When you first start learning the violin, you will also start learning to read music. To a musician, written music is like an actor’s script. It tells you what to play, when to play it and how to play it. Music, like language, is written with symbols which represent sounds; from the most basic notation which shows the pitch, duration and timing of each note, to more detailed and subtle instructions showing expression, tone quality or timbre, and sometimes even special effects. What you see on the page is a sort of drawing of what you will hear.
The notes in Western music are given the names of the first seven letters of the alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F and G. Once you get to G the note names begin again at A.
The notes of the violin strings without any fingers pressed down, which are commonly known as the open strings, are called G, D, A and E, with G being the lowest, fattest string and E the highest sounding, finest string.
When notated, the open string sounds of the violin look like this:
You will see that the notes are placed in various positions on five parallel lines called a stave. Every line and space on the stave represents a different pitch, the higher the note, the higher the pitch. The note on the left here is the G - string note, which is the lowest note on the violin. The note on the right is the E - string pitch, which is much higher. The round part, or head of the note shows the pitch by its placing on the stave. Each note also has a stem that can go either up or down.
The symbol at the front of the stave is called a treble clef. The clef defines which pitches will be played and shows if it’s a low or high instrument. Violin music is always written in treble clef. When notes fall outside of the pitches that fit onto the stave, small lines called ledger lines are added above or below to place the notes, as you can see with the low G - string pitch which sits below two ledger lines. Once too many ledger lines are needed and the music becomes visually confusing, it’s time to switch to a new clef, such as bass clef.
The numbers after the treble clef are called the time signature. The stave works both up and down (pitch) and from left to right. From left to right, the stave shows the beat and the rhythm. The beat is the heartbeat or pulse of the music. It doesn’t change. The music is written in small sections called bars, which fall between the vertical lines on the stave called bar lines. Some pieces have four beats in a bar, which means you feel them in four time, some have three, like a waltz, and so on. The time signature shows how many beats are in each bar, and what kind of note each of those beats is.
The rhythm is where notes have different durations within the structure of the bar. This is where pieces can really start to get interesting.
Here we can see a variety of rhythms.
Each of these bars has a value of four beats. The first of the notes above is called a semibreve. It lasts for four beats. The second is called a minim (or half note, in America) and each minim lasts for two beats. You can see there are two minims in a four-beat bar. The third example is a crotchet or quarter note. Each crotchet is one beat long. The fourth rhythm is a quaver, or eighth note, which lasts for half a beat, and the last note value shown is called a semiquaver or sixteenth note, and lasts for quarter of a beat, so sixteen semiquavers fit into a four beat bar. The smaller notes are written in groups of four so they match up with the beat visually and are easy to read. Each note length has a corresponding symbol to show when there is a rest (silence) of that duration.
The time signature 4/4 shows that there are four beats in each bar (the top 4) and that each of those is a crotchet or quarter note (the lower 4). The time signature 3/8 would show three (the top number) quaver, or eighth note, (the bottom number) beats in a bar.
As you put your fingers on the strings to play new notes on the violin, the music shows the pitch rising. So the first finger note on each string of the violin would look like this:
The note after G on the G – string is called A and is played with the first finger. The note after D on the D – string is called E, on the A – string it’s B and on the E – string it’s F. The first finger in violin fingering is the index finger, unlike on the piano where 1 denotes the thumb.
There are other symbols which show pitch, one of which, the thing that looks like a hash tag, is shown above. This one is called a sharp and the full name of the second note shown on the E – string is F sharp. You will see these symbols for sharps or flats in the key signature of nearly every piece. The key signature is placed between the treble clef and the time signature and shows you which key or tonality to play in.
As you add the other fingers, you can see below how the gaps on the stave are filled, until you are playing every first position note on your violin. As you build up your fingers one at a time, the pitches on the stave look like this:
The very last note here is played with the fourth finger on the E – string. It is worth noting at this point that because the pitches of the violin strings are five notes or a fifth apart, each open string note after G can also be played with the fourth finger or pinkie on the previous string, so the A – string note, for example, can be played with the fourth finger on the D –string.
This seems a lot to remember but there are a couple of helpful memory tricks. The notes in the spaces of the stave, in ascending order, are F, A, C and E, or FACE. The notes on the lines are E, G, B, D and F. You may remember learning the mnemonic, Every Good Boy Deserves Fun.
