and began a long friendship with gallery owner Luciano Ravagnan. On a return visit, a year or so later, I met and befriended the artist only for us both to discover that he, not knowing who had bought his painting, had been painting to my music!”
The first movement of the Palladio Suite, Allegretto, is the most frequently performed. It became well known initially as the music for the 1994 De Beers Diamond advert. It has been recorded by the electric string quartets, Bond and Escala, and has established a permanent position in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame.
The movement is constructed from rigid, repetitive string lines, which exist as building blocks over a staccato bass line, driving an ever-developing sense of drama and intensity.
It is important when playing this movement to subdivide the bars so as not to rush. You can hear how the parts interject and answer each other, but do so within a tight rhythmic framework. The rests are just as important as the notes and a combination of good counting, strong pulse and listening will help the ensemble. Try listening along with the score to see how the parts weave together and bounce off each other.
The bow-stroke in this movement should be clean, with plenty of contact, in the middle to lower-middle part of the bow. Each gesture of the main rhythmic figure works well from an up-bow. The tightly interwoven harmonies require clear intonation and a ringing tone to recreate the openness of the Venetian Baroque sound world.
The Suite has two further movements, both of which are immediately reminiscent of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto, Winter from The Four Seasons.
The Largo features a pulsating accompaniment and a soaring, wistful violin solo, in which parallels with Vivaldi’s Largo are strongly apparent.
The Vivace is much lighter and more delicate than the Allegretto, with an immediately Baroque sound. Imagine how a lighter baroque bow would feel. You can do this by holding your own bow higher up the stick away from the frog. This will give you an idea of the lightness and vivacity of bow stroke necessary to bring the Vivace to life.
Again, it is easy to recall the nervous energy of the third movement of Vivaldi’s Winter. The insistent quality in the staccato, accompanying figure, the use of ostinato, which Jenkins frequently favours, and the minor tonality are common to both the Vivaldi and the third movement of Palladio.
The popular first movement has been recorded countless times by a diverse spectrum of musicians, given thousands of minutes of airtime on Classic FM and even remixed as a Dubstep song, but which recording is the best?
Classic FM recommends The Smith Quartet: London Philharmonic Strings Conducted by Karl Jenkins – Sony SK62276, or if you fancy something more up-tempo, try the recording by electric string quartet Escala.
Interestingly, both versions only feature the first movement. The complete suite is available on Jenkins’ 1996 album, the aptly named Diamond Music, featuring the Smith Quartet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Recordings on YouTube are also mainly restricted to the famous first movement, neglecting the others, despite their rather delicate beauty. This echoes another phenomenon of popular Baroque music whereby one movement becomes favoured, perhaps due to exposure in television, film or advertising. The first movement of Vivaldi’s Spring has become more popular than its other movements, and everybody thinks Pachelbel only wrote one tune.
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.
Finding new music to learn is a huge part of studying the violin, and if you want to expand your music library without spending a fortune there are several ways to find free easy violin sheet music.
During your lessons, your teacher will guide your choice of repertoire and help you progress through different styles and skill levels. However, discovering new music for yourself, even with a teacher’s help, can be an overwhelming task, and buying new music books only to find you don’t like the pieces can be expensive.
A simple Google search, “Free Easy Violin Sheet Music,” yields a staggering 731,000 results. But it’s not that simple. There is a reason why good quality sheet music is not cheap.
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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.