You will soon begin to memorise which note corresponds to which sound and finger placement on your violin. Remember that when you learned to read, you were simultaneously studying writing skills. Try downloading and printing this music manuscript paper, and practice writing out the notes as you learn to play them. Write out the open string notes and practice from your own copy. Making the connection between writing, reading and playing will speed up and deepen the process of learning. Soon the note reading will become habitual, and just as you don’t have to process every letter to read a word, you will begin to see the piece as a whole rather than having to read each note and work out where to play it.
As with any new skill, the more you practise and try it out, the more confident you will feel and the sooner you will be reading music fluently.
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The beneficial effects of learning a musical instrument are well documented in young children, and the violin has seen its share of child prodigies, but how does the relationship with the instrument change as the player gets older, and is it ever too late to start learning?
Even the youngest children will respond to music. Shinichi Suzuki, Japanese violinist and father of the Suzuki method of teaching, tells a story in his book Nurtured by Love, about a five-month-old baby called Hiromi.
Hiromi had grown up listening to her older sister learning the violin, and her sister had been practising the Vivaldi A-minor concerto. Suzuki recalls, “When everyone was quiet, I started playing a minuet by Bach. While I played, my eyes did not leave Hiromi’s face. The five-month-old already knew the sound of the violin well, and her eyes shone while she listened to this piece that she was hearing for the first time. A little while later, I switched from the minuet to the Vivaldi A-minor concerto, music that was played and heard continuously in her home. I had no sooner started the piece when an amazing thing happened.
“Hiromi’s expression suddenly changed. She smiled and laughed, and turned her happy face to her mother, who held her in her arms. “See – that’s my music,” she unmistakeably wanted to tell her mother. Soon again, her face turned in my direction, and she moved her body up and down in rhythm.”
Suzuki’s method of teaching the violin begins in infancy. Based on the observation that every child is fluent in his or her own language, Suzuki believed that ability is not a matter of inherited talent, but of correct teaching, environment and encouragement.
According to Carolyn Phillips, former Executive Director of the Norwalk Youth Symphony Orchestra, learning music in childhood helps develop the areas of the brain which are involved in language and reasoning. Musical training physically develops the part of the left-brain that is known to be involved with language. It also increases the capacity of the memory. The parts of the brain that control motor skills and memory actually grow.
Phillips also explains in her article, Twelve Benefits of Music Education, that there is a causal link between music learning and spatial intelligence, which is the ability to perceive the world accurately and to form mental pictures of things.
Children who learn a musical instrument have been proven to be better creative learners and problem solvers. In his book Always Playing, Violinist Nigel Kennedy, former enfant terrible of the Classical Music world, describes his feelings about his early schooling: “I guess something like 80 per cent of what I was formally taught at my schools, particularly at the Menuhin [School], I reacted to badly, but that reaction led me to trying my own alternatives and it is always such a buzz when you see your thinking work out.”
Music also gives the player an internal glimpse of other cultures and teaches empathy with people from those cultures. Every piece of music has a cultural and historical back-story. When children come to understand different cultures through music, their development of empathy and compassion, rather than a selfishly orientated motivation, provides a bridge across cultures and leads to an early respect for people of different races.
Learning an instrument teaches the value of sustained effort. It teaches teamwork, responsibility and discipline. In an ensemble of any size, players must work together for a common goal and commit to turning up to rehearsals on time, having prepared the music. This requires time management, organisational skills and social skills, a focus on doing rather than simply observing and a willingness to conquer personal fears and take risks.
Most of all, learning a musical instrument is a means of self-expression. In Western society the basics of existence are fairly secure. The challenge is to make life meaningful and to reach for a higher state of development. Every human being needs at some point in his or her life to be in touch with his core, with what he is and what he feels. Having an outlet for self-expression leads inevitably to higher levels of self-esteem.
A child will start learning the violin for many reasons, but the violin is an instrument that can appeal greatly. It is small and lightweight, immediately accessible and available in different sizes so even a tiny child can pick up his violin easily. The violin is also a very personal instrument. Each violin looks similar, but no two sound the same, and even the same violin played by two people will sound different. This physical attraction to the violin is what leads a small child who has just begun learning to take his violin to bed with him like a teddy bear.
The violin is also an instrument that seems to attract child prodigies. Mozart was a child prodigy, as were Menuhin, Zukerman, Perlman and so many others. The pressure on these children can be enormous. Many don’t have normal childhoods. Paganini was apparently often locked in his room for hours by his father and forced to practice; a discipline which led him to serious problems with alcohol by the time he was 16.
Child “genius”, violinist Chloe Hanslip, interviewed in the Telegraph in 2007, commented, “I couldn’t be a normal child. Not properly normal, because I’m a classical violinist.” In the same article, Jennifer Pike, who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year on violin in 2002, aged just 12, explained in a more balanced way that an intensive musical education doesn’t suit everybody.
This comment is borne out by the experiences of Julian Rachlin, who won the Eurovision Young Musician of the Year in 1988, when he was 13. He went on to become the youngest ever soloist to perform with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. By the time he was 20, Rachlin had lost his confidence so badly it nearly ended his career. He went to study with Pinchas Zukerman, himself a former child prodigy. Zukerman helped him understand he had to develop his career path at his own pace.
Although in the instance of child prodigies, the motivation for progress often comes from the child, the conventional view is that they often end up as adults with broken lives and unfulfilled dreams. The American violin virtuoso, Itzhak Perlman, said in an interview with the New York Times that many things could go wrong with prodigies, particularly those whose parents had suspect agendas, that is, they wanted to achieve success through their child.
Shinichi Suzuki had a poor view of such parents. In Nurtured by Love he tells the story of a child whose mother had come to him with the question, “ Will my child amount to something?” Suzuki felt this was an offensive question and replied, “No. He will not become ‘something’.” He explains, “It seems to be the tendency in modern times for parents to entertain thoughts of this kind. It is an undisguisedly cold and calculating educational attitude.”
Suzuki told the child’s mother, “He will become a noble person through his violin playing… You should stop wanting your child to become a professional, a good money earner... A person with a fine and pure heart will find happiness. The only concern for parents should be to bring up their children as noble human beings. That is sufficient. If this is not their greatest hope, in the end the child may take a road contrary to their expectations. Your son plays the violin very well. We must try to make him splendid in mind and heart also.”
The ideal, as Julian Rachlin found, is that musical development should compliment personal growth; that is, not just educational growth but the development of the whole person. The relationship with creativity is intrinsic to the relationship with the self. As one grows, the other will become surer.
Watch this video of 11-year-old Sirena Huang, presenting a TED Talk on the technology of the violin, in between beautiful, accomplished performances. She has worked very hard to reach this level, but the main aspect that shines through is her enjoyment of what she is doing, and the need to share it; the fundamental human need to communicate.
A child might begin the violin because he likes the sound, knows someone else who plays or because his parents decide he should learn. But what if you are considering learning as an adult? Is it too late?
In her book Making Music for the Joy of It, Stephanie Judy sets out to encourage adult beginners. The first sentence in the book reads, “Welcome! You’ve chosen a wonderful time to start making music.”
Judy explains, “As an adult beginning musician you have many advantages over a child in the same situation. Your primary advantage is that you are in charge…Maybe you’ll regret that you didn’t start sooner, but that regret is a pale rival to your freshness and enthusiasm. You are not just fulfilling a personal fantasy; you are answering a great human longing.”
The most important prerequisite to beginning the violin later in life is to feel at ease with making music. Many adult beginners feel awkward and overwhelmed by the physical challenge of learning, but feeling at ease has more to do with clearing away self-doubts than it does with holding the instrument. Once you begin to get rid of doubts about your musical self, you have cleared the path for progress.
This is not only true for beginners, it is very pertinent for players who have been playing for many years, perhaps since childhood, but whose relationship with their instrument has always been guided by someone else; a teacher or a parent. Even at a professional level, as a violinist continues to develop, old self-doubts must be cleared in order to free the way for new musical expression and integrity. This then begins to work in the other direction. As you begin to understand your musical and creative self and free up mental blocks, this understanding transfers in a positive way into other aspects of your life. Even at a professional level, a violinist never stops learning.
As an adult beginner you may feel you should have started as a child, but the fact is, for whatever reason, you didn’t. It’s also true that all your experience to this point in your life has brought you to wanting to play. You must begin where you are today.
Playing the violin is a holistic activity. It involves the whole body but also the deeper self, self-doubt and complex experiences and emotions.
Judy says, “Adults often help themselves along the road of musical understanding more quickly than children because of their deeper experiences, both of music and of life.”
The reasons an adult might want to start learning the violin are very different from the reasons a child might have. Adults often get to a point where they want something that makes new demands on them. Sometimes it’s a need to express artistic energy and communicate. It can be a yearning for some activity that needs total mind and body focus, total involvement in a world where we constantly multitask. Learning the violin can offer stress relief and perspective as the music draws you into the present moment. It is a social activity, with the chance to play fantastic orchestral and chamber music repertoire at any level.
Whatever age you are, five or 75, the important ingredients to success are the same: Passion, patience, time to practice and perseverance. We would never ask if it is too late to learn to paint, or to learn a language yet somehow there is a belief that unless you begin the violin as a toddler it is too late. Not so. There is an enormous benefit to engaging the brain in new activities throughout all the stages of life.
Here is an example from www.uncorneredmarket.com, from a selection of inspiring stories for elderly people.
“You are never too old to learn.
Andrew, one of my grandfather’s colleagues from when they both worked in India in the 1960s, now lives in my grandfather’s retirement complex.
He had to give up his violin lessons when he escaped Hungary in 1937 as his family began facing persecution for being Jewish.
“It had been 75 years since my last violin lesson. I wanted to play violin again, but I sounded awful. I decided I needed lessons.”
Earlier this year, he began taking violin lessons again. We asked how things are going.
“I’m progressing pretty well. It’s fun to play again,” Andrew chuckled.
He’s scheduled to play a Christmas concert this week. I imagine there are many more in his future, too.”
Finally, whatever your age, it’s important to maintain your physical wellbeing in order to keep playing at your best. Read the article on the body for some ideas and tips.
Never practice without warming up, and take regular, gentle exercise such as yoga to keep your joints mobile. The DVD Yoga for Musicians shows some simple and effective stretches to release tension and build muscle tone.
The British Association for Performing Arts Medicine has lots of information about health resources for musicians on their website, including a useful chart of warm up exercises.
So whatever your age, keep playing, keep learning and keep enjoying all that the violin has to offer.
Search “Learn Violin at Home” online, and you’ll be overwhelmed with resources; video courses, self-teaching plans, books, forums and advice. The violin is a notoriously complex instrument. Is it possible to learn it from home, essentially self-taught, or is there another aspect to learning from home which is more valuable when balanced with lessons?
There is some evidence to suggest it should be possible to teach yourself the violin. Young children learn by watching others, by demonstration and emulation, and research with animals (Byrne, 2003) has shown that even apes are able to acquire elaborate skills by imitation. Many folk musicians and guitarists are described as self-taught, though they have not necessarily learned in isolation. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen is self-taught, but musicians like him are an exception. For every success, there are thousands of people who end up as examples of bad habits and an instrument in the attic.
Learning violin is an intricate process. If you can’t afford to pay for lessons there are lots of free resources, but be wary. If you have a good ear, an analytical mind and good body awareness it is possible to learn the basics, but there are many details you can get wrong without a teacher. There are also a lot of people selling or promoting resources online who don’t actually know what they are doing, and as a beginner it’s impossible to decipher good from bad practice. Wikihow, for example, has a page titled, “How to Play the Violin,” which promises all you need to know in 14 easy steps, illustrated with pictures like this one, which is an astonishing illustration of poor posture and left wrist over-extension.
Feelings on the subject run high. Matt Molloy, a contributor on the ABRSM forum, puts it this way: “Can anyone tell me how to teach myself a set of extremely fine motor skills and artistic ideals whilst paying attention to loads of small details which could lead me down a nightmare path of bad habits and possible injuries…?”
Guitar teacher Jamie Andreas, who runs the website guitarprinciples.com has this to say about self-teaching on her instrument:
“Let's get a few things straight right at the beginning. Let's really look at this question, "should I take guitar lessons?" I have to tell you, whenever I hear a beginning player ask that question it makes me laugh. It's like a five-year-old saying they want to be a doctor or lawyer when they grow up, and asking if it would be a good idea if they went to elementary school! The mere asking of the question shows how much the person asking doesn't have a clue about what they are getting into, and how best to get into it.
“When I hear this question, I think "why on earth would it ever be a bad idea to learn a very complicated subject from someone who knows a whole lot more that you do, and has years of experience with the subject?" Why on earth would it ever be a bad idea, before beginning a journey to an unknown place, to ask for help from a guide, who has traveled the route many times? The very fact that someone is asking the question shows they don't understand how the whole process of the development of talent works.
“They don't understand, for instance, that playing the guitar is a very sophisticated mental/physical process. Like many activities, such as various sports (tennis, golf, basketball) it has evolved over many years, and continues to evolve, becoming increasingly complex, and new standards of excellence being set all the time. Would anyone seriously ask the question, "would it be a good idea for me to go to baseball camp?", or "would it be a good idea to take tennis lessons with a tennis pro?", or "I'd like to improve my golf game, do you think I should take lessons with Tiger Woods, or his teacher?". We all know the answer would be "Duh!!?!!"
“Yet, when it comes to learning the guitar, people somehow think that perhaps it might be a good idea if they shut themselves up in a room and spent their time re-inventing the wheel!”
This video shows a student who is self-teaching, four weeks after starting the violin. There’s a lot of good progress, but there are already some serious postural issues that will really hamper her development and could have been avoided with some hands-on guidance.
So let’s look at this subject another way. As it says on the ViolinSchool Practice Centre page, the famous American violin teacher Ivan Galamian believed that practice should be self-instruction. All good practice should be the continuation of a lesson. Self-teaching, learning from home, is about educating yourself and developing independently of your teacher, but the teacher must be there in order to give guidance. The best teacher will teach you to teach yourself, but every teacher needs to learn how to teach.
Emily Hogstad, writing on the violinist.com forum, says this:
“I never denied some people have a natural gift for teaching. I totally agree. And yes, some will be able to teach themselves better than others. But they won't be able qualified and have spent years learning the instrument. Period.
“I don't think it's a contradiction… the best teachers teach you how to teach yourself. If you don't have a teacher who can do that, or if you are never taught how to teach yourself, then you will run into a lot more roadblocks than you would have otherwise. There are many kinds of learning on the violin; learning from books, learning from watching Youtube videos, learning from seeing students perform at a recital, learning what angle to have the bow at, learning tricky rhythms from hearing someone play them specifically for you. Some of those types of learning just can't be done by yourself.
“Look, I by no means want to dash the dreams of anyone. I consider myself mainly self-taught; I only had one teacher who taught me up until I was fourteen or so, but after that it's been just me. And I screwed up a lot of stuff that has taken a long time to fix. Yes, if you have a sub-par teacher or are teaching yourself, you will be able to play. And you may be able to play certain things quite well. But at some point you'll hit a brick wall, or become injured, or start using bad technique. This is incredibly de-motivating and devastating. It happened to me; it's happened to a lot of people. And I don't think it's fair to sugarcoat this very real possibility to people who are considering teaching themselves.”
So the ideal is to be taking lessons from a qualified professional, and in between the lessons to continue to teach yourself. If you really need to be at home, or you are somewhere you can’t get to your lesson, it is often possible to have a lesson at home with your teacher on Skype. This is not as effective as having a lesson in the same room as your teacher, where they can observe your physical movements from all angles and really gauge what is going on, but it is better than trying to learn from a video course. One-on-one lessons, where you can get personal attention and adjustment, are the best way to learn.
Your practice should then be a continuation of your lesson, in which you set yourself tasks, supervise your own progress and work objectively. Let’s look at a few pointers for a successful lesson, as explained in Paul Harris’s book Improve Your Teaching. A lesson could cover any of the following aspects of playing:
Harris is working on the basis of something he calls Simultaneous Learning, where everything you do connects. Your pieces represent your core activity from where all of your practice, or self-teaching should grow. By using pieces to stimulate thought and work on any area of musical activity, you will have an immediate grasp of the relevance of technical, theory and aural work. Spend some time analysing your lesson or ask your teacher to explain the relevance of different activities to your learning process so you can connect them in your practice and continue to learn violin at home.
William Westney describes the process of healthy practicing in his book The Perfect Wrong Note.
“Healthy Practicing: The Process
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As Christmas approaches, it is always a nice chance to learn some festive music to get into the seasonal spirit.
There is loads of Christmas music available, from carols to favourite pop songs, but before we delve into the Christmas goodies, here’s some improvised fiddle fun from Peter Lee Johnson to get you in the mood…
If you want to try something less complicated, there is a wealth of music for beginner and intermediate level violinists. Perhaps the best book for adults and children is by Kathy and David Blackwell, authors of the Fiddle Time series. They have put together a great selection in Fiddle Time Christmas (Oxford University Press). It’s available on Amazon, where it has five star customer reviews.
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When you begin violin lessons, the left hand finger placement must be learned carefully. The violin has no frets and many teachers put stickers or tape across the fingerboard. Ultimately, the best way to learn finger placing is to train the ear to listen for the pitch and practice the fingering until the correct muscle memory is in place. Your body will learn the spacing between notes just as when you have lived in a house for a while you can easily walk down stairs in the dark because you know the distance between each step.
It is much easier to show how fingering works than to explain it in an abstract way. Watch this video for a clear demonstration of the basics of violin fingering:
From the start there are certain confusing aspects to fingering the notes of the violin. Very soon we notice that the same note can be played in different places on the instrument. The fourth finger in first position on each string plays the same pitch as the next open string, and notes can be played in different positions too. There are also instances of notes that are played in the same place but have different names depending on the key. The finger chart below shows the notes of first position with some of these repeated pitches and enharmonic notes.
The violinist must decide which fingering to use for any given musical phrase. Choosing a fingering can be confusing. As you get more advanced, you will discover that most pieces of music can be bought in several different editions. The fingerings in these editions are often not the same, because they represent one violinist’s subjective idea of how the music ought to be performed. It is useful to have your own base of knowledge so you can make your own decisions about how you want the piece to sound.
Violin fingering has both technical and musical aspects, and different fingering choices affect the clarity and colour of your playing. Musically, the fingering you choose should assure the best sound and expression, and technically it should make playing as easy and comfortable as possible. The two ideals are not always compatible, and the musical purpose should always come first.
Ideas about fingering have changed as violin playing has developed. For example, in older editions of violin music, there is a definite preference for first, third, fifth and seventh positions. Second, fourth and sixth positions were avoided. As violin schools became established, different fingerings were selected, resulting in different styles of performance. Players from different schools edited music differently so editions contain different fingerings for the same notes.
Your teacher may ask for a particular edition because he or she prefers the fingering in that version.
It can be difficult for beginners and young players to choose their own fingering and decide which position to play in. There is no list of guidelines and ideas about fingerings differ from one teacher to the next. Ideally, you need to be able to answer for yourself why a particular fingering is preferable.
Books on the subject are rare and not exactly light reading. Carl Flesch published Violin Fingering, Its Theory and Practice, but the information in it conflicts with the musical editions of other teachers and performers. There is also a discussion on fingering in Ivan Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching.
The principles of fingering have changed as violin technique and repertoire have developed. In the 16th Century, the violin was played supported by the left hand, as there was no chinrest. Playing was confined to the first position and the G-String was hardly used. When the chinrest was introduced, it was initially placed to the right of tailpiece so the instrument was parallel to the floor and it was still quite difficult to play on the G-String. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that violinists began to hold the instrument with the chinrest to the left of the tailpiece, and it became easier to play on the lower strings and in higher positions.
One of the most comprehensive early books on style is the treatise on violin playing by Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart described three reasons for fingering decisions: Necessity, convenience and elegance. He was possibly the first to suggest that it is preferable for the purposes of a unified sound to stay on one string where possible, and he also suggests that shifting when an open string is played is least disruptive to the musical line.
So according to the great teachers, what makes a good fingering?
Fingering for Colour, Clarity and Style
Galamian believed in varying fingerings as much as possible, that scales, arpeggios and studies should be learned with different fingerings, and that when a piece is re-learned the fingerings can be altered. His idea was that by avoiding a rigid idea of fingering the violinist’s approach to the music would be fresher and freer. He said that sticking to one fingering leads to inflexibility in performance and prevents the player from acquiring the spontaneous, almost improvisatory quality that is ultimately desirable.
The fingerings in the scale systems by Galamian and Flesch are different. Flesch often has the player shift between the strong beats, where Galamian puts the shifts on the strong beats. Both teachers prefer a chromatic scale fingering that avoids the use half step shifts
Much of the difference in approach between these two teachers may have been due to the size of their hands. Galamian apparently had larger hands than Flesch. Difference in hand size has a direct impact on a violinist’s fingerings. A smaller hand may need to shift where a larger one can stretch. Hand size is therefore one consideration that determines your own personal approach to fingering.
It is necessary for every violinist to make decisions about their fingerings. You can do this based on two factors, sound and comfort. Ultimately if you are not comfortable, your tone and vibrato will suffer. Part of the trick to finding the fingering that will produce the best musical results is to find one that is technically secure. Look at different editions, ask your teacher, and don’t be afraid to try different things until the music sounds how you want it to.
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Pattern building studies for the violin are composed around simple ‘building-block’ phrases and repetitive figures, designed solely to build finger strength, agility and facility. There are many such studies in the violin repertoire, the best of which are the study books by Sevçik and Schradieck which, when practiced correctly, build left hand technique and strength comprehensively and incrementally. These books are essential supplementary material for scale and study practice and contain repetitive drills, covering all possible approaches to any particular problem.
Study of the pattern building exercises in these books hones basic skills, resolves the technical issues which hamper musical performance and leads to large jumps in technical improvement. Where a repertoire-rich practice diet can miss out the basics, covering these supplementary studies, which are sometimes shunned because they seem dull and dry, gives solid technique and avoids the need for rehabilitation in the future.
In his 1986 introduction to the Flesch Skalensystem, violinist Max Rostal explains that the best way to build intonation and facility is by practicing technical difficulties in isolation. For example, he says a problem with intonation or shifting must be approached by deciphering and improving how the wrong note is accessed. Since Sevçik’s Opus 8, Studies in Changes of Position and Preparatory Scale Studies, is the most comprehensive book on shifting that exists, there is therefore no reason why a student wishing to improve shifting, intonation and facility would avoid it.
Pattern building exercises may be considered old fashioned by some teachers, but they are designed with a deep understanding of how the muscles and brain learn, an understanding which can be explained with recent discoveries in neurological science.
In 1959, William Primrose, the famous viola player who performed and recorded chamber music with Jascha Heifetz, published his book, Technique is Memory. In his introduction he states, “This book is not for geniuses.”
Primrose’s book is based entirely on the study of left hand finger patterns. He explains that, “To know when to put a finger in a given place at a given time; to know also its position relating to the other three fingers at that particular place and time, is to know all that is necessary in the search for accuracy.
“Technique is a means to an end,” he says. “There is no short-cut to efficiency on any instrument that will bypass systematic practice.”
His book is thoroughly systematic. It covers every key in every position, aiming to cover the entire topography of the fingerboard. Primrose explains that if technique is memory, it follows that the eye plays an important role in pattern building practice. The route is eye to brain, brain to finger, finger (or the sound produced by it) to ear and ear to brain. In his book, numbered groups of fingers are connected with symbols, designed to be filled in by the student in colour; red for semitones, green for whole-tone sequences and so on. Each scale is practiced very slowly at first and then repeated faster. Primrose concludes that when study of the book is complete, the student should be able to recall verbally, whilst away from the instrument, the finger pattern of any scale in any part of the instrument.
The violin has a range of about four and a half octaves, or 54 semitones. There are at least 100 different places in which to play the 54 semitones, since many are playable in more than one place. It makes sense then that detailed study of the left hand patterns is required to build good intonation and knowledge of the fingerboard. We talk about muscle memory, but that is quite a lot for the muscles to remember!
Ivan Galamian explains in his book, The Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching (1962), that the foundation upon which the technique lies rests upon the correct relationship of the mind to the muscles, the smooth, quick and accurate functioning of the sequence in which the mental command elicits the desired muscular response. The greater this correlation, the greater the facility. Interestingly, neurological science has only recently been able to prove this idea, which the great violin teachers already understood and implemented in their pattern building approach.
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As recently as the 1980’s neuroscientists discovered the importance of a neural insulator called myelin. Every human skill is created by chains of nerve fibres carrying electrical impulses. As these impulses are repeated, myelin, or white matter, wraps the fibres in the same way that we insulate an electrical wire. This insulation makes the signal stronger and faster by preventing the electrical impulses from leaking out.
When we practice a pattern building exercise, a neural circuit is fired and the myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around it. Each new layer adds a bit more skill and speed. Skill can therefore be describes as a cellular insulation which wraps neural circuits. Experiences where you are forced to slow down, make errors and correct them, repeat the same constructive piece of study many times; which is exactly how you would be approaching an exercise from a book of Sevçik; result in greater fluency.
In an interview with Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA explains, “We tend to think of our memory as a tape recorder but that’s wrong. It’s a living structure, a scaffold of nearly infinite size. The more we generate impulses, encountering and overcoming difficulties, the more scaffolding we build, the faster we learn.”
The more you fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimises that circuit, and the stronger, faster and more fluid your playing will become, just as Galamian said. Targeted practice of pattern building exercises is effective precisely because the best way to build good circuits is to fire them over and over again. This is the science behind the 10,000 hour rule; the theory that to acquire mastery in any given skill, 10,000 hours of targeted, concentrated practice is required.
In his book, Practice, violinist and teacher Simon Fischer also describes how improving technique means building an ever larger collection of automatic, unthinking actions that have a desired, not an undesired effect.
Pattern building exercises are a chance to linger in the early stages of technical acquisition, maintaining a child-like curiosity for the instrument. Small children love this sort of skill mastery. A child will never seek reasons, justifications or explanations the way older students and adults do. Children are physical learners, and instinctively understand that technique facilitates more genuine responses to music. When we play musically and with inspiration, a better feeling comes into the muscles than when we play mechanically. Passion and persistence are key.In his book, Practice, violinist and teacher Simon Fischer also describes how improving technique means building an ever larger collection of automatic, unthinking actions that have a desired, not an undesired effect.This is the science behind the 10,000 hour rule; the theory that to acquire mastery in any given skill, 10,000 hours of targeted, concentrated practice is required.
To avoid over-practicing, or falling into the trap of playing these exercises mechanically, always practice with a goal in mind. What would you like to play better? Use the exercises according to your needs. Practice them regularly but only for a short, concentrated period, optimising your circuit building. The objective is not to learn a particular book of Sevçik or Schradieck in its entirety, or to get through all of the exercises as fast as possible; the reward is in the increased complexity of personal ability which comes as a result of mixing and matching the exercises with scales, studies and repertoire.
The Schradieck exercises are extremely helpful in that their focus on left hand co-ordination can be added to with variations in bowing style and technique. This exponentially increases the benefit of the work, and makes it more fun and more rewarding. In a postscript to Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, former student, Elizabeth A H Green recalls how Galamian used studies as a “panorama of pertinent technique.” Various rhythms and diverse bowings were superimposed on left hand work, always creating problems for the mind to solve. The variations would become gradually more demanding, and she describes transcending technical problems as the exercises resulted in rapidly accelerated learning.
Finally, these books of pattern building studies are designed to fulfil a purpose: to provide a means of study for thoroughly learning the basis of a strong, reliable technique and an understanding of the geography of the instrument. Be careful to avoid becoming obsessive or overly perfectionist, as this will render them dull and counterproductive. This kind of analytical work can be stultifying for right-brained and creative thinkers and should only be approached in a creative, explorative and musical way. Perfectionism seems a natural outcome of something so thorough as a volume of shifting exercises, but perfectionist expectations lead to a detachment from the body and a self-apologetic approach. Repetitive work becomes less effective when we are bored, so try a random approach to repetition, working alternately on several different exercises and mixing up bowing patterns and rhythms.
|To understand more about the value of repetitive practice within a randomized schedule and with variations of rhythm and bowing, read this post by clarinetist Christine Carter.|
Make sure you know the reason for practicing each exercise; remind yourself of your intention for practicing; observe your work carefully to ensure you are getting good results in small, concentrated time slots; play musically and enjoy the process of discovery.
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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